Public worship

'As for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple' (Ps. 5:7).

David, the man after God's own heart, found great pleasure and satisfaction in daily prayer and meditation. Daily, private, personal worship was a characteristic of his life. With the rising of the morning sun his heart was lifted up to God. Every morning he directed his prayer to the throne of grace and looked to his Lord with a heart of faith. Every evening he gave thanks to God and laid his head upon his pillow in the sweet rest of faith. That is the way to begin and end every day! Blessed is the man or woman who worships God in private. Let all who know and trust the living God worship him daily. Let all who follow Christ in the path of faith and obedience follow him also to the solitary place of private prayer. I would do everything within my power to promote and encourage private worship among the saints of God. Let every priest of God offer the daily sacrifices of prayer and praise to the Lord. But them is something even more important than private worship.

Does that last statement surprise you? I know that most people who are genuinely concerned for the glory of God and the worship of God rank personal, private worship above all things in the life of faith. But I am convinced that public worship, if it is true worship, is even more important than private worship.

David, the sweet singer of Israel, gave the highest possible regard to the matter of public worship. Without neglecting private worship, he said, 'As for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.' He could not force others to worship God, and would not if he could. 'But,' he says,'as for me, I will come into thy house.' That is to say, 'I will come into the place of public worship in the assembly of God's saints, to worship the Lord my God.' And when he came into the place of worship with the saints of God, David was determined truly to worship the Lord. He says, 'In thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.' David was resolved in his heart, at every appointed time, to come with God's saints into the place of public worship, so that he might worship God in heaven, in the temple of his holiness. Let us look at this text a little more closely, and ask the Spirit of God to apply it to our hearts, so that David's words may become the expression of our own hearts' resolve.

'I will come into thy house.' The house of God is the congregation of the saints, wherever they gather in public assembly to worship God.

'I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy.' It is not enough merely to 'go to church'. We must come into the house of God in faith, trusting the Lord's mercy. And there are a multitude of mercies with God in Christ. Sinners need mercy. We must come to the place of public worship as sinners trusting God's abundant mercy in Christ. If we do not come as sinners seeking mercy, we will not worship. But sinners looking to Christ for mercy always find a multitude of mercy in him (Luke 18:13-14). In him we find:

Everlasting, covenant mercy (Jer. 31:31-34)
Sin-atoning, redeeming mercy (Rom. 3:24-26)
Effectual, saving mercy (Micah 7:18-20)
Immutable, preserving mercy (Mal. 3:6)
Daily, providential mercy (Rom. 8:28)

Truly, 'It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not' (Lam. 3:22), and every worshipper in God's house finds it to be so.

'And in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.' We must come to the house of God with reverence and godly fear to worship him, that is, to see him, to hear him, to adore him, to praise him and to obey him. This was David's resolve. May it ever be yours and mine. May God give us grace to make public worship our delight and truly to worship him in the assembly of his saints.

In this chapter I want us to see five things about public worship, some of which will be dealt with in much more detail in later chapters.

1. Public worship is the single most important aspect of the believer's life.

When David was banished from Jerusalem, the place of public worship, he envied even the sparrows who made their nests in the house of God. His heart longed not for the throne, the riches, or the power that had been taken from him, but for the assembly of God's saints in public worship. When the blessed privilege of public worship was taken from him for a short time, nothing was more important or precious to God's child (Ps. 84:1-4).

The fact is, all who are born of God love the assembly of God's saints in public worship and love the ministry of the gospel. There are no exceptions. God's people will not willingly absent themselves from the worship of God. It is true, there are many who very strictly attend, and even love, the outward service of public worship, who do not know the Lord. Their outward worship is nothing but a show of hypocrisy, for they never worship God in private. But anyone who wilfully neglects and despises the public assembly of the saints for worship, also neglects and despises private worship. And those who do not worship God do not know God.

