It is often said that we come to worship to give and not to receive. That is a dangerous half-truth.
Praise, thanks, adoration are all part of worship, of course, and God delights in our praise. But in worship as in all of life, we have nothing to give unless we have first received. We give praise to God because He first gives gifts to us, and our gifts to Him are simply an Amen to His gifts to us. We come to worship to receive, so that we can give.
Saying that worship is for God implies that worship is entirely a response to God. It presents this picture: Somewhere, outside a worship service, God saved me. Having been saved, I have a duty to gather with God’s people to thank Him for His mercy and praise Him for His greatness. Outside the church door, I sought and found God’s grace; once inside, I’m not a seeker after grace but a giver of praise.
It is impossible, however, for any human action to be a response pure and simple. All our actions are enabled by the Spirit; we are actors because we are first passive. To entertain the possibility that we can act without passivity is to assume we can be autonomous, independent of God: Once God has worked in us, we can respond to Him without having to rely on His continual working in us.
Scripture does not say that God works first, and then we respond as best we can. It says that our response is yet another work of God, encompassed within His saving work for us. Even when we give, we are simultaneously, and primarily, receiving.
It is not as if we are recipients of grace until we walk through the door. We rely on God’s work in us in worship as much as anywhere else, and it is only because we are acting by the power of the Spirit that our actions in worship bring honor to God. We are called to worship in Spirit and in truth: Worship, like everything else in the Christian life, is by grace through faith. Stepping through the church door doesn’t transform Augustinians into Pelagians.According to all the Reformed Confessions, the Word and Sacraments are effective means of grace, by which the Spirit gives the Risen Christ to the faithful people of God. “What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?” asks Westminster Shorter Catechism Question #88. And it answers that “the word, sacraments, and prayer . . . are made effective to the elect for salvation.” Word and Sacrament are the foci of worship, and both are God’s means of “communicating benefits” to us.
Worship is not mainly about what we do before God’s face; it is mainly about what God is doing to and in us. The service of the Lord’s Day is God’s action: He calls us into His presence; He declares our sins forgiven; He speaks His word of comfort, rebuke, encouragement, promise and command; He feeds us at His table; and He sends us back into the world.
Of course, at each point, we also respond: When God invites, we enter; when He absolves our sins, we praise His grace in His Son; we tremble at His threats and believe His promises; we eat and drink at His banquet; and when He sends, we go.
This may seem to be a brief for what has been known as “seeker-sensitive worship,” but the errors of contemporary worship arise from the very assumptions I’m attacking. Worship fads arise – unconsciously, in the main – from doubts that Word and Sacrament are genuine means of grace. That’s why all sorts of things substitute for Word and Sacrament – anecdotal pep talks, puppet shows, drama, whatever.
Churches that trumpet the idea that the Lord’s Day service is for God are adopting many of the practices of contemporary worship, and that is no accident. Both arise from the same basic error of liturgical theology: Both deny, at least implicitly, that the service is God’s ministry to us in Word and Sacrament.