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A Biblical Theology of Worship

Introduction

The church has been engaged in what we call the Worship Wars for a few decades now. In this war of worship, we have some churches arguing for traditional services with hymns, some arguing for contemporary services with modern music, and some arguing for a blended service to appeal to both generations. I’m sure that you already have an opinion of the matter, and I hope it is coming from a biblical perspective, but I’m afraid some opinions stem from nothing more than personal preference. Before I give an answer for my reasoning concerning the matter, I believe it fitting to lay a foundation of what a biblical theology of worship is. From there, I will conclude how I believe we should conduct our worship services.

What Is Worship?

​Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
(Psalm 95 ESV)

Psalm 95 is known as the Vinete from the Latin translation of the first words (“O come”). I believe Psalm 95 to be the greatest description of biblical worship in all of the Scriptures.

Worship is, according to this psalm and therefore Scripture, the act of ascribing ultimate value to someone or something that engages and energizes the whole being: mind, will, & emotion. It is important to understand here that even though we are heading towards addressing the issue of what kind of music to play at our worship service, worship is not music and music is not worship. Worship is an attitude, a worldview, a lifestyle, all of which affirm that God is the highest valued thing is our lives. Worship can be expressed through music, but worship and music are not synonyms. Another example would be sin. Sin is lawlessness – that is, an attitude, a worldview, a lifestyle, all of which affirm that God is not the highest valued thing in our lives. Sin can be expressed through the breaking of God’s commandments, but sin is not the breaking of God’s commandments. Likewise, worship can be expressed through music and singing, but worship is not music and singing. In a world where Pentecostalism has hijacked and misrepresented what accurate biblical worship is, we must be careful to understand the words of the Psalmist (Hebrews attributes the authorship of Psalm 95 to David; Heb 4:7) as we try to make sense of that which God has called us to do in worship.

David calls the people to worship with their emotions, their wills, and their mind. The language and respective calls can be seen in this image. (emotion = green; will = blue; mind = red). 

David shows that we are to engage with God in worship using our emotion by not only singing, but by singing joyful songs of praise. Our worship to God should be joyful for he is the very source of our joy. Note also that there is a difference here between joy and happiness; joy is knowing that God is sovereign even when you are not happy.

David then shows that we are to engage with God in worship using our wills. Notice the language of submission: “come,” “worship,” “bow down,” “kneel.” These are acts of willful submission to God.

Finally, David shows that we are to engage with God in worship using our minds. The Hebrew word used here is כִּ֘י (ki) and is a conjunction meaning “for,” “therefore,” “because.” When used, the idea being conveyed is, “I’ve said all of these things and now this is the reasoning we should do X” where X is what follows. David is calling on God’s people to mindfully acknowledge the truths of God and for those truths to be the reason we worship him.

I always like to give this analogy to better communicate what David is saying in Psalm 95: Imagine you inherited an old pocket watch from your father who inherited it. This pocket watch has been passed down in your family for eight or so generations and is notably old and antique. You are so disconnected from the original owner and its place in his life that you really don’t know much about the watch other than it is a family heirloom. You don’t even know where it is most times because it’s just something you own and keep around for the sake of having inherited it. But one day you decide to get it appraised so you take it to a jeweler. The jeweler examines the watch and then begins to have labored breathing as he further gazes at it. He drops his utensil and looks at you and says, “This watch is priceless. It was cast from a mold that is lost to history and is completely unique in its design. It alone is worth more than all of the items in my shop combined.” You immediately feel a rush of emotions knowing that you are in possession (and have been) of something completely priceless. You no longer willfully treat the watch as just some old piece of jewelry because you understand its true value. You have just had a worship experience because you have placed that watch at the very top of your value list. You have completely changed your life in regards to the existence and inherent value of that watch.