Many people are very busy with all kinds of things. The cares and pleasures of life in this world consume almost all their time and attention. When it is convenient they attend church, give God a little tip and sing, 'Oh, how I love Jesus!' But any time something more important comes up (a good football match, a special television show, a visiting relative, or a sick dog!), they absent themselves from the house of God with little regret. They say to themselves, 'I can always go to church next week. The Lord knows my heart.' Of that much you can be sure: the Lord does know our hearts, and he will judge us accordingly!

Those who are truly God's people love the house of God and the worship of God. They arrange their lives around the worship of God. Nothing ever comes up, over which they have control, to keep them from the house of God. They see to it that when the saints of God gather for worship, they are among them, unless their absence is genuinely unavoidable. Their faithfulness in the matter of public worship is much more than a matter of duty. It is their delightful choice. Public worship is the single most important aspect of their lives in this world. Nothing is more important to the children of God in this world than the public assembly of the saints for worship; and that public assembly of the saints for worship is the local church, the congregation of the Lord, the house of God.

Why do God's people place such importance upon the public worship of the local church? Here are five reasons.

1. This is the place where God meets sinners in saving mercy. It is true that God uses personal witnessing, tracts, tapes, books and other instruments of gospel instruction to call his elect to life and faith in Christ, but generally God saves his sheep in the congregations of his saints when they are gathered for worship (Acts 2:1,37-41). Sinners in need of mercy should seek mercy where mercy is always found in great, overflowing abundance; and mercy is always found in the house of God.

God's saints know themselves to be sinners in need of mercy; so they come, with all their needs, to the house of mercy, seeking the Lord.

2. This is the place where our family gathers. Every true local church is a family of believers. When the church gathers for worship, it is the gathering of our family for sweet and blessed fellowship in the gospel. Family members need each other, comfort each other and help each other, because they love each other.

3. This is the place where the Lord Jesus Christ meets with his people. Our Saviour promised that, wherever his people gather in his name, he would be with them (Matt. 18:20). To gather in Christ's name is to gather by faith in his name, for the honour of his name and to worship in his name. If only two or three gather to worship the Son of God, he will meet with them. The old man, Simeon, found God's salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ, in the temple, the appointed place of public worship (Luke 2:25-32), and if we would see Christ we must come with his saints when they gather in the place of public worship.

4. This is the place where God deals with men. Each local congregation of believers is the house and temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Tim. 3:15). God reveals his glory, gives out his law, makes known his will, bestows his blessings and instructs his people in his temple, his church. It is in this place that God speaks to men by his Spirit through his Word.

In all ages the people of God have been known and identified by their public gatherings for worship. Wherever God has had a people in this world, he has had a congregation to worship him. Sheep are always found in flocks. The only sheep who are alone are either lost or sick. And God's elect are sheep. No matter how few, they have always gathered together in public worship. In the public assembly they bear public, united testimony to the world of their Saviour's grace and glory. As an assembled body of believers they strengthen, cheer, comfort, encourage, edify and help one another by prayer, praise and the preaching of the gospel.

From the beginning of the Bible to the end there is a clear line of succession in this matter of public worship. Cain and Abel came to worship God in a public assembly. Noah's first act after the flood was an act of public worship to celebrate God's saving grace. Wherever the patriarchs pitched their tents in days of old, they erected an altar for worship. Throughout the Mosaic economy, the Jew who did not worship God in the tabernacle or temple was cut off from the congregation. Throughout the book of Acts, wherever God's children were scattered by persecution, they soon gathered in public assemblies for the worship of God.

Public worship is one identifying mark of true believers. With David, every saved sinner is resolved to worship God, saying, 'As for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.' By this let everyone examine himself or herself. Those who willingly and habitually absent themselves from the worship of God do not know God. A person may be outwardly faithful to the church of God who does not know God, but no one is faithful to Christ who is not faithful in the public assembly of his church for worship.

