“God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25b)
Again and again we hear it. Some say, “Our worship seems so lifeless! How can we vitalize it? I know! Let’s add guitar and drums!” Others respond, “No! Worship should be marked by reverence!” The first group counters, “But shouldn’t it also be marked by joy?”
God does say that worship that is vital—both alive and life-giving—will be characterized by both reverence and joy. Why then do we keep finding ourselves choosing between them?
Could it be because we imagine that worship is primarily something that we do? Our sin is such that we easily fail to take seriously that the heart of true worship is that the living God himself meets with and works in his people through his means of grace. He alone can genuinely vitalize and build up his church. Since that is so, we need to get out of his way anything that might eclipse or distract from his supernatural working.
When our Lord himself is vitalizing worship, what will it look like? 1 Corinthians 14 gives five touchstones.
The Centrality of God’s Word
First, in vital worship, God addresses his people through his Word. Above all, worship is a meeting of the Triune God with his people. The Father draws near through his Son who works by his Holy Spirit to draw God’s people near to the Father in faith through the Son’s mediation (Eph. 2:18).
The Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to create this response of faith (Rom. 10:17; Eph. 6:17). That is why prophecy—the “forthtelling” of God’s Word—was permitted in public worship, while uninterpreted tongues was not (v. 28). Prophecy instructs and thereby edifies (v. 3). But because no one can understand uninterpreted tongues, they cannot build up (v. 2). On the other hand, interpreted tongues could properly be used in public worship during the apostolic era because it was a form of prophecy that brought God’s Word in an understandable way that could convert or edify people (vv. 5, 13, 18–19).
Prophecy and tongues have fulfilled their purpose; we don’t seek them today. Still, the underlying principle remains: the gifts our Lord designed to be central to public worship are those which he gives to teach and edify the church. In other words, the ministry of God’s Word will be central to vital worship.
Clarity and Order
This implies a second touchstone: “Let all things be done for building up” (v. 26). In vital worship, every element should be clear and understandable so that it edifies the church and God’s redeemed children.
Moreover, we tend to think that worship that is truly vital and vitalizing will be spontaneous; but surprisingly, God insists, third, that public worship should instead be marked by order. Why? Because it is God himself who gives vitality and he “is not a God of confusion but of peace” (v. 33). In view of that, in worship “all things should be done decently and in order” (v. 40).
One Voice at a Time
Fourth, because the Triune God of order himself is present to build up the church, only one “voice” will speak at a time in worship. In vital worship, God and his people commune with one another. Accordingly, there is the voice of God speaking to his assembled people, and there is the responsive voice of the congregation speaking to God. These voices are to be clear and distinct.
Those who have the spiritual gifts—and have been authorized to use them—speak on God’s behalf. Through them, our Lord himself addresses his gathered people. God says that “two or at most three, and each in turn” may speak (vv. 27, 29). Note that, first, only a few in the congregation may represent the voice of God in worship. Second, only one voice is to speak at a time (vv. 30–31). Our Lord wants his voice to be clear and edifying. And so verse 31 insists, “prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.”
This is a fundamental principle of vital worship. Accordingly, in elements of worship where God speaks to the congregation, only one voice is to speak at a time. Likewise, in elements of worship where the congregation speaks to God, only one voice is to speak at a time.
This implies, fifth, that vital worship will be marked by substantial silence. Jesus said that in this new age of covenant fulfillment, worship is in Spirit and in Truth—that is, by the Holy Spirit and through the mediation of Christ (John 4:23–24). This adds a new dimension and dynamic to worship. Old Testament saints could truly worship but, by comparison, they were sort of kept at an arm’s length. But thanks to Christ’s accomplished work and thanks to the Holy Spirit’s application of that work, New Testament worship is personal and intimate in a way that Old Testament saints could only long for. Our great heavenly High Priest grants access into the very throne-room of God (Heb. 10:19–22). Our Lord Jesus thus graciously makes it possible for you to experience a new and deep interaction with the living God by his Spirit through his Word. And so there’s a tremendous activity that goes on when—in worship—the Triune God himself speaks to you and you genuinely listen in silence.
