The Nature of Acceptable Worship
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The Nature of Acceptable Worship

John 4:19–26  (ID: 2227)

Because man was created to praise his Maker, worship is both the chief business of the church on earth and the constant activity of the church in heaven. God, however, is not indifferent to how, what, and why we worship. Alistair Begg addresses these issues, reminding us that true worship can only come from one whom God has made spiritually alive.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 3

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23003

Sermon Transcript: Print

I was mentioning this yesterday, so I thought I would just use it this morning. We’ll pray together, and then we’ll turn to the Scriptures. But this is the Order for Morning Prayer, which is to be said daily throughout the year and begins as follows:

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moves us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with a humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain the forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought at all times humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we most chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart and humble voice unto the throne of the heavenly grace.

And then the worship leader would lead the people in the statement of the General Confession, which I want to read for you:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against your holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. But you, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; spare them, O God, who confess their faults, restore them that are penitent, according to your promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of your holy name.[1]

Father, we pray that these ancient words may fuel our minds and stir our hearts to the awareness that in you we live and move and have our being.[2] That if we made our journey to the highest point of the universe, still you would be there. If we were to descend to the depths of the ocean, you would be there. You are the God who knows our downsitting and our upstanding, the words of our mouths before we even speak them.[3] And that you, the creator of the universe, should take such interest in what you’ve made is an immense wonder, and even greater that you should pursue us to the extent of Calvary, in order that you might redeem for yourself a people that are your very own,[4] ready to declare the praises of him who has called us out of darkness into your marvelous light.[5]

We pray that you would bless these remaining hours to us this morning, as we thank you for the company of one another, for the encouragement we have derived from being even able to look upon one another and to hear of the way in which you are blessing your Word in a whole variety of contexts and places throughout the nation. We’re humbled by this, and we long to see more and more evidence of the power of your Spirit, through the Word of Truth, multiplied to the salvation of men and women and to the strengthening of those who seek to follow you. To this end, we ask for your help now. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

What I’d like to do—I set myself the task of doing—is start with saying some what I hope will be biblically accurate things about the nature of acceptable worship, and then take some time for questions and answers, because I think that it would be a helpful dialogue. It may only give us a shorter time, but I think that it will be profitable to do so. And many of our questions and comments, I think, will be of encouragement to one another.

I had thought to start tangentially and move in with a vast file of information that I have on worship—to start by reading you some of the letters that I have received over the years that have told me just how unblessed people are getting as a result of worshipping with me. And then I thought, “No, it starts it off on the wrong foot,” and if I were to drop down dead in the course of it, I would have done nothing that was profitable or beneficial at all, whereas if I fall down in the midst of the teaching of the Bible, at least you’re all left with your Bibles open, and you can stay where we were. And you won’t be any the worse off for the absence of some of these glorious insights from the file, you know. So, I know you’re all intrigued by them now and can’t wait to hear from them, but anyway… You’re such a perverse group.

John 4:19, in the course of this amazing dialogue with the woman at the well. This, if you read most manuals on personal evangelism, is used, and I think with helpfulness. But when you get to verse 19, which is where I want to begin reading, most of the manuals say that at this point, the woman tried to get Jesus off the track, introduced a digressionary tactic, and that what you see Jesus doing is masterfully making sure that he doesn’t get caught up in a red herring. The more I’ve read John 4, and the more I’ve thought about this, and the more I recognize the response of the woman, I don’t think that she’s doing anything other than asking a fundamental question about the nature of where forgiveness really lies. And her soul has been so stirred within her that she begins to recognize that there is a phenomenal need in her life for forgiveness. That takes her then in her thinking to the place of worship. That raises the question which is confronting her, inasmuch as she is being addressed now by a Jewish rabbi.

And so she says, “‘Sir … I can see that you[’re] a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’

“Jesus [said], ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.’

“The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’

“Then Jesus declared, ‘I who speak to you am he.’”

The Vital Importance of Worship

Well, here in these few verses, in a context that is not immediately one that we would expect to look for instruction on worship, Jesus provides for us certain timeless and definitive instruction.

