Worship is essential to human existence. Certain essential principles define true worship. These are indispensable elements which are always present and necessary in all true worship of God. The variety of forms of worship are shaped by history, tradition,and a multitude of utilitarian considerations. Nevertheless, the Bible is the only authoritative and necessary source for the essential principles of worship, providing the only normative criteria for Christian worship. These ideas will not be argued in this article, but are fundamental to the argument. If these axioms are true, what then are the biblical essentials of worship?

The thesis to be explored here is that biblically defined worship is composed of no less than seven essential elements which transcend all temporal standards. The Scriptures clearly define for worship an essential test for validity, an essential focus, an essential position (or attitude), an essential emotion, an essential act, an essential expression, and an essential meaning and function.

[Note: Since writing this article I have amended my thesis to include Prayer as the essential vehicle of worship. My thoughts on this will be brought out in a future edition.]

I. The Essential Test of Worship

The definitive text regarding worship is John 4:23,24.

But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be his worshipers. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

In this familiar passage Jesus defines the essence of true worship for the Messianic age. His simple, sublime words set for the essential twofold test for the validity of worship: spirituality and truth.  Interpretations of this verse often tend to view “spirit” as the subjective element of worship and “truth” as objective.1  It is conversely proposed here that spirit and truth are a comprehensive unity, and that each has both objective and subjective implications.

As with similar parallelism in John’s gospel,2 the terms spirit and truth are distinguishable, yet inseparable. Each element must be applied doubly to determine the validity of any act, form, or movement of worship.  The objective meaning of worship in spirit means that worship is not in its essence a matter of form, style, function, habit, tradition, or any other material or mechanical issue. Spirit is the nature of God, and is the image of God in man. Spirit, pneuma, is breath, a metonymy for life itself. Worship in spirit is living and personal.

The biblical word “spirit” does not connote unreality. Like the pragmatic Euro-American mind, Greek philosophy separated materiality from spirituality. Epicureans asserted the reality only of matter; Platonists and Stoics claimed that only the spirit is real.

Such philosophies have parallels in our own age: in the materialism that dominates the modern worldview, and in the New Age mysticism that has arisen to fill the postmodern spiritual vacuum. These tides have washed into both pews and pulpits throughout our society. The church must aggressively reassert the biblical worldview that the material world is real, but not all in all. The first objective step of spiritual worship is to affirm the doctrine of creation.

It must be added that the word “spirit” cannot properly be taken as just another word for reason, feeling, or subjectivity per se. Spirit is truth; it is reality. To worship God in spirit involves coming to God as He really is with all that one knows of oneself.

On the other hand, there remains a subjective dimension to this phrase “worship God in spirit.” There is more to the human being than the psychology of mind, emotion, and will. It is important to engage the intellect in worship, but intellect is not spirit. The place of emotion in worship should not be depreciated,3 but emotion is not depth—it just feels deep. Neither is spiritual worship a matter of mere decision or act, as important as the will may be.4  Spiritual worship involves an awareness and perception of God through faith that arises from the heart, from the innermost being of the worshiper.5

Truth likewise must be understood in both an objective and subjective sense.  Objectively, truth is sound doctrine. Jesus reproved the wrongheaded worship of the Samaritans: “You worship that which you do not know.” Calvin trenchantly observes, “God is not properly worshiped but by the certainty of faith, which cannot be produced in any other way than by the word of God."6 Before there was a command to love God, there was the revelation, “hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” There is no truth, no validity in our worship if the one we worship is not the true and living Creator and Redeemer. There is no spirituality in our worship without the truth about God.7

Subjectively, “truth” represents the wholeness and integrity of the worshiper’s participation. “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Any part of oneself withheld from God is an offense to the truth of one’s worship. Moreover, any worship rendered when one’s life is out of line with the truth (i.e., through willful sin) is false worship.8

To worship in spirit and in truth we must overcome two opposite psychological obstacles. On the one hand, we do not understand what “spirit” is, and do not know how to distinguish between spirituality and imagination, or emotion, or a phantom. On the other hand, our problem with worshiping God in truth is the limitation of our knowledge and understanding of truth. Who would say that he has mastered and understood and comprehended the least of God’s attributes, let alone the fullness of His being? If knowledge even of oneself is limited, how can anyone present himself before God to worship Him in truth? All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

