One of the most widely debated issues in churches today revolves around the subject of worship. What does worship that is acceptable to God look like? What is the substance of acceptable worship? What elements are included in acceptable worship? Can we use drama in worship? What about elaborate ceremonies and rituals? What kinds of forms may be used in acceptable worship? Can we use instruments to accompany singing? Is it acceptable to use pop forms of music in our worship?
Let me give you a recent example and ask you if you think this is acceptable worship. This is an AP report from April 21, 2008:
SIDNEY, Ohio (AP) Another round and amen! Beer was on tap and a mechanical bull inspired the sermon as a new church held its inaugural service in a western Ohio bar.
The Country Rock Church drew about 100 people to Sunday night’s meeting at the Pub Lounge in Sidney, 35 miles north of Dayton.
The barroom church is an offshoot of Sidney United First Methodist Church, whose head pastor says he’s been looking for creative ways to reach people in unconventional places.
The church’s Web site for its new branch advertises “Top regional bands, pizza, wings, rowdy fun & a short message.”
The Rev. Chris Heckaman says people really seemed to enjoy themselves so he expects the Country Rock Church will meet weekly.
Heckaman’s sermon compared staying on the bar’s mechanical bull to learning how to get along in life.
So is this acceptable worship? Does God care if we have pizza, wings, and a mechanical bull in our church service? Is that acceptable to Him?
Or how about this? This is a press release about a new book titled, APop Goes the Church@ in which the author argues that in order to reach the culture, we have an obligation to be like the culture:
Is church irrelevant? Author and pastor Tim Stevens thinks so. In fact, he believes that religious tradition advising the church to avoid Aworldly@ culture for its 2,000 year history is misguided and that instead churches ought to welcome culture into their buildings and services. Stevens shares his take on culture in the church in a groundbreaking new book released nationwide titled, APop Goes the Church.@
Published by Power Publishing, the book outlines Stevens= philosophy and track record of success at Granger Community Church (GCC), in Granger, Indiana, where he serves as executive pastor. His church offers a revolutionary perspective on the 21st century church by designing services around movie and TV clips, drama and secular music during informal and quick paced services. That has translated into church services built on U2 and Beatles music and sermon topics featuring clips from movies like ASpiderman 3? and TV shows like A24.@
Around Christmas the church offered a whole series on Beatles music. AOur tag line was: >The Christmas Story According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, George and Ringo= and our overall theme was we want to start a revolution. We=ve done U2 music and featured Bono sharing about his Christian faith, and we=ve used Madonna=s >Material World= in a series featuring 80=s music.@ But in church? AAbsolutely!@ says Stevens.
AHere=s the bottom line. The Christian message never changes, but methods must,@ Stevens explains. AStudies show spiritual hunger in the U.S. at an all time high, but church attendance at an all time low and dropping. A lot of people feel church is irrelevant so it=s time to change. Church can=t meet people=s needs if people won=t come in the front door.@
So is this acceptable worship? Is it acceptable to have a movie theme for the service and to include movie clips and pop music and drama?
Now these are important questions to ask because these kinds of churches are certainly drawing larger crowds than churches like this one. So if this is acceptable worship, then why don=t we adopt it as well? And if it is not acceptable worship, then we had better have good, biblical reasons why it is not acceptable.
We find this notion of acceptable worship in our text. Depending on the translation you are reading, verse 28 references either acceptable Aworship@ or Aservice.@ That word translated Aworship@ or Aservice@ is the Greek term latreuo, which is the term most often used to describe worship in the New Testament.
So this passage discusses the very question under consideration today: What is worship that is acceptable to God?
Now before we even dive into our text to determine what it has to contribute to the discussion, let=s consider the phrase Aworship God acceptably@ just by itself. This phrase has two implications. One, it implies that there is such a thing as worship that is not acceptable to God. Some people argue that there is no such thing as worship that is acceptable and unacceptable. God doesn’t care how He is worshiped, they argue. But because the Bible uses this phrase, we can be certain there is such a thing as worship that is acceptable to God, and there is such a thing as worship that is not acceptable to God.
The second implication is that we must acknowledge that God Himself is the one who has the right to determine what kind of worship is acceptable to Him.
This may seem like an obvious statement, but church growth experts today are advising churches to ask unbelievers what kind of worship is acceptable to them. Now that kind of thinking clearly runs contrary to a biblical understanding of worship, but we find this same philosophy in more subtle forms as well. How many elements have found their way into our church services just because we thought they would be nice or they would enhance our worship or they would be innovative and capture attention without ever really giving consideration to whether God has allowed for them to be in our services? In other words, do we have elements in our church services today that God has not commanded? If so, what are we saying about the Lordship of Christ over our worship? What are we saying about the sufficiency of Scripture to tell us what God wants in our worship?
