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Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.

Psalm 96:9

The subject that we treat today is a subject of great significance. It is immediately evident not only from the passage that was just read, and particularly verse 9 of Psalm 96, but from all Scripture, that to worship God is the highest of all religious obligations and experiences. You and I are called to worship Jehovah. We are, in the words of Psalm 29:2, to “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

Fundamentally, worship, according to the literal idea of the term, is “bowing the knee towards” Jehovah. It is, therefore, our act of praising and magnifying the alone living God. In the broader sense, worship is to characterize your whole life and mine. To worship Jehovah is to acknowledge Him as the sovereign Lord and the One who alone is worthy of all honor and glory.

But that worship comes to expression especially in the public assembly of the church. It is the church’s public worship that is our focus today. The public assembly of the church is a special, covenantal gathering, in which God and His people fellowship together. Those whom God has gathered, and purchased with the precious blood of His own dear Son come together in the presence of their Redeemer, listening to Him and responding to Him in commanded acts of faith and love. Such is public worship. The church gathers before the sovereign Jehovah, the Holy One. He speaks; and they bless Him in return.

In worship we enter into fellowship with the living God. That in itself makes this a subject of great significance.

But in the second place, this subject of worship has been made a subject of importance in our day. I speak now just from the viewpoint of the Reformed church world.

Years ago, one could go to churches in a variety of Reformed denominations and find striking similarities in worship. Whether Protestant Reformed, Christian Reformed, Netherlands Reformed, and to some extent even in churches of the Reformed Church in America, the style of worship was essentially the same. Apart from the use of hymns in the CRC and RCA—and even hymn singing was very limited in the CRC for some decades after hymn singing was first allowed in worship—worship services were very similar.

That is no longer true. In fact, in our day varying opinions over matters and methods of worship have caused no little division in many churches. Many church members, crying for new things in worship, have left their churches to go elsewhere or to form new congregations, even within the same denomination. Other churches gradually have adopted all sorts of innovations in worship. These things have brought the whole matter of worship to the foreground once more.

What must we think about all these developments in recent years? Why do we worship the way we do? Is there more than mere tradition governing our worship practices? And what must we say when other Reformed churches worship God by way of greater individual participation and special music, and what to us seem to be rather chaotic liturgies, perhaps even liturgical dance and programs and children’s services and such like things?

The question might be asked: Who are we to say that men may not worship that way? So let’s face some of these things.

But then let us also be reminded: The object of worship is not us, but God. Because that is so, we ourselves have no right to determine how God shall be worshiped. But God does have the right to demand of men that we worship in a particular way. And when it comes to our worship, we had better understand what God requires.

Christ stated clearly in John 4:24 that we are to worship the Lord in spirit and truth. Worship must be spiritual, therefore, lest it become mere formalism. But without truth, worship becomes an activity of mysticism and emotionalism, a matter of feelings which arise from our deceitful hearts. Truth is the standard set by God Himself and recorded for His church in the inspired Scriptures.

The fact that we enter the very presence of God in worship means not only that there are general principles to be observed within the bounds of true Christian liberty, but that God Himself sets the boundaries within which our Christian liberty may be exercised. That includes even the elements of worship.

If we want truly to please the King of kings in our worship, we will try to find out those things that please Him, and we will subject ourselves willingly to His desires, rather than trying to please Him in our own way and by our own standards. For not only the act of worship, but also the content of that worship is important to Him.

Yes indeed, this is a pertinent subject to consider from Scripture. For the God who made the judgment concerning Israel in Isaiah 29:13 and Ezekiel 33:31, and Christ who repeated that judgment in Matthew 15:8 and Mark 7:6, “This people worships me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; they draw near me with their mouth, but their heart is far from me”—that God makes the same judgment today concerning those who put on an appearance of worship but do so with disobedient hearts.

Our concern today is not primarily with those who worship in ways other than the ways that we worship; but our concern is exactly with the way that we worship as congregations. Do we in our own congregations worship God as God must be worshiped?