The solution to the sinner’s dilemma is the grace of God, who knows our frame and remembers that we are dust. First, God reveals Himself, so that although one can never know Him fully, one may know Him truly,9 Second, God in grace bids worshipers to seek Him. “And you will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart."10 Seeking is not finding; seeking is pursuing. This is not a work man can do to find God, but an invitation of His grace with the promise that He will be found. “When You said, Seek my face, my heart said to You, Your face, LORD, will I seek."11

The validity of our worship, therefore, is not to be found in how we approach God, but altogether in the way He comes to us in grace.12  The holy, perfect, righteous God must, in any of His dealing with us, forbear with much imperfection, terrible ignorance, mixed motives, unknown (to us, not to Him) faults, and more. Yet by grace he receives us as we are,13 drawing us ever in the direction of Himself, and progressively forming us who believe into the image of His Son as His children, which we now are and are finally destined to be.14

II. The Essential Focus of Worship

God, by definition, is the focus of all worship. From Genesis to Revelation, God personally identifies Himself as such.15  He demands, absolutely and totally, the prior focus of our whole being upon Himself.16 We belong to Him before we worship Him.  Prior focus means that before any other allegiance or covenant or agreement or partnership is entered, before any other relationship is joined, before any other goal is sought, before any other activity is undertaken, that God has the first claim on our lives.

This claim supersedes even the closest family ties.17 The love and worship of God is not merely a part of our lives, it is that of which our lives must consist. If this focus is not present, then all worship is vain.

Jesus Christ, as God’s Son, likewise demands total prior commitment to Himself.  This is the meaning of Jesus’ saying that we must hate our closet family members, even our own lives if we are to be His disciples. He claims the divine prerogative of absolute allegiance.18 The kingdom of God has always been a totalitarian dictatorship of law, love, and grace.

Thus God, the only true and living One, requires all worship to be directed toward Himself. Jesus Christ likewise demanded His disciples’ total devotion.19 He personally received and accepted the worship of all who freely gave it.20 Therefore to direct our worship to any person, performance environment, activity, or anything besides Him is the end of true and spiritual worship Him and the beginning of idolatry.21

If the point that God is the essential focus of worship seems obvious, even pedestrian, it is not redundant. Flesh retains a powerful propensity to worship that which is not God. Even the aged John, unquestionably mature in his faith, nearly succumbed to the temptation to drop his focus from God to a lesser one—and this at the climax of visions of the glory of God such as no man had ever seen.22  It was not because he mistook the angel for God, but because he was moved by his powerful visions and the impressive presence of the angel. The point is that even in the midst of the worship experience, it is possible to lose focus on God Himself and begin to worship the experience, the messenger of God.23

The spirit-truth test applied to the principle of essential focus points up the need for the worship to possess both knowledge and devotion. Devotion without knowledge will lead the church into a pious idolatry in which expediency takes the place of truth.24  Knowledge without devotion (i.e., love and obedience) is equally destructive of true and spiritual worship. Knowledge can indeed become an idol in itself.25

In the first commandment God forbids the worship of any but Himself. In the second He forbids the construction of images, even of Himself. Any image man constructs of God can only corrupt the true knowledge of God. Every idol represents a usurpation of the supremacy of the heavenly, spiritual, and divine by the earthly, material, and human. It is what man can do—sometimes the best he can do—with his circumstances and his world. An idol, however, is not in itself a surrender to paganism or non-theistic humanism. It is possible to disguise and even buttress idolatry with cherished values and institutions, including family and church.26 Nevertheless, idolatry is always a fall from the knowledge of God, and always carries with it both individual and social consequences.27

The focus of all our worship must be only upon God, according to knowledge of the biblical revelation of Him. To focus upon God is to direct all our worship—heart, mind, and fervency—to God the Father, and to gain a proper focus upon Him by centering our attention on the person of His worthy Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. “It is written, You shall worship the Lord you God, and Him only shall you serve."28

III. The Essential Position (Attitude) of Worship

At first glance one might suppose that the position in which one worships is incidental to true and spiritual worship. A survey of the principal words for worship in the Bible, however, reveals that there is an essential spiritual position, or attitude, which must be assumed if one is to worship God in spirit and in truth. That essential position is humility, designated by words which literally denote a physical posture.

Shachah, the common Old Testament word for worship (over 170 occurrences), is used in modern Hebrew to mean bow or stoop. In the Old Testament, however, it signifies bowing oneself down in obeisance before a superior, a ruler, an idol, or God. Its Aramaic counterpart s’gad (used only in Daniel 2 and 3) specifically means to bow down.

