WORSHIP IN SPIRIT
Extracts from an address by Geoffrey Thomas*
Today everybody knows about worship. So they imagine! They acknowledge that they- do not know about the Trinity, or about justification by faith, or about the person and work of Christ, but they are confident about their understanding of worship, because worship is what they feel good after.
A Samaritan woman was ready to discuss worship with Jesus Christ: Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem (John 4.20). Is one place better than another? Is the criterion for that choice the knowledge that our fathers worshipped in this place? People will leave a congregation today and will say to the minister that they can no longer ‘worship’ in this ‘Jerusalem’, and so they are going to the ‘mountain’, or vice versa. The only explanation they can offer is that in one place they feel they are worshipping, but not in the other.
The danger of such an attitude is evident. There was once a Pharisee who had been worshipping in the temple and afterwards felt good. He was sure that he had been in worship; he had really praised God that he was different from other men, that he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of everything that he had. There was also another man who had been in the temple at the same time, but he felt wretched about his life and the worship that he brought to God. Yet the Lord looked at those two and came to utterly different conclusions about their worship. The Pharisee had in fact been praying to himself and God deplored his aura of self-conscious smugness, while the other man’s worship gave vast pleasure to God and he left the temple forgiven. Their feelings were no guide for assessing their worship.
The church at Laodicea was similarly deluded. Here was a whole congregation which felt enriched after a time of worship. Its membership was singularly creative; its liturgy was out of this world and its giving to missions was amazing. It felt that it lacked nothing, and existed to give to all. But God again came to a different verdict about the congregation: It was a wretched church, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Revelation 3.17). All its feelings about itself were deluded because it did not understand what true worship was.
When Jesus spoke to the woman in Samaria he told her that ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth’ (John 4.24). That means God is not flesh and bone, nor is He emotion and feeling. He is not on a mountain or in a city. He is not simply everywhere and anywhere. He is spirit. He is utterly different from us in
*Based on part of an address given by the author at the 1987 Leicester Ministers’ Conference, and published in the Banner of Truth, 1987.
His being. We have no experience of anyone who can compare to Him. He is wholly unlike us. He does not offer to us some option that is always open to us to take. He is present in His own realm, totally self-sufficient and self-integrated, in need of nothing that any creature can bring to Him, dependent upon no support system at all. Father, Son and Holy Ghost is spirit, and the only access man has to Him is if he worships in spirit and in truth. All other worship is but ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’.
The only possible way men may worship this God is by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Everything else is an exercise in self-delusion. It means at the most basic level that an un-born-again man cannot worship. He can go to a place of worship, and perform acts of worship, and lead in worship, and teach about worship and even write books about worship, but he cannot himself worship unless he is born of the Holy Spirit, thus being made a spiritual man. After that first essential step every ensuing act of worship must always be in spirit. He must sing and pray and give fellowship in the Spirit. He must preach with the Spirit sent down from heaven, and others may receive his ministry so that it enlightens and sanctifies only by the same Spirit,
Men have to face up to the danger of trying to worship without the Holy Spirit. That was what characterized the Laodicean congregation. It could see only too clearly its riches and yet was blind to the fact that the Lord who is the Spirit was not in the midst of the worship. He was outside the congregation, knocking at the church door for admission to the assembly. They had such singing, praying, preaching and stewardship, but they did not have Christ, and they did not know it.
That awareness was a reality for Paul: he knew that he might go somewhere in the name of Christ and yet without the Holy Spirit. He reminds the Corinthians that he had been with them ‘in weakness and in fear and in much trembling’. It was not that he had been afraid of the men of Corinth but that he knew what a responsibility rested upon him, and that he might get the message wrong. He had experienced what it was to speak and only beat the air. A preacher can grieve or quench the Holy Spirit, and the dove flies away. He must have divine enabling to make these truths life and spirit.
Does the church view with proper soberness the fearful possibility of evangelism, preaching, praise: stewardship and worship all without the Holy Spirit, and no-one noticing His absence’?