5. The neglect of public worship is the first step towards total apostasy (Heb. 10:23-31). Seldom do men and women turn away from Christ and the gospel of his grace suddenly. Usually the charms of the world take men by degrees, gradually. Apostasy is usually so gradual that those who forsake Christ do not even realize they have forsaken him. How many them are who never attend, or seldom attend, the worship of God, who yet foolishly presume they are children of God! But their continued forsaking of the assembly of God's saints is proof that they never really knew the Lord Jesus Christ in saving faith (1 John 2:19). Those who wilfully neglect the assembly of God's saints for public worship, though they know the truth of God, tread underfoot the Son of God, count the blood of the covenant a useless thing and despise the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:25, 26, 29).

2. If we would truly worship God in our public assemblies, everything must be governed by the Word of God

Sadly, much of that which goes on in the churches today is a mere show of religion, and religious show is an abomination to God. I do not question the sincerity of most religious people, but sincerity in doing evil does not make the evil good. Our Lord says, 'In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men' (Matt. 15:9). Paul tells us that religious ritualism, ceremonialalism, legalism and showmanship are nothing but 'a show of wisdom in will worship', not for the honour of God, but for 'the satisfying of the flesh'.

Many imagine that small details in the worship of God are insignificant; but in the house of God, nothing is insignificant. Surely David's mistake in bringing the ark of God to Jerusalem should teach us the necessity of strict obedience in the worship of our God (1 Chron. 13:1-4; 15:11-15). We cannot worship the Lord God unless we worship him according to the Word of truth (1 Tim. 3:14-15; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; John 4:24).

We must worship the one true and living God as he is revealed in the person and work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6). The glory of the triune God is seen nowhere but in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). Our worship of God must be in the Spirit, that is, by the aid and direction of the Holy Spirit and in our hearts. True worship is purely spiritual. It is inspired by the Spirit of God. It arises from and takes place in the heart. And we must worship God in accordance with the truth, with true, sincere hearts, according to the Word of truth. In a word, our worship of God must be simple, unadorned, unpretentious and spiritual.

Both in doctrine and in activity, every aspect of public worship must be in precise accordance with Holy Scripture. We have no right to omit any aspect of service to God that is plainly laid down as the ordinance of our Lord in the New Testament; and we have no right to bring anything into the house of God that is not plainly set forth in the New Testament.

3. In public worship certain things are essential

The Word of God does not lay down any distinct order of service for public worship that must be rigidly followed, and we must be careful to avoid mere religious ritualism and ceremonialism. Yet all things must be done decently and in order. We must do nothing without thoughtful prayer and preparation, and all that is done must be done for the glory of God. In the New Testament we see five things which am essential to public worship. These five things should be regularly maintained in the services of every local church.

Firstly, when believers come together for worship, they should be led in united, public prayer (1 Tim. 2:1). Secondly, every assembly for public worship should give attention to the public reading of Holy Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13; Rev. 1:3; Acts 15:30-31; Luke 4:16). Thirdly, united, public praise, congregational singing, is a blessed part of public worship (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Fourthly, the most important aspect of public worship is the preaching of the gospel (2 Tim. 4:1-2). Finally, we must regularly observe the ordinances of our Lord in public worship, that is, believers' baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Every service of every local church should be a worship service. Whether the congregation is many or few, whether it is gathered on Sunday morning, or in the middle of the week, when God's people gather in public assembly, they ought to be led in the worship of God by faithful, well-prepared, gospel-preaching pastors. Each service of the church should include prayer, reading of Scripture, praise to God and gospel preaching. And the services should frequently include the observance of our Lord's ordinances.

4. There are some things we must carefully avoid in our assemblies for public worship

There are many things going on in churches today throughout the world, even in some places where men claim to preach the gospel of God's free and sovereign grace in Christ, which have no place at all in the house of God. The house of God is a house of prayer, a house of worship, a centre for preaching. Any other function for the church is out of order. The church of God is not a political arena, an educational centre, or a social club. Any church that functions as such has missed her calling. But in our worship services themselves, there are four evils which we must studiously avoid.

