Years ago, I was forced to attend a Roman Catholic Church mass to fulfill a requirement for a class I was taking in seminary. At first, I was not too pleased with this assignment, but as it turned out, it was quite an eye-opening experience to be sure. For me, having grown up as a protestant, I had never attended a Roman Catholic worship service—and I certainly had been taught much of their errors through the years. While I refused to engage in the mass due to the heretical teaching of transubstantiation, I left convicted. As a pastor of a local church and a seminary student, I was convicted for the lack of public reading of Scripture in our protestant worship services.
Over the years that would follow, I would eventually lead our church to incorporate more rather than less Scripture in worship. Why is the public reading of Scripture important and essential for our worship of God?
1 Timothy 4:13 — Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
Establishing the Priority of Scripture for Worship
At the center of every Christian worship service must be the Word of God. We as believers must place a great priority upon the centrality of God’s Word among his people. By gathering together for the public reading of Scripture—from the very beginning of the service—it places a priority upon the Word. An honest evaluation for all believers would be to compare the amount of singing to the amount of God’s Word in a typical weekly worship service. Which one takes the priority?
As Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:13), he pointed him to the public reading of Scripture. Since books were scarce (especially parchments of God’s Word) and the educational level of people during the days of the early church often lacked the ability to read—the only time people could hear the Word of God was during public worship. Justin Martyr described a worship service from the second century:
On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. 
Each week as we gather for worship within the context of the church that I serve, we have an official call to worship from God’s Word. This is a means of the church being called to worship God through his Word from the beginning of the service. Such an official call to worship sets the stage for the fact that all of our worship must be connected to God’s Word, driven by God’s Word, directed by God’s Word, and honoring to the God of the Bible. We likewise desire to communicate to everyone who is present that the Word of God takes priority over everything else in our service.
The chief end of all worship of God will be achieved through his Word. Nothing can compete with God’s Word. Nothing can replace God’s Word. Therefore, with that firm understanding, there should be nothing that takes priority over God’s Word in the regular gathering of God’s people for worship on the Lord’s Day. John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, stated the following:
Our belief of the Scriptures to be the word of God, or a divine revelation, and our understanding of the mind and will of God as revealed in them, are the two springs of all our interest in Christian religion. From them are all those streams of light and truth derived whereby our souls are watered, refreshed, and made fruitful unto God. 
Establishing the Necessity of Scripture for Worship
If the only sufficient guide for life and the practice of our faith is the Word of God, why then would we gather together to worship God apart from his Word? Sadly today, many Protestant worship services contain far less public reading of Scripture than Roman Catholic Church services and in some cases—no public reading of Scripture at all.
If we will know God rightly and worship him properly, we must hear God speak through his Word. What Paul taught Timothy was emerging from the Jewish practice of reading the Scriptures in the synagogue. When Jesus visited the synagogue, he read publicly from the scroll of Isaiah. It should likewise be noted that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians closes with the charge to “have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thess. 5:27).
Paul closed his letter to the church in Colosse with these words, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). This public reading was to the church, which implies public worship rather than casual meetings over lattes at the local Starbucks. We likewise see this clear pattern of the public reading of Scripture in the letters sent to the seven churches of Revelation (see Rev. 1:3). Rather than arriving late and skipping over the public reading of Scripture, make sure you’re on-time, quiet, and engaged in the reading of Scripture since it not only sets the tone of the worship, but is itself part of the worship of God each week.
Honoring God’s Design for Scripture
God’s Word was designed to be read aloud. As mentioned earlier, illiteracy was a common problem among the people of the early church, but as we move through the days preceding the Reformation, the people would gather for worship and they would not be able to hear the Word in their own language, because the Roman Catholic Church sought to control the text. Even when people could not understand Latin, they would read the Bible in Latin—completely concealing the Word from the people. They were elevating ecclesiastical opinion and their own doctrinal positions above sacred Scripture.
