For Whom Is Worship?

Peter Leithart

For whom is worship? "For God, of course," comes the answer. "Worship is our response to God's grace. In worship, we give God the praise and honor he deserves. True, we may receive something in worship, we may be edified, but that is a very minor and secondary part of worship. Worship is theocentric."

“Truly Reformed” Worship?

Slogans such as these have come to define "Truly Reformed" worship in our day. This emphasis is understandable, since modern worship, infused as it is with the ethos of pop culture, has become deeply narcissistic. In reaction to seeker-sensitive worship, which focuses on the needs of the worshiper, Reformed writers insist that worship is about our giving, not about our receiving. Reformed as it sounds, this perspective is one-sided at best, false at worst, and definitely more Arminian than Reformed.

Well, what's wrong with saying that worship is for God? For starters, it implies that worship is purely our response to God. It presents this picture: Somewhere, outside a worship service, God saved me. Having been saved, I have a duty to gather with God's people to thank him for his mercy and praise him for his greatness. Outside the church door, I sought and found God's grace. Once inside, I am not a seeker after grace, but a giver of praise. It is impossible, however, for any human action to be a response pure and simple. To entertain that possibility is to assume we can be autonomous, independent of God: once God has worked in us, we can respond to him without having to rely on his continual working in us. That, of course, is exactly what Reformed theology denies.

Scripture does not merely say that God works first, and then we respond. It says that our response is yet another work of God. It says that even when we give, we are simultaneously, and primarily, receiving. Thus, it is not as if we are recipients of grace until we walk through the door. We rely on God's work in us in worship as much as anywhere else, and it is only because we are acting by the power of the Spirit that our actions in worship bring honor to God.

Worship, like everything else in the Christian life, is by grace through faith. Stepping through the church door doesn't magically transform Calvinists into Arminians.

The Means of Grace

The second problem with this perspective is that it implicitly denies the Reformed understanding of the means of grace. According to all the Reformed confessions, the Word and sacraments are actual and effective means of grace, by which the Spirit gives the presence and power of the risen Christ to the faithful of God.

"What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?" asks Westminster Shorter Catechism Question #88. And it answers that "the word, sacraments, and prayer ... are made effective to the elect for salvation." Word and sacrament are the main foci of worship, and both are God's means of "communicating benefits" to us. Worship is thus not mainly about what we do before God's face; it is mainly about what God is doing to and in us.

The service of the Lord's Day is God's action: he calls us into his presence; he declares our sins forgiven; he speaks his word of comfort, rebuke, and encouragement; he feeds us at his table; and he sends us back into the world. Of course, at each point, we also respond: when God invites us in, we enter; when he absolves our sins, we praise his grace in his Son; we tremble at his threats and believe his promises; we eat and drink at his banquet; and when he sends us out, we go. But these are responses and depend on the Spirit's work.

Humanistic Assumptions?

We assemble in the first instance because we believe God has promised to do things for us. This may seem to be a brief for "seeker-sensitive worship," but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the errors of contemporary worship arise from the very assumptions I'm attacking here. Contemporary worship is not grounded in the conviction that Word and sacrament are genuine means of grace. That's why all sorts of things substitute for Word and sacrament—anecdotal pep talks, puppet shows, drama, whatever. Contemporary services do not rest on the assumption that God is acting in the worship service; what's important is what the worship team is doing to gain the attention of the unbelievers in the audience.

Reformed churches that trumpet the idea that the Lord's Day service is for God are simultaneously adopting many of the practices of contemporary worship, and that is no accident. Both arise from the same basic liturgical theology because both deny, at least implicitly, that worship is God's ministry to us. Ultimately, the problem is that this perspective shapes a worship that is not truly theocentric because it is not centered on the true God. It envisions the God we worship as some kind of Oriental potentate, sitting passively enthroned while his people, gathered far, far below, seek desperately to please him. God is indeed an exalted King, but his kingship is not of this world. He is lifted up on a cross, adorned with a crown of thorns. He reveals himself as King not by taking our gifts, but by giving gifts, by giving himself.

Entering his presence to seek his mercy, to receive his gifts, to listen humbly to his Word, and to feed thankfully at his table—that is genuine Christian theocentrism.

The author, a PCA minister, teaches at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. This article is reprinted with permission from Credenda-Agenda, vol. 12, no. 3. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2002.