The other day I saw a sign that captured my attention—and deeply concerned me. It said—
“Don’t go to church. Be the church.”
Now, despite the element of truth (God’s people are
the church), there are all kinds of things wrong with this statement. But behind the words is obviously someone’s disappointment (and possibly disillusionment) with organized Christianity. And although I’d guess that many Christians would reject this false choice, their attitude to Sunday gatherings of the church may reveal a similar apathy.
To fight such apathy, we all need a biblical perspective on what is taking place on Sunday—a perspective that can transform our attitude toward “going to church.” And it’s this perspective that the writer of Hebrews gives us when he describes the ongoing worship service we join when we gather to worship each Sunday.
Mount Sinai and Mount Zion
In Hebrews the writer presents a striking contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, between the experience of the people of God under the old covenant and their experience under the new covenant.
In verses 18–21 the writer recounts the gathering at Mount Sinai (as recorded in Exodus 19). After their deliverance from Egypt, God gathered his people and made a covenant with them. He constituted them as a nation, his very own people.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
Now look at the gathering at Mount Zion described in verses 22–24:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
What a contrast.
At Mount Sinai everything served to emphasize the chasm between God and these people. At Mount Zion everything encourages us to come boldly into God’s presence. There, at Mount Sinai, the scene itself is frightening—fire, darkness, gloom. Here, at Mount Zion, is a gleaming city, the New Jerusalem, the place where God dwells with his covenant people.
At Mount Sinai the sounds are frightening—whirlwind, trumpet blast, unutterable words. At Mount Zion is the sound of exuberant and celebratory praise.
At Mount Sinai was a solemn gathering filled with fear. Here at Mount Zion is a joyful assembly of those whose names are forever written in the Lamb’s book of life.
There at Mount Sinai was a picture of the unapproachability of God’s holy presence. But here at Mount Zion is a picture of full access into the presence of God through the mediator Jesus Christ.
Now think about your church. Think about the people with whom you serve, live, and worship. Have you fully grasped just what your local church is and what it’s doing on a Sunday morning? Your local church is one authentic, visible manifestation of the entire people of God for all time. It is a part of the heavenly throng that even now is worshiping before the throne of God. And we get to be part of that!
Think about this gathering, which includes—
Angels. We are worshiping with creatures before whom we would be tempted to fall down in terror and worship, if we could see them.
The spirits of the righteous-made-perfect. Here are the heroes from Hebrews 11—Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and David—mighty men of God, mighty prophets who trusted God, so endued with power that they stopped lion’s mouths and put foreign armies to flight. We are worshiping with them.
Faithful saints. These men and women endured torture and refused deliverance if it meant compromise. They chose a stoning pit or a chopping block before they would deny Jesus. And if they survived, they joyfully embraced poverty, deprivation, and persecution. They feared God and they feared sinning more than they feared man—all so that they might receive something better. And when we worship, we join them before the throne of God, who remains “a consuming fire” (v. 29).
We come to Jesus. He is there, our mediator, whose sprinkled blood cleanses us from sin. His blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (v. 24). Abel’s blood cried out for judgment, but Jesus’s blood cries out for mercy.
So back to your home church this upcoming Sunday. When you enter and the music begins, what are you more aware of? Is it the song set? the musicians? the mix? Does the worship band wow you? Does the routine bore you?
Or do you perceive something beyond all this?
Your church is one authentic manifestation of the entire people of God that right now is worshiping before the throne of God. That is the reality of new covenant worship. And when we begin to wrap our minds around that, there springs to mind a thousand reasons to rejoice, to praise, and to sing; and to renounce flippancy, self-display, selfishness, superficiality, sloppiness, and thoughtlessness.
Before the God who is a consuming fire, we don’t shuffle in casually. We don’t demand our artistic preferences. We don’t merely gather with our friends. We don’t merely sing together. As the people of God, we enter into the very presence of God. Encountering God in this way is the very nature of the church. By definition, to be the church is to gather in God’s presence and to worship God together. And when we begin singing, we join the glorious worship that takes place unceasingly before the throne of God.
This is true regardless of how we feel, who leads worship, what songs we sing, or how we think worship went. There is something incredible happening on Sunday morning!
Be the church and go to church. Something eternal is going on in there. Don’t miss it.
Jeff Purswell serves as the Dean of the Sovereign Grace Pastors College and a pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD.
I am no musician. I play no part in a choir or a musical team. I do love words, and as a sidebar to my job I get to participate in editing worship song lyrics. But there you reach the limits of my musical gifting.