The Reformation was about unleashing God’s Word among the people. In the early days of the Reformation and during the time period of the Puritans, they understood the value and necessity of God’s Word in the common man’s language. They had heard stories of friends and family members being imprisoned and even burned for the sake of possessing a copy of the Bible in their own language. Thomas Watson stated emphatically that the Scripture “shows the Credenda, what we are to believe; and the Agenda, what we are to practise.”  Reading it aloud in the public worship of God is essential for making God’s will clearly known to the people on a weekly basis.
Finally, we must never forget that God’s design is to save people through the hearing of his Word (Rom. 10:17). Far more important than our story or our opinion or the sharing of our heart is the clear reading of God’s Word. The reading of the Bible must never be reduced to a simple precursor to what the preacher is about to say. The reading of Scripture must never be relegated to the level of an introduction to the preacher’s sermon. It must be clearly established among everyone who gathers within a Protestant worship service that they not only believe the Bible, but they place great priority upon the public reading of God’s Word as well.
Although the early church primarily used the Old Testament for their public reading, we have the privilege to use both the Old Testament and the New Testament for public reading within our worship services. In an age when prominent pastors are encouraging believers to “unhitch themselves from the Old Testament”—it would be wise to use both the Old and New Testaments on a weekly basis as a reminder that the totality of God’s Word is profitable.
2 Timothy 3:16 — All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, I. 67, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (1885; repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:186.
- John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein…, in The Works of John Owen, D.D. (Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1855), 4:121.
- Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 30.
As we explore church history, we find the pattern of worship for the Roman Catholic Church repulsive and offensive on many levels. One such level is the use of graphic statues, figures, and the prayers to the saints. Beyond the obvious doctrinal truths regarding the need to worship God alone—why should we be offended by their worship practices?
As we fast-forward through history to our modern evangelical culture, we find pastors jumping (and sometimes falling down on the platform) on trampolines and attempting all sorts of gimmicks from zip line entries to motorcycle tricks all in the context of what is considered worship. Should we be offended by these practices too?
In short, as we consider the subject of worship, are there red lights and green lights—or does anything go? How should we approach the issue of the regulative principle? Does God regulate how we worship? If so, how does he do it? Is anything allowed in worship so long as God doesn’t forbid it? Are all things forbidden except those practices or elements that God specifies in his Word as essential? How do we discern what is forbidden and what’s required?
Regulative Principle: Is the Bible Sufficient?
The regulative principle is often misunderstood and rejected by people who claim to embrace the sufficiency of Scripture. In short, we have a few different positions to choose from in regard to governing principles to Christian worship. First, there’s the freedom principle or the inventive principle which claims that anything goes—so long as one’s heart is right in the process. This would allow for all sorts of tricks and the most elaborate automobile illustrations, zip line entries, video sermons, and various other methods of appealing to people and appearing to be relevant.
Another well known position is the normative principle which claims that anything goes in Christian worship so long as God does not forbid it in Scripture. Basically, this approach allows for nearly anything that’s not considered sinful. Once again, this would open the door for various modern inventions to gain the attention of people such as indoor fireworks, zip line pastors, and more—so long as the Bible doesn’t condemn it.
The regulative principle claims that we should only approach God in worship in the way that he has clearly described such worship in the Word. If God does not specify it in his Word, we should not employ it as a means of worship. In other words, if God has not approved it, we should not approach him with such methods and manners of worship. Once again, we must ask ourselves an honest question—do we truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture or is that merely a historic creed that we like to embrace in word, but not in practice?
In the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, we find these words:
- LBC 1:6 — “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed
( 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Galatians 1:8,9; John 6:45; 1 Corinthians 2:9-12; 1 Corinthians 11:13, 14; 1 Corinthians 14:26,40).”