What is even more disturbing is the fact that there is no method that can ensure the saving and sanctifying presence of the Spirit when we speak or sing or gather in the name of Christ. No creature can give to others the formula for some sure-fire guaranteed way of having God to work in their midst. We might as easily command the wind to blow! Man is locked to his own impotence without the Holy Spirit, and to the
knowledge that it is God’s sovereign prerogative to pour Him forth whether in baptizing one person or a crowd of three thousand.
Everywhere around us are all the attempts of professing churches to compensate for Spiritless worship, and to carry on so enthusiastically in His absence that no one notices that God is not there. There is no end to what forms of religion-can be performed without the Holy Spirit. The world is full of’ carnal evangelism. Babies are sprinkled with water by a man in special clothes, words are repeated and the infants are pronounced regenerate. Teenagers are led through four simple statements, made to repeat a formula ‘prayer’ and then are told that they are Christians. An audience is worked over by a communicator who has learned how easy it is to get people out of their seats and to the front where again another person can assure them that they are now Christians. They can even become ‘Spirit-filled’ people, without the Holy Spirit, if they are taught that there are two stages to the Christian life and that those who speak in tongues have reached the second higher phase. Full-time service without the Holy Spirit is a disturbing possibility as the lives of Wesley, Chalmers and Kuyper indicate Â— all of them beginning their ministries as unregenerate preachers. Prayers can be prayed, and arduous journeys made to gain one convert, and even costly giving displayed, all without the Spirit. Jesus Himself told us that the Pharisees did precisely that.
What worship does the Spirit bless?
1. Worship in which much is made of Jesus Christ
When Jesus was speaking of the ministry of the Holy Spirit He said of Him, ‘He shall testify of me’ (John 15.26). There is very little in the New Testament about congregational worship but there is a vast amount about Jesus Christ, as though the essence of doxology is to make much of Him. The early church was full of the Lord Jesus: ‘they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy’ (Luke 24.52). Their hymns centred on Him: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing’ (Revelation 5.12). They gloried in Jesus Christ, magnifying Him as a prophet, priest and king, the Son of God, creator, sustainer, mankind’s only Saviour and the Judge of all the earth.
The greatest way to honour the Holy Spirit is to exalt Jesus Christ. We gather together and He is in the midst of our corporate mentality in the sense that we all think so much of Him that we will not allow anything to push Him to the fringes. We want to grow in our understanding of His personality and what He does moment by moment. It is Him that we preach to the world, telling men that when they meet Him they are meeting ultimate reality. There is a uniqueness about Christian worship which is not of its form and emotion but of the object towards which this adoration is directed. We worship One who was dead but now lives. We
approach One who is seated in the midst of the throne of heaven as God’s only begotten Son. We ascribe to Him all divine honour, glory, love and praise because we see in Him the God who made us, saved us and who one day will assign to us our eternal destiny.
It is here that men’s worship is tested and found wanting. The Lord said to the woman of Samaria, ‘Ye worship ye know not what’. There are congregations everywhere who are worshipping a vanity and whose whole approach to Jesus Christ is futile. They speak words that disappear into an atmosphere of non-existence or into a world of irrelevance!
2. Worship in which is felt the exceeding wickedness of sin
Again when Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit he said, ‘And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment’ (John 16.81). It is the other aspect of the see-saw principle of evangelical theology. When Jesus Christ is lifted high, then man must be brought down low. The greater our grasp of the depravity of man the more honour we will find ourselves ascribing to Jesus Christ and His redemption.
Our worship is full of words of thanksgiving, which is meet. But we must acknowledge that thanks does not flow from us by nature. Are these just ‘words?’ Are we just thanking God for something that we have ourselves experienced as a need? Frans Bakker says, ‘I’m afraid that often thanksgiving is made for forgiveness of sin, while sin has never become a burden. Thanksgiving can be given for Jesus'” blood without knowing experientially the preciousness of that blood’ (Praying Always, p.37).