There can actually be no more vital theme for God’s people to consider than the matter of worship. And we must make sure that we do not confuse singing with worship. Praise—vocal, musically accompanied praise—may be a constituent part of worship, but it is not the totality of worship. So, for example, to use the phrase “Now let’s just have a time of worship” in the course of the gathering of God’s people for worship is actually to use terminology in an inaccurate way and in a way that divorces the whole dimension of what it means to be involved in the praise of God.

Why can there be no more vital theme for the people of God to consider? Well, first of all, because worship is the constant activity of the church in heaven. Worship is the constant activity of the church in heaven. When you turn, for example, to Revelation 7, into that glorious vision that is provided for us there, with this multitude in white robes, John says, “[And] I looked and there before me was a great multitude,” he says, “that no one [can] count.”[6] It came out of every context of the world, and what were the people doing? Well, they were dressed in white robes, they were holding palm branches in their hands, and they were crying out “in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,’”[7] and the angels were joining in with this great cacophony of praise.

There can be no more vital theme for God’s people to consider than the matter of worship.

The prospect of heaven will never be brighter, the reality of heaven will never be closer, than when God’s children are involved in acceptable worship. And just as an aside, I think I would have to say that the only occasions when I have felt the idea of the curtain of heaven just being pulled back ever so slightly for me to get a little peek in through the corner of it and see it has been within the framework of worship—and sometimes in a funeral service, interestingly, where you have this compelling realization that here in the resurrected Christ is the answer to the loss of this one. And when now we stand to sing,

Crown him with many crowns,
The Lamb upon his throne.
Hark! How the heav’nly anthem drowns
All music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing
Of him who died for thee,[8]

you know, suddenly you just say, “Well, maybe this is just a little touch of what this is going to be like.”

It’s of vital importance, then, because it’s the constant activity of the church in heaven. Secondly, because it is the chief business of the church on earth. The chief business of the church on earth. That becomes clear from what Jesus is saying here in John 4. Jesus offers to the woman the water of life, which will quench her deepest longings. But, as it were, behind that, God the Father is seeking worshippers. And so the message to the woman about water is in accord with the fact that God the Father is seeking worshippers, and as Jesus explains to the woman the answer to the deepest problems of her life, it is in order that another might be added to the company that is described there in Revelation chapter 7. So as we share the Gospel with men and women, it is in the awareness that other voices will be added to the swelling chorus of worship, as we prepare on earth to do what we’re going to do all of the time in heaven.

And the psalmist says that man redeemed by grace has been created to praise—Psalm 102:18. He says we have been created to praise. The very reason for our existence is, as the Shorter Scottish Catechism tells us in answering number 1, “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[9] So we go to our friends and neighbors and are able to say to them that “God who made you is worthy of your praise. And it is a dreadful thing that you are praising yourself and loving yourself and glorifying yourself rather than glorifying God. It is a dreadful thing that your foolish heart has become darkened and you’ve begun to worship created things rather than the Creator himself.[10] And the good news is that he has sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to forgive you of your wretched sinfulness and to give you a new song and a new direction and a new identity and a new purpose. You’ve been created to praise. You need the Lord Jesus to turn you upside down, which is really to turn you the right way up. And when you do, your lips will declare his praise.” Very different from a very man-centered approach to the gospel, which says, “Wouldn’t you like to come to God? He’s just waiting for you. He’s really feeling quite forlorn this morning without you, and he’s just helplessly standing by in the hope that others might come along.” It’s dreadful stuff.

God Is Not Indifferent about Our Worship

Now, there are three things concerning worship about which God is never indifferent. Three things concerning worship about which God is never indifferent. First of all, as to whether we worship him. As to whether we worship. Worship is an obligation, in some sense; it’s not an option. We can’t excuse ourselves by saying we’re not cut out for it. Because man by his very nature, distinct from the beasts, knows that there is one to whom he owes allegiance, one before whom he should bow in reverence. And the fact is that man is a worshipper. Anthropology confirms this. No matter where people have gone in the world, no matter which civilization they have encountered, they have discovered that man worships. And the very essence of his sin is found in the object of his worship, which I’ve just referred to in Romans chapter 1. So God is not indifferent as to whether we worship.