We must not worship God merely as a matter of tradition. Our worship of Him must be in spirit and in truth. And therefore, from the moment we enter the sanctuary, we must come with a particular attitude and understanding into the presence of the Holy One, whose name is Jehovah. That begins, in fact, prior to entering the doors of the sanctuary. Already Saturday night and into Sunday morning it must be our desire as God’s people more perfectly and sincerely to render to Jehovah the worship that He requires from us. For so shall we also receive His richest blessings.

In calling your attention to the general theme, “Reformed Worship: Fellowship with the Holy One,” I focus especially on the instruction of Psalm 96:9 and call your attention to three necessary characteristics of proper worship, Reformed worship.

That worship which is fellowship with the Holy One is covenantal worship, holy worship, and fearful worship.

Covenantal Worship

You and I, according to the words of this text, are called to worship Jehovah. Now I want immediately to emphasize what I consider a fundamental truth concerning Reformed worship: Worship is the highest expression of God’s covenant of grace.

To understand that, it is necessary to have a proper biblical understanding of the covenant.

The covenant, as God has revealed it in Scripture, is that bond of infinite love and fellowship that God lives within Himself as the triune God. He is the covenant God. The three persons of the holy Trinity live a life of perfect fellowship and love within the one divine being. That is God’s covenant life.

But God has been pleased, out of His own good pleasure, to take a people into that life of fellowship and love. He has been pleased to establish His covenant with a people outside of Himself in Christ Jesus. The eternal and infinite God takes us into the fellowship of His own family life.

When you and I, when His people, come together to worship, that blessed reality comes to its highest expression. Worship is fellowship with the living God, the highest living expression of God’s covenant of grace with us.

To understand that covenant as a relationship of fellowship and love into which the triune God takes His people in Christ, rather than an agreement or contract, adds a much clearer dimension to the concept of worship.

Worship is a covenantal activity!

Have you thought of worship in those terms? Jesus Himself reminds us of this when He says in Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” In the fellowship of His saints Christ appears, to reveal the love of the Father.

We must realize that our coming together to worship is not simply a social gathering. It isn’t just you and your relatives, some friends, and the preacher talking about God. God Himself is in our midst, in Christ Jesus! If we truly worship Him, we enter into that fellowship with the living God!

That is absolutely amazing, a wonderful thing! Immediately before the worship service, as the organist is quietly playing and you are contemplating the fact that you are now in the house of God, soon to begin holy worship, it ought to amaze you! God is a spirit! And He is ready to enter fellowship with you in the highest expression of His covenant love! Absolutely amazing!

The most fundamental element in such fellowship with God is that of conversation. Conversation is at the heart of any fellowship. Whether we speak of the fellowship of husband and wife, parents and children, or of friends and of saints within the one household of faith, the communion that they share is a communion of conversation. There is no fellowship without such conversation.

We express our fellowship by speaking to one another of our hopes and desires, our sorrows and fears, our joys and excitements. By conversation we seek comfort and encouragement to support us in the distresses and trials of our lives. We offer sympathy and words of comfort to those who need someone to help them through the burdens and sorrows of life. All these things take place by means of conversing one with another.

The expression of covenant fellowship with Jehovah is found in the conversation of worship; for worship is indeed a holy conversation between God and us.

In our conversation with Him, we do not approach Him flippantly, but with recognition of His greatness and infinite glory. We wait to hear what God will say. We come in the consciousness that our help is in the name of Jehovah, who made heaven and earth. We recognize, therefore, that our worship cannot begin until God speaks. And then we hear the words, proclaimed by God’s ministering servant, “Beloved, called to be saints.” Amazing! God greets us as His beloved! And we stand in awe before Him and worship Him. We express our praise and adoration to the alone living God, our Father.

But at the center of worship is the preaching of the Word. That Word at its very heart is God’s promise to His people, the assurance that in the face of all their troubles His promise will be fulfilled by Him who is faithful.

Through the Word of the gospel, as it comes to us in that which Paul calls “the foolishness of preaching,” God in Christ speaks to us His people. He reveals Himself to us by that holy conversation. He shows us His great glory, the majesty of His being, His infinite holiness and perfect righteousness. He shows us His mercy and love, His abounding grace. He makes known that He alone is God, and He is good. He makes clear that He knows us through and through.

He doesn’t hesitate to expose to us our sins and our weaknesses. He tells us that He has no fellowship with unrighteousness, that He will surely punish all workers of iniquity, and that we ourselves are sinners who cannot find fellowship with Him except first His justice is satisfied.

