The Liturgy of Worship , Part I
What are we doing on the Lord’s day, especially when we are gathered as God’s people in church? How do we understand Christian growth and discipleship? Is it chiefly corporate or individual in focus? Is sanctification primarily nourished by the preached Word and God’s appointed Sacraments or by some self-approved “means of grace”? Would an outsider coming into our worship services be immediately impressed with the centrality of preaching, prayer and praise, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, or would he be more likely to notice the importance given to performance? Until we understand something of the function of our worship, we always be offering confused answers to questions about the form of our worship.
It’s in this context that we need to study and talk about worship as God’s covenantal summons (see Michael Horton) or covenant renewal (see Hugh Old), which is how many Reformed theologians talk about the worship service. Whenever we gather for Word and Sacrament, it is because we have been summoned. That is what the word ekklesia or church means; “called out.”
This is not a voluntary society of those who come together weekly with the primary concern of evangelizing, building community, or enjoying fellowship. Rather, Lord’s day worship is a gathering of those who have been called, justified, and are being sanctified until one day they will finally be glorified in heaven. We gather each Lord’s day not merely out of habit or social custom, but because God has chosen this day as a foretaste of the everlasting Sabbath day that will be fully enjoyed at the marriage supper of the Lamb. God has called us out of the world for Himself: that is the primary reason why we gather!
We also gather to receive God’s gifts, and this is where the biblical emphasis falls. Throughout the Scriptures, the worship service is seen chiefly as God’s action. The one who brought us out of Egypt and made us his people takes the initiative in our redemption and our ongoing sanctification. The shadows of Christ in the Old Covenant, especially God’s detailed legislation for the sacrifices, are fulfilled in Christ. Like Abraham’s vision of the smoking firepot with a blazing torch, God walks down the middle of the aisle assuming the judgment his own justice requires and his own mercy satisfies. He circumcises our hearts, He creates faith in our hearts from the preached word, and He confirms us in that faith through the Sacraments.
As in all covenants, there are two parts to the covenant of grace. God speaks and delivers us; we respond in faith and repentance. And yet even this faith and repentance is not “our part” in the sense of providing some meritorious ground for our inclusion in the covenant. God grants faith and repentance.
So, in order to properly see worship’s covenantal character, we must first see God’s initiative in the covenant itself. God calls his people and He meets with them as the Holy Spirit works through the liturgy, the preaching, and the Sacraments. It is the person and work of this Triune God that must be front and center, as this God actually confronts us just as he did in the assembly when Ezra read God’s Word. Brothers, it is God’s Word that is central in that account, not Israel’s response. Yet it’s not unimportant when Nehemiah 8:3 informs us that “all the people listened attentively” and in verse 6, they “lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” followed by bowing down “with their faces to the ground” as they wept because of their sense of their own sinfulness and God’s amazing grace.
If you are following me, then you see Biblical worship, on the part of the Assembly of God’s people, as a movement. It’s a movement from angst to rest, from covenant broken to covenant restored, or from fellowship broken to fellowship renewed. As members of this covenant community, when we recite or rehearse the stipulations of God’s covenant with us (His commands), we know we constantly break those stipulations; we sin! We constantly stand in need of being called into God’s presence, much like Adam and Eve needed it, where we can confess our sin and hear His words of forgiveness. We have an on-going need to be sanctified by His word, to offer ourselves back to Him, and to be fed at His table. And we absolutely need to hear and to know, over and over again, that when we walk out the doors of His house, we go with His promise of blessing. This process of weekly renewal has a flow or order; it has a liturgy.
Further, God teaches us that public worship is greatly to be preferred over private spiritual exercises. In Ps 87:2-3 David tells us, “The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God.” Every grateful heart wants God’s name to be lifted up publicly – and the more public the better. Psalm 96:3 says, “Declare his glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people.” One of the most natural things for believers to do is congregate so that we might worship God together; Ps 96:5, “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker” and Ps 43:3, “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.”
Therefore, worship belongs primarily in the congregation. Ps 22:22 “I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee . . . My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.” In Ps 73, Asaph struggled greatly in his private meditations, but when he finally went to the sanctuary, God taught him. Ps 84:1 tells us that God’s tabernacle is always an appealing place to the forgiven and verse 10 says that a day in God’s court is better than a thousand elsewhere. And in His Kindness, God calls us to assemble there every seventh day. In Ps 27:4, David tells us that godly man desires one thing above all else; That he might dwell in the house of God.
You may be thinking, “Well, all that has been changed in the New Testament.” Yes and no; the function of corporate worship is the same, but the preference for it is even heightened. Please note in Acts 4:31 that the early Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit when they were assembled together.
Remember that Paul tells the Ephesians that they were located in two places. The first was obvious -Ephesus. But their second location is something he emphasizes strongly throughout the book. They are in Christ, and Christ is at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. According to Paul, we were co-crucified with Christ, co-resurrected, and co-enthroned “in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:5-6). We read these passages and then make the mistake of individualizing them.
Next time we’ll look at more of the detail of this “movement” in worship.