At the heart of the controversy of the Reformation was the idea of the authority of Scripture. Emerging from the Reformation era was the famous slogan, sola Scriptura. When it comes to a July 4th worship service in America, does the Bible say anything that would forbid indoor fireworks to celebrate America’s freedom? In a similar situation, a local church in Atlanta would like to celebrate the Super Bowl by having their pastors compete in preaching as they setup their entire worship service to mirror a football game—is the Bible silent on these two different worship services?
When it comes to the regulative principle—it’s not about the establishment of a list of forbidden practices in worship in order to rob people of their joy and freedom to worship God. It’s actually the opposite. The purpose of the regulative principle is to determine the boundaries for joy-filled worship and the Bible is absolutely sufficient to determine such boundaries. That was true during the days of the ancient controversies of the Roman Catholic Church and it remains so in our modern urbane church culture today.
Regulative Principle: Is the Worship of God Unique?
When Moses was in training to lead Israel, he was serving as a goat farmer in the wilderness. One day God appeared to him in a burning bush, and we can imagine that this was an extremely unusual and spectacular scene. We find the scene in Exodus 3:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.  And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:1-6).
It must be clearly observed that God required Moses to remove his shoes—for the ground was holy. That same dusty sod was not exactly holy the day before, but at that moment, something was quite unique and different as God had appeared to Moses in that bush. Therefore, God required that Moses remove his sandals. There is something unique about the worship of God and we see this from both the Old Testament to the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 3:14-15, we find Paul’s words to Timothy similar:
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that,  if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
There are certain behaviors that are acceptable within the gathered church and there are certain behaviors that are unacceptable. It’s not man’s preference nor his own opinion that dictates such boundaries. It’s God’s Word that provides the boundaries that are clearly established by God. If we operate by the freedom principle or the inventive principle which is fueled by pragmatic gimmicks, strategies, and tricks to appeal to the carnal masses—we will turn worship into entertainment and the church into a community social club rather than what God intended from the beginning.
The regulative principle is not about restrictions or the establishment of red lights for God’s people. It’s not a religious regulation principle that seeks to be negative as much as it’s committed to honoring the unique worship of a sovereign and holy God in the manner in which he has specified. When we redefine marriage and call it marriage—that does not honor God. When we redefine worship and call it worship—it likewise does not honor God. The regulative principle is not about preventing indoor fireworks or vivid motorcycle illustrations, but it is the principle that seeks to direct our worship to our triune God in such a way that what was once mysterious is now clearly revealed in Scripture—as Paul states in 1 Timothy 3:16:
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
When rightly understood, reverenced, and preached among God’s people—we come to the reality that God is not boring and he certainly doesn’t need zip lines, motorcycles, and dress up costume preachers to make him exciting. He is exciting! Worship God!
When we watch a big athletic competition on television, there is no question about the motives of the people who are in the stands. The fans are there for one reason—to cheer on their team and enjoy the entire atmosphere of the big game. When it comes to our worship of God, why are we less engaged or less involved? I’m not at all suggesting that we must be fanatical in our worship with crazy shouts and cheering. What I am suggesting is that we must be engaged properly and involved in the worship of God. Worship is not a spectator event. Sinclair Ferguson stated the following, “The foundation of worship in the heart is not emotional (‘I feel full of worship’ or ‘The atmosphere is so worshipful’). Actually, it is theological. Worship is not something we ‘work up,’ it is something that ‘comes down’ to us, from the character of God.” 
The Definition of Worship
When we discuss worship in our contemporary setting, we typically have in mind the worship of God. Perhaps in our ultra-contemporary or progressive settings we tend to associate singing with worship while not typically focusing upon other aspects such as preaching, praying, giving, and responding to God in worship.
For many years, the word worship has been used in a variety of contexts from knights who win worship by their feats of arms to the old English prayer book where the groom tells his bride, “With my body I thee worship.” It goes without saying, the term for worship has been employed in a variety of contexts throughout time. The antiquarian English term (weorthscipe) has carried the idea of “worthiness” or the “worthship” of the object or person in reference.
