- The spiritual reality of worship
- The effect of sin on worship
- The goal of worship is God’s glory
- The regulative principle of worship
- The command to worship corporately
- We are made to worship
- Worship can only happen in the name of Christ
- Worship can only happen through the power of the Holy Spirit
- Worship should be Trinitarian
- Worship requires God to reveal himself
- Worship should be covenantal
- Worship should be corporate
- Worship must be orderly
- Worship is a dialogue
- Worship must be welcoming
- Worship must be sacrificial
- Worship should be ‘in culture’ but not ‘of culture’
- Worship must be honourable rather than hypocritical
- Worship is transformative
- Worship is beautiful
- Worship is delightful
- Worship as a taste of heaven
- Worship and the Sabbath
- Preaching in Worship
- Covenantal Worship
- Worship as a Conversation
- Preparation for Worship
- Call to Worship
- Opening Prayer
- God’s Greeting
- Reading of the Law
- Prayer of Confession
- Assurance of Pardon
- Profession of Faith
- Congregational (or Pastoral) Prayer
- Tithes and Offerings
- Prayer of Illumination
- Scripture Reading and Sermon
- The Closing Amen
- Parting Blessing (Benediction)
The spiritual reality of worship
The formal worship of God isn’t simply ‘another item on the weekly agenda’. Rather, it’s the highlight of the week. In worship we meet with the Creator of the heavens and the earth; the one and only God, holy, good, and just. One who is perfectly righteous, all-powerful, everywhere present.
And because of whom we’re worshipping, our services must be conducted with reverence and awe (Heb 12:28). Our approach must not be not ‘hum-drum’ or ‘casual’, but instead, both the structure and emotion of our worship must reflect the spiritual reality: The awesome God is stooping down from heaven to spend time with his weak and wayward children.
The effect of sin on worship
Isaiah 59:2 tells us: ‘your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.’ This is significant for our understanding of corporate worship. Because we cannot remove our own sin, our relationship with God is one of permanent separation. The only way we are able to approach him is if he solves the problem himself.
Therefore, the very act of coming to worship each Sabbath day is a celebration of grace. God, through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross, has purified us from unrighteousness (1 John 1:9) and clothed us in the righteousness of his own son (Isa 61:10). We come into the holy of holies and, rather than turn away in disgust, our God rejoices over us with gladness (Zeph 3:17).
The goal of worship is God’s glory
‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever’ (WSC Q&A 1). God deserves our praise for his bountiful blessings (Psa 23:5). But even more than this, his nature is of such ‘value and excellence, it transcends the thoughts of men, and the tongues of angels’ (T. Watson). Indeed, ‘great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable’ (Psa 145:3).
Although every aspect of our lives should express God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31), the crescendo of praise is most powerfully heard when the members of Christ’s body come together (Eph 4:15-16). In worship, we join our voices with a choir which spans across creation: including the angels (Psa 19:1), and all the saints throughout time and space, in giving him ‘blessings and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might… forever and ever’ (Rev 7:12).
The regulative principle of worship
Because the object of our corporate worship is the Almighty God, the Creator of the universe, it is appropriate that we approach him only in the way he has determined. Many in scripture failed to follow this principle and thought to worship God in a way which he had not commanded; they were punished severely for ignoring God’s will (see Lev 10:1-3; Col 2:23).
This is why the Reformed church believes that worship must be regulated by God’s revealed will. After all, ‘the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love’ (Psa 147:11). This approach to worship is called the regulative principle; that we are not to worship God “in any other way than he has commanded in his Word” (HC Q&A 96). Scripture teaches that true love is expressed through obedience (John 14:15) rather than originality (Exo 32).
The command to worship corporately
Many argue that because a Christian’s entire life must be an act of worship then corporate worship is an optional extra. This is a serious misunderstanding. Certainly, worship that is acceptable to God requires our entire life (Rom 12:1-2; Exo 20:3), but our ‘all-of-life worship’ does not transcend God’s demands for us to worship him together.
Christians are compelled, even at the risk of persecution, to stir up one another to love and good works ‘not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Heb 10:25). The Psalms reiterate this command emphatically: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!’ (Psa 149:1). ‘Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!’ (Psa 47:1; cf. Psa 22:23).
We cannot say we love God if we despise the occasion of his bride (the church) expressing that love in corporate worship.
We are made to worship
John Stott once said: “Christians believe that true worship is the highest and noblest activity of which man, by the grace of God, is capable.” Indeed, man finds true fulfilment when he pursues that which is in accordance with his true nature. As Psalm 100 teaches us, the fact that God created us, and lays claim to us, is the foundational reason for our joyful worship, our glad service and our coming into his presence with singing.
This is why God declares of his people that he created them for his glory (Isa 43:6-7); that he formed them for himself that they might declare his praise (Isa 43:21). Peter also reminded New Testament Christians that they ‘are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Pet 2:9).”
Worship can only happen in the name of Christ
Our holy God cannot abide sin; in our sinful state it is impossible for us to approach him. Yet in God’s immense graciousness, Christ became the way to worship: ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). This is why Paul urged the church at Colossae: ‘whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Col 3:17).
