Toward Defining What We Mean by “Worship”
A substantial amount of what is said about worship by evangelicals today is folderol. That means foolishness or nonsense. I could have just used those terms, but I like the word “folderol” better. Emotional states don’t constitute worship, nor does music, nor does a particular order of service. The genuineness of worship is not determined by the building in which the church gathers, the technology we use in a service, or how trendy our clothes are. In fact, I would argue that worship in the Bible is not even primarily focused on the gathered assembly but is more often a matter of a way of life within the context of the community of faith that lives among the world in order to propose the truth of a better world. Worship is, put another way, the believer’s response in all of life to the Great Commandment (to love God) in light of the Father’s demonstration of His immense love toward sinners in Jesus Christ by His Spirit.
It is my conviction that in order to properly practice worship we need to understand what constitutes true (or “genuine”) worship. That there is worship that is false is made plain enough in the Scriptures. The Bible shows us that all forms of idolatry are false worship, and we even see that what God has prescribed as worship may be so perverted by us that it is unacceptable to Him. One need only refer to Cain’s attempt at worship (Genesis 4) or Saul’s (1 Samuel 15) to observe this. And Jesus taught the woman at the well (John 4) that there is a kind of worship – “worship in spirit and truth” – that is true and that those who worship God in this manner are the kinds of worshipers the Father seeks. That God seeks such worshipers indicates that He isn’t seeking those who worship otherwise. So, I propose that what we believe worship is matters greatly, as does the answer to the question about who we worship, not to mention how we worship. I want to address the “what” and “who” questions in this post. We’ll sort out the “how” question in subsequent posts.
I think the simplest answer to the question “What is worship” is found in the answer Jesus gave to the question: Teacher, what is the great commandment in the law? (Matt 22:36). Jesus answered that to love God completely is the great and first commandment, reminding us that the first part of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God tells us to forsake idolatry and worship God alone. So, a relationship with God that involves total allegiance to God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one who is the Creator of the heavens and earth, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is at the heart of genuine worship. And this answer provides the answer to our “who” question. Genuine worship is given to the one true living God, and to no other.
There is another important matter to be considered, which is to clarify that “worship” is not defined completely, or even mainly, in terms of what the gathered church does each Sunday from 11:00-Noon. Such assemblies should in fact be occasions of worship, but worship in the Bible is much broader and richer than that. The Bible communicates a doctrine of worship that is an “all of life” worship, a lifestyle of devotion to God. In Romans 12:1-3 Paul piles up liturgical language from the Greek Old Testament to describe how we devote our entire selves, including our bodies, to worship God. Paul is not describing a public worship service, he is describing the devotion of all we are, everywhere we are, and at all times. In light of the gospel (“in view of God’s mercies, as Paul puts it), this is the reasonable, logical response of humans to the glory and grace of God, to sacrifice our very beings to him.
I am grateful that we’ve had a few prominent evangelicals think well about worship in recent years, and they have produced some good definitions to help guide us to think rightly about worship. Here are a few that are anything but folderol; they are wise descriptions of worship:
- “Worship is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord” (John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth).
- Worship is “an engagement with God on the terms that He proposes and in the way that He alone makes possible” (David Peterson, Engaging with God).
- “Worship is the believer’s response of all that he is – mind, emotions, will, and body – to all that God is and says and does” (Warren Wiersbe, Real Worship).
Each of these definitions tells us something about worship. Worship is work, acknowledgement, engagement, and response. No one of them tells us everything, but that is not surprising given the reality that worship is defined in terms of God himself. He is inexhaustible, so I doubt that our description of what it is to worship Him can be summed up easily. I have for some time used this as a “working definition” of worship with our students:
Worship is the human response to the self-revelation of the triune God, which includes:
- (1) divine initiation in which God graciously reveals Himself, His purposes, and His will;
- (2) a spiritual and personal relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ enabled by the ministry of the Holy Spirit;
- (3) a response by the worshiper of joyful adoration, reverence, humility, submission, and obedience.
Again, we could say more than this, and it could be put differently. But observe that the “who” question is answered – the triune God alone is to be worshiped – and the “what” question is answered – worship is the believer’s response, offered, as Peterson aptly states it, on God’s terms and in the way He alone makes possible. So, the next time someone suggests that “worship” is “music” or some such nonsense, you can say, “Hey, enough with the folderol,” and you can, instead, pursue the reasonable response to God’s glory and grace – the true worship of God.