This helps toward understanding verses 33b–35. “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak…” That prohibition is clear and emphatic. What we mustn’t overlook, however, is that the principle that the apostle applies to women also bears on everyone else’s attitude in public worship. It’s striking that this same imperative—“keep silent” (sigao)—is applied two other times in this same context (vv. 28, 30) —to men! The living God alone is the subject and object of true worship. Accordingly, when it’s not appropriate for you to speak, “keep silent.” That goes for everybody—men too, not just women.
How can we follow this? First, realize that in worship, non-speaking does not mean non-worshipping. God calls every one to participate actively during every element of worship. At the same time, the way you do that in most of public worship is by means of outward silence. As the minister reads or preaches God’s Word, everyone else is to be silent. But when you are really worshipping, then a lot of activity will go on in your silence. You will actively listen for God’s voice. The Holy Spirit will inwardly apply God’s Word. You will respond in faith. You will commune with your Lord himself by means of his ordinances. To keep silent in worship is not the same as to not participate in worship. Indeed, in order to participate fully, most of the congregation has to keep silent for most of the worship service.
Second, when the congregation as a whole speaks as a single voice to God, you should join your voice too. Your voice sincerely raised together with the church is part and parcel of vital worship. But so is your silence. The genuine worship which you offer God in silence is just as important and just as spiritual and just as vital. When God allows only a few men to speak on his behalf or to speak on behalf of the congregation, he does so precisely to enable you to enter more fully into the essence of worship—the intimacy of Spirit-and-truth communion with the living and true God.
How does this help toward solving our worship dilemma?
Vital worship thus is intensely Spiritual. Does this help expose why we keep finding ourselves choosing between reverence and joy in worship? Francis Schaeffer observed that it is possible to counterfeit holiness in the flesh, but it will be legalistic and censorious. It is possible to counterfeit love in the flesh, but it will be superficial and permissive. But it is impossible simultaneously to counterfeit holiness and love in the flesh; only the Holy Spirit can produce holy love and loving holiness.
Could it be that our worship dilemma arises because we are too fleshly? It is possible to counterfeit reverence in the flesh, but it will be sterile and joyless. It is possible to counterfeit joy in the flesh, but it will be shallow and irreverent. But it is impossible simultaneously to counterfeit reverence and joy in the flesh; only the Holy Spirit can produce reverent joy and joyful reverence. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail” (Jn. 6:63a).
Accordingly, while these principles do have implications for our worship practices, the first step toward resolving our worship dilemmas is not to make external changes to those practices. The first step to cure counterfeit reverence is not to add guitars and drums, nor is the first step to cure counterfeit joy to insist on solemnity. The first step is to get down on our knees in repentance unto God for our sinful reliance on the flesh; it is to admit before him that in fact we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” and that the grace of God in Christ is our only hope; it is to seek the Lord for the internal changes that will draw us into close fellowship with himself (Rev. 3:17–20).
Vital worship depends wholly upon the living God. And the living God is not limited by external circumstances. The living God can produce vital worship—Spirit-and-Truth communion with himself—in any circumstances, from cathedrals to catacombs, using a whole spectrum of preachers from brilliant orators to faithful plodders, using a whole spectrum of music from dazzling to dirge-like.
But you never will really enjoy Spirit-and-Truth communion with the living God unless the Holy Spirit regenerates you. It is impossible for you to participate in the spiritual intimacy of New Covenant worship unless you are in living contact with the living Christ. Apart from that, vital Biblical worship will always seem boring to you.
Moreover, unless you are abiding in Christ, vital Biblical worship will still seem boring to you. You’ll go to worship just to meet other people, or just to be entertained, or just to be intellectually stimulated, or just to be emotionally stirred, or just to be motivated to action. But you’ll miss the main point. Worship is first and foremost about communing with the living, life-giving God.
~ by Larry Wilson, February 2009