What was wrong with that Pharisee who thought so well of his own worship? He felt that he was not like other men when in fact he was exactly like every man who is ignorant of his sinful nature and so fusses over the sins of others. His prayer was completely selfish: ‘Isn’t it arrogant for a man to dare to draw near to his Creator as if nothing happened in paradise? Man is a fallen creature, and that is terrible! But it is much worse when we ignore our fallen state and never bemoan the deep abyss that resulted. What an abomination this prayer must be in the eyes of a righteous God! … There is no more hopeless condition than having no awareness of sin. How shall we appear before the Lord with our own righteousness? Even our good works are filthy rags, says Scripture. They are no more than glittering sins, because in the final analysis, like the Pharisee, we still give honour to ourselves … The Lord doesn’t ask for many things; He asks only for love. He prefers to see a fallen Peter at His feet, who with bitter tears acknowledges that he has sinned against all the commandments, but who can call God as witness that he still loves Him’ (Frans Bakker, Praying Always, pp 39-41).
The Spirit of God honours that witness to the state of man in sin.When there have been great awakenings and multitudes of people brought to worship and adore God it has been under preaching that has told them clearly of their plight. Conversely, when sin is not exposed the Holy Spirit withdraws His influences. Under Jonathan Edwards’ preaching there was an unusual work of God in Northampton, Massachusetts. His analysis of the time in which he lived was this: ‘Was there ever an age wherein there has been so little sense of the evil of sin? … Our people do not so much need to have their heads stored as to have their hearts touched, and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching which has the greatest tendency to do this. Those texts, Isaiah 58.1, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins”, and Ezekiel 6.11, “Thus saith the Lord God, Smite with thine hand, and stamp with thy foot, and say, Alas, for all the evil abominations of the house of Israel!” ‘ (Works 1, p.391). It was this testimony to man’s sinful condition that the Holy Spirit blessed greatly so that there was a new reality about public worship that had not been there before. There can be no spiritual worship without the congregation having experienced conviction for its sins.
3. Worship in which the unity of the Spirit is maintained
How can a people who tolerate the sins and errors that divide them know the blessings of the Holy Spirit? At one time in the life of the church in Jerusalem its congregation was split into two groups, one meeting to eat around one table and a second group at another. There was a demarcation zone marking the bounds of these two fellowships and the apostolic leadership kept it rigidly. Of course they would meet together for corporate worship where they would preach and prophesy, sing to Jesus and pray for one another Â— when all the while these glaring divisions tore the congregation apart. No one was spiritual enough to deal with this, because in the last analysis there was none who had sufficient love for Jesus Christ. Then Paul came along, ‘one born out of due time; the least of the apostles and not worthy to be called an apostle’. He saw it, and it grieved him so much that he found spiritual strength to go to its source. He approached Peter and withstood him to the face because he was to be blamed for this carnality.
There is no way a fellowship is going to be the communion of the Holy Spirit in which the people are not prepared to sit down and eat together. Paul wrote, ‘When I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel I said unto Peter…’ (Galatians 2.14). The time for praying about it had ended and now there was a speaking to men and a confessing of sins to be done in order for oneness to be achieved in the church with the sin that divided the body of Christ put away. How important is that? It is all important, because disunity in the church strikes at the whole focus of the work of Christ: His purpose was
to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross. (Ephesians 2.15).
When those in leadership in a congregation see sinful division then that cannot be covered over by focusing upon the music, preaching, church activities and body life. That wickedness has to be dealt with by Biblical pastoring. It is an absolute fundamental for knowing the blessing of the Holy Spirit’s presence. That was Paul’s concern for the Roman church: ‘Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 15.5-6). So many of Paul’s letters are written to deal with divisions that prevented churches expressing their unity of mind and mouth in worshipping God. It was the determined application of the truth to their consciences, with all the boldness and authority of an apostle, that was needed.