In the New Testament the most common Greek word for worship is proskuneo, literally “to kiss toward” (59 occurrences). It originally refers to the practice of kissing the hand of a superior, or of kissing the earth in reverence, and by extension bending, bowing, or prostrating the body.29  Other New Testament synonyms for “worship” include the phrases “to bow the knee” or “to fall down on [the] knees.”

All these terms describe the body language of submission, and of the acknowledgment of the superiority of another. The corollary of submission is self-entrustment to the one to whom homage is given. The assumed outcome is obedience, service, and perhaps even servitude.  Compare this attitude with the biblical emphasis upon humility and the act of humbling oneself before God.30 The principal New Testament word for this act is tapeinoo, “to make low.”

Clearly there is a fundamental relationship between the attitude of humility and valid worship. Humility is not self-punishment, self-humiliation, or self abasement.  Asceticism is condemned as futile and harmful.31  Neither is humility a virtue for which one should pray. This misconception is the product of a misplaced piety that does not understand, on one hand, what is grace, and on the other, what it means for God to humble someone. When God humbles someone, it is always a judgment for pride and self-exaltation.32

Humility is not something one receives. It is the recognition of one’s poverty of spirit—the prodigal son who comes to his right mind.33  It is the attitude (or position) of submission and self-subjection. The direction of this submission is obedience.  Consequently the prophets from Moses onward disdained worship which did not ensue in obedience. Regardless of the position of the body, unless the position of the whole person is humility issuing in obedience, then worship was never valid in the first place.34

Humility always involves faith. It is therefore not the same as humiliation. One may be forcibly humbled by a conquering enemy, yet retain a proud, stubborn will. The humility of worship is always a voluntary act of dependent faith. This is why “without faith it is impossible to please Him,” and why a doubter, being double-minded, is “unstable in all his ways."35 The unbeliever does not submit himself to God, the doubter tries to submit to more than one god, and God will not accept the worship of either.

Finally, humility is the essential attitude of repentance. Virtually every passage on repentance shows this, from the oft quoted (and little appreciated) II Chronicles 7:14, to the prodigal son’s confession of unworthiness. Metanoia literally means “change of mind,” but it must be stressed that the change is not merely one of thought patterns (“I will now believe in God”), nor of direction toward self-reformation (“I will now try to do better”). It is essentially a change, rather, of mental position (“God, have mercy on me, a sinner”).

IV. The Essential Emotion of Worship

Let the reader take a moment to respond to this question: “What is the essential emotion of worship?” Typical answers (from those who are not dubious of the question to begin with) may include joy, gratitude, love, adoration, or some other positive emotion. All these are associated in the Scriptures with worship, yet so also are there abundant instances where sorrow and grief play a dominant role in worship.36  In fact none of these emotions seems essential to worship God in spirit and truth.

Some therefore doubt the place of emotion in worship, question whether any emotion is essential, and perhaps deny the desirability of emotion in worship at all.  Others may overvalue emotion in worship, to the point of coming dangerously close to making some feeling the focus or the measure of their worship (I haven’t really worshiped unless I feel . . . .”). The problem here is not immoderation. The church must not yield to the Aristotelian humanism that tries to find a middle course between extremes. There is nothing moderate about loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength.

The Bible knows nothing of a conflict between too much and too little emotion in worship. The Bible portrays worship with unabashed, free-wheeling emotionality. It displays the full range of human feeling, be it exuberant, ecstatic and loud, or still, quiet and serene. One finds worshipers in the midst of sorrowful upheavals, in the giddiness of renewal and fellowship, and in tears which may or may not be appropriate to the occasion. Sometimes they shrink from the divine presence in guilt-ridden apprehension, helpless impotence, or fear struck amazement.37

Notwithstanding this roller coaster of passions which soars and plunges throughout the Bible, there is one basic and essential emotion in every biblical act of worship. It is not the measure of the worship itself, but necessarily occurs when the worshiper draws near to the holy, living God. The absence of this emotion indicates that one has not truly drawn near to God. It is essential, not as a prerequisite to worship, but because it is simply impossible to know God without it. It is itself the creation of a right relationship with God. It is awe, reverential fear. “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants stand in awe of Him."38

The fear of God is a significant theme in the Old Testament, expressing man’s response to the chesed, the covenant love of God.39  It is not merely an emotion, but a commandment, an obligation, and a choice that is made which brings positive benefits when it is adopted as an outlook on life.40 The choice to fear God, however, is the choice to make Him the focus of all worship, and to submit to Him and seek His favor only. The one who approaches the true and living God and lives in covenant with Him does not have to manufacture reverential fear. God’s own awesome Being inspires it. Only the blind, the proud, the stupid and the foolish do not feel awe in God’s presence.41