Like the watch, if you place God at the top of your value list, it will change your character, your life patterns, and your decisions, all because you mindfully understand the inherent priceless value of God. By doing so, you worship God; and by worshiping God, you have emotional, willful, and mindful experiences. True worship, then, is just that – the ascribing of ultimate value to God and responding in ways as shown by David in Psalm 95. And this true worship – which is an attitude, a worldview, a lifestyle, all of which affirm God’s value – can be expressed through music and singing.

Why Is Worship Important?

Now that we understand worship and how it can be expressed, we must then ask why worship is important. Worship is important because the world is not divided into people who do worship and people who do not; rather, the world is divided into people who worship God and people who do not. Everybody worships something because, as we have seen, worship is the ascribing of ultimate value to someone or something. Even the atheist who lives down the road from you worships something, regardless if he recognizes that truth or not; there is something that sits at the top of his value list.

The ramifications of this are significant. For the person who does not worship God but something else, that thing which is worshiped will distort his or her life. Those who worship power are controlled by power. Those who worship acceptance are controlled by others’ acceptance. Those who worship money are controlled by money. Those who worship their relationships are controlled by their relationships. Why do you think that some people are absolutely freaked out and/or crushed by breakups, money, power, or success? It is because those things are at the very top of their value lists.

God’s word is clear in its repeated expressions that the human problem is that people choose not to worship God but something else that will let them down. If you worship anything other than God, that thing will let you down. If you worship self-image, your aging body will let you down. If you worship money, your low times will let you down. If you worship relationships, your breakups (and God forbid, the death of your spouse) will let you down. If you worship success, your failures will let you down. None of these things, nor anything else that people worship other than God, will forgive you when you fall short; but if you live for God and worship him, he will forgive you when you fall short.

How do We Worship?

Now that we understand what worship is and why it is important, we must then ask how do we worship? If you aren’t looking for it, you may fail to notice that everything is in the first person plural (us; we). According to Psalm 95, we must worship in a community; though individual worship is necessary and beneficial, corporate worship when the Church comes together is even more necessary and beneficial. Notice the use of “us” and “we” all throughout verses one through seven.

During my early 20s, I was part of a close trio of friends. My two friends (Tyler & Corey) and I spent hours and hours together doing all sorts of things and had many mutual interests. But one day, Corey moved across the country. Initially, I said, “I hate that Corey is gone, but now I’ll have more of Tyler to myself and our friendship will grow deeper.” But the reality of the situation was that I actually had less of Tyler after Corey moved because there were parts of Tyler that only Corey could bring out. My trio of friends directly depended on the community of the trio, and when that community was fractured with Corey moving, it became less intimate. 

Just like how my friendship trio needed community, our worship experiences need community. The reason is just like my friendship tio. There were certain things about Tyler that Corey bought out and allowed me to see and experience. Likewise, in a diverse worship community where we cross racial lines, socioeconomic lines, gender lines, and cultural lines, we see how God works through the lives of all sorts of people, allowing us to see and experience more of God than if we were always worshiping alone.

Aside from community, our worship needs to invoke truth. In writing this psalm, David has submitted to the truth of God as proclaimed by the Scriptures of his time. Notice again the usage of the word “for” and what follows. David has submitted to the truth in his call to worship that the reason we worship God is because he is a great God and king above all other gods – that which other people worship, as we learned in section two. We worship God, not because we agree with him on everything, but because he is the creator worthy of such submission. Actually, if someone says that they agree with God on every single issue, I would argue that they have created their own God in their minds and are worshiping it. The fact that we must submit to God is proof that we will not agree on everything that he says and decrees, and that disagreement stems from our fallen nature as broken humans. And if we all submit to the same body of truths about God, even those that we don’t like, our community will be one as Jesus hoped we would be (John 17:21).

Beyond just community and truth, we must worship in spirit. One of the purposes of worship is to enter into the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. David uses language throughout Psalm 95 to convey the need for us to enter into God’s presence. We are to go to the LORD, to the rock of our salvation, to him, before him, in his pasture. David knew the value of being in the presence of God and wished that God not remove him from his presence earlier in the psalter (Psalms 51:11). God is omnipresent, but the Holy Spirit of God – the third person of the Trinity – resides within us as Christians and we are to worship by the Spirit of God (Phil 3:3).