We live in days of strained relationships and divisions within the church; groups secede and start new works at the drop of a hat. Yet these are also times characterized by an obsession with liturgical experimentation. The buzz words are ‘exciting’ and ‘creative’ ; they have become the justification for any innovation aimed at pepping up our tired old worship. The tragedy of the hour can be seen in that we, have immense moral and doctrinal problems largely stemming from an ignorance of the power of truth but what is the preoccupation of Christians? With forms and structures of worship.
So where does one find Christian oneness in a congregation? It is where the Euodias and Syntyches’ formerly antagonistic become of one mind in the Lord, and where each deems the other better than himself, and where folk forget their ‘rights’ and remember the dying love of Jesus Christ, and where there is pastoral leadership and example in dealing with people and issues that divide. Then there is that spiritual worship of one mind and one mouth which is the communion of the Holy Ghost.
4. Worship in which the Spirit is acknowledged to be the Spirit of Holiness
It is a truism that the church is not a building but people; more relevantly they are a people who have become the temple of the Holy Spirit, and to whom belong the titles ‘holy nation’ and ‘holy priesthood’. They are deeply concerned with their daily conduct, that there might be a consistency about everything that they do.
Jesus spoke of a people who honoured Him with words but whose hearts were far from Him (Matthew 15.8). When the church assembles on the Lord’s Day one of the purposes for which it gathers together is to hear again God’s great requirements for Christian living and to resolve
with new determination to live the life portrayed in Matthew 5, 6 and 7, Ephesians 5 and 6, the Epistle to James and so on. Holiness can he attained only through living by such passages, and it is the Spirit of God alone who can enable men so to live:
For every virtue we possess,
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness,
Is his alone.
But when such behaviour is considered an incidental aspect of Christianity then the Holy Spirit is grieved. The attitude He engenders is a hungering and thirsting for righteousness. J. C. Ryle talks about a Christianity which, like the sap of a tree, runs through the twig and leaf of our character and sanctifies all.
Such worship is characterized by holy attitudes, words and actions. It is unlike the behaviour of natural men when they gather together. Even forty years ago A. W. Tozer was noticing the decline in the quality of Christian worship which he traced to an absence of what he called ‘the wine of the Spirit’. He said, ‘God’s people have turned to the amusements of the world to try to squeeze a bit of juice out of them for the relief of their dry and joyless hearts. ‘Gospel’ boogie singing now furnishes for many persons the only religious joy they know. Others wipe their eyes tenderly over ‘gospel’ movies, and a countless number of amusements flourish everywhere, paid for by the consecrated tithes of persons who ought to know better. Our teachers took away our right to be happy in God and the human heart wreaked its terrible vengeance by going on a fleshly binge from which the evangelical church will not soon recover, if indeed it ever does. For multitudes of professing Christians today the Holy Spirit is not a necessity. They have learned to cheer their hearts and warm their hands at other fires. And scores of publishers and various grades of ‘producers’ are waxing fat on their delinquency’ (The Root of the Righteous, p.69).
5. Worship which is one aspect of a whole life of acts of private devotion
There is no way that those who neglect secret worship can know communion with God in the public services of the Lord’s Day. Many of the phenomena we now witness in corporate worship are designed to minister to people who are strangers to the life of private fellowship with Christ. Instead of the simplicity of New Testament worship, in which we come directly into the very presence of God through the merits of Christ and pray and praise and then hear Him speak to us through His Word, many congregations today must spectate a host of personalities who all play their parts in word and music, mime and drama. It is done, of course, in the name of people’s ‘gifts’, and is
designed to ‘brighten things up a bit’, and make God more interesting. Its invariable effect is to make Him more remote.
The concept of discipline is today considered to be the very antithesis of ‘real’ worship which is felt to be uninhibitedly unstructured and free. Anyone who knows the struggle of maintaining a daily time of prayer will value the grace of self-control. Jesus said, ‘Men ought always to pray, and not to faint'(Luke 18.1), That resistance to indifference is as necessary in public worship as in the private means of grace, and only those who are successful in secret will prevail in public.
