06 May 2011

True Worship

Why truth—not music, not bare passion, and certainly not ritual—deserves the place of prominence in worship
by Phil Johnson

"God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).

od is spiritual in His very essence, and therefore He must be worshipped with spiritual worship—worship in the energy of spirit; worship that engages and employs our entire spirit, not just the motions of our hands and the words we form with our lips; not bare ritual; but a true expression of the heart and soul. "Worship in spirit."

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." Jesus is making a deliberate contrast between the worship God seeks and the typical kind of worship that is dominated by human tradition, obscured by empty ritual, and buried under meaningless layers of pomp and ceremony.

Listen to Christ's criticism of the Pharisees' religion (Matthew 15:3, 8): "Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? . . . You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.'"

They had all the ceremonies down. Many of these were rituals prescribed by Moses' law, ordained by God, and therefore good things if used properly. They were fine if seen for what they really were: symbols of a greater reality, aids to worship; not the end-all and be-all of worship. But the Pharisees were more enamored with the rituals than they were with the truth the rituals signified. And so they added layers of their own manmade rituals on top of what the law prescribed: extra washings; more complicated ceremonies; more elaborate costumes—longer tassels on their robes and whatnot to exaggerate the liturgical impact of all the pageantry and spectacle.

The flesh loves that. And the ceremonies themselves became what they thought of when they thought of "worship." It was a flamboyant display for the benefit of the worshiper rather than an expression of praise and honor to God. They were worshiping Him with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. They were indulging their flesh, not worshiping in spirit.

And let's be honest: we all have a sinful tendency to do that. We go through the motions without really engaging our spirit in worship. We seize the opportunity during the pastoral prayer to look at our watch, or send a text message during the congregational hymn, or whatever. Jesus said that's not authentic worship; It's not worship at all unless we "worship in spirit and truth."

This is a much abused and widely misunderstood principle today. Jesus is not calling for the kind of shallow passion that responds to the music and the atmosphere. He's not saying we should aim at working ourselves into a frenzy of feeling and passion devoid of any rational content.

Authentic worship is concerned with truth, not bare passion.

It's a common misconception today that worship in the spirit requires us to empty the mind of anything rational. I visited a charismatic church a few years ago where the worship leader said that very thing: He encouraged people to "sing in the spirit"—and in order to do that, he said, "you need to empty your mind and let the spirit take over your voice. Close your eyes and forget where you are, and just feel the worship."

A lot of contemporary worship is just like that. We use music and atmosphere to build raw passion to a crescendo. And lots of people think that's the purest form of worship—when you are basically so overwhelmed with emotion that your mind is unattached and unengaged in any kind of rational thought. In fact, music is so important to the process that when you use the word "worship" today, most Christians assume you are talking about music.

But notice that Jesus gave truth, not music, the place of prominence in worship: "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

That's loaded with implications. "Truth" here stands in contradistinction to bare ritual. It also contrasts with raw passion. Jesus is saying that sound doctrine, a clear conscience, and a true heart are infinitely more important for authentic worship than the place where we worship, the forms with which we worship, the style of our music, or any of the other things people usually want to talk about and fight over whenever the subject of worship comes up.

What's important in worship is what you believe, not what tribe you belong to. Authentic worship is about how you think of God, not just how you "feel" when you sing about Him. It's about lifting up your spirit and opening your heart before Him, not merely raising your hands and closing your eyes.

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The Father is seeking such people to worship him.

Phil's signature


belardd said...

What is your position on the Regulative Principle of Worship?

donsands said...

Excellent post.

I remember singing Rock of Ages a few weeks back, and the words, along with the melody move my heart and mind so much I couldn't sing.

I thank my Lord for my local church where the worship is in truth and Spirit-filled.

have a great weekend and Lord's day!

Pam said...

Thank you, Phil, your writing is always helpful to my earthly journey. The older I get the more I realize what a horribly sinful and selfish heart I have. That our Heavenly Shepherd would accept the worship of man shows His amazing GRACE! Praise be to Christ.

David Kyle said...

Great point Phil! These two verses always come to my mind when worshipping...

Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; Sing praises with understanding. ~Psalm 47:6,7(NKJV)

Note we are to sing... but with understanding!

Jim Pemberton said...

Bulls-eye! I would suggest that where we truly pursue truth, our worship of God is greater than singing many songs - and I'm a church musician.

I have heard church musicians complain about not having hymnals in the pews so that people can learn to sing in four-part harmony as though being musically literate is what is important in corporate worship.

I have heard people argue that they need to have one style of music or another because they they can't worship in a style they don't like as though cultural comfort is what is important in worship.

