O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also. The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land. O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
There are few subjects in the church today more controversial than worship. People talk about “worship wars.” In the same church you may have services titled “traditional,” to appeal to the older crowd, and services entitled “contemporary,” to appeal to the younger crowd. This reveals that the driving force in worship is often personal preferences. This is something that can be a danger also for us.
But the preeminent danger for us in the Protestant Reformed Churches is that we not understand what we are doing in worship and why we are doing it. God does not desire that His people simply go through the motions. We must worship with understanding. We bring God no glory if we do not know what we are doing in worship, and have no desire to engage in it. And we miss out on the edifying experience of worship when we do not understand our worship.
In that light, I begin a series of articles on the principles of Reformed and Presbyterian worship. I hope to follow that, sometime down the road, with a series applying those principles to a typical Protestant Reformed worship service. The title for the series is “O Come Let Us Worship!” taken from Psalm 95:6. There is, of course, personal worship, and there is family worship; there is the fact that all of life is to be worship; and then there is corporate worship—worship officially per-formed by the congregation. In this series we consider the latter, what God has to say, in the Scriptures, about thepublic, corporate worship of His name.
There are three main principles that will be treated in this series. The first is that public worship is a covenantal assembly meeting with the living God. The second is what is called the dialogical principle of worship. And the third is the regulative principle of worship.
Let’s begin by looking into the principle that public corporate worship is a covenantal assembly.
Not Just Individuals, But an Assembly
Fundamental to the nature of Reformed and biblical corporate worship is that those who gather for it do so as an assembly. They are not a haphazard collection of individuals who get together in a building. They are an assembly made up of many, but who yet are one.
They are a lawfully gathered assembly, constituted for the purpose of public worship. The local church is a body overseen by a council and consistory, representing the offices of Christ Himself. She is officially called to assemble together by this governing body, which speaks with the authority of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ Himself, therefore, establishes this assembly and calls her to come as one body.
This is why most Reformed and Presbyterian churches have a “call to worship” at the beginning of the worship service. It shows that God Himself is calling and constituting an assembly through the officebearers. This is unique for Sunday worship. There is no call to worship before Bible Study or programs or lectures. The call to worship is God calling His body together into the official assembly of public worship.
She assembles officially for worship as the body of Jesus Christ. She is a redeemed assembly. Christ has shed His blood for her. Christ has imputed to her His righteousness. And Christ has united her together. She comes therefore as an extension of who He is, just as the body is the extension of the head. Jesus is in heaven, having entered the most holy place not made with hands. There He lives before the face of God and in His human nature brings worship. Here on earth the official worship of the church is an extension of what Christ our head does before God, adoring Him in the heavenly sanctuary. When we come for public worship, we are constituted under Him as a gathering of His body, and He therefore, as our head, leads us into worship.
The Old Testament emphasized this corporate nature of public worship. In Leviticus 23, where the people were commanded to come together for the great feasts, the phrase is repeated, “you are a holy convocation.” That is, you are an assembly of the people made holy in Christ. You are officially and visibly called together as a body. The section of Psalm 95 quoted above leads us to contemplate this corporate nature of worship. Psalm 95has been recognized as a call for the church to assemble publicly for worship throughout the entire history of the Christian church and, even before the time of Christ, in the ancient Jewish church.¹ Notice, in verses 1 and 2, how it calls us together: “O come, letus sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving. O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker” (italics mine, CJG).
In the New Testament, Hebrews 10:25 speaks of not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. That is what the worship service is, an official assembling of the body of Christ. The New Testament word for church, ekklesia, also captures this corporate idea. The word means assembly. This corporate consciousness is reflected even in our practice. The salutation is, “beloved congregation of Jesus Christ.” It is not, “beloved individuals who happen to be in this building,” but “beloved assembled body of which every individual is a part.”
This is important to remember in a culture where the individual and his desires are valued above the collective, and where people will forsake corporate worship because they say they can worship by themselves. We certainly come as individuals, and we bring our own personal worship on Sunday, but we do so as part of a body. This is not something we can do at home by ourselves. It is not something we can do alone with our Bibles. We are called out and called together before God. When I participate in the worship of the church, I do not stand as an individual singing, but I join my voice with the assembly of which I am a member. We come together as one.
Called Together to Meet With God
The reason why we are officially called together as a body is to meet with our God face to face. It is acovenantal assembly, called together by God to meet with Him in fellowship. The covenant is structured fellowship with God. In corporate worship the church experiences the height of this covenantal life on earth.
This was true of public corporate worship in the Old Testament. The tabernacle of worship was called the tent of the congregation for this very reason. Exodus 39:32: “Thus was all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation finished: and the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did they.” A better translation for tent of the congregation would be tent of meeting. It was where the congregation met with God.