Therefore, we have a divine mandate to say to our people, in terms of Hebrews 10, “You know, loved ones, you really shouldn’t be like those who forsake the assembling of themselves together.[11] I mean, this isn’t just the pastor trying to drum up a congregation. We apparently have reason by your testimony and by your baptism and by the things you’ve been declaring to believe that you understand that you’ve been created to praise—and that in the assembly of the worshipping congregation, we meet with God, not exclusively but significantly. Therefore, loved ones, take seriously the immense privilege of this.”

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. If, when I had left Scotland in 1983, somebody had sat down and told me how many times I would have the privilege of looking my father in the face and enjoying his company before he died, I’m not sure I could have made the journey and left him behind. And now that he’s gone—and others can identify with this—he’s not at the end of the phone, he’s not there to greet you, you have no access to his voice, you only have the memories of his heart; you say, “Man, I wish I’d had another hundred times to be with him.”

No matter where people have gone in the world, no matter which civilization they have encountered, they have discovered that man worships.

Now, of course, we don’t want to make our people think that the only place they’re meeting with God is in some kind of holy place, ’cause this is clearly not a holy place. There are no holy rooms in this building. And there certainly could never be one that was holier than another room. We do want to encourage our people to recognize that every day that they get up in the morning, God is not indifferent about whether they are worshipping him. Worshipping him in the way in which they dress. Worshipping him in the way in which they send the children off to school. Worshipping him in the way in which they drive to the office. Worshipping him in the way in which they greet their staff and their colleagues. Worshipping him in the way in which they put rivets into a piece of plywood. Worshipping him in every aspect of their lives. We understand that. But not at the expense of the gathered company of his people.

So he is not indifferent as to whether we worship him, and he’s not indifferent as to the object of our worship. As to the object of our worship. It is God and God alone that we worship. John 5:23, Jesus says, “That all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.” Now, we don’t need to camp there at all, do we? I need to move on.

God is not indifferent as to whether we worship, he’s not indifferent as to the object of our worship, and he is not indifferent as to the manner of our worship. And this, of course, brings us into the area where there’s so much confusion in our day. I don’t want to talk about the mode of worship; I want to talk about the manner of worship. Indeed, preoccupation with the mode of worship is one, I think, of the tactics of the Evil One, and so people are getting so steamed up about the mode of worship, they don’t give attention to the manner of worship. And the manner in which we come to whatever mode is actually of fundamental importance.

So let me say three things concerning the manner of acceptable worship. These are not new. I’m not gonna belabor them. They will be straightforward. I hope most of you’ll just be nodding your heads.

Biblical Worship

But first of all, that acceptable worship is biblical, being grounded in the truth of Scripture. It is biblical, being grounded in the truth of Scripture. Says Calvin, “All [our so-called] good intentions … are struck by [this] thunderbolt; [which tells us] that men can do nothing but err, when they are guided by their own opinion without the word [and] command of God.”[12] “Men can do nothing but err when they’re guided by their own opinion without the Word and command of God.”

Now, in the little passage that we have turned to, it is clear from what Jesus says in his conversation with the woman that worship in spirit and in truth is the outcome of the final revelation of God in Christ and of his saving work on the cross. So Christ’s references here in verse 21 and verse 23 are to the time and to the hour. “A time is coming.” “A time is coming and has now come.” To what does he refer? Well, clearly to his death and to his resurrection. Jesus exercised his ministry all the time—as it were, gazing into the face of individuals, and not least of all to the face of this dear woman—recognizing that in a relatively short period of time, the veil in the temple would be torn from top to bottom and the validity of ceremonial worship would actually be eroded, would depart.