But He also gives us the good news of our everlasting salvation in Christ Jesus, of that salvation by which He separated us out of the human race, for reasons which He alone knows—for there was nothing in us which could cause Him to love us. He points us to Christ, His only begotten Son, given for us, willingly to walk the way of the cross that we might be partakers of this such great fellowship, that we might indeed participate in covenant worship with our God. He tells us of His counsel, of His will which encompasses everything that takes place in heaven and on earth.

He reveals to us great and glorious things!

And as God speaks to us His people through the preaching of the Word, as well as though those other elements of the worship service in which the minister speaks in God’s name, we also respond in speech to God.

To this great wonder that the Almighty God would speak to us and enter into covenant fellowship with us, our initial response is to praise Him. Shall we not praise the exalted God who stoops so low as to initiate a conversation with us?

So we speak to Him. We speak to Him in song. We praise Him with the singing of the Psalms which He gave us to glorify Him. And in the songs of Zion that we sing, we not only praise Him, but we also enter into fellowship with Him. We pour out our souls to Him, giving expression to our deepest thoughts, our spiritual desires and even the emotions of our hearts.

We enter into prayer, another form of covenant conversation. We express our thankfulness to the God of our salvation, our FriendSovereign Jehovah. We thank Him for who He is and what He has done for us. And because He also would have us approach Him with all our needs, we tell Him our needs and the needs of which we are aware within His church.

In our worship service there is fellowship taking place between us and the living God. And at the heart of that covenant fellowship is a conversation that takes place between God and us.

Yet, let us understand, this conversation must be a holy conversation. For we are called to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” That brings us to what I call the second necessary characteristic of Reformed worship.

Holy Worship

In worship we find fellowship with the Holy One.

Our worship therefore must be holy worship.

In Psalm 96:9 we are called, literally, to prostrate ourselves, bow with our faces to the earth, before Jehovah in the splendor of holiness.

Let us remember: We worship Jehovah, who is transcendent in His holiness. The whole of Psalm 96 resounds with that truth. The psalmist calls us to worship in that consciousness.

Bless the name of Jehovah! “For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised.” He is God alone.

“Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name.” God is sovereign; we are but creatures.

It is an astounding privilege that we may even enter His presence; that He would converse and commune with us. That God is holy means that He is totally “set apart,” completely consecrated to Himself and His own glory. We are to worship Him in the consciousness that we stand before the brilliant light of the splendor of God’s holiness.

That means that we recognize that we do not approach Him as His equals.

In the first place, God Himself is so infinitely glorious and set apart, that even the angels cover their faces with their wings and cry, “Holy, holy, holy, is Jehovah of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory.” That is what we read in Isaiah 6:3.

You and I must indeed approach God in deep humility. It is of great significance that the term “worship” means to bow with our faces to the earth!

We come into the presence of Him who alone is perfectly holy! And therefore we come, not simply as creatures before the Creator, but as sinners before a holy God. That must be our consciousness too. Else we will not worship Him who alone is Jehovah, but we will worship a god of our own imaginations.

If we come before Him as if He is our equal, we profane His name and make it common. And that is exactly the violation of the third commandment, where we are forbidden to take His name in vain.

We do that, you know. We do that all too often. We sit in worship with our minds wandering; we sing the words of the Psalter numbers, taking God’s name upon our lips, without any thought whatsoever; we do not concentrate during prayer. And in all of this we profane the holy God. Let us confess that, shall we?

It is amazing that God even lets us worship. There is nothing in us that makes us fit for covenant fellowship with Him. We who are conceived and born in sin, and who sing with the psalmist in Psalm 65 that our “iniquities prevail against” us daily, forfeit by our sins all right to covenant fellowship with God.

That He is pleased to gather us together and to dwell with us and converse with us is the great wonder of His everlasting mercy and love in Jesus Christ our Lord! For God can only dwell in fellowship with those who are holy as He is holy. And you and I are holy only as we stand in Christ Jesus, and are indwelt by His Spirit.

