At sixteen I dropped out of high school. And because my lifestyle had become so disruptive to the rest of the household (I’m the middle of seven children), my grieving parents had no choice but to kick me out of the house.
Having successfully freed myself from the constraints of teachers and parents, I could now live every young guy’s dream. No one to look over my shoulder, no one to breathe down my neck, no one to tell me what I could and couldn’t do. I was finally free—or so I thought.
My newfound freedom had me chasing the things of this world harder than most others my age. I sought acceptance, affection, meaning, and respect behind every worldly tree and under every worldly rock. The siren song of our culture promised me that by pursuing the right people, places, and things, I’d find the satisfaction, security and significance I craved. If I could look, act, and talk a certain way, my deep itch to matter would finally get scratched.
But it didn’t work out that way. The more I pursued those things, the more lost I felt. The more I drank from the well of worldly acceptance, the thirstier I became. The faster I ran toward godless pleasure, the further I felt from true fulfillment. The more I pursued freedom, the more enslaved I became. At twenty-one I found myself painfully realizing that the world hadn’t satisfied me the way it promised, the way I’d anticipated. The world’s message and methods had, in fact, hung me out to dry.
I felt betrayed. Lied to. I desperately longed for something—Someone—out of this world.
One morning I woke up with an aching head and a sudden, stark awareness of my empty heart. Having returned to my apartment after another night of hard partying on Miami’s South Beach, I’d passed out with all my clothes on. Hours later, as I stirred to a vacant, painful alertness, I realized it was Sunday morning. I was so broken and longing for something transcendent, for something higher than anything this world has to offer, that I decided to go to church. I didn’t even change my clothes. I jumped up and stumbled out the door.
I arrived late and found my way to the only seats still available, in the balcony. It wasn’t long before I realized how different everything was in this place. I immediately sensed the distinctiveness of God. Through both the music and the message, it was clear that God, not I, was the guest of honor there. Having suffered the bankruptcy of our society’s emphasis on “self-salvation”, it was remarkably refreshing to discover a place that joyfully celebrated our inability to save ourselves.
I didn’t understand everything the preacher said that morning, and I didn’t like all the songs that were sung. But the style of the service became a non-issue as I encountered something I couldn’t escape, something more joltingly powerful than anything I’d ever experienced, something that went above and beyond typical externals. Through song, sermon, and sacrament, the transcendent presence of God punctured the roof, leaving me—like Isaiah when he entered the temple—awestruck and undone.
I was on the receiving end of something infinitely larger than grand impressions of human talent. God and his glorious gospel were on full display. It was God, not the preacher or the musicians, who was being lifted up for all to see. It wasn’t some carefully orchestrated performance (which, believe me, I would have seen right through). Rather, I was observing the people of God being wrecked afresh by God’s good news announcement that in the person of Jesus, he had done for them what they could never do for themselves. In and through the praising, praying, and preaching, the mighty acts of God in bringing salvation to our broken world were recited and rehearsed.
I was a “seeker” being reached, not by a man-centered, works-filled, trendy show, but by a God-centered, gospel-fueled, transcendent atmosphere. I was experiencing what Dr. Ed Clowney, the late president of Westminster Theological Seminary, used to call “doxological evangelism.” It was, quite literally, out of this world.
I tell you this personal story as a way to illustrate just how important a church’s corporate worship is—God used a worship service to save my life.
I view my story as proof that the way a church worships is a big deal. Paul made it clear to the Corinthian church that worship is not to be taken lightly—that when Christian’s are gathered by God to worship, they should worship in such a way that non-Christian’s in their midst leave saying, “God is really among you.”
A church’s worship, in other words, ought to be God-centered and gospel-fueled.
Contrary to what many modern people believe, we can’t approach God any way we please. Trying to do so is extremely dangerous, as the Bible makes clear (see Cain, Nadab, and Abihu, for example). In the Bible, God provides us with commands, instructions, examples, and stories to illustrate how he wants us to worship him. Our worship, therefore, is to be regulated by God himself through his Word.
The often misunderstood “regulative principle” of worship simply means we must worship by the Book—that everything we do in worship must be divinely approved.
During the Protestant Reformation, two views emerged regarding how Sola Scriptura ought to be understood when it comes to worship practices. Martin Luther believed we could do anything we want in worship as long as the Bible doesn’t say “no”—whatever is not prohibited is permitted. John Calvin believed we can’t do anything in worship unless the Bible says “yes”—only those elements that are appointed by God in Scripture are permissible.