And this lady’s question about “Is it up here or is it down here?” was a realistic question for somebody coming from a Samaritan background. But he says, “Actually, the real issue is not going to be a spatial, geographical issue.” Now, how is he able to say this? Because he knows that all of a sudden, the temple curtain will be torn and access to God will be available through his atoning work upon the cross. And that’s why worship that gets off from the centrality of the atonement, that gets off from an emphasis upon Christ and the gospel, is getting off.

So by his death the Lord Jesus procures the worshippers the Father planned. Isn’t that what has happened? The Father says, “Now, Jesus, I want you to go, because I have planned to have worshippers. We’re going to put a wonderful group together. We’re gonna call them out of darkness into marvelous light, and they will declare the praises of the one who has called them. They will declare my glory.” And so Jesus said, “Well then, Father, let me go to that task.” So what the Father plans, the Son by his atoning death procures. And what the Son by his atoning death procures, the Holy Spirit, who is then sent, applies to the lives of men and women. So God the Father plans it, God the Son procures it, and God the Spirit applies it. And in redemption, he is creating worshippers.

You see, this would be a tremendous change in many of our testimonials, wouldn’t it? If in the baptism service, for those of us who come out of a context in which a word of profession of faith would be given—and I recognize that not all do, but it would follow later, for those of you who come from a Presbyterian or an Anglican background, when in moments of confirmation or in becoming communicants within the church—where our people were standing up and saying, “The remarkable thing is this: that what God has done is he has made a worshipper out of me! He’s taken me out of a miry pit, and he’s set my feet upon a rock, and he’s put a new song in my heart, a song of praise to my God.”[13] As opposed to the average testimony, which is something along the lines of, “Well, I was going along, and I didn’t feel so good, and I got Jesus in my heart, and I’m so glad he’s in my heart, because he wasn’t in my heart before, but now he’s in my heart.”

And the average person who’s sitting out there’ll say, “What in the world does all that mean?” And they go home, and they buy a Bible, or they steal a Bible from under the pew, and they go all the way through, from Matthew right through to Revelation, and they can’t find Jesus in anybody’s heart at all. Say, “Well, it must be a special term or something, or something they made up, or whatever it was.”

You see, it would be very helpful if, in terms of our declaring our understanding of what God has done for us in Christ, we actually used language the New Testament can countenance. Because then the people listening can then look and say, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” “Come, meet a man who told me everything I did. Can this not be the Christ?”[14] So the testimony is “I used to worship myself, and now I worship Jesus. And my friends and neighbors know, because they were with me before, and now they’re with me now. And the tapes in my car are different from the tapes that I had before. The places that I go are different from the places I went before. What’s happened? God has made a worshipper out of me.”

Now, as Jesus makes that clear there, it’s equally clear in verse 20 that there is a measure of confusion on the part of the woman. And the woman here speaks in a way that has a kind of contemporary ring to it. She poses two alternatives, neither of which are ultimately acceptable, in that they are both inadequate. And around these two options, all of our error and confusion is gathered. “Our fathers worshiped on the mountain,” Gerazim. The Samaritan worship was sincere, it was even enthusiastic, but it was devoid of truth. “You Jews claim that you worship in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem worship was full of truth, but it was devoid, largely, of sincerity of heart. You remember Jesus said, quoting from old, “These people draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”?[15]

So she said, “How do I make sense of this? Where do I go? Because up on Gerazim, they seem to be really into it. But it’s sort of shaky. Down in Jerusalem, it’s really solid, but they don’t seem to be into it.” That’s exactly what people are saying as they wander from church building to church building at the moment: “I went over to old Brother So-and-so’s church. Man, those people are into it! But I don’t know what it is they’re into. I went over to Brother So-and-so’s church. They’re solid! They are so solid, they’re cemented to the floor. Their faces are set in cement.”

One of my friends in London refers to the two extremes as the carnival on the one hand and the crematorium on the other. So you go one place, and it’s a carnival; you go the other place, it’s a crematorium. And the great journey is to try and settle neither for the chaos of the carnival nor the deadness of the crematorium but for something that is actually grounded in the Scriptures and yet is expressive of the pulsating work of God the Spirit in the lives of men and women.

