“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
In 1870, Charles Spurgeon published a book entitled Feathers For Arrows; or Illustrations from my Note Book. In it the prince of preachers recounts the following wonderful, albeit convicting, story:
“I have heard of a certain divine, that he used always to carry about with him a little book. This tiny volume had only three leaves in it; and truth to tell, it contained not a single word. The first was a leaf of black paper, black as jet; the next was a leaf of red paper – scarlet; and the last was a leaf of white paper without spot. Day by day he would look upon this singular book, and at last he told the secret of what it meant. He said, ‘Here is the black leaf, that is my sin, and the wrath of God which my sin deserves; I look, and look, and think it is not black enough to represent my guilt, though it is as black as black can be. The red leaf reminds me of the atoning sacrifice, and the precious blood; and I delight to look at it, and weep, and look again. The white leaf represents my soul, as it is washed in Jesus’ blood and made white as snow through the righteousness of Jesus Christ and washing in the fountain which Christ has filled from His own veins.”
The simple, though infinitely profound, gospel illustration of Spurgeon’s “certain divine” should give us pause as we approach the privileges and duties of worship. It is only because of the inexplicable grace of God in the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that we even desire to worship Him. It is that gospel of grace that initiated our salvation, energizes our devotion, sustains our sanctification, and eternally secures us as His. It is that gospel of grace, too, that informs and orients our worship.
All People Worship, Even The Unredeemed
That man worships is not unfamiliar to us. There has never been an image bearer who doesn’t worship. Our default condition of depravity resulting from the Edenic fall doesn’t extinguish our capacity, or our innate inclination, to worship. Whether acknowledged by them or not, the unredeemed do not fail to worship. While that worship may be given to idols, to creation, or, as Paul states it, in an exchange of the “glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man” (Romans 1:23), all men worship. Unredeemed worship is simply, and often, the worship of self. It is ignorant worship. It is false worship.
The gospel-borne believer understands the temporal futility and the eternal consequence of false worship. The gospel has illumined our understanding and the very Spirit of God, by the power of God through that gospel (Romans 1:17), has made us a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). As a result of our regeneration, and as we grow in our desire for the milk of the Word (1 Pet. 2:2) and consumption of its solid food (Heb. 5:12), we recognize the serious and due expectation from God to worship Him alone (Exodus 20:1-4) and to do so as He desires, “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
In other words, we know that our worship is to be informed, not ignorant; thoughtful, not careless; and deliberately directed to Him rather than to the fancies of imagination bound up in self-worship. We have the perfect revelation from God about God in the Word of God that teaches us. As James tells us, “In the exercise of His will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18).
The Danger of “Worship Experiences”
But there are, within a large swath of contemporary evangelicalism, many churchgoers who don’t recognize the need for informed worship. They’ve been ecclesiastically reared on the notion, not of worship, but of a “worship experience.” Churches that foist this notion upon people are, knowingly or not, misdirecting worship away from God and, instead, back to the same target audience of unredeemed worship, that is, back to self.
“Worship experience” is little more than the commercial jargon of the church growth machinery of pop Christianity. Its redefinition of worship represents a subtle, but very dangerous, reorientation. In the promise and pursuit of “experience,” it takes the intention of worship and makes it sensual; we want to “feel” like we've worshiped. Churches strive to produce a service that produces these feelings and, in so doing, necessarily reorient the attention of worship, making the audience the focus, rather than God.
Because the “experience” is orchestrated for you, you don’t need to be thoughtful. You don’t need to be informed. You are the passive recipient of “worship” activity aimed at you. The “worship experience” doesn’t require what biblical worship does: thoughtful, informed, deliberate worship solely directed to “the Lord our Maker (Psalm 95:6). Recall that, even from old, the Lord shows holy disdain for uninformed worshipers: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). Divine judgment comes for human rejection of divine truth.
The “worship experience” will find God mentioned, prayed to, and the Bible cited, but the attention of the endeavor is towards the churchgoer, and the intention is to produce sensations of worship in them. We get a glimpse of the worst case results of such an endeavor from the apostle Peter who, speaking of false teachers, says, “Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be maligned” (2 Peter 2:2). The “worship experience” that features heavy doses of choreographed components designed to elicit emotional sensations, has, by design, maligned the way of truth. God and His Word become merely accessories necessary to complete the illusion that worship is what’s going on. But the sensation-rich, uninformed pewsitter as the focus isn't biblical worship; it isn't worship as God desires, “in spirit and in truth.”