Every element of our worship then, reflects the fact that we have been saved by grace alone through Christ Jesus alone (Eph 2:8-10). It is in his name that we preach (Acts 5:41); pray (Heb 4:14-16); praise (Heb 13:15); and even assemble for worship (Matt 18:20)! And to our eternal delight, when our worship is done in Christ’s name, God in turn rejoices over us with joy and exults over us with singing (Zeph 3:17).
Worship can only happen through the power of the Holy Spirit
Even though we approach God in the name of Christ, our worship wouldn’t even be possible without the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. He’s not only instrumental in our salvation (1 Cor 12:3), but he’s the one who continually works in us to complete the work he’s begun (Phil 1:6).
When it comes to our worship, therefore, the Spirit is truly our Helper: he reminds us that we’re children of God (Rom 8:16), pushes us toward Christ (John 14:26) and points us toward what God has prepared for us (1 Cor 2:9); Through his work we gain understanding (Acts 4:25); Our praise and singing is done through his power (Eph 5:19); as is preaching (1 Cor 12:8). And ultimately, the Spirit does this work so that all men might worship God and bear witness that God is among his people (1 Cor 14:25).
Worship should be Trinitarian
The Westminster Confession of Faith states: ‘Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’ (Ch. 21.2). Too often, however, churches tend to favour one over the others and their worship can quickly descend into blasphemy. Some churches focus on the Holy Spirit and the gifts he provides and forget that his mission was to give glory to Christ (John 16:12-15). Other churches centre on Christ so much that they forget that his work was focused on restoring our relationship with the Father (2 Cor 5:18).
As one pastor put it: ‘The Trinity functions as a community in which the Divine Persons eternally give and experience perfect love in the form of worship.’ When we come to worship, we not only testify to the unity of the members of the godhead, but God graciously invites us to celebrate that closeness together with him (Gal 4:6).
Worship requires God to reveal himself
Without God, men cannot see the truth (1 John 2:11). In fact, the apostle Paul explained that they’ve been blinded by Satan (2 Cor 4:3-4). Even were the gospel explained to them they wouldn’t understand it. A spiritually blind man cannot perform eye surgery on himself; only God can provide a means to be healed.
In corporate worship we celebrate that God has lifted the veil from our eyes. Christ Jesus, ‘the word of life’ and ‘the light of all mankind’ has come (John 1:4). Sadly, the light was only among us for a little while (John 12:35). And yet, with restored sight through the Holy Spirit, we’re able to cast our eyes heavenward and see our saviour in glory at God’s right hand.
And amazingly, as we worship him faithfully, we reflect his glory back into the darkness, shining his light into a crooked and twisted generation (Phil 2:15).
Worship should be covenantal
Scripture teaches that the church is the covenant community of God, including both adults and children (Gen 17:7; Joel 2:15-17). Peter echoes this truth in the New Testament: “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39; HC Q&A 74).
The worship service, therefore, is a place for people of all ages to learn about the God who created them (Matt 19:14; WLC Q&A 117). Christians do God and their children a disservice if they believe a child simply needs to sit still and be silent. Parents must teach their children the significance of worship; to wrestle against boredom and distraction; to hate their sin and recognise Christ as their saviour; to delight in God’s love; and to crave the blessing of communion with their heavenly Father alongside the rest of their spiritual family.
Worship should be corporate
Paul describes the church as the body of Christ; a body which ‘doesn’t consist of one member but of many’ (1 Cor 12:14). In the meeting of the church for worship, therefore, God is one participant; the congregation in its entirety is the other.
Scripture also describes the church as the bride of Christ (Eph 5:25-27). In a very real sense, every Sunday, Christ brings his bride before his Father in heaven so she, alongside him, may express her delight in the blessings showered upon her.
Based on both truths, when a local church meets together for worship there must be an intentional unity expressed in both her praise and her attentiveness to God’s voice. As the singers and musicians joined ‘as one’ when the temple was dedicated (2 Chron 5:13), we join as one magnificent choir crying out: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!” (Rev 19:6).
Worship must be orderly
From the grandeur of the universe to the incredible beauty of the smallest atomic particles, all creation testifies to the harmony and order God intended. Although sin introduced disorder and disharmony into creation, God remains the same. Because our worship directed to his praise and glory, it should reflect his nature rather than ours. After all, our ‘God is not a God of confusion but of peace’ (1 Cor 14:33).
Therefore, our church services must be conducted decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40). God set the precedent for this in how he outlined tabernacle worship (Exo 36:8-39:43). And the Holy Spirit reiterated this in the New Testament through the apostle Paul: those who spoke in tongues not understood by the rest of the church must keep silent (1 Cor 14:28); people should not speak over each other (1 Cor 14:30); and women should be silent in church (1 Cor 14:33-35).
Worship is a dialogue
At its most basic, worship is an act of communication. As the prophets of Baal discovered, however, many of the things we worship don’t speak back (1 Kings 18:27). But our God is different: In his gracious condescension he stoops down to speak to undeserving wretches such as ourselves; and in Christ, our God delights to hear from us in return (1 Tim 2:1-3).