Rational Worship

So the first thing was, about worship, that it is biblical; it is grounded in the Scriptures. Secondly, if it is to be acceptable worship, it is rational, in that it engages the mind. It is rational; it engages the mind. Now, that’s a truth, of course, which needs to be sounded out at a time when unity on the basis of sensation, or on the basis of feeling or familiarity, is to the fore.

The Scriptures remind us—1 Corinthians 14:20—that in all of our thinking we are to be mature. Mature in our thinking. So if we’re going to adjudicate on the nature of our worship experiences in coming together as the people of God, and we’re going to say that we have to have them grounded in the Scriptures, and we’re going to say that they have to be rational in that they engage the minds, there are a number of practical things that emerge from that.

One is the absolute necessity of concentration. The necessity of concentration. That worship is a conscious activity. That the Bible would say to us that you cannot worship without thinking. Now, this immediately has implications for those of us who would be tempted to try and create sensations or feelings or sort of… whatevers… to try and “induce” a framework of worship.

Now, if there’s going to be concentration on the part of our people when they come together for worship, there needs to be preparation on the part of our people when they are getting ready for worship. And that has to do with Saturday night, and it has to do with Sunday morning. And we need to teach our people these things, and frankly, as I speak this to you, I think I need to preach this sermon again to my congregation and remind them of this again. Because I need reminded of it myself.

Do we honestly think that we can step from whatever Saturday has meant, or from whatever chaos we’ve lived in in the early hours of Sunday morning, into the corporate gathering of the people of God, and somebody presses a button or says, “Let’s worship God,” and all of a sudden, we go? “Well,” you say, “well, of course, we should be able to go, because we’ve been living in a framework of worship, as it were, throughout the week.” Yes, I wish we had been. But the fact of the matter is, many of our feet are soiled by the walking of our days, and we would do well to have paused at the entryway and hosed them off before we came in. And the metaphor, I think, is perfectly applicable.

That’s why, if you go back to the early days of the Scottish church—at the time, for example, of Murray M’Cheyne—you will discover that they had two services. They had a gathering service, which preceded the service. And in the gathering service—in which, many times, the teaching pastor was not even present, ironically—but they would gather, and they would sing together. And they would sing the Psalms together. So they would come together, and they’d take the introduction to the Psalms: “Blessed is the man…”[16] It’s interesting, isn’t it, that a whole book that is about blessing God begins with the phrase “Blessed is the man…”? That such a God-centered book of praise begins with God’s attendant blessing on the man. “Blessed is the man [who] walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is [on] the law of the Lord; and [on] his law [he meditates] day and night.”[17] They would sing that metrically. Or they would sing the Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm:

I to the hills will lift mine eyes:
From whence doth come mine aid?
My safety cometh from the Lord,
Who heaven and earth hath made.

His foot he’ll not let slide, nor will
He slumber that [he sleeps].
Behold, he that keeps Israel,
he slumbers not, nor sleeps.[18]

Now, you see, this is very different from “Hey, nice to see you, glad you’re here, come on in!” you know. “Welcome to my party. My name’s Alistair, and this is the stage, and here we all are, and we’re ready to go,” you know. [Blows a raspberry.]

For myself, it wouldn’t cost me a great thought to go back to the Free Church of Scotland and to sing only the metrical Psalms—and without any accompaniment at all. Because at least then I would have complete clarity, and I wouldn’t have to answer any of the dumb questions that I get fifty-two weeks out of the year. However, of all the changes that I have envisaged for this place, I’m not sure that even I, with God’s help, could pull that one off.

But why did they have a gathering service? To refocus the hearts and minds of the people. To get their minds on God and on his Word. Because they’re not there. And that, you see, is why in some of your traditions—and I’ve been in a variety of your churches here, and I know them, and I’ve benefited from them all—but I know that some of the places you come out of, that the pattern is real clear: you have about forty-five minutes of singing, and then you have preaching. And what you’re doing in that forty-five minutes of singing is essentially the gathering service. ’Cause you’re trying to get the people out of where they’ve just lived their lives and into the context of an encounter with God. That makes perfect sense. Because if there’s gonna be rationality in our worship, then it demands concentration, which demands preparation, which demands participation.