The danger for multitudes of professing believers today is that they are or might get caught up in the popular pursuit of a “worship experience” and, though believing they are worshiping rightly, come to discover that what is heavy on sensual “experience” is actually light, or void, of genuine “worship.” Such worship easily becomes what the Lord described in Isaiah:
“Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words, And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote” Isaiah 29:13
Lest you argue that the Lord’s reference to “their hearts” in Isaiah isn’t applicable to the contemporary “worship experience” – after all, just consider all the excitement and enthusiasm they generate – understand that “heart” in Scripture isn’t used as we use it in our emotions-driven Western culture. As Wilhelmus A’ Brakel writes in The Christian’s Reasonable Service, in Scripture, “The heart encompasses the intellect, will, and affections.” The “worship experience” may be a fervent performance, but it is a performance designed to appeal to emotions, and not the mind. Such zeal is divinely disregarded when exhibited without knowledge (Romans 10:1-3, Proverbs 19:2).
Informed Christian Living and Christian Worship
Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives helpful guidance on the matter of informed Christian living, which, of course, includes our worship.
“The first great motive for Christian living is intellectual; it begins with the mind. Christians do not merely live according to their feelings and impulses; they are governed by their understanding of truth.”
What the renowned Welsh preacher intended is not to diminish our faith to a cold, clinical, purely intellectual endeavor. It's not simply our apprehension of, and consent to, gospel truth that defines our life or us as a Christian. Rather the totality of our life, including our worship, is to be informed and directed by the objective, immutable, divine truth of God's Word and not by our easily-manipulated, ever-changing, and deception-prone subjective emotions.
Our Lord, of course, affirms this. “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). Note what He did not say. It is not by pursuing good feelings, experiencing Holy Ghost-bumps, or being warmed by favorable “worship” sensations that we are His disciples, but by abiding in His word. The faith we’ve been gifted (Phil. 1:29, Eph. 2:9, 2 Pet. 1:1) is firmly founded on the Word of Christ. We aren't born again by truth only to then jettison that truth that we might live by feelings.
The Substance of Truth, Not The Sensations of “Experience”
While “worship experiences” hawked by scores of pop Christian ministries may be rich in zeal, capable of generating the sensations popularly associated with worship, they remain most often sheer performances for crowd approval. The theatrics necessary to produce the experience is evidence of a wrong motive. As Spurgeon has noted, “The sensuous delights of sight and sound have always been enlisted on the side of error, but Christ has employed nobler and more spiritual agencies.” Indeed, it is the “nobler and more spiritual agencies” which we find the apostle interceding for on behalf of the saints. Paul prays for them not sensational worship experiences, but for their growing knowledge of the Lord.
“For this reason I too, … do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” Eph. 1:15-18
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment“ Philippians 1:9
“… we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;” Colossians 1:9-13*
By God’s regenerative design and the Spirit’s sanctifying work in us through His Word (John 17:17, John 15:3), the Christian life is a life of informed, thoughtful, and deliberate worship. Lloyd-Jones states it: “You worship the living and the true God not merely in public services – that is part of it – but by the whole of your life.” The Welshman is here echoing the Word, for Paul exhorts us: “… present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship …” (Romans 12:1-2)
Matthew Henry has said, “It ought to be the business of every day to prepare for our last day.” Let us then eschew the self-serving sensuality of popular worship experiences (2 Pet. 2:2) and pursue rightly informed, deliberate, and active worship based upon divine truth. On the Lord’s Day, and each day in between, let us worship informed by our Lord's great and precious promises. Let us rejoice in the Word-produced joy (John 15:11) and incomprehensible peace that Christ gives us (John 14:27). Let our prayer be as Paul's, for growth in “the knowledge of God,” and let us obey his apostolic command to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7).
Our Lord defined for us eternal life not as feelings and impulses borne of sensual experience, but as our very knowledge of God. “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Let us praise God for this peculiar knowledge that has comes to us by His grace, as it did to Spurgeon's “certain divine.” In our worship, let us daily recount that glorious gospel of grace that has given us life, and life eternal. Then, with David, we may be rightly informed in our worship, and direct our worshipful gaze away from self and to the Lord our God:
“Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Yours is the dominion, O Lord, and You exalt Yourself as head over all.” (1 Chronicles 29:11)
Now that is informed worship. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
* A study of Paul's prayer in Colossians 1:9-13 gives a rich overview of the Christian life. The believer's faith is founded on the facts of God's truth, the knowledge of Him. The result is the form of the Christian's life that will be a “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord” that produces “fruit in every good work.” As a result of the facts, the Christian's faith in those facts, and the form of life produced as a result, the blessing of feelings, such as steadfastness, patience, and joy, is ours. Godly emotions are properly the result of our apprehension of divine facts, of eternal truth. But the Christian life always starts with truth, and, though we have the blessing of wonderful feelings, those feelings rightly come only as a result of the truth, not before it. Pursue truth first; the blessing of genuine emotions will follow.