There must be private and personal prayer. What will it profit us to hear or even pray the most eloquent public prayer if we have no knowledge of an intimate relationship with God? If we have not personally learned what it is to pray we will meet an unknown God after death. ‘There is no spiritual life if the activity of secret prayer is missing. Prayer is the breath of the soul. Just as the body cannot live without breathing, so the soul cannot live without prayer. A mineworker will die if contact with outside air is cut off. So it is in spiritual life when there is no communication with heaven. If there is no prayer, the soul cannot breathe. It is by prayer that the soul has communion with God’ (Praying Always, Frans Bakker, p.13).
The Pharisee stood in the temple and prayed with himself. Jesus will say to such a man in that great day, ‘Depart from me: [never knew you’. The Pharisee had never really been alone with God. But of those who pray in secret it is said, ‘And thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly’. The very walls of the place in which we meet on Sundays can testify of our presence and how we approached God in the midst of the brethren, but how will the rooms in our home speak of our devotion? Will this floor say that we kneeled here to pray? Will these walls say that they heard our voices raised in adoration? Will that door say that we shut it to be in secret to seek God’s face?
6. Worship which reflects a whole walk in the Spirit
Whereas many think that the reality of their religion is demonstrated by their Sunday attendance in church, if the Christian faith is not a daily relationship with God it is nothing at all. The early believers in the Lord Jesus spoke of their life as ‘the way’. It was a whole manner of living, and what characterized it above everything else was a walk with God. `Walk in the Spirit,’ Paul exhorts the Galatians (5.16 and 25).
Walking with anyone expresses a uniform and intimate fellowship with him, and in this sense the Bible speaks of our relationship with the Spirit. It presupposes His personality, which makes possible personal communion, and it is thus we must always think of Him, He is accessible to us and can hear and communicate with us. We cannot walk with the angel Gabriel, though we believe in his personality. We believe in the continued personal existence of ‘all the saints who from their
labours rest’, but we cannot walk with them. But now through Jesus Christ we can walk in the Spirit.
`Every Christian walks in the Spirit’, says someone. Would that it were so! There was a time in the life of the psalmist when he acknowledged that iniquities prevailed against him from day to day. When Lot lingered in Sodom was he walking in the Spirit? As David stayed at home away from the field of conflict and wandered about on the roof of his palace, was he walking in the Spirit? Did the church at Laodicea walk in the Spirit? This is a high attainment and it implies more than a description of the privilege of regeneration or of occasional times of prayer. There is all the difference between a fitful relationship with God and walking in the Spirit. It is like the difference between occasional visits to a conference where one meets highly respected men of God, and our daily living with the members of our own families.
To walk in the Spirit means a close steady open relationship with Him. There is an abiding sense of His presence and His favour towards us. Our feelings and thoughts go out towards Him. We address our desires to Him for guidance, help and comfort, and experience His response. This walk is with another, and the fellowship is not one-sided. He communicates with us as He does not do so with the world. He assures us of His love and awakens in us a confidence in His promises, bringing them to our minds and giving us grace to know their reality. In this we receive the answers to our requests, and so our faith is renewed and our love rekindled, so He manifests Himself to our souls. This is not imaginary, it is real. This is not emotionalism: it does not suppose anything revelatory or miraculous: there are no voices or unintelligent impulses. It is the consciousness of the presence of the infinite Spirit with our spirits, and the conviction that He hears and answers us.
Jesus told us it was necessary to worship in the Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is there, in grace and power, the most prosaic order of service will light up and become vibrant with reality and spiritual life. It is the Holy Spirit that we need to make our worship a living thing. And always we must pray:
O Breath of life, come sweeping through us,
Revive thy church with life and power
O Breath of life, come, cleanse, renew us,
And fit thy church to meet this hour.
Yet having striven to do this there is no guarantee that then we can be assured of His saving presence powerfully working in our midst. If He chooses to bless then these are the means He always honours but it is His sovereign prerogative to give the increase.