In the New Testament the fear of God is no longer a prominent theme, but neither is it left behind as a lost relic of the old covenant. It remains as the elemental emotion of worship. We should fear the Judge who will punish sin and unbelief. Much more, believers are to live continually in awe of the One who by grace has saved them, and for whom and to whom and before whom they live. It is to live to please the Lord rather than oneself or other people.42

Some, citing I John 4:18, object that godly fear has no place in Christian worship, that love has superseded fear as the motive for worship. Yet John does not declare that “perfect love” casts out reverential awe. The very love that casts out fear arises out of a relationship with the God who is Light (1:5-7). To walk in the light is essentially the same thing as living in the fear of God.43  I John 4:18 no more displaces the fear of God than does Psalm 27:1.

All religious emotions come into play in the context of awe. If reverential fear is not the root of all joy, then joy will quickly degenerate into silliness. Thanksgiving will become conditional, based on fulfillment of expectations rather than a humble gratitude for free and undeserved grace. Mourning becomes a maudlin exercise in self-pity. Every such demonstration of sensibility apart from the awed perception of the majesty and holiness of God is a motion of sensuality and self-indulgence. Spirituality is not sentimentality, yet neither is the true worship of the living God an emotional eunuch.  Valid spiritual worship can be no less emotional than rational; and reverential fear remains essential to all other emotions in worship.

V. The Essential Act of Worship

Worship is sacrifice, and there is no worship without sacrifice. There is reason to fear a terrible lack of understanding of this fact in contemporary churches.  Sacrifices do not make sense to modern generations. Most people view sacrifice as something extra they do (or do without) for God, which perhaps they do not really have to do, but they do it anyway because they love Him. (Contrast this view with Jesus’ parable of the “unworthy” servant in Luke 17:7-10.) In a day of “seeker friendly” churches, many regard the whole idea of sacrifice as being unnecessary, burdensome, and a stumbling block.

There is no approach to God without sacrifice. This cannot be stated too strongly.  Long before the Mosaic Law, worshipers recognized this principle.44  In particular, God demands that the sacrifices be, first of all, of blood.45  Notwithstanding our evangelical hymns and our sacramental liturgies, the blood has been virtually drained from today’s worship. The contemporary church is perhaps the victim of an urban society unused to seeing animals slaughtered and butchered.

Let none consider the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament to be crude, vulgar, and unbefitting the God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Jesus was born and reared under this sacrificial system. Not only did he not repudiate it, he identified with it, and his death makes no religious sense apart from it. 

At the risk of oversimplifying the complex sacrificial system of Israel, one may say that there were three basic types of sacrifices, all of which represented the vicarious death of the worshiper. Blood sacrifices of atonement covered trespasses and sins, opening through the altar an approach to God.  Burnt offerings represented the worshiper’s consecration.46 Peace offerings celebrated the reconciliation between God and man, and between fellows.47 The Old Testament sacrifices were only efficacious—valid for relating persons to God—in relation to (1) the submission and obedience of the worshiper to the whole law of God (i.e., worship in spirit and truth); and (2) the coming fulfillment of all blood sacrifices in the propitiating sacrifice of Christ.48

Sacrificial worship remains the essential act of worship, but the form of it is altered by Christ’s sacrifice. Two New Testament terms illustrate the meaning of sacrificial worship as defined by Christ’s atoning work. One is the verb latreuo, to serve, along with its noun companion latreia, service. It has a specific reference to the service of presenting sacrifices upon the altar. The other is leitourgeo, leitourgeia, and leitourgos, likewise translated “to serve,” “service,” and “minister” respectively. These terms are applied mainly in the Septuagint to the functions of the priests and Levites.  In the New Testament they are not used in an official or formal sense to denote priestly offices and functions, but in a metaphorical sense characterizing the spiritual continuity between the Old Testament sanctuary and the New Covenant in Christ.49

As the New Testament broadens the priesthood from comprising one tribe among God’s people to encompass all believers, so it also broadens the concept of sacrificial service. It occurs in prayer and communion with God. It is given in works of service to God, especially in preaching, teaching, and evangelizing. Indeed, the whole of life of the believer is latreuo, sacrificial worship, a self-offering to God.50

Probably the single most important text about the sacrificial worship of the believer is Romans 12:1.  It teaches that God demands a living sacrifice of the believer’s own body, without which there is no true and spiritual worship. One offers this living sacrifice “in view of God’s mercy,” not to gain God’s mercy, for Christ has already made the propitiating, justifying sacrifice.51 It is rather a consecrative sacrifice, the New Testament parallel to the burnt offerings. To offer one’s body as a living sacrifice means that he places his life unconditionally in God’s hands for Him to use as He will. To offer one’s body as a living sacrifice means that he places his life un-conditionally in God’s hands for Him to use as He will. “Holy, acceptable unto God” echoes the Law’s demand for purity in the sacrifice and calls to mind the “spirit and truth” test.