This understanding guides the structure of our worship. We’re called by God to worship and we respond in praise; he reminds us of his character displayed in his law and we respond by repenting of our fallenness; he assures us of his forgiveness in Christ and we delight in his grace; he teaches us of his great works and we ask that he helps us to show him obedience as our loving response. In formal worship then, we participate in a glorious conversation with God Almighty.
Worship must be welcoming
As we come together to express our love and appreciation for God in our worship services, we must never forget our imperfections. Each of us have different strengths and weaknesses spiritually; this testifies both to God’s grace and his love—he welcomes us into his presence even though we’re still full of sin.
The challenge for us then, is to recognise that when God draws others to him in their inadequacy, we’re compelled to welcome them as loved brothers and sisters. If Christ is not ashamed to call them brothers (Heb 2:11), what right do we have to ostracise them? If God is not ashamed to be their God (Heb 11:16), we must not be ashamed to worship alongside them. Our worship services must reflect the gracious love of our God; a God who welcomes people who are despised, weak, lowly and lost--people just like you.
Worship must be sacrificial
There are two senses in which our worship is sacrificial. Firstly, it’s an offering to God. The author of Hebrews notes that anyone who truly believes in Christ bears forth a particular fruit: ‘Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name’ (Heb 13:15). So those who believe, offer praise.
The other aspect of sacrifice is that worship isn’t primarily for us but for God. And so, we sacrifice our ease to celebrate God’s glory, striving to enter his rest (Heb 4:11); We give of ourselves, offering ourselves up to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him, as an act of spiritual worship’ (Rom 12:1). And where this is true of our whole lives, how much more should our Sunday services reflect a willingness to sacrifice everything earthly, so God’s name might be glorified appropriately?
Worship should be ‘in culture’ but not ‘of culture’
The world contains a massive diversity of cultural backgrounds. Each people group displays their differences in how they interact with the world around them; for example, the way they show respect, joy or sorrow are all quite distinctive. Because of this, it’s natural for people of different cultures to worship God differently; some dance in the aisles, others kneel in prayer, still others raise their hands when they sing. This variety is good and edifying.
And yet, society’s preferences must always subject themselves to scriptural principles. Culture isn’t the ultimate authority on worship practices because culture is corrupted by sin. Christians are called to be in the world but not of it (John 17:14-19). They need wisdom to determine where cultural preferences are sinful, when they’re edifying, and when it’s appropriate to avoid permissible practices so they won’t confuse the world they’ve been sent to minister to (1 Cor 10:23-33).
Worship must be honourable rather than hypocritical
Nominal Christianity is a plague on our modern society. Most ‘Christians’, and even some entire denominations, are known to be followers of Christ in name only; they don’t bother attending church other than maybe Christmas day; they’re apathetic about who their God is; and their lifestyle, language and leisure activities look like the world around them. The worship of such ‘Christians’ is hypocritical and blasphemous, and God hates it (e.g. Amos 5:21-24).
But true Christians approach the Sabbath day, where God calls them to worship him, having already completed six days of striving to serve him faithfully and giving him glory (1 Pet 2:9); all the while, striving to put to death their sinful nature. There is no duplicity: they come to formal worship in the same spiritual robes they wore the other six days—clothed in the righteousness of their Lord and saviour Jesus Christ (Psa 132:9; Zech 3:4).
Worship is transformative
Our main motivation in coming to worship our God is to give him glory. And yet, in God’s grace, the act of worship is also transformative for those who participate. Through worship, saints are changed dramatically. Hughes Oliphant Old said: ‘Worship is the workshop where we are transformed into his image. When we are thus transformed into his image, we reflect his glory.’
As our eyes are turned to our Almighty God, we’re reminded of who we are and what we stand for: As the bride of Christ, we’re sanctified by our groom, cleansed by the washing of water with the word (Eph 5:25-27) and our minds are renewed (Rom 12:1-2). The Holy Spirit directs us towards our hope and salvation even amid our affliction (Lam 3:19-24); and we’re challenged, enthused, and empowered to go forth and courageously herald the good news to a world in desperate need (Acts 14:3).
Worship is beautiful
William Temple once said that in worship, God’s beauty purifies us. Sadly, that isn’t the experience of most Christians: God’s beauty doesn’t seem to satisfy us. But true worship is (and should be) beautiful! The Psalmist desires one thing above all: ‘to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple’ (Psa 27:4). God is beautiful, and he designed his temple to be beautiful; even the priestly attire was made ‘for glory and for beauty’ (Exo 28:2).
Our worship then, should reflect God’s beauty and what he finds most beautiful. We must approach him with the ‘unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit’ (1 Pet 3:3-4) and worship him in the beauty of holiness (Psa 96:9). And our purified heart must express this outwardly: Our appearance shouldn’t be slovenly, but respectful; our prayers not sleepy, but earnest; and our singing not indifferent but enthusiastic and joyful.
Worship is delightful
All the elements of worship we’ve discussed so far combine into a lovely tapestry of the unity and grace. Paul reminds us to meditate on whatever is good (Phil 4:8-9). King David wrote that all good things find their origin in God (Psalm 19; 119). And as John Owen said: ‘By the contemplation of these things is the soul drawn forth to delight in God.’
