Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628-1680) gives us important words:
The approach is to God as gracious, not to God as unpacified, as a son to a father, not as a criminal to a judge…Delight in God is a gospel frame, therefore the more joyful, the more spiritual…
God is a Spirit infinitely happy, therefore we must approach him with cheerfulness; he is a Spirit of infinite majesty, therefore we must come before him with reverence; he is a Spirit infinitely high, therefore we must offer up our sacrifices with deepest humility; he is a Spirit infinitely holy, therefore we must address him with purity; he is a Spirit infinitely glorious, we therefore must acknowledge his excellency…he is a Spirit infinitely provoked by us, therefore we must offer up our worship in the name of a pacifying mediator and intercessor.1
I have heard from many about the dearth of Scripture reading in evangelical worship services. They have rightly pointed out that one often hears the Word of God read on Sunday mornings with more breadth and frequency in mainline Protestant and Catholic services than one does among those who still root themselves in the doctrine of sola Scriptura. I would argue that the presence of the gospel–the good news about who Jesus is and what He has done–is just as important as the presence of the Scriptures. In fact, if the Scriptures are rightly expounded from any passage in the Old or New Testaments, the gospel should be present, because God’s ultimate “authorial intent” for the whole Bible is to display Jesus Christ.
But, even if the gospel were only made explicit in preaching and not in the other elements of the liturgy, I know that my own heart, prone to wander that it is, would easily deceive me into believing, “I’ve been pretty good this week…God must be pleased with my worship!”, or, “That prayer was really moving…I was really sincere when I prayed that…God must be really working in me right now.” However, if it is true that, because of His justice and goodness, God stands “infinitely provoked” by me and my sin, there is not a moment of the day–and there is especially not a moment in worship–when I don’t need my mediator standing between me and the Lord of Hosts.
We could get crazy here and think were stepping into sin every time we don’t have the gospel at the center of our minds at every given moment. That’s not the point. The point is that, even as followers of Jesus, we can be so quick to forget the gospel. If our orders of service are doing their job, they should be reminding us of the gospel, renewing us in God’s covenant weekly. Sometimes that looks like something explicit like the progression of spoken elements like the Call to Worship, Confession of Sin, and Assurance of Pardon. Other times it is wrapped up in a series of songs like “Forever” (Tomlin), “Lord Have Mercy” (Merkel), and “Mighty to Save” (Morgan/Fielding). Sometimes it is displayed in a single hymn, like “And Can it Be?” (Wesley). Yet other times it is summarized in a worship leader’s prayer after a song-set:
Holy Father, we know that we can’t worship You rightly on our own strength. We’re tempted to believe that if we’re good enough, or if we’ve had a week relatively free from sin, that we’ve some how attained the worthiness to stand here and sing Your praises. But You tell us that “all have sinned.” You tell us that “no one is righteous; no, not one.” Please remind us again, though, of how Jesus enters into that picture. Show us how great Jesus is–His life perfectly lived unto You; His death paying the penalty of sin for us. And, Holy Spirit, strengthen us to believe. Bury that good news more deeply into our heart. And we would then love You, live for You, abide in You, and grow in You. Amen.
Any way you slice it, we need the good news in our services. Gospel-less worship is really Ian worship–Christian worship without “Christ.” We need that “pacifying mediator and intercessor,” and we need Him front and center!
1 Stephen Charnock, Works (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), I: 308, 315; quoted in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 252.