For that very reason, as we worship Jehovah in the beauty of holiness, we do so recognizing that this holy conversation is always initiated by God Himself. And He initiates this holy conversation sovereignly and powerfully, so that our part of the conversation flows from His work in us.

That is why those in whom God does not work cannot possibly worship Him. They may put on an appearance of worship. They may even put on a very enthusiastic appearance of worship. But the man or woman who is outside of Christ, who has not a true and living faith, cannot possibly worship Him.

Worship is only the response to God which is effected by God Himself.

Our worship, when it is true, spiritual worship, is the fruit of God’s powerful Word. That is very clearly taught us in Psalm 27:8:”When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.”

God is sovereign in all the work of salvation. He is sovereign in the establishment and realization of His covenant. He is also sovereign in that worship which is the highest manifestation of that covenant fellowship. When God says to your regenerated heart, “Seek ye my face,” His speech is powerful, efficacious, irresistible. And therefore you enter the conversation. You worship Him in the beauty of holiness.

If we understand this; if we enter the sanctuary in the consciousness of coming as sinners saved by grace into the presence of the holy Jehovah, it will have a profound impact on how we worship.

No saint can enter God’s presence in worship and then experience the riches of God’s fellowship without being deeply conscious of His own unworthiness and the depths of God’s mercy and grace. You may use that as a gauge in measuring how your own participation in worship measures up to this biblical standard. How conscious are you of your own unworthiness to be here and the riches of God’s love and mercy revealed to you? For the result of such a consciousness will indeed be a hearty desire to render God praise. “For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised” (v. 4).

Furthermore, to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness is to worship in such a way that the entire service is one totally consecrated to Jehovah.

Do you understand what that means? That means that our own thoughts and desires and feelings have nothing to do with what constitutes worship. Worship is for God and God alone.

The God who is totally consecrated to Himself and His own glory requires the same from us. That He has condescended to be approached by sinners, to allow men and women who have rebelled against Him to come into His presence and to be received by Him in worship—that is an amazingly gracious thing.

But let us understand, God will also determine how we are to worship Him. That is what the second commandment of the ten is all about. How shall we worship God? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.” He is jealous of His own honor, of His holiness. And for that reason He tells us in His Word how to worship Him.

We observe in our day a terrible departure from this truth. Scripture tells us that we are to worship Jehovah in the hearing of the Word of God, in song and prayer and offerings and sacraments. But people in our day want more. They want new modes of revelation, drama, entertainment. It is presumption. For what it says is that worship must be pleasing to me, not to God.

To many it has become a light thing to approach the true and living God. In presumption they assume that God will accept any way of their inventions, as long as the heart is sincere. So you ask people about worship, and they say, “I think we should do this, and I think we should have that. I like this; I find that boring.” I, I, I.

And where is God in the beauty of His holiness?!

God forbid that we approach Him with such presumption, setting our own opinions above the very will of the Holy One!

But let us also understand, such sin is not seen only in those who have rejected the Word of God for human inventions in the worship services of the church. To worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness not only means that we are restricted to God’s own will as to how we shall worship Him.

It also means that our worship must not be offered to God in a slovenly, superficial, and sinful manner. Half-hearted worship is an abomination to Him. I called attention in the introduction to those scathing and condemning words of Christ, “This people worships me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” Holiness must characterize our worship in every respect. “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy hill; for the Lord our God is holy” (Ps. 99:9). Our worship in every respect must be wholehearted devotion to the God of our salvation.

So we are called to worship Him in fear.

Fearful Worship

“Fear before him, all the earth.”

This call is a call to the church. Let that be understood. “All the earth” marks this call as belonging to the church as it shall be gathered out of all nations, tribes, and tongues, indeed, from the entire face of the earth. This Psalm is one of the great missionary hymns, one of the many prophecies in the Old Testament where Israel was pointed to the universal nature of the body of Christ. The many languages of the sons of Adam who were scattered at Babel will all blend in the same song of praise when the Lord gathers His people at Zion.

With that understood, we may consider that concept of “fearing” the Lord.

That is not the fear of terror. It is true that Scripture often uses the word “fear” in that sense. After all, the holy God cannot look upon sin without great indignation. He takes righteous offense at any attack upon His holiness. And sin is such an attack. The judgments of the holy God against sin cause the ungodly and unbelieving to shrink back in terror before the Judge of all the earth. Those who are outside of Christ have every reason to live in terror before the face of the holy God. Scripture emphasizes that repeatedly.