This living sacrifice of the body is now the believer’s logiken latreia.  Interpretations of this phrase hinge on the translation of logiken.52 One interpretation, “reasonable service (of worship),” emphasizes the mental and intellectual meaning of logikos. It contrasts the living sacrifice with unreasoning, foolish, or nonrational worship, and balances well with the emphasis on renewing the mind (nous) in verse 2.53  Most modern translators regard logikos as a quality of the eternal and spiritual Word (logos).

These two concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive.54  The offering of a living sacrifice is spiritual in its consciousness and rationality, reflecting the likeness of God and of Christ in man. This spiritual worship is followed by a necessary corollary: a rejection of worldliness, and a conscious embrace of conformity to the divine will.

VI. The Essential Expression of Worship

The ubiquitous expression of worship throughout the Bible, from its first explicit reference in Genesis 4:26 to the final words of blessing in Revelation 22:21, is prayer. Prayer takes on many forms, styles, and purposes, including supplication, intercession, blessing, and even cursing. It is experienced in both individual and corporate dimensions, in private places and public forums. The pervasiveness of the theme of prayer in the Bible makes it impractical to attempt even a superficial survey of the whole subject in this article.

There is one aspect of prayer, however that is so closely identified with worship as a parallel concept that it often passes for a synonym. Yet praise is not necessarily worship, and worship is not found in praise alone. Praise can comprise mere commendation. It may be rendered grudgingly. Even insincere praise, mockingly uttered, may be ironically true if the one to who it is directed is worthy of it.55 Moreover it is possible to praise God without submission, without reverence and without sacrifice.

It is possible to praise Him halfheartedly, unworthily, yet He remains worthy of praise.  Still there is no worship without praise, because god is by nature One to be praised. He is “worthy to be praised,” meaning that to speak truly of God is to praise Him. He is the King of glory, by nature glorious. The Hebrew is kabod, meaning weight, heaviness, or substance. To “give God glory” is simply to acknowledge what God already has. Human praises add nothing to god’s glory, nor does they deficiency cause Him loss.56  How then is it repeatedly said that God is “blessed” by the praises of His people? Again, the answer is grace.

The perfect, infinite Creator is not fulfilled by His creatures; rather, the reverse is true. Why should He go to the trouble of receiving from a very troublesome race the praise which has always been His possession? Why indeed should He create al all.? They answer is forever bound in the mystery of the One who by nature is called Love. He whose Being is necessarily hidden from sinners against His love who cannot even imagine His perfection, holiness, or infinity, has opened Himself to them through His mighty acts, through His prophetic word, and through His Incarnate Word. Thus has He revealed His love toward “those who fear Him,” and in compassionate condescension receives their pathetically imperfect love in return. He lets us bless Him, because only when we bless Him through praise and faith and obedience do we find fulfillment and realize the purpose for our creation.

Therefore the real beneficiary of praise is the worshiper. For one thing, praise is enjoyable.57 More important, through praise the worshiper redirects his focus from the world, from his circumstances and from his own disposition, and back toward God. 

Praise is the prescribed entry into the presence of God.58 So potent is praise for bringing men and women into the presence of God that it can produce faith, hope, rejoicing, awe, and humility even in the midst of dreadful spiritual barrenness.  Even as “soul” is a metonymy for the whole person, so “praise” is often a metonymy for the totality of worship. Praise is the expression of the worshiper’s focus upon god, of his attitude of humility, of awe in His presence, of the sacrifices he brings.  Praise testifies to the validity of worship and fulfills its meaning.

