WORSHIP AND THE LORD’S DAY
1 The light of nature shows that there is a God who has lordship and sovereignty over all. He is just and good and does good to all. Therefore he is to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served with all the heart and soul and strength.1 But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God has been instituted by himself and delimited by his own revealed will.
The light of nature is sufficient to tell men that there is a sovereign, holy, just, good God. This knowledge in turn ought to lead men to honor and worship the One revealed in his creation. Man knows instinctively that there is a God and that he is to be worshiped, but sin has so marred our understanding of him and what he wants of us that true worship is impossible apart from special revelation. We would be as safe in deciding what proper worship is as in deciding what the best way to be saved is. Both lead only to disaster. David and the Israelites decided they had gone too long without the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence (1 Chr 13). The nation gathered together to join in the procession to bring the ark back to Jerusalem because they all agreed it was the right thing to do. “David and the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals and trumpets” as the new cart built especially to carry the ark moved along. Everything was going well until the oxen stumbled and Uzzah reached out to steady the ark to keep it from falling. The problem was that the well-intentioned praise and celebration the people were offering neglected to follow the pattern prescribed by God for carrying the ark (Ex 25:14). We can place the strange fire offered by Nadab and Abihu and the altars built by the Israelites and perhaps Cain’s sacrifice in this same category of worshiping God in ways he has not prescribed.
He may not be worshipped according to human imagination or methods, nor according to the suggestions of Satan, nor by way of any visible representation, nor by any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.2
“The immediate historical occasion of this paragraph was the debate between Puritans and Anglicans. The Twentieth Article of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles states: ‘The Church hath the power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in the controversies of faith. And yet it is not lawful for the church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written.’” (Waldron, 267). The Anglicans permitted in worship whatever was not expressly forbidden. The Puritans permitted in worship only what was commanded. “The difference between Puritans and Anglicans may be helpfully illustrated by means of two builders intent on building the temple of God. Mr. Anglican must use the materials of the Word of God, but has no blueprint and may use other materials. Mr. Puritan must use only materials of the Word of God and has a blueprint” (Waldron, 268). There has always been a temptation among God’s people to look at how the world worships its gods and adopt those methods, but God explicitly warns against worshiping him in any way other than what he has prescribed (Dt 12:29-32). We should not try to justify our own approaches to worship by saying they further the devotion of worshipers or they make worship more beautiful or more effective. This would imply that we know better than God what he counts as worthy worship. The shape or style of the building in which we meet is indifferent, as is the time of the service, but once assembled worship must be as God has commanded us.
Within the Reformed tradition this principle has led to a rejection in worship of whatever is not commanded in Scriptures. True worship thus consists only of those things commanded in the Word: the reading and preaching of Scriptures, singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, administration of the Lord’s Supper and Baptisms, and prayer. Catholics and Lutherans on the other hand reject only what is expressly forbidden in the Bible from their worship. They would never have an idol of Baal in the church, for that is expressly forbidden. The Catholics however allow idols of the Virgin Mary since that is not forbidden. They also have a place for crosses, candles, statues and so on. While the application of this principle to worship in the Reformed churches has not been uniform (e.g. some allow instruments, some do not), it still ought to give us cause to stop and consider each aspect of what we do when we gather for worship (e.g. candlelight services, altar calls). For any church claiming Scripture as her final authority in faith and practice, the regulation of worship by this rule ought to be taken seriously.
2 Worship is to be given to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to him alone,3 not to angels, saints, or any other creatures.4 Since the fall worship is not to be given without a mediator, nor by any mediation other than that of Christ alone.5
4 Ro 1:24-25, Col 2:9-10, Re 19:9-10
5 Jn 14:6, Eph 2:18, Col 3:17, 1 Ti 2:5
Since God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, true worship can be given only when he is approached as such. If this is true then not only is the worship of the Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses false, but so also the worship of those in the United Pentecostal Church who hold that there is only one person in the Godhead, Jesus Christ. Not only must worship be to the triune God, it must be through the one Mediator. Both of these rules for worship are rejected by the Roman Catholic church. They distinguish between latria, or the highest form of worship which is due to God alone and doulia, that inferior form of worship which in varying degrees is offered to saints and angels according to their rank. They also distinguish between direct worship which is offered to God, the saints and angels, and indirect worship which fixes on a picture or image that represents for the worshiper the direct object of his worship. When we cast aside the regulative principle in worship we are left without certain guidance and become susceptible to all sorts of distortions as to the nature of true worship. Even in many Protestant churches there is a growing use made of images, ceremonies and pageantry the likes of which the Reformers denounced in the Catholic church.
