PART ONE: THE MANNER OF ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29)
The Protestant Reformation represents a return to the reverent, Biblical, participatory, and spiritual worship of the New Testament (NT), away from human inventions codified by the late medieval Roman Catholic Church and quite popular in present evangelical worship. For all their differences, worship in Catholic churches and evangelical churches have significant similarities—and the NT and the Protestant Reformation stand resolutely against both.
One of the most basic insights of the Reformation is that the renewed longing of our heart must be regulated by God’s Word. It’s not enough to want to worship God. We must know how to worship God. Our love for God must be bound by His Law. Our desire must be ruled by divine design. You may not offer God whatever you want. As Heb. 12:28 states, we must offer God “acceptable worship.” The writer to the Hebrews is intent to contrast and compare the Mosaic covenant with the New
Covenant for his hearers who are tempted to go back to the Mosaic covenant. Near the end of his letter (12:18-29), the writer casts the two covenants in terms of different worship services taking place on two different mountains. The old covenant on Mt. Sinai is full of servile fear, things that could be touched and seen, and a refusal to hear God. The new covenant, in contrast to the old, lifts us up to Mt. Zion— to heaven itself!—to God the Father and His Son, to participate in the joy of the worship of angels and the faithfully departed saints of God from the OT and NT.
Note what is different. In NT worship, we do not encounter the physical, geographical, sensory-rich worship of OT worship. Why? Because although the Christian Church may gather in a variety of earthly places for worship on the Lord’s Day, the Christian Church is actually translated to heaven as God calls us to worship Him.
But note what is similar in the worship of the two different covenants. It is not the sights and sounds but the covenantal obligations enjoined by God upon the Church. The writer is echoing an earlier point (Heb 2:1-3): If the OT Church had to approach God with reverence and awe, how much more the NT Church, to whom Christ has been fully revealed?
In fact, the demands of the covenant are heightened and intensified in Christ. Christ warned His people on earth through earthly messengers under the Mosaic covenant, but now Christ warns us directly from heaven. How then shall we escape God if we refuse to hear the Son of God? In other words, you may not think that because you do not live in the OT, you can be casual about the worship of God. You may not mindlessly waltz in on Sunday without preparing to meet with God. God calls us to offer Him acceptable worship, that is, worship characterized by reverence and awe of God.
PART TWO: THE ELEMENTS OF ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP
What are the elements of acceptable worship? First, corporate worship must be regulated by the Word of God. This is what is called the Regulative Principle of Worship. We are not free to re-invent worship. Worship is not a matter of human preference or pragmatics, whether it has the musty scent of centuries of tradition or is the latest Hillsong craze. The Word of God alone determines what is worship and what is included therein. This is why, although the sermon (the plain reading, explanation, and application of God’s Word) is the centerpiece of Reformed worship, the entire corporate worship service is to be considered the ministry of the Word from start to finish. The Word is what God has promised to bless (1 Pet. 1:25; Rom. 10:17)—not pantomimes, liturgical dancing, religious art, slideshows, or stories from our past week.
Secondly, acceptable worship is dialogical in character. That is, in worship, God speaks to us, and we respond in faithful adoration. Biblical worship is active and participatory. This means you may not be a spectator in worship. For Rome, worship was and is still a matter of the laity going to see the priest perform worship. For evangelical churches, the same holds true: the dimming of the lights, the cranking up the volume, and the singing of unsingable melodies all mask the sad fact that evangelical worship is not for God’s people but is a matter of seeing the “priest class” (the praise band) perform worship. The Protestant Reformation, however, returned the worship of God back to His people. You may not mumble your words while singing hymns or confessing your sins. You may not be thoughtless in worship—you are expected to participate in God’s worship because God has called you to worship Him with His people. This is another reason why individual expressions have no place in corporate worship. We sing, confess, pray, read, and hear God together.
Thirdly, acceptable worship is spiritual worship. In response to the confusion of the Samaritan woman who asked about the mountain upon which God should be worshipped, Jesus states: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). That is, acceptable worship must be according to God’s Word and according to His Spirit who alone lifts us up to heaven, brings us face to face with God who is spirit, and fills us with reverence and awe. In NT worship, the priority in worship is not a temple, priestly vestments, smells and bells, nor the right kind of lighting and instrumentation. Physicality is important but it is not more important than the Spirit who brings us into the presence of the Father by the work of the Son. This explains the portability of Reformed worship. Rome and evangelicals can’t ever have a worship service according to their own standards at the home of a shut-in. But by the standard of the NT, Reformed Christians can. Rome and evangelical churches can’t ever plant a church in many places of the U.S. or the world unless accompanied by certain liturgical accoutrements and sacred architecture. But by the standard of the NT, Reformed churches can be planted anywhere and everywhere. Why? Because acceptable worship is in God’s Spirit and in His truth.
We cannot and we should not yearn for OT forms of worship. Incense, elaborate ministerial vestments, bells, liturgical dancing, ornate ceremony, sophisticated lighting, and a professional sound team to get the acoustics “just right” all threaten the spiritual nature of Biblical worship.
Ugliness is no virtue. But the goal of NT worship is the beauty of Biblical simplicity in our order of worship, in our meeting place, and in the way the service is conducted, which all serve to focus our attention upon our triune God, His covenant love for us, and our obligations to Him.