I have heard people confuse reverence for mere solemnity. They take "be still" a bit literally and miss the "and know that I am God" part. (Ps 46:10)

If only we put the same fervor toward knowing God better that we do in just making music. Of course, I'm preaching to the choir (pun intended) knowing the wealth of good teaching that Pyros offer, including this article.

Rob said...

Excellent message, and one we all need to be mindful of when we gather to worship each week. Is their propriety to our worship, and does our particular church practice what the Bible says about proper worship of God? Good things to meditate on.

Well, for a couple more weeks at least, since Harold Camping says that Judgment Day is just a couple weeks off... :p

Robert Warren said...

"In fact, music is so important to the process that when you use the word "worship" today, most Christians assume you are talking about music."

Exactly. And I have heard this from solid, orthodox folks, including those on my favorite talk-show podcast (I won't mention the name).

Nash Equilibrium said...

Wonderful reminder - thank you.

Dave Miller said...

Thank you for this very timely and biblical message, Phil. The people in the Bible study I attended last Wednesday were discussing this very topic. Some were lamenting the fact that the richness and quality of the old hymns is missing in much modern church music. The counterpoint was that as long as the words and music are God-honoring, the tempo, tune and volume are really a matter of personal preference.

How much does music matter to our deaf brothers and sisters?

How superficial does all the bickering over musical styles seem to those who can’t hear?

Thank you for the reminder that Truth is more important than any tradition of man.

Thomas Pryde said...

Amen! The mid 1800's started a downward trend in church music, but I am thankful for so many truth filled songs that have been produced in recent years, with full and deep content. When this kind of lyric is wedded with music that is in tight harmony with the truth (emotion appropriate to the lyric), you end up with a powerful combination.

David Sheldon said...

Gosh - I wonder if this is the most important issue of the last 30 years in the visible church of the west?

Or - what is the over-arching and predominant thing that is "advertised" when you go into most of our evangelical churches now as compared to 30 years ago?

And this "advertising" is making us feel rather comfy in God's holy presence now isn't it? And would you like that with mediation or without?

And do we see that even though we do not GO to Mt. Sinai we fully and completely understand Mt. Sinai because we GO to Mt. Zion with fear and trembling because our God is still a consuming fire? I wonder?

Pyro - you boldly go where few blogs go - and I love it. Thanks for going against the flow.

Our fallen culture now wants a sensual and gnostic Christ rather than a holy incarnate Christ. But let's keep the same name - just to play it safe.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Why truth—not music, not bare passion, and certainly not ritual—deserves the place of prominence in worship.


Although I imagine worship leaders are thinking and hoping and praying that they are expressing truth-in-music, truth-in-passion, and truth-in-liturgical-ritual.

Possible for a "Both/And"?

Tom Chantry said...

Possible for a "Both/And"?

I would suggest that there are two applications of what Phil is saying here.

One is what the Reformed community has called "the Primacy of Preaching" - the idea that if truth is to be central to our worship, the proclamation of that truth should be its dominant element.

However, a second application is that God's truth should be the unifying element of the service. Prayers that are informed by God's truth until it overflows from them are to be desired over prayers that sound just-like-sincere, y'know? And true, spiritual worship will involve songs that likewise exude biblical truth - not just songs that makes us feel all gushy inside. (And that's true no matter what sort of song makes you feel all gushy!)

donsands said...

"However, a second application is that God's truth should be the unifying element of the service."

Yep and Amen.

And the truth causes the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And of course love rejoices in the truth. The Joy of knowing the Rock of Ages was cleft for me. And the joy my heart knows when I survey the Cross, and pour contempt on all my pride.

I like what Phil said about us all having problems with true worship. I know I do.

Yet, I can not wait for the Lord's day to come, so I can go to His house.

"For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness." Psalm 84:10

GW said...

Recently I was in a service where the "worship leader" said... OK, now let's sing that again, but this time dig deep and REALLY worship.

Can anyone explain this to me?

Herding Grasshoppers said...


Home run.

Morris Brooks said...

Every generation in the church has its issues with form over substance, and it is a very subtle trap.

Isaiah 29:13 is the precursor and commentary on John 4:24, and it says, "Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but remove their hearts far from Me, and the their reverence for Me consists of traditon learned by rote." or as the HCSB says, "their man made rules learned by rote." They were going through the traditions/man made rules of the day, just as many do now, or did 50 years ago.

Worshiping in the truth will actually bring about the right and proper passion, as it engages the heart through the mind; but at the same time it must begin with a passion for the truth. People with a passion for the truth will not be satisfied anything less.

Morris Brooks said...

Oh, by the way, thanks for not responding to the regulative principle bait.

John Dunn said...

