The Purpose of Worship

“We come as those who receive first and then, second, only in reciprocal exchange do we give back what is appropriate as grateful praise and adoration.”

The next excerpt from the condensed version of Jeff MeyersThe Lord’s Service. You might start to see the “head and body” Bible Matrix pattern beginning to show through here…

The Biblical Purpose of The Divine Service

Through Christ we. . . have access by one Spirit to the Father — Ephesians 2:18

What, then, is the purpose of our Lord’s Day service? According to the Scriptures, in corporate Christian worship members of the believing congregation are engaged by the Spirit and drawn into the Father’s presence as living sacrifices in Christ. “Through Christ we. . . have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). Our reasonable liturgy, the apostle Paul says, is to offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2). On the Lord’s Day the Lord himself visits his people in judgment and salvation, reconstituting and restoring them for life in his presence and work in his kingdom. In response to God’s covenantal initiative—his drawing near to us—we confess, thank, praise, and pray as renewed creatures who through the Spirit are enabled to give unto our Covenant Lord the glory due his Name.

God’s Serves Us First

In view of the one-sided emphasis in some evangelical (even Presbyterian) circles that the congregation gathers to give praise to God and not to get anything, I must insist on the lopsided, impoverished nature of this teaching. We have been told by well-meaning teachers, even Reformed theologians, that it is downright wrong to come to church in order to get something. A popular shibboleth has it that Reformed or Presbyterian worship stands apart from other theologies of worship in that we don’t come to get anything but to give praise and honor and glory to God. This conception must not be permitted to go unchallenged.

First, and above all, we are called together in order to get, to receive. This is crucial. The Lord gives, we receive. Since faith is receptive and passive in nature, faith-full worship must be about receiving from God. He gives, and by faith we receive. We are given his forgiveness, his Word, his nourishment, his benediction, etc. We come as those who receive first and then, second, only in reciprocal exchange do we give back what is appropriate as grateful praise and adoration. More and more I am discovering how crucial (at least in our current situation) such a conception of worship is. Too often in current Reformed and evangelical circles worship or liturgy is described first of all as the “work of the people.” While I do not deny that we “work” during worship, I do regard this definition as dangerously one-sided. Whatever we “do” in worship must always be the faithful response to God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, knowledge, and glory—gifts we receive in the service! Much of what goes by the name “contemporary” worship has evacuated the Sunday service of God’s service to man! It is all about what we do. The reduction of Christian worship to “praise” and “giving worth to God” by well-intentioned pastors desirous of purging the church of superficial worship forms will only continue to feed the very thing that they oppose.

For example, to name one side effect of this kind of thinking, the disappearance of the pastor as the Lord’s representative and spokesman, the ordained man through whom the Lord gives, is tied to this kind of mentality. Many pastors no longer lead the worship service. This departure of the leadership of the pastor in contemporary worship follows from the kind of onesided conception of the Lord’s Day service that I have been critiquing. If what the people are doing in worship is merely getting together to praise and pray and offer God all kinds of human devotion, then we can all just do it together and anyone can lead us. If, however, the Lord himself is meeting us and giving us his gifts, then the ordained minister will be prominent so that the people can be left in no doubt that it is the Lord himself who is speaking, forgiving, baptizing, offering us food and drink, and finally blessing us and sending us out into the world to further his kingdom.

That is not to say that the Lord serves us in worship exclusively through the pastor, since the Lord is at work even in the corporate praying, reciting, and the singing of the congregation. How many times have we been truly served by God as we listened to and joined in with the united voice of the church in prayer and praise? The Lord, then, serves us on the Lord’ Day as his Spirit speaks through both the voice of the minister as well as the voices of his people. We should never lose sight of the primacy of the Lord’s service to us when we gather to him on the Lord’s Day.

Moreover, the terminology we use to describe what happens on the Lord’s Day can be confusing. We’ve inherited the designation “worship service,” which, to my mind, tends to introduce confusion. “Service” comes from the Latin servitium, as in servitium Dei (“the service of God” or “God’s service”). This older way of designating the Christian liturgy is delightfully ambiguous. In the “Divine Service” or “the service of God” who’s serving whom? Is God serving us? Or are we serving God? Or is it both? Classically, the “Divine Service” was thought to include both God’s service to us and our service to God. Even so, our fathers in the faith considered God’s service to us (the forgiveness of sins, the ministry [service!] of the Word, the Sacraments, etc.) as primary and our service to him as secondary response. But this emphasis is exactly what is lost when we call our corporate, Sunday assembly “worship.” This term comes to us by way of the Anglo-Saxon word “worth-ship,” which simply meant to accord someone his proper worth. What we appear to be emphasizing with this term is not God’s gifts and ministry to us through his Word and Sacraments, but our ascribing “worth” to him. Some Reformed writers have a tendency to miss this. We are too ready to accept the misleading definition of liturgy as “the work of the people,” which is in fact only half of the story, and the second half at that! What happens on Sunday is the continuation of the service of the ascended Lord Jesus for his people. “For who is greater: the one at the table or the one who serves? The one at the table, surely. Yet here am I among you as the one who serves! (Luke 22:27; see also Matt. 20:28; John 13:5-16; Phil. 2:7-8).

