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There is no shortage of good books (and bad!) on the theology of worship. The best is David Peterson's Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (IVP, 1992). Peterson's book is not a practical how-to on worship planning, but rather an in-depth, exegetical look at the biblical understanding of worship.

Worship, according to Peterson, is first of all a whole life lived to the glory of God.

Throughout the Bible, acceptable worship means approaching or engaging with God on the terms he proposes and in the manner that he makes possible. It involves honouring, serving and respecting him, abandoning any loyalty or devotion that hinders an exclusive relationship with him. Although some of Scripture's terms for worship may refer to specific gestures of homage, rituals of priestly ministrations, worship is more fundamentally faith expressing itself in obedience and adoration. Consequently, in both Testaments it is often shown to be a personal and moral fellowship with God relevant to every sphere of life.

While he argues throughout the book that all of life is worship, Peterson also recognizes that the New Testament speaks of the corporate gathering as a specific kind of all-of-life worship. Peterson makes several helpful points with regards to corporate worship.

First, the starting point for reflection is the conviction "that God fully and finally manifested himself in the person of his Son. Jesus Christ is at the center of New Testament thinking about worship." He is the mediator between God and man. He is the procurer of salvation and blessing for the nations. He is the new temple in which and around which all true believers gather. Christ draws us to himself in worship and through him a new relationship with the Father is made possible.

Second, true worship is gospel-centered. The gospel-Jesus' life, death, and resurrection-is what makes worship possible. The gospel is what we proclaim in worship. The gospel is what we sing in worship. The gospel is what calls a people together in worship, arouses a people to praise in worship, and sends a people out in a life of worship. Some churches ignore the gospel. Others reject the gospel. Many churches only touch the gospel tangentially, focusing on nebulous truths like relationships or connecting with God or acceptance or love. But in the best churches, never does a Sunday go by when God’s people don't sing about the cross or glory in our Redeemer or marvel at substitutionary atonement.

Third, "Jesus removes the need for a cultic approach to God in the traditional sense." Cultic doesn't refer to cults, but to the ritualized worship of Israel. Because of the uniqueness and completeness of Christ's work, there is no longer a need for a human priesthood, no need for a sacrificial system, and no sacred buildings and implements. The heavily symbolized, strictly regulated approach to worship in the Old Testament has been abrogated. Hebrews 8 and 9 make clear that the regulations of the first covenant have been fulfilled and superseded in Christ.

So, the pastor matters in the church service, but not as a priest. The architecture matters, but not as sacred space. The Lord's Supper matters, but not as a sacrifice. Christ is our High Priest, our Temple, and our Sacrifice. What matters is that we worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). For these reasons, we are probably not quite right when we speak of "entering into worship" or "lingering in his presence." Through Christ, we are already in God's presence. Through Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, we have already come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God and to the heavenly assembly (Heb. 12:22-24).

Fourth, corporate worship is set apart from all-of-life worship in its focus on edification. Because of this focus, there are many activities that are appropriate for the Christian in all of life that aren't appropriate in a worship service. I can change diapers to the glory of God, but changing diapers in front of the gathered congregation would be considerably less appropriate because it does not edify like preaching, praying, and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

Fifth, corporate worship is meant to be an anticipation of the heavenly gathering of God's people. The grand scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation are both present and future, and they are meant to be mirrored on earth. Like the saints and angels in Revelation, we too should direct all our attention to the throne. We too should sing of Christ's work. We too should be earnest and uncompromising in our devotion to God. Our weekly gatherings-sometimes small, sometimes clumsy, sometimes forgettable-are meant to be a sweet foretaste of the heavenly worship we will one day experience for ages unending.

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23 thoughts on “Five Thoughts on Worship”

  1. John Thomson says:

    A good blog overall. A couple of points.

    ‘So, the pastor matters in the church service, but not as a priest. The architecture matters, but not as sacred space. The Lord’s Supper matters, but not as a sacrifice. ‘

    Why do you focus on the pastor? What about the 1 Cor 14 all-member ministry (at least all male members)?

    Not sure what you mean by ‘the architecture matters’.

  2. J. Dean says:

    Good post. I might have to go check this book out.

  3. Rose says:

    Somewhere along the way I have picked up the idea that congregational worship can be compared to approaching God in His throne room (enter into his gates with thanksgiving), while the rest of life involves more living room relationships. Just as the child of a king would observe the rules associated with the throne room, despite the familial relationship, while having a less restricted interaction in the rest of life, so we are more regulated in our congregational worship. There are some aspects of worship, including the architecture, which are mostly incidental, and common to any human gathering. These aspects are regulated by common sense and decorum. Aspects of worship to which is attached a spiritual significance, perhaps also the architecture, should be expressly commanded by God, or it is will worship, even if motivated by good intentions.

  4. Scott says:

    This is an outstanding book! One of the most helpful books that I read in seminary.

