By Ryan Biese | January 24, 2022
This is the second installment in a three-part series setting forth three urgent priorities for elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The pursuit of these concerns must be founded and fueled by prayer and flow out of love for Christ, His people, and the lost.
In the first part I argued that the PCA needs elders who are devoted to speaking, preaching, and teaching clearly what the Bible proclaims. Our elders must not yield to the temptation to compromise on the more difficult and culturally offensive aspects of the Christian life and gospel of Christ.
Now I want to elaborate on a second urgent need for the PCA: elders who love Biblical worship, that is, worship according to Scripture.
Worship that is reformed after the pattern of Scripture is both “seeker-sensitive” and “audience-driven.” We learn in John 4 that God is the only one seeking (John 4:23), and He is finding the lost in order to give them new life so that they may worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. Similarly, God is the audience of our worship. Our worship is for Him (Heb. 12:28-29).
In our day, many “faith communities” have completely missed that reality. Such communities operate under the misconception that there are people “out there” who are seeking God, and so they design worship to appeal to these mythical God-seekers. However, Scripture tells us that though God created us to seek Him and feel our way toward Him, no nation has done so (cf. Acts 17:27-28).
Other groups believe that worship should reflect the emotions, preferences, and values of a congregation or culture as though the congregation itself were the audience.
Both of these common and popular paradigms for understanding worship fail to recognize both what happens in biblical worship and the purpose of worship.
God is worthy of all worship, praise, honor, thanksgiving, and exaltation. The earth and everything in it belong to Him because He made it and formed it (cf. Psa. 24:1), and yet He created mankind to worship Him and marvel at His goodness.
Biblical worship always begins with a call to worship because as sinners we have no right to enter God’s presence unless and until His word of gracious invitation draws us to Himself in praise and thanksgiving (e.g., Ps. 95:1, 6-7). Biblical worship is a response to what God has done, and the truth of what God has done is what inspires Biblical worship. It is not an emotional or emotive response to how the music makes us feel or what we have personally experienced.
This truth is made especially clear in the Psalter – the Old Testament prayerbook and hymnal – as the psalmist repeatedly calls the saints of God to worship, and then gives them a series of reasons explicating why they should worship Him. In Psalm 95, for example, he gives several reasons: He is a “great God,” He is “our God,” and we are “the sheep of His hand.”
Worship is grounded in truth. Timothy Keller has helpfully explained this reality: “Christianity is essentially news. Other religions say, ‘this is what you have to do to connect to God forever…’ But the gospel says, ‘this is what has been done for you in history’” (Keller 2011, King’s Cross, 15).
In worship we are confronted afresh with who God is and what God has done in Christ, and that is the foundation of our worship. We must resist the urge to make worship anything other than focused on God.
In other words, worship must never become an attempt to manipulate people with music or words. Biblical worship does not incorporate celebrations of human achievement, particular classes of people, or secular nations in worship. How many churches will incorporate special liturgical programming on the second Lord’s Day in May or the third Lord’s Day in June? Even if the intentions may be noble (i.e., to attract visitors or to honor esteemed members), such programming distracts from the glory of God by giving praise to men according to the flesh (Gal. 3:26-28). We must not acquiesce to cultural expectations when doing so impedes our exaltation of God in worship.
If the PCA is to be relevant and vital in the coming generations, she must have elders who are committed to God-centered worship rather than worship that is culturally conditioned.
The Means of Grace
Biblical worship, powerful worship, God-centered worship is structured around the means of grace. The means of grace are especially the Word, Sacraments, and Prayer. These ordinary means instituted by Christ beautifully communicate to us the glory of God in the redemption of His people. Consider how these ordinary means of grace exalt God in our worship.
1. The Word
In the reading, preaching, and hearing of the Word, God is most clearly set forth. The gospel is expounded and applied. The Spirit of Christ speaks in the Word and confronts us with our emptiness and inadequacy, our failures, and our remaining corruption. Then what does He do? He presents us with Christ “who was faithful over God’s house as a Son. And we are His house if we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:5-6)! What is our hope, what does the Spirit say is our hope? Not our repentance, not our faith, not our sanctification, but Christ and His perfection.
2. The Sacraments
Just like the read, spoken, and preached Word, the Sacraments also point us away from ourselves and to the sufficiency of God. Augustine’s description of the sacraments as “visible words” is quite apt.
In the bread and wine as we see with the eyes of faith the emblems of Christ’s suffering, our souls are comforted by Christ’s death in our place, and we are assured that though we proclaim His death, He will return in triumph to vindicate those for whom He died. In baptism, the gospel is illustrated. Just as water is sprinkled or poured upon a passive recipient, so too the gospel cleanses us from all our sins.
The sacraments exalt God for us in worship, center our hearts on what God has done for us, and minister peace to our consciences from God’s throne.
While I have from time to time heard “man-centered addresses” and “teachings” that pretend to be prayers, true prayer, biblical prayer is God-centered. The prayers of a worship service acknowledge all that which the congregation has received from God and recognize the church’s need of His mercies. The pastoral prayer or “great prayer” (as Calvin called it) especially shows how all the needs of all the people in the congregation find all their satisfaction in God alone.
When worship is God-centered and reformed according to Scripture, it is an “other-worldly” experience. In Exodus, to enter the Tabernacle was to enter a microcosm of heaven, a heavenly outpost, and even a preview of the New Creation (Exod. 25-31). Likewise, the Apostle to the Hebrews explains how New Covenant worship is “out of this world” when the church gathers for worship having come to “…the city of the living God and to the innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Heb. 12:22-25).
Rightly ordered biblical worship will have a “learning curve.” It is a good thing when our worship is viewed as odd for the right reasons, for Reformed worship is not pandering to the culture, but where the culture of heaven is displayed.
Several months ago we had some people from outside of the Reformed tradition begin worshiping with the congregation I serve. As I greeted people following the service, one of them said to me, “I’ve never experienced anything like that…” and they have rarely missed a Lord’s Day since.
We need elders in the PCA who love biblical and Reformed worship. We need elders who understand biblical worship to be God-centered rather than culturally conditioned. When our worship reflects the culture of heaven rather than the culture of Nashville or Saint Louis or Corinth, then unbelievers will be compelled to declare, “God is really among you!”
Ryan Biese is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fort Oglethorpe, GA.