Allow me to hammer this point home. Without this understanding, our worship inevitably degenerates into paganism with a Christian veneer. Our service is not first of all for God. We first receive from God, then, secondly, we give back to him with gratitude precisely that which he graciously continues to give us. He stands in no need of our service or praise. He has not created us primarily so as to get glory for himself, but to distribute and share the fullness of his glory with his creatures. He is not like the pagan gods who need to suck up as much of the glory and praise as they can. With the true God the determination of the amount of glory possessed by him and us is not a zero sum game. If he has all glory, that does not imply that we have none. If we possess glory, it does not come at the expense of his glory. Only when we refuse to acknowledge the source of our glory and assert our own over against his do we then fall under the condemnation of the prophets. Thomas Howard rightly challenges this distortion:

If God alone is all-glorious, then no one else is glorious at all. No exaltation may be admitted for any other creature, since this would endanger the exclusive prerogative of God. But this is to imagine a paltry court. What king surrounds himself with warped, dwarfish, worthless creatures? The more glorious the king, the more glorious are the titles and honors he bestows. The plumes, cockades, coronets, diadems, mantles, and rosettes that deck his retinue testify to one thing alone, his own majesty and munificence. He is a very great king to have figures of such immense dignity in his train, or even better, to have raised them to such dignity. These great lords and ladies, mantled and crowned with the highest possible honor and rank are, precisely, his vassals. This glittering array is his court! All glory to him, and in him, glory and honor to these others (Evangelical Is Not Enough [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984], p. 87).

It is this cruder form of the doctrine that is too often the popular view. If anyone has an ounce of glory, then it must be confiscated by God. This is pagan, not Christian. Rather, we must say that if anyone has an once or two pounds of glory, it has been bestowed by God from the plentitude of his own glory and so all glory in the world must ultimately redound to him. “For of Him and through Him and to Him [are] all things, to whom [be] glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

Christian worship provides the occasion for God’s service to the church, that is, in the liturgy God serves us by granting us the gifts of the kingdom, which includes, but is not limited to knowledge. We gather to receive. The Lord gives. So, for example, I believe, the diminishing place of the pastor in the Sunday service corresponds to the deformation of the service from what God does for us to what we do before God. When the robed pastor is prominent the people are left in no doubt that God is speaking and acting through the instrumentality of the office of the Ministry to deliver his gifts to the congregation.

Thus, God’s operations on us come first and our actions are in grateful response to God’s gracious activity. [Note: I do not mean to suggest that our response is not also included in God’s gracious provision in Christ. It is. It is not as if God works but then stops just where our human response begins. Rather, God’s grace includes precisely that human response to the extent that our human response takes place “in Christ.” God is at work in us even when we are at work praising him. We “work” at thanking and praising him because he is at work in us (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 8:26; Phil. 2:13). The entire process of covenant renewal or sacrificial worship can only be performed as we are graciously given to participate in the priestly work of Jesus Christ. Our offering of ourselves as Christians will always be a participation in Jesus’ own priestly offering of his humanity to the Father in the Spirit.]

If the Church’s worship is the place where God himself distributes his lifegiving Word and Sacraments, if it is the occasion for God to serve the congregation, then with this understanding we can, to some degree, transcend the rigid dichotomy regarding the purpose of the Sunday service—is it for evangelism or worship? Why do we have to choose between one or the other? Is worship for the people of God or unbelievers? Well, primarily for the people of God, but if unbelievers are present they may be served as well. If through the liturgy God graciously delivers gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, then he offers them to everyone present, the people of God as well as those who are not yet part of his people. Inasmuch as the Lord’s Day service is the place and time where God comes through his Word and Sacrament to serve people, it is obviously beneficial to both. The Spirit can enliven any unbeliever present and use his Word as it is read, prayed, sung, and preached to bring them new life. What else is this but evangelism?

Therefore, the fundamental purpose of the corporate Sunday service is to receive by faith God’s gracious service in Christ and then to respond with thanksgiving in union with Christ worshiping the Living God. This is what we call “covenant renewal worship.”


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