Here’s a big claim: I think that almost all the most serious problems we run into when it comes to church gatherings have to do with a confusion between saving worship and saved worship.
Jesus’ saving worship
Saving worship is the worship that saves us.
You may have experienced in your own life how easily malice and disrespect can break a relationship. The gospel tells us that humanity’s continual disrespect towards our maker has damaged our relationship with him. Saving worship is about making that relationship right again – making peace with God.
The thing is, nothing we do can fix this relationship. God must make the first move. Saving worship can only happen on God’s initiative, by his grace. There is only one example of saving worship that works, and that is the worship performed by Jesus on our behalf.
Let’s have a look at Hebrews 10:8-14. The first thing to note is that human actions (i.e. worship offered in accordance with the Old Testament law) cannot save us:
Hebrews 10:8 First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” —though they were offered in accordance with the law.
Our worship does not cut it. That’s the first thing, and it’s the bad news. But there is a second thing, and it’s good news:
Hebrews 10:9 Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
The gospel tells us that what humanity was unwilling and unable to do, God sent Jesus to do on our behalf:
Hebrews 10:11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the only saving worship. Nothing that we do in church, nothing that we do in our lives, can make us right with him. Our good deeds do not cut it. Our prayers do not reconcile us. Our church services do not win him over. The only true saving worship is that performed by Jesus, which is why:
Acts 4:12 “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Our saved worship
Saved worship is the worship we can do once we are saved, and in response to Jesus’ sacrifice.
You might be wondering why then we keep using worship language to talk about things in the Christian life? Why do we have worship music? Church services? Why collect offerings of gifts for the poor? Surely this risks suggesting that our actions are able to make us acceptable to God?
The answer is simple. We talk about Christian life as worship because the writers of the New Testament do. For instance in Acts 13:
Acts 13:2 While they [the early church] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
But the difference between our worship and Jesus’ worship is that our worship is not saving worship. It’s saved worship.
Saved worship is the worship you can do once you’re already saved. It doesn’t make you right with God. And our saved worship (music, service, offerings etc) is only acceptable to God on the basis of Jesus’ saving worship:
Our saved worship must follow Jesus’ saving worship.
It can only follow Jesus’ saving worship.
And it always follows Jesus’ saving worship.
Let’s have a look at these examples of saved worship in the New Testament.
1. Saved worship includes love, hospitality and visiting prisoners
Hebrews 12 talks about what happens once we are saved:
Hebrews 12:28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us hold on to grace. By it, we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
See all those worship flavoured words? Serve, reverence, awe … they all follow the “therefore”. They are only possible because we’ve already received the benefits of Christ’s saving worship.
Then, having spoken about “serving God acceptably with reverence and fear”, the writer to the Hebrews goes on to give some specific examples of what a lifestyle of worship might look like.
Heb. 13:1 Let brotherly love continue. 2 Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it. 3 Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them
So our saved worship will include specific acts of love for those in need. These can happen anywhere, including (but not only) when the church meets together.
2. Saved worship includes collections for the needy
In several places, the apostle Paul describes the collection of money for the poor by a church as a type of worship. I have put the worship language in bold:
Romans 15:25 Right now I am traveling to Jerusalem to serve [Greek: diakonon] the saints, 26 for Macedonia and Achaia, were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 Yes, they were pleased, and indeed are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual benefits, then they are obligated to minister [Greek: leitourgeo, meaning to worship or serve in a sacrificial system] to Jews in material needs.
2 Corinthians 9:10 Now the One who provides seed for the sower and bread for food will provide and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to God through us. 12 For the ministry of this service [Greek: leitourgia, meaning worship or service in a sacrificial system] is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to God. 13 They will glorify God for your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with others through the proof provided by this service [Greek: diakonia, meaning service or ministry].
Philippians 4:18 But I have received everything in full, and I have an abundance. I am fully supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you provided—a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice [Greek: thusia], pleasing to God.
3. Saved worship includes praising God
Whether in church gatherings or outside, sung or said, praise of God is described as a type of sacrifice, alongside sharing with others:
Hebrews 13:15 Therefore, through Him let us continually offer up to God a sacrifice [Greek: thusia] of praise, that is, the fruit of our lips that confess His name. 16 Don’t neglect to do what is good and to share, for God is pleased with such sacrifices [Greek: thusia].
4. Saved worship includes Christian ministry
Paul describes his own work as an apostle in sacrificial terms:
Romans 15:14 My brothers, I myself am convinced about you that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. 15 Nevertheless, I have written to remind you more boldly on some points because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister [Greek: leitourgos, meaning someone who serves in a sacrificial system] of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, serving as a priest [Greek: hierourgeo] of God’s good news. My purpose is that the offering [Greek: prosphora] of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
This worship ministry takes the specific forms of evangelism, preaching and prayer (Rom 1:8-15)
5. And (of course) saved worship includes our whole lives
As well as the specific acts seen above, the Bible speaks about our whole lives as saved worship.
Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice [Greek: thusia], holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship [Greek: latreia].
As a side note, some people have suggested that only talk about worship in this “whole of life” way, and not talk about church services as worship at all. This might help some people avoid talking about church as if it’s the only real type of worship (which as we’ve seen it is not!), but it also has the distinct disadvantage of not being biblical. Also, as Don Carson points out, it takes away one very important way of speaking about our church gatherings:
“if one uses the term worship only in its broadest and theologically richest sense [i.e. as all of life], then sooner or later one finds oneself looking for a term that embraces the particular activities of the gathered people of God described in the New Testament. For lack of a better alternative, I have chosen the term corporate worship — but I recognise the ambiguities inherent in it” (D. A. Carson, “Worship Under the Word”, in Worship by the Book, 49).
Saved worship is not saving worship
The Bible’s picture of saved worship is much much bigger than most people realise.
- Saved worship is a general attitude of life and in specific acts.
- Saved worship can be done as individuals or as a church gathered together.
And yet none of this worship makes us right with God. God doesn’t hear us because of our musical excellence, or even our sincere hearts. When a relationship is broken by disrespect, even otherwise nice things become soured (the kiss of an unrepentant adulterer makes the innocent party flinch at its insincerity). So it is with our worship if we are not reconciled with God:
Isaiah 64:6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
Without Christ’s saving worship, our songs are not the kind of music God wants to hear.
Without Christ’s saving worship, our prayers are not acceptable to God. God doesn’t hear us because of the length or passion or wording of our prayers.
Without Christ’s saving worship, our lives are not an acceptable sacrifice to God. God does not love us because of our good works or our right behaviour or our standing in society.
These works are filthy rags, except through Jesus’ saving worship.
For more detail see David Peterson’s excellent Biblical theology of worship, Engaging with God. See also Worship By the Book edited by D. A. Carson.