As we consider the way in which the term worship is used in a biblical sense and within the context of the church (the Christian community), we reserve worship for God alone who is worthy to receive such adoration and praise. In the New Testament, we find the Greek verb “προσκυνέω” used to talk about people worshipping Christ (Matt. 2:2). This term carries the meaning “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure, (fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to.”  The idea from Old to New Testaments is that God himself is alone worthy of worship and we must avoid any act or engagement of worship to false gods. Our God is a jealous God and has made that clearly known (Ex. 20:1-4; Deut. 7:1-5).
The Privilege of Worship
When it comes to worship, we must consider the reality of what we get to do and why this is such an unbelievable privilege. Have you ever had the privilege to meet a celebrity or a person of great power in the world of politics—including the President of the United States? Such meetings often leave a person feeling overwhelmed with a sense of privilege. We should view worship as an undeserved privilege that our God has granted to us as a result of his saving love and divine mercy.
When we consider the backdrop of human depravity and the salvation that is ours through the blood of Jesus Christ—it is indeed overwhelming to comprehend the reality that God is pleased with us and that we have been reconciled to him through the blood of his Son Jesus Christ. That reality of our position in Christ and the privilege of God receiving our worship is a sobering thought to comprehend. How true it is that God receives our worship and we are welcomed to come to him in prayer boldly (Heb. 4:16). We are to sing to our God as we offer praises to him (PS. 7:17). Preachers stand and proclaim God’s Word and point people to hope in God through Christ and to serve him (1 Cor. 1:23). We gather at the Lord’s Table for worship as we remember the very body and blood of Jesus (1 Cor. 11:17-34). Worship is a foretaste of our being welcomed into God’s visible presence in eternity. What an unbelievable privilege.
The Responsibility of Worship
The Psalmist writes the following, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker” (Ps. 95:6)! God has saved us and called us to be worshippers of him. God did not need us to worship him. Our God is self-existent and self-sustaining. However, God in his divine mercy has saved us—calling us out of darkness into his marvelous light. God has called us to be worshippers of him—and this worship is not suggested or given to us for consideration. We are called to worship God.
We read the following in Psalm 66:1-4:
Shout for joy to God, all the earth;
sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise!
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you.
All the earth worships you
and sings praises to you;
they sing praises to your name.” Selah
All throughout the Word of God, we see a clear call for God’s people to offer up praise, adoration, song, sermons, and Spirit-empowered worship to God. Therefore, it should not be something we do as an additive to our weekly activities, it should stand high above all other things and it should be positioned at the very center of our lives.
The Blueprint for Worship
When it comes to the building of a house, the builder uses a set of blueprints which serve as a definite guide and scale of measurement for the structure that he will erect. When complete, the finished product should look like the drawings on the blueprints which were created by architects and drawn to scale. Go back in history to the days of Moses and the Israelites. God provided Moses a set of audible blueprints for the construction of the Tabernacle. Each part of the structure—from the blazing alter to the choice of fabric was to be constructed to God’s specifications. In Exodus 40:33, the text says that Moses finished the work, and then something unique happened.
Exodus 40:34–38 – Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.  And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.  Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out.  But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up.  For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
God was pleased, and he descended upon the tent of meeting in visible glory. Unfortunately, the reason that many worship services are full of emotion but lack the blessing of God is because far too many churches fail to follow the blueprint that God has given to us for worship. When God’s people worshipped the golden calf, God was displeased. When Cain offered up an improper sacrifice, God was not satisfied. We see other examples of fleshly worship as Ananias and Sapphira offered up only part of what they promised God, and God judged them (Acts 5:1-11). Furthermore, we find that when God’s people perverted the Lord’s Table, they were judged with sickness and death (1 Cor. 11).