3 Prayer with thanksgiving, being one part of natural worship, is required by God of all people.6 But to be acceptable, it must be made in the name of the Son,7 by the help of his Spirit,8 and according to his will.9 It must also be made with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance,10 and when with others in a known language.11
7 Jn 14:13-14
8 Ro 8:26
9 1 Jn 5:14
10 Ec 5:1-2, Ge 18:27, Jas 5:16, Jas 1:5-7, Mk 11:24, Mt 6:12-15, Col 4:2, Eph 6:18
11 1 Co 14:13-19, 1 Co 14:27-28
Probably the most widely recognized element of true worship is prayer. Even apart from special revelation man naturally feels this longing to communicate with God, and Scripture is filled with instances of where prayer is a part of the worship offered to God by his people. Prayer is so natural to man some feel they can do it properly without direction from God at all. We learn from Scripture though that several things are necessary for prayer to be accepted by God. First, like all other aspects of worship, it must be offered through the mediation of Jesus Christ, in his name. His atonement and present intercession in heaven in our behalf is the basis for all true prayer. Second, acceptable prayer must be Spirit-aided. We are not left to pray on our own, but are given the Spirit “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Rom 8:26). Something so natural as prayer might be thought to require no special empowerment, but true prayer requires God’s Spirit. There is a supernatural element to every prayer we rightly offer. Third, godly, effective prayer must be made according to God’s will. This does not mean the words “if it be your will” must be attached to every request. It does mean that our every prayer must be made in accordance with the rule of Scripture, the revealed will of God. We need not pray, “If it be thy will make me holy” for God’s Word clearly tells us it is his will. We are to pray in accordance to the clear commands and spirit of the Lord revealed in Scripture. The last line of this paragraph in all likelihood deals with the practice of praying in Latin in the Roman Catholic church, a language known by few in that day. If we are to pray rightly in worship, we must understand what we are praying and that means praying in a language we know.
4 Prayer is to be made for lawful things, and for all kinds of people who are alive now or shall live in the future.12 Prayer is not to be made for the dead, nor for those who are known to have sinned the sin leading to death.13
We are not just permitted, but are expected to pray for what is lawful, what Scripture reveals to be God’s will: e.g. our growth in holiness, the salvation of the lost, the unity of the body of Christ. We ought to cast a wide net when praying to include all sorts of men, even those for whom the possibility of salvation might seem very small. We are also encouraged to pray for those who have not yet been born, just as Jesus did (Jn 17:20). We ought to pray for the perseverance of the saints in this age not only for our sakes, but for the sake of the generations to come.
Prayer for those who have already died though is not only unnecessary, it is unlawful. “If they are believers there is nothing that we can ask for them that they do not already have. And if they are not, there is nothing that can be secured for them because ‘there is a great gulf fixed’ (Lk 16:26)” between them and the grace of God. To ask for grace beyond the lifetime in which God has offered it is to pray for something God has told us he will not do.
Neither are we to pray for those who are guilty of a “sin that leads to death” (1 Jn 5:16). In this letter John draw a sharp line between believer and unbeliever. His descriptions of the antichrists who are on the path to death include a denial that Jesus is the Son of God, a refusal to obey God’s commands, love of the world and hatred of one’s brothers. They gave the appearance of being “one of us,” but proved they were not by not remaining in the church. John says we are not to pray for those who have heard the truth, experienced the benefits that flow from being associated with God’s people and then deliberately choose to leave it all behind and openly reject the salvation offered in Jesus alone. We are to pray for what is lawful, but this does not include, “Lord please be merciful to my friend and save him even though he knows what he must do but refuses to repent and believe.”