If it’s gonna be rational, there needs to be the necessity of concentration; there needs to be also the priority of exposition. The priority of exposition. People ask me all the time, “Can we just have an evening service where we sing?” No. No! Why? For the same reason that we’re not gonna have just a communion service by itself. Why? ’Cause the Reformers made it really clear that the symbols of the gospel should never be isolated from the proclaiming of the gospel. As soon as you start and make your emphasis on a table with symbols, what happens to your people? They start to apply it in fifty different ways. What is the corrective? The preaching of the Bible.

So it is the exposition of Scripture which gives to us the framework of understanding for the celebration of the ordinances. And in the same way, our praise part of worship, if it is to be grounded in the Scriptures and rational in its approach, needs at the same time to be set within the priority of the exposition of the Bible.

Paul to the folks in Athens, in Acts 17, says, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”[19] That’s the place of expository preaching: declaring the truth about God and his glory and Christ and his work. Because people come with all kinds of ideas about who God is and what it might mean to worship him. And so it is within the framework of the teaching of the Bible. It provides a necessary corrective to worship which begins with man and his need and points us to worship that begins with God and his glory—“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power”[20]—so that what we may get is the by-product of acceptable worship, like flowers that we pick along the line of duty.

So what are we saying? Simply this: that true worship results from learning the great truths about God as they’re expounded to us by those of God’s appointing and as they are discovered by us in the private place. Says Calvin, “Unless there is knowledge present, it is not God we worship, but a specter or a ghost.”[21]

Spiritual Worship

Now, you see how congregations are very susceptible to being led away by every kind of wind of doctrine—unless the worship that they offer and the praise that they sing is, first of all, biblical, grounded in the Scriptures; secondly, rational, inasmuch as it is focused in our thinking; and finally, thirdly, that acceptable worship is to be spiritual, in that it involves the heart. Involves the heart.

It seems to me that one of the great problems of the current debate is the way in which it is posited in terms of an antithesis between rationality and emotion. So you go someplace, and they’re emphasizing very, very much the rational aspect of things: it must be through our minds and to our hearts. We agree with that. But what you have—and you can see this in some presentations of the gospel—is that you end up with congregations and individuals that look like tadpoles. They have these phenomenally big heads and tiny little bodies that hang off the back of them. So they just have big heads. And you look for their hearts, and they’re somewhere in there, but they’re completely overwhelmed by the size of their heads.

To express ourselves in worship involves the crushing of our egos. It involves the splintering of our pride. It involves a complete reorientation of ourselves.

So that’s why I think it is important for us to recognize that a Christian mind without a Christian heart is nothing. And the Scripture makes it plain that we’re not only to think clearly, but we’re also at the same time to feel deeply. We don’t have simply a rational Christ; we have an emotional Christ. If we don’t know that from any other place than in looking over Jerusalem, we know it from there: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you wouldn’t come to me.”[22] Lazarus.[23]

Now, if it’s gonna be spiritual involving the heart, then there are three things that follow. And I’ll mention these, and I’m done.

First of all, that men and woman are spiritually alive. Spiritually alive. We’ve gotta first drink of the streams of living water before they can flow from our hearts. John 7, right? On the last and great day of the feast, he stands up and says, “You listen to me and follow me and do what I’m telling you, and out of your heart’ll flow streams of living water.”[24] One of the reasons that some of us have such difficulty in letting the streams of living water flow from our congregations is simply that a significant number of the people in our congregations have never drunk from the stream.

So you ask the question, “Why is it that these truths don’t stir some as they do others?” And one of the answers is that you need to be quickened from heaven. “I’m come that you might have life and that you might have it more abundantly.”[25] Dead men don’t sing. Dead men don’t sing. Because to express ourselves in worship involves the crushing of our egos. It involves the splintering of our pride. It involves a complete reorientation of ourselves.