The regulative principle of worship is the idea that everything we need to know about how God desires to be worshipped is found plainly in the Word. Not only is it accessible, it’s also mandatory that we follow God’s blueprint. This regulative principle is a commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture—with a firm belief that God has given us his directions to follow in worship. When we read the Bible, we find that God has given specific directions about the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13), the preaching of the Word (2 Tim. 4:1-5), the singing of the church (Col. 3:16), the administration of the ordinances (Acts 2:41-47; 1 Cor. 11), and the prayers of the people (Matt. 5:44; Matt. 6:-13; 1 Thess. 5:17). The corporate gathering of God’s people is to be observed and not neglected (Heb. 10:24-25), and so God has given us a blueprint of acceptable worship.
Psalm 99:5 – Exalt the LORD our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!
- Sinclair Ferguson, A Heart for God, (Carlisle, PA.: Banner of Truth, 1987), 110.
- William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 882.
I received an e-mail from a friend yesterday who serves as a chief of police in Tennessee. He was writing to tell me that he has been struck by how little the average church member knows about God’s Word. As I read his message and listened to his heart, I couldn’t help but think about what has caused this through the years. We have consistently dumbed down worship which should be designed for sheep in order to attract goats. The local church is a true anomaly when you consider the fact that college football teams are never satisfied with lowering standards for their team goals. In like manner, businesses are never satisfied with lowering business goals for their corporation, but local churches adopt an attitude that expects pastors to lower standards of what’s expected for membership, decrease the seriousness of worship, and make worship fast, easy, and comfortable. This approach has radically changed the way in which we worship.
Over the past two years, I have been working through our order of worship and revisiting the need for change based on convictions and the need for a more healthy worship service. Recently, the elders discussed this issue and we continue to work through some of the needed alterations as we prepare for 2019. It is our desire to arrange our worship in such a way that will honor God with the most healthy worship service as possible. That requires intentional design that arranges worship based on knowledge rather than feeling.
Far too often, worship services are arranged to meet the felt needs of a congregation or to attract the seeker who might be in attendance. The seeker sensitive model of church growth plagued evangelicalism with light duty worship services that were superficial, short, shallow, and non-offensive to unbelievers. In many cases this approach has left us with large megachurches filled with unbelievers who gather for reasons that do not square with the purpose of the Lord’s Day and worship services across evangelicalism that are based on feelings rather than knowledge.
All through the Bible we see an emphasis placed on what we know to be true about God. In 1 Peter 1:18, the apostle uses the word “knowing” to encourage the discouraged believer and help them to base their worship of God on the firm foundation of what they know to be true about God. As we approach 2019, we are preparing to make necessary changes to the worship order within our local church so that our weekly worship will become more healthy.
Healthy Variety of Scripture Reading
Many Protestant churches have very little Scripture read in their weekly worship compared to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. When you consider the fact that once upon a time people were being burned at the stake for possessing the Bible in English—you would think that we would have a healthy dose of public Scripture readings, but that simply isn’t the case across the board.
We begin each service with a call to worship from God’s Word. Throughout 2018, we read through the Gospel of Matthew as we took a portion of Matthew’s Gospel in both the morning and evening worship services. As we prepare for a new order of worship, we will be incorporating several Scripture passages in each service as follows:
- Reading from the Psalms
- Reading from the Law
- Reading from the Gospel
- Reading from the Sermon Passage
It is our desire to have both the Old and New Testament read in each service. We desire to show the importance of all Scripture and to show how Christ stands at the center of all of God’s Word. This approach will enable us to be very intentional in connecting how we pray with what the Bible actually says since our prayers will be arranged near Scripture readings.
In a typical worship service, prayers are often generic in approach and sadly is the case that they are used as transitions between different stages of the worship service. It’s not uncommon to have a prayer in a specific place merely to allow musicians to get into place for the next song. The prayer is offered by the pastor and is typically a transition and has no intentional design to it whatsoever.