5 The reading of the Scriptures,14 the preaching and hearing of the Word of God,15
In addition to prayer the ordinary elements of worship are now set out in accordance with the belief that only what can be found to be commanded in Scripture constitutes proper worship. Special prominence has always been given in Protestant churches to the Word of God. The reading, preaching and hearing of the Word are considered central because it is through hearing the Word that faith comes. “Despite other defects and impurities, we believe that true worship cannot altogether perish from that place in which there is yet a faithful preaching of the word” (Williamson, 167). We might add that wherever their is beauty and order, warmth and food for thought but there is no preaching of the Word, there is no worship.
the teaching and admonishing of one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with gratitude in our hearts to the Lord,16
According to the Westminster Confession worship also includes the “singing of psalms with grace in the heart.” Many Presbyterian and Reformed churches have taken this to mean that only inspired psalms, hymns and songs are to be sung in church. The authors of our confession include hymns and spiritual songs (Col 3:16) and thus make room for the Scripturally sound hymns of extrabiblical authors. The authors saw the purpose of songs in a much different light than what we normally do today. Music was not a means of lifting the spirit or stirring the emotions but of instructing and admonishing one another. The early church believed it and the professors of church music today continue to claim that people learn and remember more about theology from the songs they sing in church than they do from the sermons. Whether this is actually true or not, we must agree with our confession that songs play an important role in reinforcing Biblical truths. The criterion for which songs we permit in worship ought to be something more than a familiar or catch tune. All this does not mean that our singing is unemotional, for it is always to be done “with heartfelt thankfulness to God.”
as well as the administration of baptism17 and the Lord’s Supper18,
The two final elements of regular worship are the ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both were instituted by our Lord and of perpetual obligation. We are to baptize so long as we are making disciples (Mt 28:19) and in the observance of the Lord’s Supper we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor 11:26). The ordinances are not a means of converting sinners, as is the Word, but are a means together with the Word of strengthening and confirming faith in believers. Since these are ordinances, commands, given by the Lord, there can be no true worship where these are neglected.
are all parts of the worship of God. These are to be performed in obedience to him, with understanding, faith, reverence and godly fear.
Though our emotions are certainly involved in worship (we are called on to love God with all our heart, soul and mind), true worship always involves our mind. Worship can never be simply a matter of showing up at church and going through the motions. Where our actions are no more than routine then our worship is not only useless, it is actually hateful to God (Is 1:12-14).
Also to be used on special occasions in a holy and reverent manner,19 are times of solemn humiliation, with fasting and thanksgiving.20
Beyond the ordinary elements of worship there may be special occasions of solemn humiliation in which the people of God draw apart to confess their sins, of fasting to focus our attention on spiritual matters and of thanksgiving to praise God for specials works of grace. These things should not be made a fixed part of ordinary worship for when this happens they become mechanical in nature and unacceptable to God. Scriptural evidence indicates that these things were only occasional elements of worship in both the OT and in the early church. When these special occasions arise in our own personal lives or the life of the church we ought to approach them with the same reverence we do the more ordinary forms of worship.
6 Under the Gospel, neither prayer nor any other aspect of religious worship is tied to, or made more acceptable by, any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed.21
Under the law of Moses worship was tied to a definite geographical location selected by God, Jerusalem, and to a definite physical structure, the Temple. It was the constant bane plague of Israel that the landscape was dotted with high places and shrines where the people went to worship. The problem was not just that they worshiped idols there, but that they worshiped in places God had told them not to. The limitation of worship to a single location was part of the ceremonial law that was fulfilled and done away with in Christ. Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman of a day (that has since come) in which location would be irrelevant for worship. This paragraph was written in part as a response to the Catholic church’s contention that there were certain structures and places that were specially holy.