And finally, we are to worship in rest. Most won’t understand the reference to rest in Psalm 95, but I assure you that it is there. Beginning in 7b, we see the psalm completely turn from this uplifting, encouraging call to worship towards this somber warning by David to not harden our hearts as our fathers did in the wilderness. The book of Hebrews actually makes a big deal about the fact that Psalm 95 ends this way.

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
(Hebrews 4:8-10 ESV)

The author of Hebrews logically conclude that since Joshua led the people into the promised land and experienced the rest promised to them by God and since David still warns (centuries after Joshua) God’s people to be careful not to miss this rest, there then must be a deeper, spiritual rest for the people of God that the physical rest in the promised land pointed towards. Just as God rested on the seventh day of creation, we must also then rest from our works. What the author of Hebrews means is this: the Gospel is that Jesus lived the life that we should have lived and died the death we should have died, and the ultimate rest is to believe the Gospel. If we believe the Gospel, we no longer have to try and live up to some impossible standard because Jesus has met that standard for us. No longer are we bound under the penalty of the law because Jesus has taken our penalty. For those who don’t believe the Gospel, their worth and value is found in their power, money, acceptance, relationships; but for Christians, our value is found in Christ alone and we can rest from our weary efforts to try and validate ourselves by our own abilities. And why would this be at the end of a psalm on worship? Because if you do not understand Gospel sabbath rest, worship will become one more duty, one more load weighing you down, because you will see it as something you must do in order to be counted worthy, and that’s not the Gospel.

To demonstrate my thoughts here on how we should worship, I would like to examine a portion of Scripture where someone had a radically life-changing moment of worship that demonstrates all of what I believe Psalm 95 is calling us to do. In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman as she was out drawing water from Jacob’s well. Jesus asks her to give him a drink of water (which completely broke the societal norms of 1st century Israel), which sparked a wonderful conversation.

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.
(John 4:14-26 ESV)

Through this encounter, the Samaritan woman encountered God and he completely engaged her emotions, her will, and her mind. She was avoiding people by going to the well at noon, yet she became excited about telling other people about Jesus. She submitted to the evidence presented to her and the Scriptures by believing that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. She reasoned with him until she could no longer deny who he was. She recognized the value of God and it completely changed her life. That is how we are to recognize God. That is how we are to conduct our lives. That is how we are to worship.

Conclusion: How Do We Translate this into our Worship Services?

I began this writing by mentioning that we are what I call the Worship Wars, and I believe that is because we sometimes fail to recognize what true worship is. Worship is not music; worship is the act of ascribing ultimate value to someone or something in a way that energizes and engages the mind, the will, and the emotions. And understanding this is the first step we must take when creating and structuring our worship services.

Now let’s talk about music as expressions of worship. Again, music isn’t worship, but music is a catalyst through which we express our worship. Every piece of music and all that it is (melody, lyrics, time signature, etc.), if we are to use it in our corporate worship services, needs to follow the above paradigm as laid out by Psalm 95 in that it will not compromise the church’s emotional engagement, willful engagement, mindful engagement, social community, theological truths, spiritual connection, and sabbath rest, all of which I have explained in the above sections. So let’s take a couple of examples and test them against these seven aspects of worship.

Chartitie Lee Smith
Before the Throne of God Above, 1863

This classic hymn is actually my favorite song of all time (though arguing from preference is not my intention here) and I believe that it completely fails to compromise Psalm 95’s seven aspects of worship. The theology of this song is one of the richest in history; singing the truth that we have a strong and perfect plea before the throne of God by our great high priest (Heb 7:24-25) is completely biblical and encouraging. Though the song mostly employs 1st person singular pronouns, the truths claimed through the lyrics are true for all Christians. I find no issue with the theology of this song and include it in my worship quite frequently.