As we rearrange our order of worship, we will arrange intentional prayer times that will enable the church to be specific in how we pray each time we enter into a time of prayer. We will arrange internal prayers such as:
- Prayer of Adoration
- Prayer of Confession
- Pastoral Prayer
- Prayer for Missions
We believe this will enable us to focus on God in a vertical prayer at the beginning of the service which will set the focus for our gathering. We are not gathering for entertainment or for selfish reasons. We are gathering to meet with our God. Following in the worship service will be a time of internal personal introspection and evaluation. We will be ver intentional about praying and confessing to God our known sin and pleading for forgiveness. The pastoral prayer will be focused on the needs of the congregation—and much of it will be based on the need to know God and to allow our knowledge of God to drive our worship of God. Finally, we will end with a time praying for missions around the world and focusing in on the commission to our local community. Each prayer will have a specific intentional design.
One of the joys of my life has been to watch our church embrace the biblical model of shared pastoral leadership. The plurality of elders leading a local church is a beautiful thing. I have the privilege of serving with a Godly group of men who love the Lord and have a passion to serve our local church.
As we continue to grow as elders, it is my desire to see more shared leadership in the weekly worship. As we incorporate these intentional public Scripture readings and prayers into our weekly worship—we will have the privilege of sitting under the shared leadership of our elders on a weekly basis. This will not only provide opportunities for the elders to serve and lead, but it will enable the church to see the elders serving and leading each week. This approach is intentional and for the good of our whole church.
When was the last time you paused and evaluated how you worship each week? Do you believe that your worship service is healthy and robust or lacking in substance and depth? If you’re a pastor, you can work to change this pattern if you feel that your worship service is unhealthy. If you’re a church member, you can always talk with your pastors about this problem and pray that they will make the necessary changes for the glory of God.
Many people may not realize this fact, but before the Reformation worship was dead and lifeless. It was through the Reformation that congregational singing was reintroduced in the life of the local church. Today, over five hundred years after the Reformation a consistent struggle among many local churches is centered on their worship through song. Sometimes it’s friction between the members and leaders on style. In other cases, it’s the lack of seriousness placed upon the worship of the church by the leaders and members collectively. In some circumstances, you have discouraged members who desire to worship well, but they feel hindered by the song selection or the church members who are moving their mouths while expecting leaders to sing out for them (which typically leads to one loud voice and a quiet congregation). How can both leaders and members help one another worship through song with excellence?
Leaders: Choose Singable Songs
Within the life of the church, what separates a good song from a great song is whether or not it’s singable for the congregation. It may be a song that’s loaded with solid theology, but if it was arranged for a praise band or soloist rather than a congregation, it will likely fall flat on the Lord’s Day. When reading in the Old Testament recently, I came across this verse in Psalm 57:7, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody!” All through the Old Testament, we see verses centered upon singing to the Lord. In the Psalms, we find a great number of the songs beginning with these words, “To the choirmaster…” which is a testimony to the fact that they were written and arranged not merely for worship, but for a group of people to sing to the LORD.
With the boom of the contemporary Christian music, the older hymns of the faith have taken a backseat in many contexts on the Lord’s Day. While there is nothing wrong with new songs, there is something to learn from the older songs from church history. When you look at the high poetic style and the musical composition—the songs were of such quality and arrangement that allowed the gathered congregation to exult in God through his holy Word and sing loudly with excellence. We must remember that while the older hymns were greatly successful and profitable to the church, they were never the product of a lucrative music industry. They emerged from pastors, theologians, and musicians who spent time in God’s Word and penned songs for the glory of God.
When the church is gathered for worship, on most occasions, there is a noticeable difference between the quality of worship from a well known hymn of the faith and a newly arranged praise song. It’s not merely because the church is fixed on old things, it’s often due to the ability of the congregation to sing the song. Leaders must be able to notice this and make adjustments where necessary. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it good and just because the song is new (and popular) doesn’t mean it’s worthy for the Lord’s Day worship service.