God is to be worshipped everywhere in spirit and in truth,22
The abolition of geographically localized worship does not mean that there is no appropriate locale for worship under the New Covenant. The appropriate locale is no longer determined by geography, but by spirit. The appropriate place for worship is no longer a stone building in a specific city, but wherever the saints are gathered for it is there that God is present in a special way (Mt 18:20). We are now the temple of God and it is among us that worship is most fitting. “The assemblies of this new, spiritual temple are to be prized by the people of God now just as much as the people of God in the Old Testament prized the worship at the physical temple” (Waldron, 272). True worship is not a matter of being in the right place, but of having the right spirit. It is not a matter simply of expressing ourselves to God, but of honoring him according to the truth revealed in his Word.
whether daily23 in private families,24 or individually in secret,25 or solemnly in public assemblies.26 The latter are not to be carelessly neglected nor wilfully forsaken, because God calls us to them by his Word and providence.27
24 Dt 6:6-7, Job 1:5, 1 Pe 3:7
25 Mt 6:6
26 Ps 84:1-2, 10, Mt 18:20, 1 Co 3:16, 1 Co 14:25, Eph 2:21-22
27 Ac 2:42, Heb 10:25
Because physical location is no longer a crucial element, worship can be carried on in a variety of places. One may come before the Lord in worship when gathered with the family in the living room or when one steps apart from all human company to worship the Lord in solitude. Worship in these smaller settings though is not to be construed as an alternative to worship with the gathered saints. Worship with other saints gathered for that purpose is still expected of every saint who has been joined to the body of Christ. To willfully neglect public worship is not only to disobey God’s will for his people, but is to deprive oneself of the blessings that come through the gifts given to each member of Christ’s body. Missing church because of problems that arise due to lack of preparation or through the use of excuses that become easier and easier to see as valid may seem innocent enough, but they are the kind of careless neglect that keep us from the edification and joy that come through public worship.
7 As it is the law of nature that a portion of time by God’s appointment should be set apart for the worship of God, so in his Word he has given a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all people in all ages. In particular he has appointed one day in seven as a Sabbath to be kept holy to him.28
According to the Genesis account of creation, ‘God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done’ (2:3). Since God could have created and ordered the universe in a moment, the use of six days of work and a day of rest surely had some purpose. Having just spoken of creating man in his image, we might see in part that it was God’s intention to set an example for man to follow. Just as man was created to reflect God’s image by having dominion, so it was that he should rest every seventh day. Since the fourth commandment, keeping the Sabbath holy, is tied to the creation story (Ex 20:11) it is not hard to see why some take the command to worship one day in seven as a creation ordinance that is binding on all men in all ages.
Yet, we should note that no actual command is given in the creation account about worship on the seventh day, nor do we find any of God’s people observing the seventh day as a day of worship in the era before Moses. This stands in contrast to the creation ordinance concerning man’s work, ‘let them rule over the fish of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth,’ and the one concerning marriage, ‘a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ There are specific precepts involved in these creation ordinances about how man is to order his life.
If we accept the proposition that the creation week does not necessarily establish a pattern that can be considered a binding law, that does not mean there was no purpose in God’s six days of work in creating the world followed by a day of rest. In setting it apart as different from the other days he showed us there was a time for ceasing from our ordinary labors to find refreshment in something other than creating, working, building, making things for life in this physical realm. Centuries later the Lord used this seventh day Sabbath as a sign to point his people to what this something else involved. In the fourth commandment God clearly connects Israel’s resting from their labors with the rest he had after the week of creation. In the book of Hebrews he connects that rest on the seventh day with the eternal rest the saints will enjoy. This does not mean that the Sabbath rest was a creation ordinance, but only that God made that historical event a sign to point his people to a spiritual truth. We might compare it to the Lord’s use of Jonah’s rescue by way of a fish. Though the prophet’s time in the belly of the fish was at the time the Lord’s means of deliverance, Jesus made it a sign of the Messiah’s death and resurrection. So it is that what was originally a rest for God was made to be a sign for man of the spiritual rest that he needed.