  5. Deeper thinking about worship is always needed and appreciated.

    Worship became a buzz word among Christians over the past several decades. Churches have worship services led by worship leaders who work with worship teams. Some churches have a worship time to prepare for the sermon (something other than worship?). Some Churches have worship pastors and even offer worship opportunities. Conferences offer worship workshops and worship seminars. The experts on worship guide us to enhance the worship of the Church!

    As the buzz word caught on, it became increasingly common to equate worship with singing. When told a church has “great” or “amazing” worship, most often it means great music. Yet nothing is discovered about the greatness of worship by hearing people sing. Even if they sing the old hymns with emotional restraint or close their eyes and raise their hands to contemporary Christian music, these practices alone do not inform us about the greatness of their worship. They really tell us nothing about their worship.

    Some people mistakenly focus on the personal enjoyment or blessing they derive from worship. D. A. Carson noted that, “A little over a century ago, it was not uncommon to find Christians in some traditions asking after a sermon, ‘How did you get on under the Word?’ Now we ask, “Did you enjoy the worship?” (i.e. the rest of the service apart from the sermon). Worship can be rated according to our degree of enjoyment. It is part of the genus of ‘entertainment industry’”

    There is always danger in confusing what is central with by-product. In his magisterial work on the existence and attributes of God, Stephen Charnock wrote, “To pretend a homage to God, and intend only the advantage of self is rather to mock Him than worship Him.” To worship God is not to seek to be blessed but to bless him with our words and our lives.

    “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).

  6. Chris Donato says:

    Helpful post here. But of course I take umbrage with the idea that “Jesus removes the need for a cultic approach to God in the traditional sense,” if that means, if it seems to in your description, doing away with the cultic altogether (not exactly a classical Protestant sentiment, that).

    At any rate, I’ll see Peterson’s Engaging with God and raise you a Recalling the Hope of Glory by Allen Ross.

  7. Nice article. Just a note though… You might want to pick a better example for point #4 lest anyone take it to further the exile of little ones from worship. We already have a major epidemic of that in our churches. I know that wasn’t the intent, but just in case…

  8. J. Dean says:

    If there’s one thing that needs to come back to worship (and I use the term with particular emphasis on the musical side of worship), it’s the intellectual aspect. Engaging of the mind is taking a backseat to engaging the emotions, and it’s frustrating to see this.

  9. Kevin says:

    “So, the pastor matters in the church service, but not as a priest.” Why? When a group of believers gathers for studying the Bible in a group, do they need a pastor? If a group of believers gathers together on a Sunday morning and share stories from the Bible and admonish each other, why do they need a pastor?

    “The architecture matters, but not as sacred space.”

    Why? Does it matter more than the architecture of my home matters if I have Bible studies and meetings of Christians where there is singing and teaching in my home?

    “The Lord’s Supper matters, but not as a sacrifice.”

    Why does the Lord’s Supper matter? Is it any different than remembering Jesus in my heart when I eat bread and drink grape juice at dinner?

    “Christ is our High Priest, our Temple, and our Sacrifice.” Christians who disagree with you about the priesthood, sacred space, and the sacrifice of the altar also believe that Christ is our High Priest, our Temple, and our Sacrifice. Do you also think that Christ’s high priesthood eliminates the possibility of the “priesthood of all believers” participating in his high priesthood in some way, and if not, how does it disqualify a priesthood of presbyters while allowing a priesthood of all laypeople? Does Christ’s sacrifice also eliminate the possibility of making a living sacrifice with one’s body, or does it only eliminate the possibility of re-presenting that one sacrifice on the altar? What sacrifices are allowed, and which are forbidden by sacred scripture?

  10. David Massey says:

    “Worship Matters” by Bob Kauflin is also a great book.

  11. Brian says:

    Kevin (the poster, not Mr. DeYoung),

    A pastor matters because the Bible says so. Just because Jesus is our great high priest and shepherd does not rule out the need for “undershepherds.” If we follow all of the NT, we see the need for leaders in the church, particularly those who are spiritually gifted to teach.

    I don’t think the architecture of the church building matters tremendously, but I suppose that everything matters in what we do. The church building should be set up so we can sit together (preferably in a semi-circle arrangement, so we could see and hear each other). My home is not set up very well to hold a group larger than a few people.

    The Lord’s Supper matters because the Bible says so. There is a distinction between that sacrament/ordinance and the common meal.

    If we take the Bible seriously, there is no doubt that the OT priesthood, tabernacle/temple, and sacrifices point forward to Jesus, who fulfills them all. That Jesus is the great high priest does not in any way invalidate the priesthood of the believer. The NT holds both ideas to be true. Just as there was only one high priest at a time in the OT along with many other priests, so now do we have one high priest directing all the royal priests, that is, all Christians. Jesus is also the only atoning sacrifice, but we are to be living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1) who offer up sacrifices of praise (Heb. 13:15) and giving (Heb. 13:16; Phil. 4:18). These ideas are not antithetical. We must keep in mind that only Jesus can solve our problem of sin and that we cannot earn atonement through our good works. But, once redeemed, we can offer up our lives in service to God.

    David, I will second Kauflin’s book. I just read it and it was both theologically solid and practical. I’m currently reading the Peterson book and I look forward to getting a copy of Allen Ross’s work.