VII.The Essential Purpose and Function of Worship

The seventh essential is the answer to the inescapable question, “Why worship?”  The heading is misleading—deliberately so, in order to draw out into the open the pragmatic bias that is integral to our modern Western worldview, but alien to that of the Bible.  It suggests, and one might expect to find, that the Scriptures would define a function for worship in the economy of God’s Kingdom, but that is not the case.  Americans are used to ascertaining the meaning and value of things and activities according to their function.  Worship, however, is not an invention.  It is rather the nature of God to be worshiped, and the nature of His creation, and especially of His redeemed, to worship Him.  A careful biblical study of worship reveals that worship itself is a function of all creation, of mankind, and specifically of the church.  “All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you."59

Impersonal creation “worships” or praises the Creator involuntarily by reflecting His existence and His glory, revealing Him through His handiwork, and calling the attention of intelligent, spiritual beings to Him.60  Worship in the proper sense is in the nature of man who is made in God’s image and able to know Him in a personal relationship.  The chief end of man indeed is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.61  Though mankind is fallen into sin, yet the human race is naturally religious.  Without an anchor in the true Source humanity inevitably chooses to worship self-reflecting objects, sinking deeper into its own depravity.62  Nevertheless, the living God both commands and receives worship and praise from all mankind to whatever extent they acknowledge the truth about Him, however accidentally or grudgingly.63

Much more is it the nature of redeemed mankind, the new creation in Christ, to worship God.  This is the “new song” of worship, as the Psalter exuberantly calls it, which is inspired not  by the beauty and blessings of creation, but in the freedom and joy of salvation.  It is both individual and corporate.  “I will praise the LORD with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright and in the congregation."64  Worship is inherent in the nature both of the redeemed soul and the redeemed church.65   Any attempt to assign a function to worship, or to direct worship toward achieving some goal, must cause the worshiper to lose his essential focus and finally to become an idolater.

Worship, therefore, is an essential function of our relationship with God, comprising the experience and enjoyment of that relationship.  This is why it may be said that worship is a function of human existence.  We were designed from the beginning to know Him and be known by Him.  To know God always issues in worship because His is “worthy.”  When the denizens of heaven cry out about the worthiness of God and of the Lamb in Revelation 4 and 5, they are saying that is impossible to know God and Christ without worshiping.  The nature of deity calls forth worship.  To fail to worship God, or to worship Him amiss, is to hate Him and to rebel against Him.66

Worship is the expression both of the inherent glory of God, and also of the transferred glory of the worshiper.  It constitutes the enjoyment of the relationship a person has with God, both individually and as the member of a body.  Worship occurs when the soul is focused upon God at the prompting of His Holy Spirit, and approaches Him upon the authority of His Word and by the guarantee of His holy promises.

The soul then humbles himself before God, submitting himself in faith unto the obedience and service of love.  As he thus approaches the presence of God, he responds emotionally to the glory of the divine presence, experiencing ineffable awe.  The praises he may have voiced earlier now reverberate throughout his being and seek expression in words, sounds, and demonstrative acts.  They worshiper, now acutely aware of his need for atonement for sin, by faith receives grace from God who has made His Son a sacrifice for him.

Now the worshiper is moved toward the sacrifice of self-consecration to God, which is at the heart of worship.  He does not do this in order to accomplish any end, or to achieve any goal, or to receive anything.  He does so because God is God, because he has already been he recipient of the grace of God, and because he was both created and called to worship by God.  Worship is his life.  His worship is spiritual, because he is approaching a spiritual God as a spiritual person.  His worship is true because he, with truth in his heart, is worshiping the true God who is.


1 E.g. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans

Publishing Co., 1971), 271-73.

2 Cf. Especially those parallelism related to the Spirit (e.g., 3:5; 6:63).

3 See the discussion following on the essential emotion of worship.

4 See the discussion following on the essential act of worship.

5 Cf. Ephesians 3:16-19; also T. Sorg, “Heart,” in the New International Dictionary of NewTestament Theology.

6 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel of John, s.v. 4:22.

7 Thus the whole question of worship is inseparable from religious authority, the doctrine of revelation, the inspiration of the Scriptures, and properly applied hermeneutics.

8 Cf. Proverbs 15:8, 29; 21:3,27; 28:9; I Samuel 15:22.

9 Cf. John 1:1-18. The whole doctrine of revelation is fundamental to the biblical doctrine of worship.

10 Jeremiah 29:13.

11 Psalm 27:8.

12 To be complete in any sense this discussion should proceed at this point to the role of the Holy Spirit in our worship, who as the Agent of grace makes valid (spirit and truth) worship both possible and actual. Alas, that discussion is outside the scope of this paper.

