Which is more valuable, having your personal devotions or going to church to worship with other believers? If forced to choose, many people in our congregations would say personal devotions matter more. But that answer does not sit comfortably with how our forefathers in the truth understood the teaching of Scripture. David Clarkson (assistant and then successor to John Owen) would have chosen the opposite. Here is my summary of his sermon on Psalm 87:2, ‘The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.’ The unabridged sermon is available here (pdf).
‘The gates of Zion’ is a reference to the temple, the place where the Lord had settled as uniquely the place of his public worship. ‘The dwellings of Jacob’ refers to all the places where the Lord was worshipped privately, by individuals and families. Psalm 87:2 says that the Lord prefers public worship to private worship. Consequently, his people should too. (p187)
Of course there are differences between Old Testament temple worship and worship in the New Testament. But these differences are circumstantial – to do with the location and the ceremonies. The reasons for the Lord preferring public to private worship remain the same in both Old and New Testament times. (p189)
Here are some of these reasons (p189-197).
1. The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private. God is glorified by us when we acknowledge that he is glorious, and he is most glorified when this acknowledgement is most public. This is obvious. The Lord is most glorified when his glory is most declared – and it is most declared when it is declared by a multitude. It is apparent that God is all glorious when he is publicly magnified – when he is praised in the great congregation – when a multitude speaks of and to his glory.
2. In the public ordinances, the Lord is present with his people in a more effectual, constant, and intimate manner than he is in private. Efficacy is promised in Exodus 20:24 (‘In all places where I record my name, I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee’). Constancy is promised in Matthew 28 (‘I am with you always, every day, and to the end of the world’). Intimacy is promised in Matthew 18:20 (‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’) and described in Revelation 1:13 (he walks and dwells not only with his church but in the midst of the church).
But isn’t the Lord with his people when they worship him in private? Yes, but he doesn’t promise so much of his presence in private as in public. Something is probably wrong if you can’t find more of the Lord’s presence in the place where he is ordinarily most likely to be found. Of course the Lord has promised to be with every individual believer, but when the individuals are joined together in public worship, there all his promises are united together. Each stream of his comforting, enlivening presence which he promises to individuals becomes a river when the individuals join together to worship him in public – a river which makes glad the city of God. The Lord has a dish for every individual believer, but when many individuals meet together, there he makes a feast – a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees (etc).
3. Public worship gives us the clearest views of God. David saw as much of God in private as anyone could have expected, but he still expected more in public worship (Psalm 27:4-5).
4. Whatever spiritual benefit is to be found in private worship, that much, and much more, may be expected from the public ordinances. When the spouse inquires of Christ where she can find comfort and soul nourishment, he directs her to the public ordinances (Song 1:7-8). The church is directed to the shepherds (the New Testament’s pastors and teachers) for food and rest, and spiritual comfort and nourishment. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 4. The purpose for which the Lord Jesus gave church officers and public ordinances is to edify, and in fact perfect, the church. This is how his people get knowledge, unity, conformity to Christ, strength and stability, and growth and fruitfulness. The public ordinances won’t fail to bring these things about, if we don’t fail in making use of them.
5. Public worship is more edifying than private worship. In private you provide for your own good, but in public you do good both to yourself and others.
6. Public ordinances are a better security against apostasy than private. During David’s banishment, he devoted himself to private worship as much as anyone could have, yet because he was deprived of the public ordinances, he regarded himself as being in great danger of idolatry (1 Samuel 26:19).
Rejecting the public ordinances is the great step to woeful apostacies. Think of those who have fallen away from the truth and holiness of the gospel into licentious opinions and practices. Which of them didn’t first abandon the public ordinances? Is there anyone who has made shipwreck of the faith who hadn’t first thrown public worship overboard? The very reason the public ordinances were given was so that we would not be tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).
7. In public worship the Lord works his greatest works. Perhaps they seem less wonderful to us than they really are, because of their ordinariness and their spiritualness. But they are greater works than he usually does by private means – conversion and regeneration, raising dead souls to life, turning sinners from darkness to light, curing diseased souls who are otherwise incurable. Of course the Lord does not restrict himself to doing these wonderful things only in public, yet the public ministry is the only ordinary means by which he does work them.
8. Public worship is the closest thing we have to heaven on earth. As far as Scripture describes it to us, heaven is a place where nothing is done in private – all the worship of the glorious company there is public. The innumerable company of angels and the church of the firstborn make up one glorious congregation and jointly sing the praises of God and the Lamb.
9. The most famous of God’s saints preferred public worship to private. David expresses himself rhetorically, ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!’ He longed for them – nothing else could satisfy him. He fainted without them – they were his life, he would die without them. Hezekiah and Josiah are famous for their zeal for God – and that manifested itself in their zeal for public worship (2 Chronicles 29, 34-35). And the Lord Jesus Christ, however far above us he is, did not think himself above the public ordinances. He did not withdraw from public worship, even though it was corrupted. You find him frequently in the synagogues, frequently in the temple, always at the Passover, and his zeal for public worship was such that ‘it had eaten him up.’
10. Public worship is the most effective means for obtaining the greatest mercies, and diverting the greatest judgments. The Lord prescribes it (Joel 2:15-16). Jehoshaphat used it (2 Chronicles 20). Peter was delivered by it (Acts 12). It brought about the destruction of the Roman state (Revelation 8:4).
11. The blood of Christ is more relevant to public worship than to private. The private duties of worship (such as personal prayer and meditation) are due to God by the light of nature, supposing Christ had never died. But the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments are necessarily dependent on the death of Christ. Not only do they represent his precious blood, they are what his precious blood has purchased. As they display Christ crucified, so they are both the purchase of Christ crucified and the gifts of Christ triumphant.
12. God makes promises more to public worship than to private. If I listed all the promises made to the various ordinances of public worship, I would end up rehearsing the majority of the promises of Scripture. So here is a general outline of what the Lord promises in public worship. His presence, Exodus 20:24. Protection and direction, Isaiah 4:5. Light, life, and joy in abundance, Psalm 36:8-9. Life and growth, Isaiah 55:2-3. Life and blessedness, Proverbs 8:34-35. Acceptance, Ezekiel 20, 44:4. Spiritual communion and nourishment, Revelation 3:20. All that is good, Psalm 84:11 (this whole psalm speaks of public worship).
David Clarkson, The Practical Works of David Clarkson, Vol 3.
The whole sermon is available here: http://digitalpuritan.net/david-clarkson/