Church: Sing and Play with Excellence
Whatever we do, we should do for the glory of God. There should be a spirit of excellence in all that we do in this life—especially in worship. We don’t go to a football game with a heart that’s barely connected and disinterested in engaging in the fan frenzy of cheering on our team. We go with the expectation to lift up our voices and clap our hands. We walk into the stadium as a fan. When we assemble on the Lord’s Day for worship, we should enter as a worshipper who anticipates engaging mind, heart, and voice in the worship of God. Never be satisfied with the idea that the big voice or the skilled vocalist is the one responsible for your worship. You are responsible for your worship.
We see that the people of God in Scripture put effort into their singing. Notice the words of 2 Chronicles 30:21, “And the people of Israel who were present at Jerusalem kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with great gladness, and the Levites and the priests praised the LORD day by day, singing with all their might to the LORD.” They didn’t merely move their lips, they exerted themselves in singing. However, in order for the people to engage with all of their might, the song must be arranged for the congregation rather than a praise band. Furthermore, the congregation must not approach the worship of God on the Lord’s Day as if they are looking to be entertained or satisfied with their music style.
A former pastor of mine as a boy once made the following statement, “If you come to church looking to see what you can get, you will leave empty. If you come to church looking to see what you can give, you will leave full.” This is a fitting statement in regard to how we worship. If we come as a spectator, we will likely leave unfulfilled. If we come with the understanding that we are involved in the production and that we have a part in the weekly worship—it will cause us to leave full. Imagine if you showed up for church next week and noticed your name in the printed order of worship. Would that cause you to become nervous at all? Have you considered the fact that while your name might not be printed in the bulletin—you are part of the worship each week?
Consider the words of Psalm 71:3, “My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed.” When we connect mind (the knowledge of our redemption) with our heart (the gladness for what our God has done in the work of redemption)—our lips will respond with joyful worship. If we stand there looking for the choir to impress us, the praise band to entertain us, or the vocalists to satisfy us—we will cause the church’s worship to sink lower and lower as that mindset spreads through the church. Each of God’s children are called to sing to him as worshippers. When each one of us seeks to sing with excellence—soon enough the church collectively will begin to approach worship with a spirit of excellence rather than selfishness and consumerism.
If there is one thing that needs to die a hard death in the evangelical church today—it’s the spirit of consumerism. What a selfish little sin—the sin of consumerism.
How you approach the Lord’s Day says much about your view of God, his gospel, and your trust in his sovereignty. Last night as we gathered for church, I preached from Exodus 20:8-11 on the importance of the Lord’s Day. On one level, people within the church throw out the Fourth Commandment as if it’s no longer binding on New Testament believers. On another level, those who believe the children of God should give God one out of seven days find themselves in a halfway commitment with God where they have negotiated terms to split the day between themselves and the Lord.
In Exodus 20, we find the list of the Ten Commandments. As we approach the Lord’s Day, we must ask ourselves if the Ten Commandments have any binding upon us in our day or if we have reduced their number down to only nine. There are two massive traps that you must avoid when approaching the Lord’s Day—one is pharisaical and the other is pagan.
The Error of Legalism
The Sabbath command (Exodus 20:8-11) was never given by God in order to be a burden. It was always the goal of joy for the people—never a curse. Over time, the religious establishment of the Jewish people turned the Sabbath command into a burdensome routine. They built fences around God’s Law in order to protect it as if it needed to be protected. What resulted from their efforts of purity was the most the profaning of God’s Law which robbed God of glory the people of their joy.
John MacArthur has provided a list of “laws” that prevented the Jews from violating the Sabbath:
- No burden could be carried that weighed more than a dried fig.
- If you threw an object in the air and caught it with the other hand, it was a sin. If you caught it in the same hand, it wasn’t.
- A tailor couldn’t carry his needle.
- The scribe couldn’t carry his pen.