But we speak now to those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, who are the objects of His perfect love. John writes in the fourth chapter of his first epistle that perfect love casts out fear. There is no fear of God in the fellowship of His love. That is, there is no fear in the sense of terror, being afraid of rejection and damnation.

Yet you and I are called to worship Him in fear.

Because the reference cannot be to the terror of judgment, it has come to have another meaning, that of reverential awe and holy adoration, a fear inspired by deepest love for God. The psalmist sings of this fear in Psalm 19:9: “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

That idea of fearing God is most prevalent in Scripture. Repeatedly God’s people are described as those who fear Him. The whole duty of man is to fear God, and to keep His commandments, according to Ecclesiastes 12:13.

That fear of the Lord was even possessed by Christ. Even as fulfillment of the promise given to Him in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 11:2, the Son of God received the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.”

Search the Scriptures, and indeed you find the fear of the Lord a prevalent and important concept.

Here in Psalm 96:9, it is revealed as an essential part of worship. Nor is this the only such passage. David sings in Psalm 5:7: “But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.”

To fear God is to stand before Him with a deep sense of love and adoration.

But the word used here in Psalm 96:9 is striking. The word that is translated “fear” in this text is different from the word that is generally used. In fact, this word is only twice translated by the word “fear” in the Old Testament. The other use is found in I Chronicles 16:30, where you have almost a parallel song to this Psalm.

The word, in the picture language of the Hebrews, is a word that pictures a woman squirming or writhing in labor. You realize that a woman in labor is not comfortable. Her mind is not wandering and day-dreaming. She certainly is not sleeping. She can only think about her labor and the joy that is soon to be fully realized in the birth of her child.

The idea conveyed by this term, therefore, is that in worship before the holy Jehovah we do not “get comfortable,” so to speak. In worship we labor to focus singlemindedly on the Holy God in whose presence we worship, and on the full realization of His glory as we shall experience in His fellowship.

That doesn’t come easy. Worship is hard work. It is difficult because we are attracted to that which is concrete and visible, to that which entertains, while God requires the spiritual exercise of the heart.

To worship Him in spirit and truth, therefore, requires tremendous effort. Proper worship is so to fear Jehovah, to stand before Him with a focused sense of love and adoration.

Such fear of God is to be so captivated by this great salvation that He has provided for us in Christ Jesus, that we can only fall before Him in amazement and deep reverence, to praise and extol Him who has been so merciful to us!

This deep love for God, awe and reverence toward Him, is also expressed in a deep concern to live as obedient sons and daughters in His household. That also belongs to proper worship. We must be motivated in our worship by a strong desire to do that which is pleasing in God’s sight, according to the will of Him who has saved us.

I say again, worship is not self-serving. When the fear of Jehovah is lacking in us—and let us confess, it is often lacking—we use the name of our God in vain. We become guilty of intolerable arrogance. Our worship must reflect the fear of Jehovah, profound reverence and adoration, and a desire to do His will and to be faithful doers of the Word and not hearers only. Else it is not worship at all.

From the moment we step through the doors of the sanctuary, and in fact even several hours before, we must humble ourselves before the great Jehovah, seeking His face. The prayers that we offer upon entering the sanctuary, seeking His blessing upon the worship service and the preaching of His Word, seeking the application of the Holy Spirit to our own hearts; the songs that we sing; the hearing of the gospel; all the elements of the worship service must express that awe of God, without which it is impossible to please Him. And when such fear is present, when we enter into fellowship with the Holy One, we will enjoy the blessedness of His favor and love. Oh, to taste of the wonder of His grace in taking us into His own covenant fellowship!

Yes, our worship is weak. We fall so far short of this biblical calling in worship, that we ought to hide our faces in shame. But we come before Him in Christ. And when that is true, we not only confess our sins and receive His merciful forgiveness, but we also thank Him for His Word, for this instruction He gives us in how to worship Him. For Jehovah is great, and greatly to be praised.

“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.” May God give us grace to put to practice the calling which He gives us, and so to teach the people which He has entrusted to our care.