In worship, we delight in God not simply because he commands us to (Psa 37:4), but because he truly is delightful. With our new hearts we desire to do his will (Psa 40:8), sing praise to him (Psa 40:3) and declare him to others (Psa 40:9-10).
And in Christ, God ‘takes pleasure in his people’ (Psa 149:4) and ‘favours those who fear Him (Psa 147:10-11). Such is the dynamic of worship when Christ presents his bride before the throne of God.
Worship as a taste of heaven
In our worship, we aspire to both delight our God and delight in our God. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit elevates our worship so God does indeed delight to hear from us. But we still often struggle with finding enjoyment in coming before him to hear his Word and sing his praises. Nevertheless, spiritually speaking, Sunday worship is meant to be a taste of heaven.
Although we may sing tunelessly now, our worship in heaven will be in full harmony with the heavenly choir (Rev 5:11-13). Our sinful weaknesses will no longer taint our worship or distract us from our God, but our song of salvation will spring from fully purified hearts (Rev 7:9-17). Although now we see only in part, then we will see face to face (1 Cor 13:12), standing before God’s throne of grace and beholding the glory of the lamb (Rev 5:13).
Worship and the Sabbath
Keeping the Sabbath Day
God requires that we must remember the Sabbath day, keep it holy, and enjoy his rest (Exo 20:8-10). But sadly, most modern Christians believe that keeping the Sabbath day isn’t particularly important, let alone required by God. This misunderstanding causes shrinking church attendance and general idolatry.
But Scripture teaches us that not only was Sabbath rest a commandment to Old Testament Israel, but a creational ordinance for all mankind: “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:3). When Christ taught that “the Sabbath was made for man” in Mark 2:27, he wasn’t teaching that Sabbath rest was optional; instead, he reminded us that obeying his commands is a blessing not a burden. Let us therefore, even this side of heaven, strive to enter His rest on his holy day (Heb 4:11).
Sunday as the Lord’s Day
When Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted to sit at his Father’s right hand, he was given the name Lord (Phil 2:9-11). He had already been described as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8) which was the seventh day of the week, and the day that the Jews originally worshipped God. After his exaltation, however, the New Testament church celebrates his victory on the Sunday—as the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10; cf. 1 Cor 16:2).
Jesus conquered the grave and rose from the dead on a Sunday (John 20:1). On a Sunday, therefore, the New Testament church celebrates that our Lord has already come and has already risen! Jesus Christ is Lord of lords and King of kings; to him has been given all authority over heaven and earth (Matt 28:18). We worship as citizens of his kingdom—let us be worthy of him (Phil 1:27).
The Sabbath emphasis on rest
God gave us a day of rest which he called ‘the Sabbath’, meaning ‘to stop’ or ‘to cease’; God worked for six days when he created the earth and he rested on the seventh day, not because he had to but as a compulsory model for mankind (Gen 2:1-3). Sabbath rest, therefore, is not optional, or to be enjoyed ‘only when you’re tired’, but is a command based on God’s creational intention—and all men (even pagans!) were called to enjoy Sabbath rest (Exo 20:8-10).
Sadly, the modern church has been content with a removal of this command from the other nine. But Sabbath rest is a lasting commandment which powerfully teaches us to find our satisfaction in God’s works (Exo 31:13), look forward to our permanent rest (2 Pet 3:13-14), and celebrate the means (Christ) that God provides that we might enjoy rest both now and forevermore (Matt 11:28-30).
The Sabbath emphasis on spirituality
Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day, and on the first full day of their lives (the seventh day) they woke to enjoy rest in their creator. God did not need rest but he ordained a rest anyway and made the holy (Gen 2:1-3). This means that he set the day apart for a purpose which extended beyond physical rest (although it certainly means that!).
This means that our day of rest means more than recouping some energy; God has set apart a day for us to enjoy rest in him—to walk and talk with him. The Sabbath reminds us that we’re not only physical beings needing rest from physical labour, but spiritual beings, who find their ultimate fulfilment in the giver of spiritual life (1 Pet 2:9). We go to church to rest in him, delight in him, and receive spiritual food from him.
The Sabbath as a reminder of freedom
Moses reminded the Israelites that God freed them from Egypt and they’re no longer slaves: ‘therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day’ (Deut 5:15). The Sabbath day, then, reminds God’s people of the freedom he has won for them. This day of rest testified to the freedom from work God gave all mankind in creation (Gen 2:1-3).
The reality is that those who chose to work seven days are slaves to money or status; those who work or study on the Sabbath day testify that they don’t find their ultimate delight and rest in their God. The fourth commandment, however, shows that true rest isn’t found through earthly means and freedom doesn’t come from money or education. Instead, all men are called to be still and know that God is the one who provides every good thing (Psa 46:10; Jas 1:17).
The Sabbath Day as a family day
Most modern Christians consider the Sabbath day to be a family day—after all, Exodus 20:8-11 speaks of remembering the Sabbath day in the context of a whole household enjoying rest together. We must be careful, however, to not fall into the trap of prioritising our physical family above our spiritual family.
Our earthly family was given to us by God in order to point us towards him: earthly parents to our heavenly parent (Matt 7:11; Isa 66:13); and earthly siblings to our heavenly sibling (Heb 2:11). The truth is that the spiritual bonds we have with one another in Christ are actually more important than our genetic bonds (Matt 19:29)—We have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters.