The very fact that our text even uses the phrase Aacceptable worship@ implies this critical point: It is the prerogative of God alone to determine the terms on which sinners may approach Him in worship. We may not add anything to our worship of God that He has not commanded, no matter how good we may think it is.
Now obviously not all Christians agree here. There are some who say that we may worship in any way we think is good as long as it has not been specifically forbidden in Scripture. Theologians refer to this as the Normative Principle of Worship. Traditionally Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and other churches who just don=t think through their worship have held to some form of this view.
But what is the testimony of Scripture on this point? Scripture clearly demonstrates that God rejects worship that includes elements that He has not commanded. Let me direct your attention to three passages involving three different periods in history in order to illustrate this important point.
The first is found in Leviticus 10.1-3.
[NKJV] Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 3 And Moses said to Aaron, AThis is what the LORD spoke, saying: >By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.=@
In this passage Nadab and Abihu offer an unauthorized fire C literally a Astrange@ fire C to the Lord, and they were killed for it. Why were they killed? There was nothing inherently evil or profane about what they were doing. But the fact that, as verse 1 says, the Lord had not commanded this element of worship, they were killed. God is very serious about this. The only acceptable worship is that which He Himself has commanded.
The second passage is found in the gospels; Matthew 15.8-9.
[NKJV] These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 9 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
Jesus is scolding the Pharisees who have added their own ingenuity to worship, and they are requiring others to take part in these same worship elements that God has not prescribed. Were these added elements evil in and of themselves? No. But the fact that they are not commanded by God renders the worship vain.
Paul elaborates on this principle specifically with regard to Christian worship in Colossians 2.20-23.
[NKJV] Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulationsC 21 ADo not touch, do not taste, do not handle,@ 22 which all concern things which perish with the usingCaccording to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
Here Paul is chiding Christians who are adding to their worship elements that are merely requirements of men. He even says that these kinds of things do indeed have an appearance of wisdom and spirituality. But because they have not been commanded by God, they render the worship unacceptable to Him.
The bottom line is this: when our text says Aoffer God acceptable worship,@ it implies that God, and God alone, has the right to determine what kind of worship is acceptable to Him. Therefore we must look to His Word to determine what is acceptable to include in our worship.
Theologians refer to this view as the Regulative Principle of Worship, or sometimes the Rule of Prescription. Traditionally Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers have held to this position. I=ll give you just one example of how Baptists have articulated this principles. The London Baptist Confession says this:
LBC 22:1 7 “. . .But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. . .”
Baptists have traditionally defended this principle: We may worship God only in ways that he has determined in Scripture.
So what is it that God has determined as acceptable worship? At the beginning of verse 28 we find a conjunction of inference. In other words, the command in verse 28 to worship God acceptably is inferred from the material that comes before it. Depending on the translation you are reading, you might find the word ATherefore,@ or ASince,@ or AWherefore.@ So what is it that provides the basis for this command to worship God acceptably?
In this section (verses 18-29), the author is contrasting the seemingly unapproachableness of God in the Old Testament economy with how we may approach God today. Notice how he describes the Old economy C we cannot touch it; blazing fire and darkness, and gloom, and tempest; the listeners are so afraid that they beg that no further message be spoken; even Moses himself trembled with fear at this encounter with God.
But the author of Hebrews says that as New Testament Christians we do not approach God like that. Instead, verse 22, we can come into the presence of God with joy and freedom along with all the angels and saints who have gone before us, why? Because Jesus Christ is our mediator! The God-man Himself provides us with direct communication to God.
You see, the first thing that God has determined with regard to acceptable worship is the substance of worship itself. We could not even begin to worship without His initiative. And in this New Testament economy, acceptable worship is made possible only through the mediation of Jesus Christ! We do not worship God on our own terms, and we do not worship God on our own merits.
Approaching God in the Old economy was so frightening because people realized that they could not measure up to the standards that God demands for those who come to Him. But we worship God on the merits of the sprinkled blood of Jesus. We can approach God through Christ because He does measure up to God=s standards. So His sacrificial work on the cross for us is what makes acceptable worship even possible. The author of Hebrews makes this points in 13.15: AThrough him [Christ] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God.@ 1 Peter 2.5 says that our spiritual sacrifices are acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
So the first thing God has determined about acceptable worship is that it must be through the mediation of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Acceptable worship is a response of the spirit to truth about God
And this fact leads to the second description of the substance of worship determined by God, and that is its spiritual nature. The author highlights this by comparing the physical Mount Sinai, signifying Old Testament worship, with the spiritual Mount Zion, signifying New Testament worship.