- A pupil couldn’t carry his books.
- No clothing could be examined.
- Wool couldn’t be dyed.
- Nothing could be sold.
- Nothing could be bought.
- Nothing could be washed.
- A fire couldn’t be lit.
- An egg could not be boiled.
- Could not bathe – for fear that as the water fell from you it would wash the floor.
However, in all of their attempt to protect the Sabbath, they profaned it. This is quite clear as Jesus corrects their false understanding in Mark 3:1-6. Jesus made it clear that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. Furthermore, he made it clear that the Sabbath was created for man—not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Legalism is the attempt to please God by doing good.
Legalism causes a man to “work” to please God. Grace causes a man to “work” because God is pleased with him. Legalism instructs a man to “work” for God. Grace brings a man to delight in “working” for God. Alistair Begg said, “Religion says, ‘I obey, therefore I am accepted.’ Christianity says, ‘I am accepted, therefore I obey.’” As we make personal decisions on how to live life, we must put our finger on chapter and verse and avoid the commands of man. Did God expect Israel to remember the Sabbath? Absolutely, but their observance of the Sabbath turned into a legal system that caused frustration rather than joy.
We must approach the Lord’s Day with the same attitude that God expected from the Israelites regarding the Sabbath. We must willfully give God one day for worship and rest since he has not changed his mind about that very issue. However, in our attempt to honor God with the Lord’s Day—we must not fall into the traps of the Pharisees by counting the number of steps on our iPhone on Sunday and condemning people who walk too far. It should be a day of delight, laughter, joy, worship, fellowship, and rest. All of this—for the glory of God.
The Error of Antinomianism
We likewise live in a culture of confusion when it comes to God’s Word. Has Jesus really come to abolish the Law of God? Is that what he said (Matt. 5:17)? For those who hold to that position, they would not approach the Sixth Commandment with the same attitude as they do the Fourth Commandment. Some people live with that attitude—as if Jesus abolished the Law and has given free reign to live without the slightest binding command of God’s Law. Not only is this dishonoring to God, it’s an extremely dangerous place to be in life.
The attitude that avoids God’s Law and rejects God’s commands is one that will lead to a diminished worship, a deficient relationship with God, and a lack of holiness altogether. God has given us the Law to teach us what is expected and it serves as a boundary for life and worship. Without boundaries and without shepherds—sheep wander off cliffs and walk into the mouths of wolves. That’s why God has placed the boundary of the Law before us and it’s also why God has given shepherds (pastors) to his people. The antinomianism approach to life and worship seeks to dethrone God and enthrone one’s self.
Regarding the Lord’s Day, it’s important to see that following the resurrection of Jesus, the church of Christ gathered on the first day of the week for worship (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2). Jesus himself rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Matt. 28:1-6) and this altered the way the followers of Christ worshipped. They gave God the first day of the week for worship and fellowship and rest.
This command of the Sabbath rest is not grounded in the Ten Commandments alone. It pre-dates the Ten Commandments. Israel had received the command back in Exodus 16 and as we see it develop in the Ten Commandments we learn that it was rooted in creation itself. Therefore, this is something that God expects of everyone—and we as his children should willfully give him one day. God has given us six days and required only one for himself. He could have easily turned that equation around. Let us approach the Lord’s Day out of a submissive heart to God’s command and see it as the Puritans viewed it—”A market-day for the soul.”
Puritan Thomas Watson imagined God saying the following regarding this special day. He imagines God as saying, “I am not a hard master, I do not grudge thee time to look after thy calling, and to get an estate. I have given thee six days, to do all thy work in, and have taken but one day for myself. I might have reserved six days for myself, and allowed thee but one; but I have given thee six days for the works of thy calling, and have taken but one day for my own service. It is just and rational, therefore, that thou shouldest set this day in a special manner apart for my worship.” 
- Philip Graham Ryken and R. Kent Hughes, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 591.