A typical worship service in my church goes something like this:
- Call to worship (“Let us begin our worship…”)
- Singing, a capella, some verses of the psalms
- Scripture reading
- Another psalm singing
- Sermon, expounding and applying some part of scripture
- Another prayer
- Another psalm singing
Some aspects are less critical than others – it doesn’t really matter what order the praying and singing comes in, or how often you sing and pray – and as appropriate, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper will also be administered in amongst more prayer and praise.
What is critical, however, is that the various components of the service are all legitimised by scripture. The last thing you want, as would-be worshippers, is to be flummoxed by the question, ‘Who has required this at your hand?’* Since worship is part of what we owe to God, the God of infinite perfection, the God of grace – he deserves it, he demands it – and since we presumably intend to honour him by it, it is essential to be certain that whatever we offer by way of worship is acceptable and honouring to him, whether that’s in the context of collective worship in the church, family devotions in the home, or personal worship in the privacy of our own rooms.
He hasn’t, in fact, left us to our own imaginations in terms of what we counts as acceptable worship. Our penitent and thankful hearts have a variety of channels to express themselves in, according to the scriptures. These are known sometimes as the means of grace – prayer, reading the Word, hearing the Word preached by gospel ministers, the singing of psalms, psalms, and psalms, participating as frequently as possible in the Lord’s Supper, being baptised once yourself and witnessing the baptism of others, fasting, meditating on the Word, fellowshipping with other Christians, and so on.
These are all scriptural ways of expressing the fact that we know the Lord and love the Lord and want to live obedient lives which will honour him. And that’s scriptural in the sense that these things are authorised by scripture, not only that they’re not directly ruled out by scripture, which is the distinction that has been so much insisted on particularly in the Scottish context that I’m coming from – the scriptures are both comprehensive and authoritative in the guidance they give in the matter of worship, just as in every other aspect of life.**
There is of course a difference between the forms of worship under the Old Testament and now under the New Testament. (The forms, only, since the same believing, penitent, adoring spirit/attitude/heart is required from everyone everywhere at all times.) The church in the Old Testament had a huge amount of extra work on their hands, observing rituals for all sorts of things, in ceremonies which were minutely detailed in the books of Moses (and which shouldn’t be disparaged even now, as they were God’s ordinance at the time for symbolising or typifying the person and work of the Messiah to come). Nothing like this level of detail is laid down for New Testament worship – but what the prescription of the ceremonies teaches is that extreme care and caution should be characteristic of any individual or group of people who set about to worship. Without authorisation, nothing can be acceptable, even in New Testament times, and the lack of NT guidance on matters which were dealt with in the OT (furniture in the temple, routines associated with the burnt offerings, and so on) is itself argument against innovating our own procedures for analogous or derived rituals in the NT, when it is acknowledged on all hands that the death of the Saviour marked the end of the OT era and the abolishing of the ceremonial law.
Although our whole lives should be dedicated and devoted to the Lord and his glory – even eating and drinking and whatsoever we do should be done to the glory of God – yet there are times in our daily (and weekly) lives when we need to step aside from our ordinary business and deliberately set ourselves to the task/privilege of worship, and that’s when we need to know that what we do is not disqualified from the outset by being (i) “will-worship,” something which we want to do off our own bat and might make us feel good but is offensive to the one we’re purporting to worship or (ii) “vain,” teaching for doctrines the mere commandments of mere men, as well as more generally (iii) defiled by being undertaken with an attitude of contempt, or resistance, made a disguise for sin or an attempt to cancel out sin, and so on. In guarding against (i) and (ii) particularly the scriptures are our only reliable, and wholly sufficient, resource.
‘For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy to thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.’
* I know that this question was addressed to the Church in the Old Testament, not so much to query the forms of their worship (which were all scriptural) but in the context of a rebuke for their making a mockery of divine worship by observing the correct forms while continuing to lead rebellious and sinful lives in their relations with each other. But this only adds force to the requirement to be careful how we worship – the heart has to be right and the format has to be acceptable, because worship is a serious matter.
** My co-religionists might recognise this as the regulative principle, and the mention of it has reminded me to make the point that this principle isn’t (really) recognisable in works such as John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth, whatever the claims and intentions behind it might be. A discussion for another day, perhaps.