You see, Christ=s atoning sacrifice makes us possessors of spiritual realities that are yet to come. As Christians, we are in a sense worshiping spiritually with those in heaven. Ephesians says that we have been seated in heavenly places; 1 Corinthians says all things are ours in Christ; this passage says that we are receiving a Kingdom that cannot be shaken. We are not literally worshiping in heaven yet; we are not literally seated in heavenly places yet; we do not literally have the Kingdom yet. But these are spiritual realities that we do possess because we are in Christ.
What this means, then, is that the substance of our worship isn=t physical C it isn=t locations and rituals and ceremonies C it is spiritual; it is immaterial.
And therefore (verse 28) because of this reality C because our worship is through Christ and is essentially spiritual C worship God acceptably. And how do we do that? Look at the text:
[NAS]Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service.
The verse says that we worship God acceptably by means of an inner, spiritual response. [Grace here has the idea of an inner spirit of thankfulness.] This inner, spiritual response of thankfulness is the essence of the substance of worship that God has determined to be acceptable to him. Because you have direct access to God through Jesus Christ that is essentially spiritual, have this inner response of thankfulness by which you will worship God acceptably.
Jesus Himself highlights this spiritual essence of worship in His conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. The context is very similar to our text. The woman asks Jesus which mountain is the acceptable place for worship; she is essentially asking the question that we are asking: what is the acceptable way to worship God? Jesus= reply is that the substance of worship is not this location or that location. God desires those who worship Him in spirit and truth. The essence of worship, he is saying, is not physical outward ritual. The essence of worship is a spiritual response to God as a result of understanding biblical truth about God. That=s what we see here in our text.
We worship God acceptably through a right response of our spirits C in this case thankfulness C to revealed truth. So what is the truth that our text reveals to which we should respond with thankfulness?
Well, we=ve already seen the truth explained in the previous verses: Our God is not far away; He is not unapproachable. Our God is immanent; He is close at hand. It is possible to approach him with joy and freedom through the person of Jesus Christ! So the first truth to which we respond with our spirits is the immanence of God.
But verse 29 begins with another important little conjunction: Afor.@ Verse 28 began with Atherefore,@ which indicated that what came before it was reason for a spiritual response of worship. And now verse 29 begins with Afor,@ which indicates that the truth of this verse is also a reason for a spiritual response of worship. And what is that reason? AFor our God is a consuming fire.@ Not only is the immanence of God a truth to which we should respond in worship, but also the transcendence of God is a truth to which we should respond.
Our God is infinitely higher than we; He is holy; He is just; He is the all-powerful, sovereign Ruler of the universe. He is a consuming fire. And for this reason we should respond with gratitude in our hearts and thus worship God acceptably.
God has determined the substance of acceptable worship. Acceptable worship is possible only through a relationship with the mediator, Jesus Christ. And the essence of worship is a spiritual response of our hearts to truth about God.
So practically speaking, then, if you want to worship God acceptably, you must be a Christian. Acceptable worship is not possible without the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and His mediation on our behalf
But second, we must recognize that the substance of worship is spiritual. Acceptable worship is not ultimately about externals; it is about our hearts C responses of our affections to truth about God.
If we want to worship God acceptably, then the substance of our worship must be as God has determined it.
But God doesn=t stop there in Scripture. God doesn=t just stop with determining the substance of worship and leave the rest up to our creativity or ingenuity. He also has determined the elements of acceptable worship. We have already seen examples that God rejects any worship that includes elements that he has not commanded, no matter how good they may seem. He doesn=t want ingenuity from us in our worship; He wants obedience.
So what are the elements that God has determined should be a part of acceptable worship? For the answer to this question we must look outside our text at the entirety of the New Testament.
Those who hold to the Regulative Principle of Worship C the idea that we may worship God only as He has prescribed in Scripture C usually recognize six basic elements that God has determined to be part of acceptable New Testament worship. We=ll just quickly survey these.
The first is the public reading of Scripture. 1 Timothy 4.13 says:
Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture,
And then he goes on to include Aexhortation and teaching,@ which leads to the second element of acceptable worship:
God commands that we preach the Word. In numerous New Testament passages, including 2 Timothy 4.2, pastors are commanded to preach the Word.
The fourth prescribed element is prayer. Paul urges Timothy in 1 Timothy 2.1 to pray publicly for all sorts of different people. Paul told the Colossians to continue earnestly in prayer. The first church in Acts 2.42 was devoted to prayer.
The fifth prescribed elements is actually a category of elements: the ordinances of baptism and the Lord=s Supper. Again, in Acts 2 we see the first church devoted to these things, and in passages like 1 Corinthians 11 Paul passes on instructions about the Lord=s Supper to the Church.