A lot of contemporary worship is just like that. We use music and atmosphere to build raw passion to a crescendo. And lots of people think that's the purest form of worship—when you are basically so overwhelmed with emotion that your mind is unattached and unengaged in any kind of rational thought.

How true. It seems to me that much of what passes for 'worship time', especially in big box churches, is just an artificially manufactured environment, where mood lighting, audio-video effects, and the ebb and flow of the music is used to appeal to the fleshly senses and "set the mood". The majesty of corporate singing becomes dwarfed by the stage production and performance at the front, leaving one feeling that they're on the set of 'American Idol' rather than in the presence of the King of Kings.

Sadly, this seems to be the trend in our consumer-driven churches, where the styles and methods of the pop-culture are adopted into the corporate setting and passed off as 'worship'. O that the church would again dare to be otherworldly, counter-cultural, and perhaps even heavenly in her worship and mission, shining as lights in the midst of a darkened world.

Daniel Hoffman said...

I don't think "form vs. substance" is particularly at issue in John 4:24, except in the sense that the new form of worship involves the true substance. "Spirit and Truth" do not refer to "heart and head" but to the Holy Spirit and Jesus. Worship will no longer be in Jerusalem temple, but in the Spirit - in the new temple, the church, the body of Christ, wherever two or three are gathered in his name. And "in Truth" does not refer first of all to engagement of the mind and doctrinal purity but to Jesus the Truth, the truth of which Old Testament worship was a shadow (cf. John 1:17). Jesus as the new High Priest is the mediator of New Covenant worship.

The need for engagement of the heart and true doctrine was always there. The prophets rebuke Israel all the time over this issue. But in John 4, Jesus is talking about a new state of affairs, an "hour that is coming, and is now here."

The passage isn't about us and our hearts and minds, at least not directly, but about the Triune God and form worship will take in the New Covenant.

Two cents.

Unknown said...

The context for John 4 is worship "in" Jerusalem or "in" Samaria and Jesus responds with, "in" spirit and truth. It is not a place. I believe the verse we overlook is Romans 12:1.

See "The New Paradigm of Worship" in

~Mark said...

Oh, by the way, thanks for not responding to the regulative principle bait.

~I could be missing something, but why is that a "baiting" question? I was actually expecting it to be addressed with the way the post was going, and was surprised that he didn't.

I think it is an excellent post, I just thought it would go further.

Steve Berven said...

I think it's in what you sing, as well. I visited a friend's Berean Church once, and they had the old-school hymnals with the old-school traditional hymns. And man, some of those were downright DARK. Full of humility, and some good, core-level theology. Words to remind you that though you worship, you worship of God of might and power and both redemption and retribution.

So much of modern worhip is focused on uplifting, on inspiring and making us feel good. Whereas, there's certainly something to be said for music that doesn't bring us to our feet, but knocks us to our knees instead.

John Thomson said...

While agreeing with the thrust of your argument and very much agreeing with the dangers you are guarding against, I think the OC/NC contrast is even more stark.

It is not simply that some made the mistake of keeping the OC in a fleshly way but that the OC was specifically designed for people 'in the flesh' and not 'in the Spirit'.

Its emphasis on the sensory (the visible, tangible, aesthetic etc) was suited to man in the flesh before the arrival of the age of the Spirit. With the arrival of the Spirit the 'weak and beggarly' must go.

No longer would worship be stimulated by impressive buildings, visual beauty, rites and ceremonies, clothes of glory and beauty,these belonged to infancy but now spiritual maturity had arrived. Ironically these which seemed so substantial were merely shadow and that which was invisible and intangible was the true substance.

Thus all Christian preoccupation with the theatre of the sensory and aesthetic - cathedrals, costumes, elaborate ceremony, music etc - is a regression from Spirit to flesh, from substance to shadow, from maturity to infancy, Christ to the weak and beggarly, from Christianity to Judaism.

John Thomson said...

Incidentally, I find 'Open ID' doesn't seem to work for leaving a comment. Even using Google Account seems to fail at times and does not allow a comment.

Anonymous said...

Worship in contemporary churches is something of a struggle for me. In an attempt to pursue change in my local church I joined the worship team and became a worship leader. The service is supposed to be contemporary and family friendly. One sunday, after a 6 week sermon series on prayer, I decided it would be great to have much more prayer in the service. In fact, lets have a short service, let the prayers be baisically scripture written as prayers and have members of the congregation read them. Have communion and then our final prayer sermon. I was not allowed to do this because it would be too boring (not a word the leadership used - but that was the basic problem). I objected that all the other worship leaders hardly ever read scripture during a service. They still don't. But that's ok - at least the congregation isn't bored!

Ben Thomas said...

Great post, very honest and true