Previous article in this series: October 1, 2011, p. 17.
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.
Last time we explained what it means that the official worship services of the church are a meeting of the covenantal assembly before the face of the living God, and proved those points from Scripture. We said that the assembly is not merely a collection of individuals, but an officially constituted expression of the body of Christ. In worship, that congregation comes to experience the covenant of grace in the highest way possible on earth. She comes to meet with God Himself. We also discussed how public corporate worship is the highest expression of the antithesis. The body is called out of the world, and called unto God in worship. This is part of what makes worship so pleasing to Him. Everything else is left behind, and we come to adore His matchless name alone as we meet with Him face to face.
In this article we discuss what motivates us to come out of the world to meet with this God, and we find some implications from this first principle that apply to Reformed and biblical worship.
The Motivation for Being a Part of the Covenantal Assembly
The motivation for this worship comes from knowing how glorious this God is who comes to meet with us in the covenantal assembly. Psalm 95, which, as we said last time, has always been recognized in the church as a call to worship, also provides the motivation for coming to worship. Psalm 95 presents God as both creator and redeemer, and in the Psalm these two are our motivation for coming to meet with Him in worship.
First of all in Psalm 95 the motive is knowing God as our creator. Psalm 95:3: “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” What motivates us personally and collectively to come to meet with God is that this God made us. He has the right to call us to meet with Him since He is the one who has given us existence. But more than that, what a wonderful gift to meet in fellowship with the God who formed us and knows us.
This creator God is great and awesome, and His majesty draws me irresistibly into His presence. Psalm 95:3-5 carries on the thought, “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.” This God is able! We don’t worship a God we made up. We don’t worship a puny God. No other supposed god is His rival. All the earth is His possession. He made it with His hands. Even the vast, remote depths of the oceans and the impenetrable rock of the mountains are not foreign to Him. This God is able to take care of His people. He is able to fulfill the promises He made to His church.
This draws me to come and celebrate His majesty before Him. I come to His presence to adore Him for being a God who is able to accomplish His will—for being mighty, the ruler over all. I come to fellowship with such a God. He is Himself the motivation for my worship! Therefore in worship I take His attributes upon my lips in prayer and praise. I sing in response to hearing His mighty deeds. I ascribe glory to all that He is and does, for He is God.
Second, the motivation is that this mighty God who made us is also our shepherd, who cares for us and loves us and redeems us. Psalm 95:6-7: “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.” He is a shepherd who holds His sheep in His hand. He cares for us, is attentive to us, and as verse 1 tells us, He redeems us. Verse 1 calls this Shepherd God the “rock of our salva-tion.” When the psalmist uses that phrase, he has in the back of his mind the people of the Exodus at Rephidim, where God gave them water from the rock to save their life. The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:4 that we now drink spiritually from the rock who is Christ. God is a shepherd who has provided Christ to give us life-giving water, to save us from our sins, to shepherd us away from the death of sin and hell.
The psalmist defines our God to us as the motive for worship. There is no greater motive for being a part of the covenantal assembly than the person and character of the God with whom we meet. We have a Shepherd God who holds us in His hand, who has sent Christ for our salvation. In Christ God guides us and cares for us every step of our lives, so that there is no fear but only rest and peace and hope.
What confidence this brings to us as sheep! This is why I come to worship, to exalt Him for this! And to be convinced of this again—to regain this identity! For it is in worship that I am assured of this, and experience this. In this world we identify ourselves by various things. We are farmers; we are college students; we are engineers; we are blondes; we are brunettes; etc. But here in the text we are defined at the most fundamental level. In worship we know we are sheep with a Shepherd for a God. Sheep in the hands of a Shepherd God. A shepherd gives what we need: protection, love, peace, and hope. Here, the picture of the covenantal assembly becomes even richer. Not only in this assembly does God meet with us face to face, but in our adoration of His name, He takes us up into His hands and He holds us. He tells us who He is, and tells us who we are.
“O come let us worship, because this is who God is and this is who you are,” says the Psalm. Come meet Him in the covenantal assembly and adore Him, sing and pray, and give yourself over to Him in love!
The Implications of the Covenantal Assembly
That worship is a covenantal assembly where we are scooped up into the hands of our mighty Shepherd God implies at least five other principles about worship.
