by John MacArthur
All Rights Reserved
Source: Faithwalk , Vol. 3, No. 1, 2003, p. 10-15.
There is almost no limit to how far some churches will go to be "relevant" and "contemporary" in their worship services. And nothing, it seems, is too profane or too outrageous to be fused with "worship."
The Los Angeles Times Magazine recently reported on one Lutheran church in Southern California that distributes flyers advertising their church service as "God's Country Goodtime Hour." The flyers boldly promise "line dancing following worship." According to the magazine article, "the pastor is dancing, too, decked out in Wrangler boots and Levis." The pastor credits the campaign with revitalizing his church. The article describes Sunday morning at the church:
Members listen to sermons whose topics include the pastor's '70 Ford pickup, and Christian sex (rated R for "relevance, respect, and relationship," says [the pastor], "and more fun than it sounds"). After the service, they dance to a band called—what else?—the Honkytonk Angels.
Attendance has been steadily rising . . .
Clearly, the corporate worship of the Lord's Day is undergoing a revolution that has few parallels in all of church history. The resulting crisis within evangelicalism cannot help but be profound in its direct bearing upon the health of thousands of our churches.
A few years ago while preaching through the Gospel of John, I was struck by the depth of meaning in John 4:23: An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. I saw as clearly as I had ever seen before the implications of that phrase, "worship . . . in spirit and truth."
The phrase suggests, first of all, that true worship involves the intellect as much as the emotions. It underscores the truth that worship is to be focused on God, not on the worshiper. The context also shows that Jesus was saying true worship is more a matter of substance than of form. And He was teaching that worship embraces what we do in life, not just what we do in the formal place of worship.
That series also signaled the beginning of a new era for our church. Our corporate worship took on a whole new depth and significance. People began to be conscious that every aspect of the church service—the music, the praying, the preaching, and even the offering—is worship rendered to God. They began to look at superficialities as an affront to a holy God. They saw worship as a participant's activity; not a spectator sport. Many realized for the first time that worship is the church's ultimate priority.
Furthermore, as our congregation began to think more earnestly than ever about worship, we were continually drawn to the only reliable and sufficient worship manual—Scripture. If God desires worship in spirit and truth, then surely all true worshipers must fashion their worship in accord with the truth He has revealed. If worship is something offered to God—and not just a show put on for the benefit of the congregation—then every aspect of it must be pleasing to God and in harmony with His Word. So the effect of our renewed emphasis on worship was that it heightened our commitment to the centrality of Scripture.
A few years after that series on worship, I preached through Psalm 19. It was as if I saw for the first time the power of what the psalmist was saying about the absolute sufficiency of Scripture:
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb (vv. 7-10).
The point of that passage is, quite simply, that Scripture is wholly sufficient to meet every need of the human soul.
How does the sufficiency of Scripture apply to worship? The Reformers answered that question by applying sola Scriptura to worship in a tenet they called the regulative principle. John Calvin was one of the first to articulate it succinctly:
We may not adopt any device [in our worship] which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have Him approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. . . . God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word.
An English Reformer and contemporary of Calvin, John Hooper, stated the same principle this way: "Nothing should be used in the Church which has not either the express Word of God to support it, or otherwise is a thing indifferent in itself, which brings no profit when done or used, but no harm when not done or omitted."
The Reformers and Puritans applied the regulative principle against formal ritual, priestly vestments, church hierarchy, and other remnants of medieval Roman Catholic worship. The simplicity of worship forms in Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, and other evangelical traditions is the result of applying the regulative principle. Evangelicals today would do well to recover their spiritual ancestors' confidence in sola Scriptura as it applies to worship and church leadership. A number of harmful trends that are gaining momentum these days reveal a diminishing evangelical confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. On the one hand, there is, as we have noted, almost a circus atmosphere in some churches where pragmatic methods that trivialize what is holy are being employed to boost attendance. On the other hand, growing numbers of former evangelicals are abandoning simple worship forms in favor of high-church formalism. Meanwhile, some churches have simply abandoned virtually all objectivity, opting for a worship style that is turbulent, emotional, and devoid of any rational sense.
A new understanding of sola Scriptura—the sufficiency of Scripture—ought to spur us to keep reforming our churches, to regulate our worship according to biblical guidelines, and to desire passionately to be those who worship God in spirit and truth.
Applying Sola Scriptura to Worship
Consider for a moment what would happen to corporate worship if the contemporary church took sola Scriptura seriously. Four biblical guidelines for worship immediately come to mind. These have fallen into a state of tragic neglect. Recovering them would surely bring about a new Reformation in the modern church's worship:
Preach the Word. In corporate worship, the preaching of the Word should take first place. All the New Testament instructions to pastors center on these words of Paul to Timothy: "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2). Elsewhere, Paul summed up his advice to the young pastor, "Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching" (1 Tim. 4:13). Clearly, the ministry of the Word was at the heart of Timothy's pastoral responsibilities.
