why gathered worship is preferable to personal devotions

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/


gathering for worship

According to James Bannerman, public worship is “the external apparatus which [God] has established for the ordinary conveyance of grace to the body of believers from his Spirit, and which is fitted for their spiritual edification and growth in grace.” (p339)

What then are the essential parts of public worship? Bannerman follows the Westminster Confession (21:3, 5) and names four: prayer, the reading and preaching of the Word, singing of psalms, and the sacraments (p344).

But what is so special about the four elements of public worship? Bannerman’s answer extends over a couple of pages (p346-347).

“All the parts of the public worship of the church are characterised by this peculiarity [unique feature], that as means of grace they either cannot be enjoyed and used at all by Christians individually, or not enjoyed and used to the same gracious effect.

“All the elements of worship … are parts of a public ordinance, and not of a private one. They belong to the body of believers collectively, and not individually. They are to be enjoyed as means of grace, not by Christians separately, but by Christians in their church state, and in communion with one another.

“No doubt, with respect to some of them, they may be used by individuals apart and alone, and without respect to their being participated in by others. There is private prayer as well as public prayer. There may be solitary praise addressed to God from the closet, as well as jointly from the great congregation in the sanctuary. There are such things as private communion and private baptism, distinct from the public celebration of those ordinances.

“But even in respect to those parts of public and social worship which may be used – or misused – in private, and by individuals apart from the society of believers, it is still true that they do not carry with them the same blessing in private as in their public use. They belong, in their character as parts of public worship, to the church as a body, and not to the individual members of the church as apart from the rest; and even where the individual use of these ordinances is not impossible or unlawful, but the reverse, they are not used to the same gracious effect, nor have they the same gracious influence, as in the case of the social and joint employment of them.

“Prayer is an ordinance of a private kind, as well as of a public; but there is a promise of a more abundant answer and a more effectual blessing when ‘two or three shall agree together to ask anything of God,’ than when they ask apart.

“The reading of the Word, too, is an ordinance meant for the closet as well as for the sanctuary; but in the former case there is no such special and effectual promise as that which declares in regard to the latter, that ‘where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, there he will be in the midst of them.’

“The ordinance of communion, as its very name imports, is a social and public ordinance, and to the reverse; and the disciple of Christ has a peculiar right to look for grace in company with the other disciples when they meet together at their Master’s table, which those have not who unlawfully and presumptuously change the public into a private ordinance, and partake of private communions.

“In short, the blessing upon ordinances is but half a blessing when enjoyed alone, even in those cases when the ordinance may be used by the Christian apart from others; while there is no blessing at all promised to the unlawful use of public ordinances in a private manner, in the case where they admit of no such private appropriation. Either they cannot be enjoyed at all in their character as means of grace except socially, or else they cannot be enjoyed to the same gracious effect.

“All the parts of church worship belong in a peculiar and emphatic sense to the church, and they are made effectual by the presence and Spirit of Christ, as his instruments for building up and strengthening the collective body of believers in a manner and to an extent unknown in the case of private and solitary worship.

“The outward provision which Christ has made for social Christianity, as embodied and realised in the communion of the church, is richer in grace and more abundant in blessing by far than the provision made for individual Christianity, as embodied and realised in separate believers. The positive institutions of church worship, designed for Christians associated in a church state, carry with them a virtue unknown in the case of Christians individually.”

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This turns upside down the prevailing culture in the contemporary church which gives higher priority to personal religion than to corporate religion. As long as we can still have our quiet times, and worship God in our own homes, can’t we get by, at least temporarily, without the public, corporate ordinances?

Not really, says Bannerman. He moves on to discuss those who deny the existence or downplay the importance of the public ordinances.

“The fundamental principle of all such theories is that the inward light or provision of grace bestowed upon the individual, supersedes the use or necessity of any outward provision of ordinances in the church; that the Spirit of God given to each personally supplies the want of external institutions and positive rites …” (p348)

Four things, says Bannerman, expose the fallacy of this way of thinking.

1. Christ instituted the various ordinances, without ever indicating that they “should afterwards cease; or that there was a time coming when they were to be abolished as no longer of authority or for edification in the church. … It cannot be shown that any higher and more gracious dispensation … was foretold as about to come and supersede [what Christ has instituted]” (p349).

2. These ordinances belong to the visible church, and Christ has promised that the powers of evil will not prevail against it. “And as belonging essentially to the due administration of [the visible church], and forming a part of it, the outward dispensation of ordinances and worship in the church shall never fail” (p350).

3. There is no indication that at any future time the use and purposes of these ordinances would be unnecessary, and might cease. In fact these ordinances will not have completely accomplished their end until the consummation of all things, as Paul expressly says in Ephesians 4:11-13. So until the last day, we have Christ’s warrant that the public ordinances shall continue to be administered (p350).

4. In fact, “there are express testimonies in the Word of God to the fact that the positive institutions and outward ordinances of the Christian church were each and all designed to be permanent, and not to be superseded or done away” (p351).

In short, the ordinances “are not to be modified into something more spiritual, or give place to any other, until the church itself is transplanted into glory” (p351).

“Dwelling on the earth, and conversant with the creatures of the earth, the church has its outward ordinances and visible signs as well as its inward and spiritual ministrations. Through the channel of these outward and positive ordinances the Spirit of God is poured … upon the hearts of his people – a double power, as it were, embracing both the spiritual and the sensible [sense-able], so as to work mightily for the renewal and sanctification both of body and spirit in man. The Spirit of God conveyed through the outward ordinances of Christ is the fitting counterpart adapted to the soul enshrined, as it at present is, in the flesh. It is both a spiritual and an outward influence, appropriate and fitted to the combination of the spiritual and the outward in man. And the twofold and joint influence of the Spirit and the fleshly ordinance shall continue to work for the perfecting of the church, until [the last day]” (p351).

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James Bannerman, The Church of Christ. First published 1869. Excerpts from the chapter titled ‘The Divine Origin, Permanent Obligation, and Legitimate Parts of Public Worship.’ Page references to the single-volume Banner of Truth edition, 2015.