And this is a great evangelistic tool, incidentally. Instead of using our approach to the musical dimensions of our worship as a mechanism for making unchurched Harry feel uncomfortable when he comes, at that level—and I want to say this guardedly and carefully—at that level, I don’t care how unchurched Harry feels. In fact, I think of the two options—comfortable or uncomfortable—I would like for him to feel uncomfortable. The uncomfortableness of it coming when this gentleman, having for whatever reason, by invitation of a friend or a neighbor or a wife or a son or a daughter, come into the gathered worshipping congregation of the people of God, and the folks stand up and they sing,

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;
To his feet thy tribute bring!
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Who like [thee] his praise should sing?[26]

And he’s simply staring up at the screens or staring down at the book; he’s doing nothing at all. Maybe his only contribution is jingling the change in his pocket. Because he’s a sensible man, and he’s a thinking man, and he looks at these words, and he said, “I don’t know anything about being ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven.” And he looks across, and he sees his bank manager, and his bank manager is giving it big licks. He’s got a horrible voice, but he’s singing like a crazy person: “Ransomed, healed, restored!” And his first thought is, “What a dork!” And then he said, “What does he know that I don’t know? Maybe I’m dead!”

Now, we’ve all been in those funeral homes. It’s part of our job. I frankly hate it in there. That’s my least favorite place to go. Especially when they leave you in there with a room full of dead bodies and just you. That is a bad deal. I’m like, “Woo-hoo,” you know. Whistling to myself and stuff—trying to whistle, like [whistles]. I’m frightened to go to the toilet, ’cause I don’t know if the door opens a door to the toilet or if it opens the door to a dead body. I’m just like, “No. I’ll just stay right here. I’ll stand here, I’m not gonna move. I’ll just wait here. Someone’ll come back soon. This is okay. We’re okay here. You’re not dead. Apparently, I don’t think I am.” Now, they tell me these guys move, and things happen and stuff. But I never heard anybody singing! I never heard anyone singing. ’Cause dead men don’t sing.

So don’t be so silly as to think that what we’re gonna do is create a context where dead men can sing. Because maybe if what we’re gonna try and do is get dead men singing, then we should sing dead men songs. ’Cause dead men maybe can sing dead men songs, but they can’t sing living people songs, except they’re singing them just out of coercion or out of obligation or out of whatever else it is. So you want to turn your service into The Johnny Carson Show, that’s fine. Start your service with “Start leaving today,” you know. “Dun, da, da, da, da.” The guy’s going, “I wanna be a part of it, yeah! Man, that was great, that was great. What was that?”

“I don’t know. But it was great.”

“What did he say?”

“I don’t know. But I love that thing, that New York thing, man. I love ‘New York, New York.’”

May God help us.

We need to be spiritually alive. We need to be spiritually assisted. “Be filled with the Spirit.” Ephesians 5:18. Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” It’s interesting that it produces the same impact, doesn’t it? “Be filled with the Spirit” and “speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, and let that then be the overflow of praise in your lives.”[27] It’s a reminder to us, isn’t it, of the place of the Spirit of God and the Word of God working together to the glorifying of the Son of God? All Word and no Spirit, and people dry up. All Spirit and no Word, and people blow up. Both Spirit and Word, and people grow up.

We need to be spiritually assisted. Spiritual worship is impossible, left to ourselves. It’s not something that we can do. It’s a responsive thing. A response to what? External stimuli? No. Ultimately, a response to the magnificence of God’s glory as revealed to us in God’s Word.

See, what our friends and neighbors need to realize is that God is great, you know. So maybe we better start the service with five of our children standing up with their tiny little voices going, “Our God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that he cannot do. Our God is so big…” I love it when those wee kids do that: they got tiny little muscles like mine, and they’re just going, “Big, so strong, and so mighty.”