In the New Testament church, the activities of the believing community were totally devoted to "the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42). The preaching of the Word was the centerpiece of every worship service. Paul once preached to a congregation past midnight (Acts 20:7-8). The ministry of the Word was such a crucial part of church life that before any man could qualify to serve as an elder, he had to prove himself skilled in teaching the Word (cf. 1 Tim 3:2; Tim. 2:24; Tit. 1:9).
Many people see preaching and worship as two distinct aspects of the church service, as if preaching has nothing to do with worship and vice versa. But that is an erroneous concept. The ministry of the Word is the platform on which all genuine worship is built.
When drama, music, comedy, or other activities are allowed to usurp the preaching of the Word, true worship inevitably suffers. And when preaching is subjugated to pomp and circumstance, that also hinders real worship. A "worship" service without the ministry of the Word is of questionable value. Moreover, a "church" where the Word of God is not regularly and faithfully preached is no true church.
Edify the flock. Scripture tells us that the purpose of spiritual gifts is for the edification of the whole church (Eph. 4:12; cf. 1 Cor. 14:12). Therefore all ministry in the context of the church should somehow be edifying—building up the flock, not just stirring emotions. Above all, ministry should be aimed at stimulating genuine worship. To do that it must be edifying. This is implied by the expression "worship . . . in spirit and truth."
Music may sometimes move us by the sheer beauty of its sound, but such sentiment is not worship. Music by itself, apart from the truth contained in the lyrics, it is not even a legitimate springboard for real worship. Similarly, a poignant story may be touching or stirring, but unless the message it conveys is set in the context of biblical truth, any emotions it may stir are of no use in prompting genuine worship. Aroused passions are not necessarily evidence that true worship is taking place. Genuine worship is a response to divine truth. It is passionate because it arises out of our love for God. But to be true worship it must also arise out of a correct understanding of His law, His righteousness, His mercy, and His Being. Real worship acknowledges God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. Such worship cannot rise out of a vacuum. It is prompted and vitalized by the objective truth of the Word.
Honor the Lord. Hebrews 12:28 says, Let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe" That verse speaks of the attitude in which we should worship. The Greek word for "service" is latreuo, which literally means "worship." The point is that worship ought to be done reverently, in a way that honors God. In fact, the Authorized version translates it this way: let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear (emphasis added)—and the next verse adds, For our God is a consuming fire (v. 29).
Why would a church replace preaching and worship with entertainment and comedy in the Lord's Day services? Many who have done it say they are aiming to reach non-Christians. They want to create a "user-friendly" environment that will be more appealing to unbelievers. Their stated goal is "relevance" rather than "reverence." And their services are designed to reach unbelievers with the gospel, not for believers to come together for worship and edification.
What's wrong with that? Is there a problem with using the Lord's Day services as evangelistic meetings? Is there a biblical reason Sunday should be the day believers gather for worship?
Scripture suggests that the regular meetings of the early church were not for evangelistic purposes, but primarily for mutual encouragement and worship among the community of believers. That's why the writer of Hebrews made this plea, And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another (Heb. 10:24-25, emphasis added).
When a church makes all its meetings evangelistic, believers lose opportunities to grow, be edified, and worship. There is simply no warrant in Scripture for adapting weekly church services to the preferences of unbelievers. When the church comes together on the Lord's Day is no time to entertain the lost, amuse the brethren, or otherwise cater to the "felt needs" of those in attendance. This is when we should bow before our God as a congregation and honor Him with our worship.
Put no confidence in the flesh. In Philippians 3:3 the apostle Paul characterizes Christian worship this way: "We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh" (emphasis added).
Experience and history show that the human tendency to add fleshly apparatus to the worship God prescribes is incredibly strong. Israel did this in the Old Testament, culminating in the religion of the Pharisees. Pagan religions consist of nothing but fleshly ritual. The fact that such ceremonies are often beautiful and moving do not make them true worship. Scripture is clear that God condemns all human additions to what He has explicitly commanded: "In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (Matt. 15:9). We who love the Word of God and believe in the principle of sola Scriptura must diligently be on guard against such a tendency.
Worship Is the Ultimate Priority
To Martha, troubled to distraction with the chores of being a hostess, our Lord said, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one" (Lk. 11:41-42). The point was clear. Mary, who sat at His feet in adoration, had "chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her" (v. 42).
Our Lord was teaching that worship is the one essential activity that must take precedence over every other activity of life. And if that is true in our individual lives, how much more weight should we give it in the context of the assembly of believers?
The world is filled with false and superficial religion. We who love Christ and believe His word is true dare not accommodate our worship to the styles and preferences of an unbelieving world. Instead, we must make it our business to be worshipers in spirit and in truth. We must be people who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. And to do that, we must allow Scripture alone to regulate our worship.
Taken from "How Shall We Then Worship" by John F. MacArthur, Jr. from The Coming Evangelical Crisis, edited by John H. Armstrong. Copyright 1996 by the Moody Bible Institute.
John F. MacArthur, Jr. is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA, and president of The Master's College and Seminary.
Source: Faithwalk, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2003, p. 10-15.