Here’s a little paper I had to write for PESM on theology of worship.
A Theology of Worship
Worship and theology are so intertwined that it is impossible to fully separate the two. Our most honest theology is expressed in our worship, yet our tradition of worship does much to shape our theological views. Therefore, God will be most honored when one’s theology of worship is biblically sound. An honest theology of worship, then, must develop a theology which fully gives itself to worship and a worship that gives voice to theology. We must worship God; it is the proper theological response to His glory. By better understanding Him, our worship will become more abundant.
In the beginning man and woman interacted with God and walked with Him in the garden (Genesis 2&3) without inhibition. There was no sin to get in the way of any communication with God. Everything was perfect. However, sin did enter the world and now worshippers must worship God in a fallen condition. This condition creates difficulties as worshippers attempt to glorify God in the ways that He desires to be glorified, while fighting the sinful nature, which seeks to glorify self. The earliest challenge that we find in Scripture is the challenge of form and function. In Genesis 4 there is an example of this struggle as Cain offers a sacrifice, which is worship, yet it is in a different form that the sacrifice of his brother, Abel. The Lord looked favorably upon Abel’s worship and unfavorably upon Cain’s efforts. Cain desired a particular outcome from his worship, the approval and blessing of God. Yet he used a different form than Abel and a different outcome resulted. Even in today’s culture there is this same challenge valuing a variety of forms and functions. It is difficult to evaluate different styles, or forms, of worship because they are all attempting to function as glorifying God. A liturgy and a free-flowing service are vastly different forms, but each seeks to glorify God. What Cain’s story seems to show is that God seeks not only to be glorified, but that forms affect this function. God is not just seeking worship (John 4:23), but a particular kind of worship. How God looks upon them cannot be discerned by simple observation of the worshippers because worship’s visible demonstrations must come from spiritual motivations.
When Jesus was questioned in John chapter 4, it was a challenging question about worship. The discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman reveals the theological progression of worship that comes through Christ. The Samaritans thought worship in one place was proper while the Jews preferred another. Jesus refuses to settle this ancient argument, even though this was what the woman who asked the question had hoped for. Instead Jesus lets the woman know that “the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth” (4:23a). Jesus welcomes the challenge and takes it to a whole other level; worship should not be just about a place or a style, there must be more to it. Unfortunately, worshippers tend to lean into either spirit or truth. It seems very exciting to worship in spirit but it can lead to untruth. On the other hand, it seems very proper to worship in truth but is can destroy any excitement. Jesus calls people into a worship relationship with God that holds both spirit and truth as core theological tenets.
Perhaps even more shocking is Jesus’ next statement: “for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” (4:23b). God is revealed as a seeker of worship. While much of human worship is an attempt to find or please God, God is actively looking for people who are worshipping purely in spirit and truth. God isn’t just sitting around hoping that someone worships him in spirit and truth, he is looking for it and even demands it when Jesus says “those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (4:24). There is no option but to embrace worship in spirit and truth and to worship God with one’s whole self as this is the most glorifying worship possible.
When people worship God they are living as close as possible to their natural intended purpose. God’s highest purpose is to bring glory to Himself (Piper 6), so when we worship we join in God’s mission. Furthermore, God honors Himself in the community of the Trinity, so when we worship with a gathering of others, we reflect God’s own attributes in a beautiful way. Sin tries to teach us that worship is unnatural, contrived even. A strong theology of worship helps us to overcome sin’s influence on our understanding of worship’s role in our relationship with God. Purity in worship is not automatic, but it will be when we are again walking with God in a perfect garden; an eternal paradise where we will worship Him forever. May Jesus continue to help us dive into that relationship with Him and cultivate pure and God-honoring worship.