On the Sabbath day, therefore, we meet together as a spiritual family, joining with our brothers and sisters in Christ to sing praises to our heavenly Father.
The Sabbath and Church Attendance
Going to church to worship God shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenient interruption to our rest and family time. Instead, communal worship is an opportunity to express joy and delight in the salvation and freedom won for us in Christ.
Because God has given us a day, it is fitting that we spend the whole day (not just the morning) meditating on him. The practice of morning and evening worship (Exo 29:38-42, Psa 92, et al), combined with hospitality (Rom 12:13) and prayer (Acts 16:13), enables us to enjoy the holiness God intended (Gen 2:1-3).
We’re drawn to worship him together because we’re members of the same body (1 Cor 12:12-27) and we have the same Father. Therefore, as Daniel Hyde said: ‘There is, then, nothing better we can do on the Lord’s Day than assemble as a people to worship our covenant God together and receive his grace.’
Preaching in Worship
The Word of God
From the very first verses of the Bible, God’s word has been associated with creation and new life (Gen 1). Interestingly, in the gospel of John, the apostle connects this creative word with Christ: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14); The apostle Paul reiterates this: “All things were created through Christ and for Christ” (Col 1:16).
Sin corrupts and deconstructs God’s creation—from it comes only death. And yet, just as God created the physical universe through Christ’s work, he also creates breathes new life into us through Christ’s work.
We are immensely blessed to have the Word of grace and truth reminding us of that new life. When we hear the scriptures read or preached, we’re hearing the truth about Christ Jesus from his own hand: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
The Preaching of the Word
A Democratic politician in California said recently that ‘Christianity needs to evolve with the times.’ He believed that science is a higher authority than the Word of God. But the apostle Paul told the church at Corinth that ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’, and yet ‘it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe’ (1 Cor 1:18,21 – KJV).
Although the world believes that the Bible is irrelevant, those who are being saved recognise that the message of the cross is ‘the power of God unto salvation’ (Rom 1:16).
Preaching, therefore, is central to worship; for ‘faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (Rom 10:17). And ‘this word is the good news that was preached to you’, that through the living and abiding word of God we may be born again (1 Pet 1:23-25).
After his death, Christ appeared to his disciples on the road to Emmaus and, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). Later he said: ‘all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me’ (Luke 24:44).
Why should this matter to you? Because it’s at the heart of what it means to be Christian. We are restored to our Creator through faith in Christ; not faith in Christ plus anything; and not anything else—Christ is central: God ‘saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began’ (1 Tim 1:9). Proper preaching points us to Christ, not away from him.
The Heidelberg Catechism was written between 1559 and 1576. Its intention was explicitly to prepare a resource to aid in the instruction of the youth and to guide pastors and teachers in the correct understanding of Scripture. It’s divided into three major sections which show how the Bible teaches us about our guilt before God, his graciousness to us, and how we are to respond in gratitude to him for this gift.
Our church makes use of this catechism to ensure we’re following Paul’s example in preaching ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27) and not teaching anyone to relax ‘one of the least of these commandments’ (Matt 5:19). We desire that all the saints may come to grasp the ‘breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Eph 3:18-19).
Every sermon preached by a preacher in a worship service must be expository. This is because the authority of a preacher only comes from the truth he expresses from God’s Word. False prophets were killed in scripture (Deut 18:20); but true prophets drew their authority from God (Mark 11:28-33).
One way of putting this into practice is to preach all the way through books of the Bible. This has many benefits: it ensures God’s greater purposes are taught; it helps the congregation read and understand the Bible as a whole; it forces preachers to teach the whole counsel of God rather than just what they like (Acts 20:27); it affirms the developing nature of God’s revelation to his people; and us in our efforts to grow in the grace and knowledge of God (2 Pet 3:18) so that no man can boast (2 Cor 12:9; Eph 2:9).
What is a Sacrament?
While we were yet God’s enemies, he graciously sent his son to die on the cross so that whoever may believe in him would not perish but have eternal life. That we might not forget this truth, God instituted certain signs and seals of his gospel promises called Sacraments. Baptism (from Circumcision) and the Lord’s Supper (from the Passover) were established by our Lord to ‘solemnly bind Christians to Christ, according to his Word (WCF 27:1).
God calls us to appropriately practice these sacraments to clearly illustrate his gospel truth (Gen 17:11), to remind us of the seal he places on his promises (Acts 2:38), and to put our new life in Christ into practice (Rom 6:3-5). The correct and appropriate practice of the sacraments also help distinguish the true church from the false church (e.g. Acts 19:1-7) and highlights the difference between God’s people and the world (Exo 12:48).
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper is a church feast where we celebrate the sacrifice Christ made for us. When we participate in this meal, we do so to remember that he went to the cross that we might be saved (Luke 22:19). This highlights for us the fact that we did not and could not save ourselves—He is our Passover lamb, whose blood was shed that we might be saved from ‘the destroyer’ (Exo 12:1-28; Luke 22:15).