The question is not whether we should set aside a time for rest from our normal routine and spend that in a special time with God. There should be no Christian who does not see that time in public and private worship is a vital, necessary part of our calling and absolutely essential to spiritual growth. It is, however, not merely a duty we are called on to obey, it is a joy that each of us is drawn to. The question before us is not whether we should gather with the church for worship, but whether one day in seven has been appointed in our age for us to do so. The question is whether our day of worship is grounded in the creation account or in commands that were given to Israel that are no longer directly binding on us.
On a personal note, I struggle with which way to go with this, but tend to side with those who do not view Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. There are many references in the New Testament to public worship as a necessary part of the Christian life, but there are none that speak directly to it as a once every seven days obligation. While this may not definitively rule out a Christian Sabbath, it is interesting and perhaps suggestive. I will until I am convinced otherwise continue to believe that the command not to forsake assembling together (Heb 10:25) is sufficient for requiring public worship for all who claim to be disciples of Christ.
From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ this was the last day of the week, but from the resurrection of Christ it was changed to the first day of the week which is called the Lord’s Day. This is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.29
The day of rest as instituted by direct command in the Ten Commandments was observed on the seventh day of the week (Ex 20:10) during the entirety of the old covenant age. It was a sign between the Lord and the Israelites that they had been bound together by that covenant established at Mount Sinai (Ex 31:12-17). To have ceased worshiping on the seventh day as that law demanded would have been to say that they no longer lived under the covenant that made them his people. What we notice when we come to the worship of the church in the New Testament era is that there are several occasions where the church met for such on Sunday (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:1-2, Jn 20:19, 26; Acts 2:1). Only two of these come after the ‘birth’ of the NT church at Pentecost, and only of these directly states that they were gathered on Sunday while the other suggests that an offering should be set aside on Sunday. None of the passages states that Christian worship is on Sunday. We also have the testimony of Acts 2:46 that the saints met every day, but no suggestion is derived from this that the church is to now meet for worship every day. There is no text that tells us that the seventh day as the day set apart as holy to the Lord was abolished for the church. I do not wish to argue that we are to gather on Saturday for public worship, but simply do not see Sunday as the day for worship as being grounded in a NT command.
8 People keep the Sabbath holy to the Lord when (after appropriate preparation of their hearts and prior arrangement of their everyday affairs) they observe all day a holy rest from their own works, words, and thoughts30 about their secular employment and recreations, but also devote the whole time to public and private acts of worship, and to carrying out duties of necessity and mercy.31
Even if we reject the idea of Sunday as a Christian Sabbath, we do agree with our confession that worship is something that requires more of us than simply showing up at the church building at the appointed time. If we have a genuine desire to worship God as best we can then we will prepare to do so. Simple things like laying out our clothes the night before and leaving home with plenty of time to get to church so we do not arrive on edge and fatigued by a rushed morning are important. If we think our Lord deserves more of our attention to worship than two hours on Sunday morning, then we will plan accordingly. We will finish yard work and homework before Sunday so that we may have time to leisurely give thought to his Word and rejoice in his goodness. If we spend time in recreation, it will not be of the sort that leaves us physically or emotionally drained so that we are left unable to focus on the things of God. And if our church meets on Sunday evenings, we will have things in order so that we can attend.
The concern I have is not so much that kids might play football in the backyard or adults might spend some time with a hobby on Sunday. My concern is that there are church members who are satisfied with one hour of public worship when they have the opportunity for three or four. My concern is with saints who simply cannot find time on a day when neither work nor family obligations demand their attention to spend time alone thinking of their Lord and how they might better serve him.
As for the church itself, if we expect saints to be there together, then we had better meet for worship and not other purposes. Church members may gather for all sorts of reasons, but forsaking the assembling of ourselves is not about missing a time of recreation, it is about missing a time the church has set apart for worship when they could be there but just do not want to be. Their lives are so filled with worldly pursuits that they prefer them over a time of worship and edification with the saints. They demonstrate thereby a lack of love for the Lord and for his people that is disturbing. The church must be sure to provide those who come a time for praise, prayer and edifying teaching. These are things that will make the one who longs to grow in grace want to come back.