Because Scripture is the all-sufficient Word of God, I believe with Calvin that everything we do in worship must be prescribed in the Bible. But the application of the regulative principle does not need to be narrow, as is often assumed. Because the Bible instructs us with its methods as much as it does its material, our scope regarding what God commands in worship is deep and wide. For instance, recognizing the various literary genres of Scripture—history, story, poetry, prophecy, epistle, and so on—should demonstrate that stylistic diversity is something God himself employs and enjoys. Therefore, shouldn’t stylistic diversity be something we celebrate in worship? In other words, God is telling us something about how to worship him by the way he communicates, not just what he communicates—both style and substance are prescriptive. Understood this way, the regulative principle allows for much more variety in worship than some have concluded.
While the entire Bible ought to inform and regulate our approach to God, Isaiah 6:1-8 especially captures what it looks like to worship God in spirit and in truth. For me, this passage has become a go to passage on worship and I believe our corporate worship experience ought to mirror the experience we see here.
In the opening verses of Isaiah 6, what the prophet encounters first in the house of God is the glory of God: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (v.1). It doesn’t first say he encountered well-dressed people or hot coffee or influential power brokers or a booming sound system or a great organ. What he caught site of first was God’s glory.
There’s a growing trend in some churches to offer door prizes to any returning visitor. One church visited recently by a friend of mine promised him a ten-dollar Starbucks gift card if he came back the following week.
Isaiah shows us the door prize that awaited him when he walked into the house of God—the uncomfortable, wrecking presence of God’s glory: “Woe is me!” (v.5).
In the Bible, the glory of God refers to God’s “heaviness,” his powerful presence. It’s God’s prevailing excellence on display. The glory of God is the “augustness” of God—an old term conveying his awe-inspiring majesty. In fact, one reason why Christians in the Roman Empire were persecuted is that they refused to use the word august for the emperor—such a description belonged to God alone, they said. They understood that there is a transcendent majesty unique to God. This high and lifted up greatness of God is what Isaiah encountered—a God who is majestically and brilliantly in command.
All this means we ought to come to worship expecting first and foremost to see God. We come to encounter his glory, to be awe struck by his majesty. A worship service isn’t the place to showcase human talent but the place for God to showcase his divine treasure. We gather not to be impressed by one another—how we sound, what we wear, who we are—but to be impressed by God and his mighty acts of salvation. We come to sing of who he is and what he’s done. We come to hear his voice resounding in and through his Word. We come to feel the grief of our sin so that we can taste the glory of his salvation. We gather to be magnificently defeated, flattened, and shrunk by the power and might of the living God.
This is in stark contrast to the world’s insistence that the bigger we get and the better we feel about ourselves, the freer we become. That’s why many worship services have been reduced to little more than motivational, self-help seminars filled with “you can do it” songs and sermons. But what we find in the gospel is just the opposite. The gospel is good news for losers, not winners. It’s for those who long to be freed from the slavery of believing that all of their significance, meaning, purpose, and security depend on their ability to “become a better you.” The gospel tells us that weakness precedes usefulness—that, in fact, the smaller you get, the freer you will be. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it.” Nothing makes you more aware of your smallness and life’s potential bigness than encountering the glory of God in worship. Corporate worship services in the church today desperately need to recover a sense of God’s size!
Not long ago I was in desperate need for God to liberate me from the slavish pressure to perform by reminding me of my smallness and his bigness. And since God has used the preaching of the late Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones throughout my Christian life to bring great perspective and reorientation to my troubled soul, I went back to one of his 1959 sermons on revival. With great unction, Lloyd-Jones delivered the reminder I craved:
Our supreme need, our only need, is to know God, the living God, and the power of his might. We need nothing else. It is just that, the power of the living God, to know that the living God is among us and that nothing else matters…I say, forget everything else. Forget everything else. We need to realize the presence of the living God amongst us. Let everything else be silent. This is no time for minor differences. We all need to know the touch of the power of the living God.
“The touch of the power of the living God”—that’s what Isaiah experienced. He was freed by realizing that God is big and he was small—that God was God and he was not. And this is what God intends for us to experience when he gathers us in worship. Isaiah didn’t leave the temple thinking, “What a great angelic choir” or “What a great temple.” He left thinking, “What a great God.”
As pastor of Coral Ridge, I’ll be the first to admit that we are blessed with great music and a world-class facility. But, as I often remind our church, if people don’t leave our church thinking first, “What a great God” than our music and facilities mean nothing. Whatever else we may see in worship, we must see God first and best.
Isaiah 6:4 tells us that along with this encounter the prophet had with God’s glory, the temple’s foundation shook. For us, it’s the glory of God alone that can shake the foundations of our life so that we become more aware of his presence and more dependent on his power. A God-centered, gospel-fueled worship service is a service that leads people to conclude that Jesus plus nothing equals everything and everything minus Jesus equals nothing.