The Supper acts as a physical sign of a spiritual reality—those who place their faith and hope in Christ abide in him and he abides in them (John 15:7); therefore, in this spiritual feast we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again (1 Cor 11:26). By doing so, he feeds us spiritually that we may enjoy his blessing and benefits and grow in our delight and love of our Father in heaven.
In the Lord’s Supper we express a unity defined by being part of the body of Christ. It follows, therefore, that the unity we celebrate is one which reflects his nature—for we abide in him and he in us (John 15:4). Whoever does not profess the same gospel has no legitimate place at the table (Gal 1:8); likewise, any who do not live in a way which reflects their unity with Christ (1 Cor 5:11; 10:21). In this way, the holiness of the body of Christ (Eph 4:1-16) is visibly displayed in Holy Communion.
God calls us to safeguard this purity in two ways. First, he calls office-bearers to ‘fence’ the table—we see Paul model this in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Secondly, because only God knows the heart, he calls individuals to examine themselves that they may avoid ‘eating and drinking judgement to themselves’ (1 Cor 11:28).
The Sacrament of Baptism
When someone is recognised as being a member of the family of God, they must be baptised. This is because Christians are called to make disciples of all nations, ‘baptising them’ in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). In Baptism, Christ gives the promise that ‘as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away… all my sins’ (HC Q&A 69).
Like the Lord’s Supper, someone’s Baptism is a statement of a unity with Christ. There is a recognition, therefore, that those who are welcomed as members of God’s family must be set apart and holy from the world (1 Peter 2:9), and entirely committed to their Saviour and Lord (Exo 12:48). We are also reminded in Baptism that God will be eternally faithful to his children; he is our God and we are his people.
In the Old Testament, God established a covenant with his people that he would be their God and they would be his people. As a sign and seal of this relationship, God commanded Abraham to circumcise every male child eight days old (Gen 17). Non-Jewish families who sought to become God’s people were also circumcised (Exo 12:48-49). This practice was an external sign of what should be an internal reality: God’s people should be motivated by the love of God (Deut 6:5), their neighbour (Lev 19:18), and be holy as their God is holy (Lev 11:44).
In the New Testament, Christ changed the sign of this covenant to Baptism (Matt 28:19). Adults (of all nations) are recognised as adopted members of God’s family based on their faith (Acts 2:38). Children born to believing parents also receive this sign of the promise (Acts 2:39; 1 Cor 7:14).
Worship as a Covenant Renewal Ceremony
Formal worship is, in effect, a practice of covenant renewal; God reminds his people of his covenant faithfulness and they re-affirm their commitment to him as his people.
This can be clearly seen in Joshua 24 after Israel receives Canaan: God’s people are called to present themselves before Him (Jos 24:1). Through Joshua, God speaks to his people and points them towards his great works of love, mercy and guidance (Jos 24:2-15). This concludes with a call to fear the Lord and commit to him (Jos 24:16-24). The people respond by declaring that they will serve the Lord. The covenant is renewed (Jos 24:15-27) and God’s people are dismissed to enjoy the blessings of the Lord’s provision (Jos 24:28).
This model for worship teaches us that we must engage with our God through Christ, regularly re-affirming our devotion to him in the new covenant of his blood (Luke 22:20).
Worship as a Conversation
Every church has some kind of way in which they regularly organise their worship time—this is called a ‘liturgy’ or ‘order of service’. As has been argued earlier, our primary desire in such things must always be that God might be pleased. To that end, we attempt to draw our practice from what God has established in Scripture.
The biblical pattern for worship is presented as a dialogue between God and his people (a good example of this is in Neh 8). For example: in worship, a very loving Father stoops down to speak to his children, and they respond in joy and praise. In another way, an impatient bride delights to meet her bridegroom and hear him express his love (e.g. Isa 54:5; Rev 19:7-9).
In this way, we come to worship to hear from and speak to our gracious God—and He also delights in us!
Preparation for Worship
It’s important to prepare our hearts and minds for the worship of our heavenly Father (see Exo 19:10-11). In formal worship, we lowly wretches meet with an Almighty and Holy God. As such, when we come before his throne of grace, we must avoid levity and nonchalance and instead approach him in humility and awe.
Although this begins at home individually and with our families, it’s appropriate that we also take time to do it as the corporate people of God. The first song we sing as a church then is part of the process of preparing our hearts to enter into the presence of our God. The song typically points us towards God’s great works and reminds us how fitting it is that we praise him. We follow in the footsteps of David, reminding our souls to not be downcast but to hope in the Lord (Psa 42:5; 103:1-5).
Call to Worship
Paul tells us that we were once dead in our trespasses and sins, but God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive together with Christ (Eph 2:1-10). While we were yet his enemies, God “called us out of darkness into his marvelous light’ that we might proclaim his excellencies (1 Pet 2:9). He did not love us because we deserved it but because he loved us (Deut 7:7-8; 1 John 4:19).
As such, we recognise that we only come into the presence of God because he has called us there in the first place. As we begin our worship then, the first words we hear are from the Lord himself as he reminds us of who we worship and why we worship him: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power” (Rev 4:11); “Come, let us worship and bow down” (Psa 95:1-7).
Having been called by God to come before his throne in worship, we respond by asking him particularly to bless our time of worship and communion with him.