13 Ephesians 1:6,7; I Timothy 1:12-15, et al.

14 Romans 8:19-34; I John 3:1,2.

15 Interestingly, God’s first explicit self-identification with the commandment to worship only Him does not appear until well into the story of Abraham in Genesis 17:1. Here it is a development in the unfolding of God’s covenant with Abram (although it might be argued that 15:1 constitutes such a self-revelation).

16 Exodus 20:2,3; Deuteronomy 6:4,5; Isaiah 54:21:22; Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:28-30; Luke 10:27.

17 Deuteronomy 13:6-11. See also God’s commendation of the devotion of the Levites in Deuteronomy 33:9.

18 Luke 14:25-33. These words of Jesus constitute strong claims to divinity. May it be that those who deny that Jesus spoke these words be more concerned with the divinity claims than with the evidences of historicity?

19 Mark 8:34,38; Luke 9:57-62; John 5:23; 10:30; 12:44,45; 14:7-11.

20 Matthew 2:2,11; 7;6; 9:18,33; 15:25; 20:20,21; Luke 24:52; John 9:38. See also Acts 7:59,60; II Corinthians 12:8,9; Galatians 1:4,5; Philippians 2:10; I Timothy 1:12; Hebrews 1:6; II Peter 3:18; Revelation 5:8-13; 7:9-10.  I acknowledge that I’m leaving a huge gap at this point in this discussion concerning the Holy Spirit as a member of the Godhead and therefore as a proper focus for worship. The crucial issues here are (1) the truth that the Holy Spirit is a Divine Person, (2) the fact that nowhere in Scripture is there even one command, admonition, or example instructing worshipers to direct their worship toward the specific person of the Holy Spirit, and (3) the manifest involvement, inextricably, of the Holy Spirit in worship in the New Testament. Doubtless the key to putting these issues together is in the understanding of the triunity of God, and in the role each Person of the Godhead plays in the economy of salvation. Cf. Jonathan Edwards, “Essay on the Trinity,” in Valiant for the Truth, David Otis Fuller, ed. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott andCo., 1961), 241-255.

21 “The one God is not rightly worshiped, unless he be separated from all figments. Wherefore it is not enough to make use of his name, unless all corruptions opposed to his word laid aside; and thence we arrive at the distinction between true religion and false superstitions; for since God has prescribed to us how he would be worshiped by us, whenever we turn away in the very smallest degree from this rule, we make to ourselves other gods, and degrade him from his right place.” John Calvin on Exodus 20:3.

22 Revelation 22:8,9.

23 Cf. Paul’s warning, Colossians 2:18.

24 The strange story of Micah the Ephraimite, Judges 17-18, provides a provocative illustration.

25 Cf. I Corinthians 8:1,2. In the first place, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In the second place, no one’s knowledge of truth is complete and perfect. Finally, knowledge is responsibility and entails obedience.

26 Hence the warning of I John 5:21 to Christian believers that they should beware of idols.

27 Romans 1:18-25.

28 Matthew 4:8-10.

29 Some commentators make much of the fact that proskuneo is scarce outside of the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation, and never appears to refer to Christian worship after Pentecost until the Apocalyptic visions. They say this is evidence, in view of John 4:23,24 (although proskuneo is the prominent word in that chapter) that the act of obeisance is not needed, nor even appropriate for Christian worship. It seems to me that such arguments about physical gestures miss the point entirely.

30E.g., James 4:6; I Peter 5:5; Philippians 2:8, etc.

31 Colossians 2:16-23; I Timothy 4:1-4.

32 Passim, especially in the prophets, e.g. Isaiah 2:11; 5:15; 10:33. An interesting exception to this principle is II Corinthians 12:21, where Paul expresses his fear that God might humble him before the church by requiring him to deal publicly with the troublemakers there. Even here it is clear that Paul dreaded the thought that God would humble him, even if it were to make him the instrument rather than the object of judgment.

33 Matthew 5:3; Luke 15:17.

34 Cf. I. Samuel 15:22,23; Psalm 51:16-17; Isaiah 58; Amos 6:21-24; Matthew 3:5-10; Luke 6:46.

35 Hebrews 11:6; James 1:6-8.

36 E.g., the book of Lamentations.

37 Examples of the above, respectively, include: II Samuel 6:14-16; I Samuel 10:10-12; Revelation 19:1-6; Psalm 46:10; 131:2; Job 1:20-21; I Chronicles 30:26,27; Luke 7:37,38; Nehemiah 8:9-12; Isaiah 6:5; Daniel 10:7-8; Luke 9:34.