Even so, my friend Bob Kauflin recently invited me to speak at the WorshipGod09 conference and to address an audience populated by faithful servants engaged in leading worship, singing, and serving musically in diverse ways. These are gifted people and we benefit from their example, leadership, and service each Sunday in our local churches.
But as much as I appreciate what they do, I told them the following: What you do each Sunday is important, but it’s not most important.
Musical worship is inspiring, informative, and a wonderful privilege, but there is nothing more central to Christian worship than the preaching of God’s Word. Notice I did not say preaching is a great and necessary follow-up to worship, or that preaching is an optional extra in worship. Preaching is central to worship each Sunday.
Let me illustrate this point through a few great worship services in your Bible.
Think of Mount Sinai where God rescues and gathers his people specifically. He says, “Let my people go so that they may worship me.” So in that gathering to worship, what is the climax? It is the giving of the Law.
A few books later, in Deuteronomy, the people are gathered beside the Jordan. Their wanderings are finally at an end. They are on the cusp of the Promised Land, and Moses renews the covenant with the next generation. What is at the heart, what is the substance of this gathering? It is the reiteration of the Law of Moses, and we read page after page of preaching, explanation, application, and exposition.
When Joshua brings the people finally into the land, he gathers them together (Joshua 8). What was the climax of that gathering? Was it the singing? No. He read the Law to the “assembly.” (The Hebrew term is regularly translated in the Greek as “church”—the church is the assembly, the gathering of the people of God.) Joshua read the Law to the gathered assembly. And he read it all: “there was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them” (Joshua 8:35). Let’s not miss a thing. Let’s not miss a word. Let’s not miss a stroke.
After the return from exile, Nehemiah gathers the people into a great assembly. What do they do? Ezra reads the Law and then explains it—he exposits it to give the sense of message.
And we could go on through the Bible…
Throughout salvation history, all the way into the new covenant, God’s Word is at the center of worship. The early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and every church was nourished on God’s Word, all the way down to the last chapter of the last book that Paul wrote, where he tells Timothy to preach the Word “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Why? Why so much preaching? Why all this talking? Because the primary way we encounter God in worship is through the preaching of the Word of God.
Think about it this way. Normally, in what we call “worship,” we spend significant time—perhaps the whole time—addressing God, singing to him, praising him, extolling him, praying to him. Wonderful! But in preaching we are no longer addressing God; he is addressing us. Nothing is more important than this moment. And this is why the most important worship leader in your church is your pastor.
That really gets to the heart of preaching. The Bible is not simply a book that we talk about. When God’s Word is faithfully preached, God is addressing us. God is speaking. We hear not merely a man’s voice. We hear the voice of God.
And when God addresses us, what is the appropriate response? We respond with glad and reverent hearts, with voices that proclaim his praise, and with lives that increasingly reflect his character.
God addresses us with a saving Word. We respond to him with faith, praise, and obedience. That is the rhythm of worship.
Jeff Purswell serves as the Dean of the Sovereign Grace Pastors College and a pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD.
September 11, 2009 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Adoption | Corporate Worship
Over the years I have talked with many genuine Christians with a similar problem: they are uncertain of God’s love for them. They simply aren’t sure. Often these individuals are very aware of their own sin and failures. But at the same time they are very unaware of God’s love for them. They view God as simply tolerating them, frustrated with them, even eager to punish them. In light of God’s holiness and their sinfulness, they ask: How can he love me?
Perhaps this describes you?
Yet Scripture tells us that God’s love for sinners like you and me is passionate and personal. It is an initiating love, a love that moved God to send his Son to the cross as a substitute for our sins. And now, by trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, we become children of God. God has become our Father! This is stunning! And we will spend the rest of our lives (and eternity) seeking to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love. And this love is uniquely revealed in his adoption of sinners into his family.
Any resource that will focus our attention and our affections upon the doctrine of God’s adopting grace is much needed. And while there are a few excellent books on the topic, something has been missing. We need appropriate worship songs on this topic for use in our corporate gatherings and for our personal devotional worship.
That is why I asked my good friend Bob Kauflin and his team of Sovereign Grace songwriters to write songs on this important topic. And they came through big time with a new twelve-track album called Sons and Daughters
You can download one of the songs for free (“Completely Done
I highly recommend this album. This album is a means of preaching the gospel to yourself. It is a tool to remind yourself of God’s adopting grace. It will help convince you of God’s passionate and personal love for you. Listening to the truths of these songs will help clear away any suspicions you have of God, and help you to contemplate his love for you, evidenced nowhere more clearly than in the death of his beloved Son.