All too common today are polarizing tendencies in worship that fail to reach the whole person. For instance, in some churches, how a Christian thinks is far more important than how a Christian feels. Worship in these churches is primarily geared to informing the mind. But when it comes to feeling God, they remain stoic. These churches turn worship into a classroom for learning.
Other churches do well at “feeling” in worship but do “thinking” poorly. In these churches, worship is primarily geared to engaging the emotions—thinking is far less important than feeling. These churches turn worship into a therapist’s couch for emotional highs and healing.
Still other churches conclude that neither our thoughts nor our feelings toward God are as important as what we do for God. In these churches, worship is primarily geared to the will—the goal of worship is to get the worshippers to give more, serve more, or take some other action.
But notice Isaiah’s varied response to his encounter with the glory of God. He responds intellectually to God’s presence—there’s no question in Isaiah’s mind that God is who he is: “My eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (v.5). In the same verse, there’s also an emotional response—he feels the presence of God in his heart: “I’m undone.” Finally, there’s a volitional response—having encountered the living God, Isaiah is ready and willing to do God’s will with his entire being: “Here am I, send me” (v.8).
We, too, ought to experience God with the totality of our being in worship. Worship services ought to inform the mind intellectually, engage the heart emotionally, and bend the will volitionally. God wants thoughtful worshippers who believe, emotional worshippers who behold, and obedient worshippers who behave. God-centered worship produces people who think deeply about God, feel passionately for God, and live urgently in response to God. Therefore, when we meet God in worship, we should expect a combination of gravity and gladness, depth and delight, doctrine and devotion, precept and passion, truth and love.
Not only here in Isaiah, but throughout Scripture we see people in the presence of God weeping over their sin, celebrating their forgiveness, and exalting in God’s bigness. People feel their desperation, cry out for deliverance, celebrate their pardon—and in many other ways respond in fullness to the thick presence of God’s glory.
Isaiah’s many-sided response to God’s revealed glory is anchored ultimately in the multifaceted beauty of the gospel—the good news that in the person of Jesus Christ, God came down to recover and repair a world lost and broken by sin.
Contrary to what many Christians have concluded, the Bible does not tell two stories: one about Israel in the Old Testament, another about the church in the New Testament. The Bible tells one story and points to one figure. It narrates how God rescues his world that we wrecked, and exalts Christ as the one who accomplishes the rescue. In the Old Testament God revealed himself through types and shadows, promises and prophecies. In the New Testament God reveals himself in Christ who is the substance of every shadow and the fulfillment of every promise and prophecy. The Old Testament predicts God’s rescuer; the New Testament presents God’s rescuer. Therefore, the whole Bible—both the Old and New Testament—is all about God’s rescuer. A gospel-fueled worship service tells and retells this unified story—highlighting the story’s infallible Hero—through song, sermon, and sacrament.
If our worship is genuinely gospel-fueled, than we, like Isaiah, will go through a range of expressions when we’re together. The experience of the worshipper should be multifaceted because God’s story—the gospel—is multifaceted. Our worship should have many parts because the gospel has many parts, and is neither one-dimensional nor stagnant.
The cradle, the cross, and the crown of God’s Rescuer are to be rehearsed and in some way felt. For instance, the gospel takes us from a sense of gratitude when pondering the incarnation, to a sense of grief when pondering the crucifixion, and to a sense of glory when pondering the resurrection.
God’s story takes us low and brings us high and gospel-fueled worship services should in some way reflect those ups and downs in their style and substance, context and content. With our Hero, we should experience something of the darkness of the garden of Gethsemane and the daylight of the garden tomb. We cannot ponder the cross without feeling our sin. And we cannot ponder the empty tomb without feeling our salvation.
Our worship should include moments of praise, lament, and thanksgiving—or, in the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, “orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.” It should involve a sense of guilt and gratitude, desperation and deliverance, somber contemplation and joyous celebration. It should contain silence and singing, confession and cleansing, commendation of God and conviction from God.
A gospel-fueled worship service is a service where God serves the gospel to sinners in need of rescue—and that includes both Christians and non-Christians. Churches for years have struggled over whether their worship services ought to be geared toward Christians (to encourage and strengthen them) or non-Christians (to appeal to and win them). But that debate and the struggle over it are misguided. We’re asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions.