We must avoid showmanship and entertainment. Any person interested in the glory of God knows that the church of God has no business involving itself with sporting events, bingo parties and such like; but there is a tendency, even with the most conscientious people, to use their gifts and talents to entertain people, rather than edify them.

Every form of idolatry must be studiously avoided. Crosses, robes, stained glass windows, religious pictures and symbols are not aids, but hindrances, to spiritual worship. Any use of physical objects in the worship of God is idolatry.

Ritualism must be carefully avoided. Any religious service, rite or ceremony not ordained of God is a meaningless ritual. Any superstitious service performed in the name of God, anything which claims to confer grace or spiritual benefit by means of an outward action, is a mockery of divine worship.

Another thing we must carefully avoid is emotionalism. The waving of hands, shouting, making religious gestures, etc. only calls attention to oneself. There is no place in the house of God for the exaltation of self. I do not mean to imply that worship is without emotion. True worship floods our hearts with many emotions. When Christ is preached, if God is gracious and the Holy Spirit applies the Word to our hearts, joy and sorrow, conviction and consecration, solemnity and gaiety, humility and exultation all, at the same time, may be found in the believer's heart; but deep, heartfelt emotions, if they are sanctified by God, do not show themselves in mere gestures and momentary outbursts of emotionalism. They show themselves in the effect they have upon our lives.

We do not come to the house of God to make a show of religion, to fulfil our religious obligation, or to get a shot of spiritual excitement. We come to the house of God to see, hear and worship God in Christ, for the comfort, strengthening and edification of our souls.

5. There are some tests by which our worship of God may be proved

If we truly worship God when we meet together in the house of God, our worship will be reflected in the effect it has upon us. An hour of religious excitement, no matter how deeply it is felt, is useless if it does not affect our lives. True worship affects a person's life. I offer these six tests by which to examine and prove all exercises in public and private worship.

1. True worship reaches the heart and conscience. False worship-mere ritualism or emotionalism is like taking drugs. It has a gradually declining effect upon the heart, and people soon become immune to it. This is one reason why churches and religious leaders must always devise newer, bigger, more exciting programmes. But the worship of the living God never has a deadening effect. Men and women who worship in Spirit and truth drink from the same fountain year after year, with ever-increasing delight. The gospel of Christ never becomes mundane to them.

2. True worship draws our hearts closer to Christ in sweet communion,faith, love and obedience. The gospel of Christ shuts us up to Christ, shows us Christ and leaves us looking to Christ. This is always the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13-14). True worship is the continual reviving of the believer's heart by the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit's knitting our own hearts to the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. True worship causes the believer to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. When the saints of God are fed with knowledge and understanding by the Spirit of God, through the preaching of the gospel, they grow in grace, mature in faith and increase in love. The worship of Christ is edifying.

4. True worship affects the lives of God's people. Those who worship God, walk with God by faith; and walking with God affects the way a person thinks, talks and behaves at home, on the job and in the church. Mean-spirited, dishonest, slanderous men and women do not worship the living God.

5. True worship inspires, increases and enlarges a believer's submission, consecration and dedication to the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 6:19-20). The more a believer sees and knows of Christ's glorious person, redemptive work and heavenly exaltation, the more he desires to give himself entirely to his beloved Lord.

6. True worship causes the believer to hope for, and anxiously anticipate, that blessed, endless day of perfect worship which we shall enjoy in heaven's glory. Every time I am enabled, in some measure, to worship God, my heart is moved with excited hope to think of that eternity which awaits the saints of God, in which our lives, our very existence, will be so perfectly conformed to the image of Christ that we shall perfectly worship the Lord God at all times and in all things for ever! Truly, ours is a blessed hope!

May God help each one of us, as long as we live upon the earth, to make David's determination the holy resolve of our own hearts: 'As for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.'