Video of C.J.’s conversation with Bob Kauflin and Jeff Purswell, recorded at our WorshipGod09 conference, is now online. To watch the 70-minute video, click here: “Lessons Learned from Three Decades of Leading.” Or watch it here:
At the WorshipGod09 conference, my friend Jeff Purswell asked Bob and me the following question:
Many of the songs we sing here, and many of the songs written by people in Sovereign Grace, have the gospel as a key component to them. There are all kinds of themes in Scripture, and there are all kinds of songs in Scripture. Why should we have so many songs about the cross? Why should the cross play such a central role in our singing when there are so many other things we can sing about?
This is an important question. Here was the essence of my answer:
First, since the cross is the storyline of Scripture, it should be the storyline of our corporate worship. The cross is the matter of “first importance” and it should be reflected in our singing on a weekly basis (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Second, we must never leave the impression during corporate worship that we do not need a mediator. There isn’t a moment where I don’t need a mediator. In light of the Father’s holiness and my sinfulness, I cannot approach him directly apart from Christ. It is quite possible for us to sing songs that are accurately extolling the attributes of God. But if the cross is absent, we leave the unintended impression that somehow I can approach the Father apart from a mediator—that I can experience intimacy with God apart from the One who died for my many sins.
Third, cross-centered songs imitate the heavenly model. In Revelation 5:1-14, for example, we catch a glimpse of eternal worship and our heavenly future. Jim Elliff has written, “One is taken aback by the emphasis upon the Cross in Revelation. Heaven does not ‘get over’ the cross, as if there are better things to think about; heaven is not only Christ-centered, but cross-centered, and quite blaring about it.” Amen! Every Sunday should be a heavenly preview as we survey the wondrous cross and as we sing of the Lamb who is worthy of our praise.
Forth, cross-centered songs affect our souls. You’ve heard the Martyn Lloyd-Jones quote about how most of our unhappiness comes from listening to ourselves more than we talk to ourselves. In light of this, corporate worship is a serious gift! Singing in corporate worship is a means of talking to yourself. This provides us an opportunity to stop listening to ourselves, to stop listening to sin, legalism, condemnation, and to begin singing and talking to ourselves. And by the end of corporate worship there is a good chance that we will experience the joy of the gospel. Not very often in our noisy world do we have such an opportunity to talk to ourselves. So what your church is saying in these moments of corporate singing is very important. And what a unique opportunity worship leaders have to transfer the hope of the gospel to people in corporate worship. And to think, you can do this each and every Sunday!
Cross-centered worship songs are vital to the life of the church.
I am so grateful to God that Bob has led Sovereign Grace Ministries into gospel-centered worship music, and has served the church with the writing and producing of many such songs and albums.
You can listen to the full audio recording of our discussion on this and other topics at the WorshipGod09 conference here.
We recently hosted the WorshipGod09 conference at Covenant Life Church. The conference was once again planned and led with great care and effectiveness by my good friend Bob Kauflin.
At the conference, Bob asked me to participate in a Q+A with him and to answer questions from Jeff Purswell on the relationship between the pastor and his worship leader. Bob and I have served together for many years, and it was a great opportunity to honor my friend and relive memories (both the successes and failures). You can hear the audio recording of the session here.
The questions allowed us to explore many areas related to worship. One of the questions was on this topic:
What role do tuneless senior pastors play in the direction of corporate worship?
As a pastor with limited or no musical gifting myself, I can speak for the tuneless pastor. The whole area of corporate worship can be very intimidating for a pastor with little musical gifting. And it can be easy to defer leadership of the corporate worship to the more gifted musicians.
But actually, I argued that a senior pastor plays a very important and strategic role regardless of his musical gifting (or in my case, lack thereof). And the reason for this is very simple: Corporate worship in the church is not music driven, it’s theology driven. Musical skill and style are both important, but they are clearly of secondary importance. The priority in corporate worship is the theological content of the songs.
Emphasizing the theological accuracy of the songs is not only the right ordering of priorities. It also reminds the pastor/pastoral team that he/they play an important role in determining the content and direction of the worship ministry in general, and corporate worship on a Sunday morning in particular.
Even tuneless pastors cannot delegate this responsibility.
In the conference interview, Bob and I talk about how we have worked together over the years in planning and leading corporate worship.