Although sometimes the minister leads this prayer, it is most often prayed individually and in silence. Here we ask God to enable us to enjoy the peace he promises. Our prayer echoes that of the man concerned about his possessed child: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) while also crying out with Moses: ‘show me your glory” (Exo 33:18). Even though God has called us to himself we need his help to truly enjoy him: “Blessed are you, O Lord: teach me your statutes!” (Psa 119:12);
In this way we pray God’s greeting back to him, asking him that he might remove any distraction that we might truly know him and delight in him as he reveals himself to us.
The Latin word ‘Votum’ means ‘vow’ or ‘prayer’, and, in effect, it’s a response to God’s call to come and worship him. As a congregation, we recognise that we’re dependent upon God for all things.
In our church we use the following statement: “As we come to worship, we acknowledge that our hope is not found in ourselves, but in the Lord our God, the maker of heaven and earth” (Psa 124:8). An alternative is based on Psalm 121:1-2: Leader: “Where does your help come from?” Congregation: “Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth”.
This sets the tone for our worship. In humility we come: “Bow down your ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy” (Psa 86:1). And amazingly, God doesn’t leave us in weakness but shows us the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:7).
In the Votum we declare dependence on God and he responds in grace. This is powerfully gospel-centred. Whenever man tries to do things themselves they fail badly, but whenever they place their trust in him, God protects and keeps them.
On this basis, as a response to our statement of hope, God welcomes us: “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 1:2; 2 John 1:2, etc). Grace is given that we might fear no evil, even in death’s darkest hour (Psa 23:4); Mercy is given that we do not receive what we deserve—it’s through his mercy we are not consumed (Lam 3:22); and peace is granted because we are assured that God is in control over all things (John 14:27).
This is particularly comforting: we’re not left in our need, but God greets us with kindness and grace (Eph 2:7).
Reading of the Law
Despite the fear of the Law in our modern environment, Christ did not come to abolish it but to fulfil it (Matt 5:17). The Law itself was not a rod for the back of God’s people, but a reminder of how the children of God should live: image bearers should reflect the image they bear (Eph 4:24).
Calvin identified three uses of the Law: It presents us with our sin like a mirror; it restrains social evil like a bridle; and it drives us to greater efforts to live for God because of his grace… “the Law is a constant stimulus, pricking him forward when he would indulge in sloth” (Institutes, II.vii.6-12).
The Law does not save us (Gal 5:4) but it reminds us who our God is (Heb 9:7) and shows us how he would have us live our lives to glorify him (John 15:8).
Prayer of Confession
The law presents us with God’s character and what our lives should look like having been remade in his image through Christ. But as we consider ourselves before him, we’re reminded how far short we fall of his holiness. With the Apostle Paul we recognise that we do what we do not want to do—we do the very things we hate (Rom 7:15); with him we cry out: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24-25)
In order to be forgiven, God calls us to confess our sins and repent (Acts 2:38; Jas 5:16). As a people of God, then, we come before our Father’s throne to search our soul and confess our failures; and we know that he delights in a humble heart: “Because your heart was penitent and you humbled yourself before God… I also have heard you, says the Lord” (2 Chron 34:27).
Assurance of Pardon
When God’s people hear the Law, confess their sins and ask the Lord for forgiveness, God promises not just to hear them, but to graciously restore them: he assures them that Christ died to pay for their sins (Matt 1:21). We have certainty that not one person can be taken from out of his hand (John 10:28-30).
This is incredibly comforting for believers. We are not called to ignore our sin—but we aren’t made to wallow in it either; instead, God points us towards the gospel to remove the pain and sting of our sin (1 Cor 15:55-57). In our greatest vulnerability, having been stripped of our pride and self-confidence, God assures us of the pardon we receive through the work of his son (Rev 5:9): He does not always chide, nor keep his anger forever, but graciously removes our transgressions far from us (Psa 103:9-13).
Profession of Faith
Sometimes in morning service, and usually in the afternoon service (when we hold a second formal worship service), the Reading of the Law is replaced by a congregational profession of faith. This communal statement highlights the unity of the body of Christ, saved together and sharing the same beliefs. Unity is not for unity’s sake—we must stand together on truth.
Paul warns that should anyone preach a gospel contrary to the one the apostles preached, let him be accursed (Gal 1:8). This is especially important in a time when Christians are increasingly distancing themselves from Biblical truth in favour of more popular and politically correct ideas. This is why when we recite historical summaries of faith together, such as the Apostles Creed, we join with the true church of all ages, associating ourselves not just with one another but the one true God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Congregational (or Pastoral) Prayer
“Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29) and we cannot come into his presence and live (Exo 33:20). In fact, we don’t even have a ‘right’ to be heard by God. By this stage of our worship service, however, we’ve been reminded that God has responded to our humble repentance with forgiveness in Christ and so he actually delights to hear from us in prayer: “the prayer of the upright is [the Lord’s] delight” (Prov 15:8)
In prayer, God graciously reminds his people that he alone is capable to provide help (Matt 6:26). This is why Christ teaches us to pray to our Father in heaven, who cares for the needs of his children so much better than earthly (evil) parents (Matt 7:11). We pray because he calls us to pray (Matt 7:7), and because we know that he alone directs all things for his good purposes (Rom 8:28).
