Thoughts on Public Worship
By J.C. Ryle
"God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).
"For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3).
"And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9).
“How do we worship?” This question is of great importance today, particularly remembering that many people who attend church do so very infrequently; and that many who do attend regularly are not concerned about how the worship should be carried out. It needs to be remembered that the Bible points out that not all worship is right in the sight of God.
So it is important for those who are professedly Christians to understand the essence of worship. But it must be stated that we are considering only public worship, and not private worship, which includes prayer and Bible-reading. Such does lie at the root of personal Christianity, and in fact, without these private religious activities, public worship is really of little use. But it is solely public worship which is the subject here.
THE GENERAL IMPORTANCE OF PUBLIC WORSHIP
There are few who call themselves Christians who would deny that we ought to make some public profession of religion, and unite with others to worship God. Public worship has always been a mark of God’s servants. From the earliest Biblical times, right through to the present day, God’s people have met to worship. However few, and whatever the difficulties, they have met together for many other reasons, besides offering worship to God. For example, gathering for worship gives public testimony to the world; it is an encouragement, comfort and strength to those who join together, and it trains and prepares them for the worship of eternity.
Right through the Old Testament there are many examples of public worship – from the Patriarchs to the time of Christ. The Jew who was not a public worshipper would have been cut off from the congregation of Israel. In the New Testament, we find that Jesus Christ gave a special promise of His presence whenever two or three are assembled in His name. The Apostles, wherever they founded churches, made the duty of assembling together one of the first principles. It is an undeniable fact that where there is no private prayer, there is no grace in a man’s heart; equally, where there is no public worship there is no Church of God and no profession of Christianity.
This same thing can be seen in Church History. Public worship has always been one of God’s great instruments in doing good to the souls of men. Preventing public worship causes great spiritual injury to people. Only removal of the Bible itself could do greater harm.
It is true that public worship can become a merely formal act, and many do attend and get no benefit. But misuse is no argument against proper use, and people who attend in this frame of mind become, if anything, rather more impenitent and hardened. Further, if comparison is made between worshippers and non-worshippers it will be found that there is, on average, far more good amongst those who worship than amongst those who do not. Whatever may be said, worship does in fact make a difference to the individual.
We should never forget the exhortation in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhort one another” (Heb. 10, 25). We should act upon this exhortation and go on worshipping in spite of every discouragement. Let us say with David, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord”; and “I had rather be a door-keeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 122, 1; 84, 10).
THE LEADING PRINCIPLES OF PUBLIC WORSHIP
The leading principles of public worship can be found by a thoughtful reading of the Bible, and so here they will be set out only briefly.
1) True worship must be directed to the Right Object.
The Bible is adamant that God alone should be the object of worship. Prayers and adoration to anything or anyone else are unwarranted by Scripture, a waste of time and most offensive to God. God is a jealous God, and He has declared that He will not give His glory to another. It is well to remember that the second commandment forbids us not only to worship, but even to “bow down” to anything besides God.
2) True worship must be through the mediation of Christ.
This again is fully commanded in Scripture. “No man cometh unto the Father but by Me” (John 14, 6). Christians are a people who “come unto God by Christ” (Heb. 7, 25). It is true that God is love, but He is also the God of infinite justice, purity and holiness, Who hates sin. Anyone who presumes to come to Him without an atonement and the Mediator whom He has appointed will find his worship unacceptable.
3) True worship must be wholly Scriptural.
We read concerning the Jews, “In vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15, 9). Thus, anyone who says that a man-made ordinance is as binding on conscience and as needful to salvation as anything appointed by Christ is saying something he has no right to say. Paul tells us that there is such a thing as “will-worship”, which has a “show of wisdom”, but is in fact useless because it only “satisfies the flesh” (Col. 2, 23).
4) True worship must be Intelligent.
Worshippers must know what they are doing. It is completely false to say that ignorance is the mother of devotion. The charge against the Samaritans was, “Ye worship ye know not what” (John 4, 22). God made man an intelligent being with mind as well as body. Worship in which the mind takes no part is useless and unprofitable, and would be as suitable for animals as for man.
5) True worship must be from the Heart.
Our affections as well as our intellect must be employed in worship; our inner man must serve God as well as our body. Many times in the Old Testament we read that the lip worship of the Jews was unacceptable to God (for example, Isaiah 29, 13; Ezekiel 33, 31). But God asks principally for the heart in worship, whether it be public or private worship. God is a Spirit, and He cares nothing for man’s bodily service, no matter how devout it may appear, nor how organised it may be, if it is not accompanied by heart service as well. The Bible tells us that man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart, and that He will not despise a broken and a contrite heart (1 Sam. 16, 7; Psa. 51, 7).
6) True worship must be Reverent.
Our Lord began and ended His ministry with practical protests against irreverent worship. Twice He drove out from the Temple those who were profaning its courts. So called Christians who spend their time in Church staring about, whispering, fidgeting and so on, but not really praying or listening, are no better than those cast out by Christ. Admittedly “bodily service” alone is useless, but there is a proper way to behave when we come near to God. If it is worth while to attend worship at all, then it is worth while to do it properly, carefully and well. “Let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Hebrews 12, 28-29).
These principles show that there are many in our churches who are worshipping in an utterly useless way; in a way that is without Scripture, without Christ, without the Holy Spirit, without knowledge, without heart and without benefit to the worshipper. Anyone trying to worship in this way might just as well not be in the congregation. Every Christian must always be on guard that his worship does not fall short in any way. It is worth remembering that God looks for the quality of worship and not quantity. The inward and spiritual character of the congregation is of far more importance in His sight than the number of worshippers, or the outward signs of devotion which they show.