And the final element determined by God to be part of acceptable worship is giving. For instance, Paul commands the Church in 2 Corinthians 16 to collect money when they meet on the first day of the week.
Six simple, straightforward, clear elements of acceptable worship: reading the Word, preaching the Word, singing, prayer, ordinances, and giving. We must have these six elements in our worship, and if we believe that God rejects worship based on our own creativity, then we cannot have any other elements in our worship besides these six. So what about elaborate rituals and ceremonies? No, God did not prescribe those as acceptable elements for worship. What about skits and drama? No, God did not prescribe drama as an acceptable element for worship. What about visual aids in worship? No, God did not prescribe visual aids, and in fact He forbids them.
This is why churches who believe that God has the prerogative to determine what is acceptable worship tend to have very simple, unadorned services. Churches that believe that we can add any elements to our services that we think are good have much more extravagant services, whether in the liturgical tradition with rituals and ceremonies or in the Afree@ tradition with drama and visual elements.
But if we rightly conclude that it is God alone who has the prerogative to determine what elements may be part of acceptable worship, then we must limit what we include in worship to these six simple categories.
God determines the substance of acceptable worship, and God determines the elements of acceptable worship. But our text gives us one more level of information regarding what makes acceptable worship.
Plenty of people admit that God determines the substance of what worship is and that God has told us what he wants included in worship. But has God determined how he wants that to happen? In other words, He has prescribed preaching for acceptable worship, but does it really matter what tone the preacher has? God has prescribed that singing be a part of worship, but does he really care what kind of singing it is?
I=ll give you an example of this. I know of a pastor in Seattle who doctrinally speaking is right on the mark in most areas. He preaches hour-long, doctrinally rich messages. But his preaching style has earned him the reputation of AMark, the cussing pastor.@ In order to get across good, rich doctrinal truth in his messages, he presents that good truth in an often vulgar, crass, crude, flippant manner.
In fact, I watched one sermon of his on the internet and before it started, a screen popped up that said: AWarning, MH-17, Under 17 requires adult permission.@ Then an introductory video of this pastor comes up where he says that they divide the content they provide on their website into the categories of Aoffensive@ and Areally offensive,@ and he says that Athis one is really offensive. The reason being its= not typically the kind of thing that is said in a church.@
So he=s got all the doctrine right, and he=s using the right elements in his worship, but his manner is quite offensive. So does God care how we worship?
Our text gives us indication that he does care. You see, the verse ends with a little phrase that modifies acceptable worship. What is the overall characterization of acceptable worship? AReverence and fear.@
It is true that there is much flexibility regarding the exact forms and circumstances of our worship. God does not prescribe for us specific sermons to preach or prayers to offer or songs to sing. We may use different forms there. God has not told us what kind of building to meet in or what we must sing from. Those circumstances are flexible.
But whatever forms or circumstances we choose for our worship, they must be characterized by these two modifiers: reverence and fear.
In our day and age we tend to soften these ideas, but for the original audience they were clear. This is the kind of attitude you have before a great King. This is the kind of attitude you have with someone to whom you owe your life. This is the kind of attitude you have with someone who is a consuming fire.
This is the kind of attitude of heavenly worship described in verses 22-24.
We get an even more full description of this heavenly worship in Revelation 5.11-14, where we get a glimpse into the kind of worship that God enjoys continuously in Heaven. This account is very similar to the one Isaiah gives us in chapter 6, so we know this is the kind of worship that God is accustomed to.
This is no flippant, care-free worship. This is no trivial, light-hearted worship. This is not casual worship
The worship that God recognizes is weighty, blood-earnest, serious, fall-down-on-your-face worship with reverence and fear. Yes, this is a joyful assembly, but that joy is no frivolous joy; it is joy characterized by reverence and fear. Yes we can come to God with peace and freedom through our mediator Jesus Christ and through His merits, but that approach is not one of casual familiarity, it is an approach characterized by reverence and fear. Yes, our God is immanent, but He is also transcendent!
He is the great, Sovereign King of the universe. How can we even think that we can come to him on our own terms? How can we even imagine that our ingenuity and clever additions to worship are better than the elements that He Himself has prescribed for us?
What is acceptable worship? Acceptable worship is worship on God=s terms; not ours. It is worship that matches what He has defined the substance of worship to be. It is worship that includes only those elements that He has prescribed, and it is worship whose forms and circumstances are characterized by reverence and fear.
Let’s not forget who we are worshiping. Let’s not forget who has the right to determine acceptable worship. Christ has made worship possible through His sacrifice. We are just a small part of the grand assembly of worshipers coming to God through Christ’s merits. So let’s commit to worshiping the Lord acceptably with reverence and fear, for our God is a consuming fire.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.