I was just with Phillip Johnson, who wrote Darwin on Trial and The Wedge of Truth. I asked him, I said, “Tell me how you came to faith in Christ.” Do you know what he told me? Do you know what the door of entry for him was? Friday night meeting at a VBS in his area. His children went to a vacation Bible school, and he went to the service. Tenured professor of law at Berkeley at the age of twenty-seven. One of the brightest intellects—in the legal profession, at least, in our generation. Sits down and listens to all these little children coming across declaring the grandeur and the might of God. Sits and listens to the pastor, and he said afterwards that the pastor never really made much sense at all, that he didn’t have two logical sentences, but that he was struck by the fact, as he sat there, he said, “This man believes this with all his heart, and I need to go and find out why he does.” What did the guy do? Well, he wasn’t brilliant, but he made much of God. And this man, who knew much about himself and knew nothing about God, found it compellingly attractive.

You see, but our approach would have been to say, “Now, we’ve got Phillip Johnson in this morning. He’s a great intellectual. We’re gonna need to find somebody with a phenomenal intellect to preach the Bible, because after all, we don’t really believe the Bible is inherently powerful. We believe that, you know, our intellects are necessary in order to get it, you know, to pour it out in the right way.” God says, “Shut up with that,” and puts a succession of tiny little nose-picking children on the front of the platform and reaches into the soul of a Saul of Tarsus. To show what? To show how great and awesome he is. And to make the point that if, then, we are going to worship, it’s because we’re alive, and it’s because we’re assisted.

And it’s because we’re active. Because we’re active. I need to be spiritually active. You go to a prayer meeting: commit yourself to pray at the prayer meeting. There’s only a dozen of you in there, for goodness’ sake. What are you in for? Meditation? Pray! Commit to pray! Now, you may not get an opportunity to pray, but commit to pray. You go to a place where there is singing: commit to sing! “I don’t like this song.” I don’t care whether you like the song. Commit to sing! I mean, unless you’re singing heresy. Commit to sing! “I’m going to be active. I’m gonna give myself wholeheartedly. I’m gonna Ephesians 5 it. I’m gonna make the most of every opportunity.”[28] Our constant perspective, and that of our congregation, needs to be, “‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward[s] me?’[29] What can I do here? What can I say here?” And my public contribution in worship will be the overflow of my own personal commitment, as I find myself involved in biblical, rational, spiritual worship.

It is too bad when we regard worship as a kind of glandular condition: you know, “So why were you not entering into the worship?”

“Well, I didn’t feel like it.”

“Well, when do you feel like it?”

“Oh, you know, sometimes I feel like it. Other times I don’t feel like it.”

Well, you remember, Wesley tried that. He decided that he wouldn’t witness to anyone until he felt like it. He went for about five weeks, and he never told anybody about Christ. Then he suddenly woke up and says, “I better tell people because Jesus said I’m to tell people, not because I feel like telling people.” Simple, isn’t it?

Father, I do pray that out of all of these words you will turn us again to the truth of your Word and that you will guide our minds and hearts and congregations accordingly. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] The Order for Morning Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer.

[2] See Acts 17:28.

[3] See Psalm 139:2, 4, 8–10.

[4] See Titus 2:14.

[5] See 1 Peter 2:9.

[6] Revelation 7:9 (NIV 1984).

[7] Revelation 7:10 (NIV 1984).

[8] Matthew Bridges, “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (1852).

[9] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1.

[10] See Romans 1:25.

[11] See Hebrews 10:25.

[12] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847), 1:159.

[13] See Psalm 40:2–3.

[14] John 4:29 (paraphrased).

[15] Matthew 15:8 (paraphrased). See also Mark 7:6.

[16] Psalm 1:1 (KJV).

[17] Psalm 1:1–2 (KJV).

[18] Scottish Psalter, “I to the Hills Will Lift Mine Eyes” (1650).

[19] Acts 17:23 (NIV 1984).

[20] Revelation 4:11 (NIV 1984).

[21] Calvin, John, 1:159. Paraphrased.

[22] Matthew 23:37 (paraphrased). See also Luke 13:34.

[23] See John 11:35.

[24] John 7:37–38 (paraphrased).

[25] John 10:10 (paraphrased).

[26] Henry F. Lyte, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (1834).

[27] Colossians 3:16 (paraphrased).

[28] See Ephesians 5:16.

[29] Psalm 116:12 (KJV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.