Like many others, I once assumed the gospel was simply what non-Christians must believe in order to be saved, but after they believe it, they advance to deeper theological waters. But, as Tim Keller explains it, the gospel isn’t simply the ABCs of Christianity, but the A-through-Z. The gospel doesn’t just ignite the Christian life; it’s the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing every day. Once God rescues sinners, his plan isn’t to steer them beyond the gospel but to move them more deeply into it. After all, the only antidote to sin is the gospel—and since Christians remain sinners even after they’re converted, the gospel must be the medicine a Christian takes every day. Since we never leave off sinning, we can never leave the gospel.
To describe his condition as a Christian, Martin Luther employed the phrase simul justus et peccator—simultaneously justified and sinful. Luther understood that while he’d already been saved from sin’s penalty, he was in daily need of salvation from sin’s power.
Paul calls the gospel “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16) and contrary to what some have concluded, he didn’t simply mean the “power of God for conversion.” The gospel remains the power of God unto salvation until we are glorified because we’re all “partly unbelievers until we die”, as Calvin put it. We need God’s rescue every day and in every way.
In his book The Gospel for Real Life, Jerry Bridges picks up on this theme—that Christians need the gospel just as much as non-Christians—by explaining how the spiritual poverty in so much of our Christian experience is the result of an inadequate understanding of the gospel’s depths. The answer isn’t to try harder in the Christian life but to comprehend more fully and clearly Christ’s incredible work on behalf of sinners and then to live in a more vital awareness of that grace day by day. Our main problem in the Christian life, in other words, is not that we don’t try hard enough to be good, but that we haven’t thought out the deep implications of the gospel and applied its powerful reality to all parts of our life. Real spiritual growth happens as we continually rediscover the gospel.
The same dynamic explains the primary purpose of corporate worship: to rediscover the mighty acts of God in Christ coming to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. We gather in worship to celebrate God’s grip on us, not our grip on God.
A gospel fueled worship service is a service where God’s rescue in Christ is unveiled and unpacked through song, sermon, and sacrament in such a way that it results in the exposure of both the idols of our culture and the idols of our hearts. The faithful exposition of our true Savior in every element of worship will painfully, but liberatingly, reveal the subtle ways in which we as individuals and as a culture depend on lesser things than Jesus to provide the security, acceptance, protection, affection, meaning, and satisfaction that only Christ can supply.
The praising, praying, and preaching in such a service should constantly show just how relevant and necessary Jesus is. They must serve the gospel to sinners by telling and retelling the story that while we are all great sinners, Christ is a great Savior.
When we gather together for worship, we ought to come reaching up, starved for God, ready to feast together on the good news that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God has descended to us because we could never ascend to him. Feasting on God’s gospel together through prayer and preaching, sacrament and singing, provides us with the faith, hope, and love we need to be good news people in a bad news world.
We should not, however, only look back to what Christ has done, we should also look ahead to what Christ will do. We remember the past, but also rehearse the future. For, when Christ comes again, the process of reversing the curse of sin and recreating all things will be complete (1 Cor. 15:51-58). The peace on earth that the angels announced the night Christ was born will become a universal actuality. God’s cosmic rescue mission will be complete. The fraying fabric of our fallen world will be fully and perfectly rewoven. Everything and everyone “in Christ” will live in perfect harmony. Shalom will rule.
Isaiah 11:6-9 pictures it this way:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
For those who’ve found forgiveness of sins in Christ, there will one day be no more sickness, no more death, no more tears, no more division, no more tension. The pardoned children of God will work and worship in a perfectly renewed earth without the interference of sin. We who believe the gospel will enjoy sinless hearts and minds along with disease-free bodies. All that causes us pain and discomfort will be destroyed, and we will live forever.
Until that day comes, we gather for worship not to escape the world’s present reality, but to be reminded by God that this world isn’t all there is. The Bible makes it clear that even though we enjoy one day in seven to “rest” from our earthly activities, there is still a rest that remains to be fulfilled (Heb. 4:9). It is the final rest when every day will be a holy day and a heavenly day.
Until the glory of the Lord fills the earth as the waters fill the sea, until the Kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, every day is not holy. This is why we need Sunday’s—to give us a one-day taste of our future destiny so we can persevere through the rest of the week.
When we worship together we enjoy and experience an intrusion of “heaven in the real world”—the end time in time. It’s the future being brought into the present. In our worship together, we enter into the very suburbs of heaven and get a weekly taste of what will eventually be permanent and eternal.
I look forward to corporate worship more than any other time of the week because when I am worshipping together with other sinner-saints, my anticipation for the Great Gathering on the last day intensifies. What we do together in worship is nothing less than a glorious rehearsal of what we will experience when the “ultimate assembly” is fully and finally brought together by Christ. Our weekly worship is a foretaste of that day when our feasting will be permanent and our fasting will be over—when we will finally be able “to enjoy what is most enjoyable with unbounded energy and passion forever.”