First, our worship will be centered on the Word of God. For if we are to meet with God in this way it will be by His Word. It is His Word that brings us to Him. It is His Word that brings Him to us. God’s Word is living and active. His Word contains God Himself in Christ. And in that Word we have the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Its truth, its power, its emotion, bring us face to face with God in worship. Thus the service takes up at every point the Word of God. God’s Word is sung; God’s Word is read; God’s Word is proclaimed; God’s Word is prayed. God’s Word is the focus because in the Word we will have God with us.
Second, the implication is that the worship service will be simple. The goal of the covenantal assembly is for us to be taken mind and soul by the Word of God and therefore into God’s presence. All must shine a spotlight on God in His Word. Anything that distracts from Him must be removed, for distractions take us out of His presence.
This is what led the Reformers to have a simple order of worship, where the content, not the accoutrements, were the spiritual power. Thus, you will find the same in Reformed worship today. There is a simplicity and sobriety about it. The liturgy is simple. There are not paintings and drawings and statues on the wall. The focus is not on the people and their individual gifts. The spotlight shines upon God with whom we meet.
Third, when we come to the worship service with such an understanding and believing heart, the worship service will be profoundly experiential. After all, we are meeting with God Himself. This is going to be an experience! What that experience is will be determined by the state of your soul before God. If you come with sin that you will not forsake, the experience will be that you will writhe as Jehovah breathes down your neck. But if you come by grace to let go of sin and hold on to the Lord, the experience will be one of comfort and pure adoration of Jehovah God.
Fourth, the worship service will be characterized by an attitude of joyful reverence. I put joy and reverence together in the same point because Psalm 95 puts them together. Psalm 95:1-2 calls us to bring a “joyful noise.” Psalm 95:6 calls us also to bow down in reverence. In true worship, there will be this combination of joy at the fact that this Mighty Shepherd is our God, and yet a profound reverence in light of the fact that we don’t deserve Him.
We are coming to meet with the God of heaven and earth. Someone once said that if we really had any idea of who it is we meet with in public corporate worship, we would come to church in shoulder pads and helmets, and tie ourselves to the seat. After all, we are coming into the presence of sheer holiness, and we are sinful creatures of the dust.
Knowing what worship is and knowing the God we worship will affect everything about worship. When a stranger comes into a service he ought to see that we have not come here for a show, but that we are gathered before the Holy God.
But it will also be joyful. The verbs of verse 1 are more intense than carries over into English. It is more like, “Let us give a ringing cry unto the Lord, and raise joyful shouts!” There ought to be a joy in coming to meet the God who has saved us. How can one not be joyful coming here to celebrate grace and the God who holds us in His hands? There ought to be ringing cries of thanksgiving and praise. If we put no effort to think about the words that we are singing or praying, then there will not be any true joy. But as we are taken up by and given over to, the truths and words we are hearing and singing, there will be a profound joy experienced and manifested to others.
Fifth, since worship is an assembly called to come and adore God, God is the audience in worship. We come to meet with God face to face, and part of that meeting is God speaking to us. But in prayer and songs of praise, God is the audience, not us. Many view these aspects of worship as though we in the pew are the audience, and the worship team is putting on a show for us. But that misses the point. What is unique about this assembly is that when the songs are being played and sung the audience is not those who are sitting in the pews. God is the audience. Worship is not for me, first of all. I end up being blessed by it in the end, but it is not about me. Worship is for the adoration of our mighty Shepherd God.
Public corporate worship is the most important thing a Christian does. God loves the covenantal assembly. Individual praise of the glory of His grace is important. The regular praise of the glory of His grace by families at devotions is imperative. Yet, it is the worship of the covenantal assembly that God loves the most. Psalm 87:2 declares, “The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” God loved the dwellings of Jacob where each family worshiped Him in their home. But what He loved more were the gates of Zion, the body gathered before His face.
And we ought to love those gates of Zion most as well. Is not our experience that of Luther? “At home in my house there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart, and it breaks its way through.”1
May the thought and experience of the covenantal assembly lead us to cry out with David in Psalm 84:1-2, “How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.” For it is in the covenantal assembly that we meet Him face to face.
1 Martin Luther, cited in Robert Rayburn, O Come Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 30.