The temple worship was this as well. The people gathered in the courts of the temple. And God, dwelling in the Holy of Holies, upon the ark, met with the assembly in the structured fellowship of worship.
Psalm 95:2 speaks of this covenantal aspect of worship explicitly when it calls, “O come before his presence!” The most literal translation of that would be, “Let us meet His face!” That is what worship is—the assembly meets the face of Jehovah God in a special way.
In the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, however, there was still a distance between God and His people. Only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies before the face of God, and corporate worship could take place only in the tabernacle or temple. In the New Testament the idea that worship is meeting with God face to face becomes richer. Now there is no earthly high priest, and God will meet directly with us wherever we are assembled. Instead of meeting God in Jerusalem or in the tabernacle, now Jesus says inMatthew 18:20, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am with you.” In the worship of the assembly, no matter how small or large the assembly is, we meet our God. As Calvin recognized, “After the covenant of grace has flowed to us…let us know and be fully persuaded that wherever the faithful who worship him purely and in due form according to the appointment of his Word, are assembled together to engage in the solemn acts of religious worship, he is graciously present, and presides in the midst of them.”²
The Spirit works this of course. He brings us to God by giving us the desire to come to worship. He brings God to us by driving into our hearts His word that we sing, pray, read, and hear preached. The Spirit works so that we experience that. God really comes to us in the official worship of the church. This meeting with God is the experience of the covenant of grace. We do not come to church simply to talk about the covenant. We come to experience it! God with us!
Church services are more than just hearing a sermon. The sermon is a part of the service, an essential part. But the service as a whole is, as we will see later, designed to lead us into the presence of the Almighty. Gathered together, we become the tent of meeting, the building where God condescends to meet with us. In the words of the songs that sink into our hearts, take over our thoughts, and drive our affections; in the prayers that recognize we are in His holy presence; in the gospel read and preached by which God releases overtures of love and callings for our lives—in all these, we meet with the Living God.
If you do not experience this, it is because you do not believe it, or are distracted in the service, or do not take worship seriously enough. When we come to worship, we are seeking the presence of God. And God does condescend to come to us by His Spirit and through faith.
The Covenantal Assembly and the Antithesis
That worship is covenantal implies that it is also the fundamental expression of the antithesis. The antithesis is a God-created spiritual separation from the world and consecration to Jehovah. In public corporate worship, God is creating an antithesis. He calls us out of the world and to Himself. He says, “You are mine. Come out from among them and be ye separate.” During the week we are called to live a life different from the world and in communion with God. And we seek to do that. But we are so distracted and filled with thoughts about our work, or about people, or about issues in society, that we are not captivated by Jehovah God. We are in the world, and our souls are pulled toward the things of this life. We feel ourselves tempted. Sometimes we resist temptation, other times not. Sometimes we are all-out enveloped by the world. We see that we were thinking like the world, we were acting like the world. Our minds and souls were influenced. Perhaps we were even considering making decisions that, when we think back on them after worship, were so worldly. But in worship God calls us out. That should be the experience of the service. It is relief; it is an oasis in the desert; it is a break in the battle.
As God called Israel out of Egypt and to Himself at Sinai, so in every service He calls us out of the world and to Himself. God sends out His call, like a man to his lover, to put everything down and come apart for awhile in covenant love. It is a calling to a place of safety and spiritual security for a time as we meet with our God. It is in worship that we are set before the face of the living God, and we worship Him. It is His majesty, His glory, His gospel, His truth, that we come to adore. We ascribe to Him glory and praise and thanksgiving. It is in the worship service that we are finally set totally apart so that it is all about Him.
During the week we have personal and family worship of course. This is important, it is lovely, and it must be meaningful and worshipful. But for most of us it is not until we get to the assembly before God’s face that we really worship with all our heart and mind fixed upon Him alone. It is there that we really put everything else aside and, with God’s people who are gathered there, exalt His name. It is there especially that He increases and we decrease. We say to God there, “It may have looked at times as if I did not love Thee, as if I was not consecrated to Thee. Now I repent of that and here in the public assembly I tell Thee that I love Thee more than this world.” At times we have been selfish in the week. But there we can set all of self aside and simply exalt God for who He is. There we express that though the world, the devil, and our own flesh get the better of us at times, in our heart of hearts we adore Him and Him alone. That’s worship. Worship is giving one’s all to Him. It is humble adoration. The very word “worship” means to bow down. It is honoring Him, praising Him. It is the decrease of self, and the increase of His matchless name in our minds and hearts. And that happens as God meets with us in the covenantal assembly.
¹ Leupold, H. C. Exposition of The Psalms. 8th ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969. 675.
² Calvin, John. Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979. 122.