  12. David says:

    Reading Peterson’s book now. Excellent! I think worship corporate worship should be an improper balance of Zechariah and Mary’s songs in the NT and David’s Psalms in the OT; the former being given the most weight. In preparing for worship in Heaven, it is a waste to extend too much focus to our own sin struggle. Strictly within the context of corporate music worship, I believe it should be mentioned in passing as an means to the end. I have a hard time with the glory-stealing songs that almost worship our struggle instead of resting in the finished work of Christ. Musical worship is all about magnifying Christ and it’s an offense to rub already forgiven sin back in His face as we magnify Him. “It is done” can just be too unbelievable for us (me). The struggle is not necessarily with sin, but to believe it has been forgotten in the finished work of Christ. “Jesus Paid It All” and “Amazing Grace” are great examples of honestly acknowledging out “in but not of” predicament while placing the right overall emphasis. Christ’s work is not mentioned in passing, with the emphasis given to our wretched state . . . it’s the other way around.

  13. John Thomson says:

    ‘A pastor matters because the Bible says so’.

    Indeed. But so too did the prophets, evangelists, exhorters, those with the gift of knowledge. So too did the praise and prayers of God’s people. Not to mention the elders (not necessarily the same as a pastor) and deacons.

    My point is that Kevin is here thinking of church services through a particular prism. It seems to me that this prism is much more circumscribed than the NT idea of a local church.

    My concern is that really in Protestant churches far too often a Pastor is equivalent to a Priest. Oh, I know we believe in the priesthood of all believers etc etc but the whole clergy/laity divide is RC in principle.

    Architecture should be a matter of what is convenient. The notion that the pulpit has replaced the altar can easily become a means of emphasising a clergy/laity divide.

    I write this with some diffidence for I believe in the importance of the preached words. I believe that foundational to proper church growth is the preaching of the word (though not always in pulpit rhetoric). However, I do not approve of the clerical monster that has developed in many denominations. It finds little echo in the NT.

  14. John Thomson says:


    I’ve read Peterson’s book and agree it is excellent. Except, I think he does not sufficiently allow for worship in the narrower sense of congregational praise and prayers offered to God in adoration. Carson discusses this and seems to me more balanced in his article in the book he edited ‘Worship by the Book’.

    There is a clear sense that for a Christian every activity of life should be an act of worship – that is a conscious act of devotion to God for his glory. Clearly, this broad sense includes preaching. Yet there is a specific kind of worship – the fruit of our lips – that to my mind is different even from preaching. In preaching the preacher speaks to men; in praise the worshipper speaks to God. Preaching is service for God while praise is adoration of God. In this sense praise is direct worship and preaching is indirect. Or perhaps we could say that preaching ought to provoke worship.

    Worship is still (in the older definition) extolling the worth of God TO GOD from the heart. It is specific homage to God. Scan the references in a concordance and this quickly becomes clear.

    What was Jacob doing when he leant on his staff and worshipped?

    Interestingly the first mention of worship is Abraham and Isaac on Moriah.

    Gen 22:5 (ESV)
    Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”

    The significance is rich is it not?

  15. Adam Anderson says:

    Thanks for this post! I’ve read Dr. Peterson’s book–it is a treasure of theological depth and richness, and wise insights abound. Good distillation of truth brother!

  16. Arthur Sido says:

    John Thompson

    “My point is that Kevin is here thinking of church services through a particular prism. It seems to me that this prism is much more circumscribed than the NT idea of a local church.”

    Exactly. The whole post presumes that “worship” equals our cultural understanding of a traditional church meeting, even though much of what we consider to be Biblical (i.e. monologue sermons, a ritualized Lord’s Supper instead of a meal) is utterly absent from Scripture and what we do see (i.e. all of the brothers participating) is absent in our practice. It is extremely difficult to truly study the church because so much of what we think we know about the church is assumed at the outset and intractable regardless of the lack of Biblical evidence for it or the extensive Biblical against contrary to our assumptions.

  17. Jimmy says:

    I agree with Arthur and some others wholeheartedly. Unless and until a version of the New Testament is published that includes a clear “order of worship,” no amount of argumentation is going to establish a normative Biblical shape of worship. (How literal do we want to be? Anybody who reads this blog want to get real about ‘having all things in common?’ Or does that violate an economic system that is manifestly not based in the Scriptures?)
    And whenever I read someone’s “principles” derived from Scripture, I learn more about the writer than I do about the Scriptures. If I want to read books of principles and arguments, I’ll read Kant.

  18. Mark says:

    Hi Kevin

    Was wondering if some Biblical evidence could be provided for the concept:

    ‘The grand scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation are both present and future, and they are meant to be mirrored on earth’.

    I’m unsure of the basis for this statement, especially the last section on mirroring. This seems to be saying examine what people are doing in heaven and make that central in our gatherings. The NT doesn’t call our gatherings worship. Why do you think this is so?


  19. Jonathan says:

    Re: John Thompson

    Why only male members? Men and women are called by God into this ministry.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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