Tithes and Offerings
God takes tithing (10% donation of one’s income) seriously—saying that those who refuse to do so are robbing him (Mal 3:8). “When we don’t tithe, we reduce the ministry of Christ.” (R.C. Sproul).
God instituted the tithe in the Old Testament in order to support the Levites who weren’t given land to make a living (Num 18). This enabled them to dedicate their lives to minister to the people of God (the other tribes).
In the New Testament, this work continues in the church, through the preaching of God’s word. This is why Paul argues that the church at Corinth should be supporting Paul for his ministry (1 Cor 9:1-12). Tithes were also used by the Levites to minister to the poor—a task which was given to the Deacons by the apostles (Acts 6:1-6). It also reminds believers to trust in God to provide for their every need.
Tithes were never abolished as a practice in the New Testament, but they are by no means the extent of what we are called to give—there are also additional needs we might be asked to provide for voluntarily; such as when Paul exhorted the church at Corinth to give generously to needy Christians in Jerusalem: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). Another example is when David called the Israelites to give for the building of the temple (1 Chron 29:1-9).
This kind of giving is reflective of a worshipful heart that seeks God’s glory and his kingdom over our own; it testifies that neither our help (Psa 146:6), nor our satisfaction (Matt 6:19-21) is found in earthly things but rather in the one who created the heavens and the earth.
Prayer of Illumination
Just prior to the reading and the preaching of the Word, the minister or an elder leads the congregation in a short prayer. This prayer recognises that although God has graciously provided us with his revealed will in the Bible, it’s also only by grace that we understand it. Unless God illuminates his truth by the Spirit, reading and preaching simply become empty intellectualism and/or entertainment.
For this reason we pray that the message of the preacher will be pleasing in the sight of our Lord (Psalm 19:14); that God’s Word will accomplish its intended goal (Isa 55:11); that we’ll understand what God has to say to us (1 Cor 2:10-13); that we will be made holy and clean through hearing the Word (Eph 5:26); that God might change and soften our hearts (Ezek 36:26), make us delight in Him more (Psa 37:4), and show us His glory (Exo 33:18).
Scripture Reading and Sermon
The central and most critical component of a worship service is the preaching of God’s Word (2 Tim 4:2). A sermon has no authority when it’s based on someone’s experience or personal feelings; it’s neither a pep-talk nor a comedy routine—instead, a sermon is an authoritative declaration of God’s very words, calling all hearers to conform themselves to Christ (Rom 8:28-29).
Despite the fact the minister is a weak and sinful mouthpiece, ‘it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe’ (1 Cor 1:21 NKJV) evidenced clearly in the revival at Pentecost (Acts 2:41). His word is food for the hungering soul (Matt 4:4) and the true source of understanding and wisdom (Psa 119:99-100). The Spirit enables us to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:32, 45) and transforms us through the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2), purifying us from unrighteousness (Eph 5:26).
The Closing Amen
Following the sermon, the congregation responds to God’s word with “Yes!” and “Amen!” (2 Cor 1:20). At times this is prompted: “And all God’s people said…” Most often, however, the “Amen!” is expressed in a closing prayer of application and thankfulness led by their representative (the pastor). This response is appropriate because God does not desire his Word to fall on deaf ears (Heb 4:2).
For this reason, however it might be done, the congregation responds to the call implicit within the sermon: “Choose this day whom you will serve” with “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey” (Josh 24:14-28). We ask for strength to work out our salvation with fear and trembling recognising his work in us (Phil 2:12-13). This declaration of trust is continued in a carefully chosen song which relates directly to the message God has given through the preaching.
Parting Blessing (Benediction)
God has opened his service through blessing his people with grace and peace during the time of worship. At the end of the service he also sends his people back into the world with blessing: Two common benedictions are: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26) and “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14).
Our amazing God not only draws us close to himself in formal worship, but he also comforts us when we are away from the house of the Lord (Psa 27:4). He sends us forth to do his will (Matt 28:18) promising us the strength we need (John 14:15-31).
This final element of the formal worship service is a rousing crescendo of praise. In this song we exhort all creation to worship our God: May all his angels, all his hosts and all his works join voices with the cry of our soul to “Bless the Lord!” (Psa 103:20-22). We sing not as individuals and not only with the congregation around us, but with the church of all times and places voicing our joy that an Almighty God would display his holy name by saving sinful wretches such as us!
We unite with the thronging multitude standing before the throne and the Lamb at the end of days, saying: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb! Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7:10-12).
The Place of Formal Worship
Christians crave God above anything else of value. This is why David professes a single desire: “to dwell in the house of the Lord… to behold the beauty of the Lord… and to inquire in his temple” (Psa 27:4). In this way, the greatest event in our weekly schedules is to meet together as the bride of Christ to worship our God. We come with spiritual hunger and our Father feeds us with the bread of life (John 6:35).
But the benefit of formal worship doesn’t stop at the church doors. When he met with God, Moses’ face shone for a long time afterwards (Exo 34:29-35). Following Paul’s preaching, the Bereans eagerly ‘examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true’ (Acts 17:10-12). God draws us close to himself in worship that we might then bear witness to his glory to each other and the world.