Who (or what) is the proper focus of our worship? What must we proclaim in our worship? What do the various elements of a corporate worship service mean? This is the second of three posts that will explore the object, subject, and movement of corporate worship. These posts are based on a sermon series I did at Bethel and come from a teaching guide on worship that we published.
What do we talk about when we worship?
Whenever Christians gather to worship, that worship tells a story. It communicates something through the language that it uses. It has a subject. What is it? What is the content of our proclamation? Are there things that simply must be said in order to get it right? Do we occasionally mangle it? Can we make it up as we go, inserting random nouns, verbs and adjectives like a giant mad-lib, or is there an established script for us? Are there things we must recount and retell, or do we get to chart the course and create the plotline ourselves?
Our worship—through song, prayer, and proclamation—must tell the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and how, through these things, God displays His mercy to those who do not deserve it. It must tell of how God brings us from death to life by his Spirit and freely saved us by His grace, so that, through faith, we may do the things He has called us to do. This is the Story into which we have been swept, and if we aren’t telling it, then we aren’t really worshipping.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God’s people have always been called to retell and announce the mighty acts of deliverance and salvation that He has done for them (Deuteronomy 4:9; Psalm 78:4; 1 John 1:3; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20). God’s people are to publically announce His salvation, because this is the means by which God calls people to Himself in faith. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”. We tell what God has done to save His people, because the Spirit works through that announcement to convict and renew hearts.
Our worship, therefore, must be a time when we gather to announce, celebrate, and retell the story of how God has set His people free from the bonds of sin and death. Yet we know that worship is often something other than this.
Some worship is simply a form of entertainment. People want to come and experience exceptional music, a well-crafted sermon, and beautiful decorations. There is no real story told, but emotions are successfully manipulated. Some worship is simply a kind of self-help or motivational seminar, designed to inspire you to be a better person or to give you the several steps you need to unlock ‘the person you were meant to be’.
As helpful as we may think these things are, they aren’t proper worship. If we are focused on ourselves, then we aren’t focused on God. If we aren’t telling the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, then we aren’t telling the story of how we have been set free from our sins and delivered from the dominion of the grave. When the subject of our worship becomes vague or undefined, then we begin to drift away from biblical, historic Christianity and into what one sociologist calls ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’. The subject of our worship has to be the saving work of God in Jesus Christ.
The most successful sermon in history was Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2), and it wasn’t a personal testimony or self-help seminar. It was an announcement that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah, that He died for our sins, that He was raised triumphantly from the tomb, that He ascended into heaven, and that the Holy Spirit has come to God’s people. This is the subject of our worship.
This storyline is on high-definition display in Ephesians 2:1-10 [take a moment and read it]. The heart of the gospel proclamation must include these things:
- We are utterly unable to save ourselves, because we are dead in our sins. Not wounded, not inconvenienced—dead.
- God’s mercy is free and undeserved, given to those who are dead in their sins (Romans 4:5: God “justifies the ungodly”).
- We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. John Calvin said, “Faith, then, brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of Christ.”
- This salvation was accomplished only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we are united to Him in faith, what is true of Him becomes true of us.
- Saved by grace, we are then enabled to do the good works that God has prepared for us. Good works are not the source of our salvation, but the proper response to it.
The word “Gospel” literally means “good news”. Our worship is not a time to pass along good advice, but to proclaim good news. The news that we announce in our worship has to match the divine plotline of the God who has rescued dead sinners by giving them new life through His Spirit. We, who are dead in our sins, have been made alive in Christ—saved by grace, through faith, in order that we might do the good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do. This is the subject of our worship.