Elevation Worship
Graves into Gardens, 2020

This contemporary song by Elevation Worship is also one of my favorite songs and I believe it, too, completely fails to compromise Psalm 95’s seven aspects of worship. The theology of this song is definitely rich, though surely more rich than some, less rich than others. Worldly pleasures are sought by humans but the pleasures promise satisfaction yet never satisfy (Ps. 34:10; Isa 55:2; Hos 4:10). God alone can satisfy (John 7:37-39) and gives us the Godly desires of our hearts (Ps 37:4). The chorus is simple yet echoes that of how the hosts of heaven cry out “holy holy holy” about God forever (Isa. 6:3). I conclude that this song fits the same criteria as Before the Throne of God Above in that it is acceptable to employ in corporate worship services.

But what about composition? I hear the argument quite often that worship music needs to be beautiful, skillful, and dynamic rather than just being “a four-chord song anyone could play.” But I find it difficult to quantify beautiful, skillful, and dynamic because those are all subjective terms. What I consider beautiful might not be beautiful to my wife. What I consider skillful might not be considered skillful by my neighbor. What I consider dynamic might not be dynamic enough to be considered dynamic to my friend. So I believe it to be impossible for us to look to the Scriptures, even though Psalm 33:3 says to play a skillful song, and find an objective definition of skillful. To me, a four chord song still requires various skills: chord structure, chord exchange, chord progression, time signature, tempo, rhythm, strum pattern, and the ability to eb and flow as the song progresses, yet some people still consider this type of song as one without any necessary skill to play, further proving that a definition of skillful is subjective rather than objective. I find no definition for beautiful, skillful, or dynamic within scripture, so we cannot then make an argument that our worship music must be a certain level of any of these.

I would actually argue that music that is highly skillful and/or highly dynamic would actually be a stumbling block to the church in corporate worship. Yes, some modern worship music sounds very much like the modern secular music being produced every day, but just because something is similar is sound does not necessitate its similarity in content. When I pick up my guitar and strum a G chord in a 4/4 time signature, I am in no way associating the content of what I am doing with that of what Post Malone does in many of his songs. Rather, I am employing a common grace of this universe given by God (music/time/sound) and Post Malone does the same but for different reasons. 

Even Martin Luther, who wrote a number of hymns held in high esteem by many traditions today, wrote his hymns based on existing chants, religious tunes, and folk melodies. His goal was to create music which was singable and was not melodically or rhythmically difficult; his music doesn’t go beyond the average vocal range and is simple enough that someone who is not a professional, or even advanced, singer could sing. Luther’s point was that he wanted to create music for the church that does not require the Christian to make more effort sticking with the melody than it does to internalize and express the words of the lyrics. Why, then, can we not hold that same principle with our new worship music? Why must we insist that since this or that song is “too simple” that it is not worth using in services? I believe that those who are making such claims are actually holding onto the very thing they wish to suppress: personal preference. 

I love dynamic music, but it has no place in a corporate worship service, no matter my preference, where the majority of the members have never had any professional training in music or singing, because it would cause undue stress and shift the focus of the believer to that of performance instead of God. Rather, our music should be music that is easily singable, theologically rich, and completely engaging. Our corporate worship service is first and foremost an act of worship where we affirm our commitment to God as his heirs and children, but it is also for the building up of the body. So yes, we should include great hymns of old that fit this criteria such as Before the Throne of God Above, but we should also include modern music like Graves into Gardens which serves the same purpose and meets the same biblical requirements.

I hope this has been a sufficient summary of what I believe to be an accurate biblical theology of worship and has helped in explaining how we can apply this theology to our corporate services. In the end, my hope is not that you play all Lutheran hymns or all Elevation Worship praise music; my hope is that you and your church engages weekly in corporate worship where the Church comes together in song and worships the Lord, fully engaging and energizing the mind, the will, and the emotions of all believers in attendance and through it all God is placed at the very top of everyone’s value list.

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