38 Psalm 33:8 (NKJV).

39 “In fact, ‘the fear of YHWH’ remains throughout the Old Testament the generic name for religion.” Gerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: William G. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 86. See also Walter C. Kaiser. Jr., Toward and Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1978), 168-171.

40 Deuteronomy 6:13; 10:12; Ecclesiastes 12:13; Isaiah 8:13. See also its multiple uses in Proverbs.

41 Psalm 99:1; 96:9; compare Psalm 139 with Jeremiah 5:2-25.

42 Matthew 10:28 and Romans 11:20-21; Philippians 2:12; Romans 14:7-9 and Galatians 1:10, et al.

43 Cf. Stephen F. Smalley, 1,2,3 John (Waco, Texas: Word Books Publisher, 1984), 18-21, 256-261.

44 Cf. Genesis 3:21; 4:4; 12:8; 15:4-17, et al. Se also Hebrews 11:4; Job 1:5; 42:7-9.

45 Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:21,22.

46 The word for burnt offering does not contain in itself the idea of burning, but of totality, wholeness, and dedication.

47 The language of the peace offering shows up metaphorically in such passages as Philippians 2:17 and II Timothy 4:6 (cf. Numbers 15:1-12).

48 Formalism, expensive offerings, and the blood of animals were never proxy for righteousness, faith, mercy, justice, and love (See Proverbs 21:3,27; Isaiah 1:11-31; Amos 5:21-27; Micah 6:6-8). The book of Hebrews is the pivotal, though not the only link between the Old Testament sacrifices and the cross of Christ. What should be noted here is that every time an animal was sacrificed, the worshiper laid his hand on the victim’s innocent head, showing acknowledgment of guilt and identification with the sacrifice.  Similarly, by faith in Christ, we acknowledge our need of his atonement and our identification with him in his death. Cf. Hebrews 10:1-18; Romans 4:5; 6:3-11; I Peter 2:24.

49 Cf. Hebrews 8:1,2 where Christ, as our heavenly and eternal High Priest is called the minister (leitourgos) of the true sanctuary and tabernacle built by God; II Corinthians 9:12, where the collection for the church in Jerusalem is a priestly service, a sacral act (leitourgeia); and Romans 15:16, where Paul is a minister (leitourgos) of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

50 I Peter 2:9, and Revelation 1:6, 5:10; Luke 2:37 and Acts 26:7; Romans 1:9 and II Corinthians 8:18; and Luke 1:74, Acts 24:14; Hebrews 12:28, Philippians 3:3, II Timothy 1:13.

51 Romans 3:25.

52 Literally “of the word,” or “of the ideal.” It is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in I Peter 2:5 where it modifies “milk.” The context is so different from Romans 12 that it is difficult to see any analogies which would help interpret it there.

53 G. W. Bromiley says that this worship is “logical, which means that it is a reasonable thing to do, but also that it follows a logical pattern and has its ultimate basis in the Logos.” S.v. “Worship” in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible.

54 Cf. John Murray’s succinct but helpful commentary, The Epistle to the Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 112.

55 Cf. Matthew 27:27-31.

56 Psalm 18:3, 135:5, 145:3, 24:7-10, 68:34, 96:3-8, 50:23; Job 41:11; Romans 11:33-36; Psalm 50:7-15.

57 Psalm 147:1.

58 Psalm 100:4.

59 Psalm 145:10 NIV.

60 I Chronicicles 16:32,33; Psalm 19:1-6, 69:34, 96:11,12, 98:7,8, 103:22, 148:1-10; Isaiah 44:23, 55:12; Romans 1:20.

61 Genesis 1:27, 2:7; Ezekiel 18:4; John 17:3; Revelation 4:11,  21:1,3.

62 Acts 17:16-23; Romans 1:18-25.

63 I Chronicles 16:23; Psalm 29:1,2, 47:1, 48:10 66:1-8, 67:3-7, 68:32, 79:13, 96:1, 113:3, 117:1, 138:4,5, 150:6; Isaiah 42:10-12; Revelation 11:13.

64 Psalm 111:1 NKJV

65 Cf. Ephesians 1:3-6.

66 It is also why God in Deuteronomy 6:5-10 describes Himself  as a jealous God immediately after He commands that all the love of His covenant people belongs to Him.


Toward a Biblical Theology of Worship

Garry D. Nation

Originally published in the Journal of the American Academy of Ministry, Vol. 5,

Number 3 & 4 (Winter/Spring 1997): 5-20.

Detail from

The Ascension of Christ

Rembrandt van Rijn