On our honeymoon, my wife Rachel and I took a day trip out to a waterfall about twenty miles inland from our resort. The daily thunderstorms of the rainy season made the flow of water strong and particularly muddy, totally obscuring the stone bed below the rushing creek. One wrong step would lead to certain death, either from drowning or hitting your head on the rocks below. To allow people to still enjoy the waterfall, experienced guides stood at the entrance ready to assist in ascending the terrain and ensuring constant steady footing by pointing out the safest places to stand.
Faithful, gospel-shaped liturgy functions as such a guide for Christians by instructing them on where they can find sure footing to stand and worship God for who He really is without drifting away in modern fads or even in their own extra-biblical preferences for what they think corporate worship should be. If Christians around the world structured their services based on what they liked and preferred within their own contexts, then they would not be worshiping God as he has called them to do in Scripture. God has determined how He is to be worshiped and Christians throughout the ages have found biblically sound ways to express their worship to God and retrain their hearts on Him in the context of the gathered church.
The liturgy and its practice have no intrinsic power of their own, but rather only help insomuch as they reflect the story of redemption as revealed in God’s Word. Rather, the liturgical arrangement of a service takes worshipers through a summary of who God is and what He has done every time they gather together, refreshing their hearts and guiding them through the natural response to those truths: worship.
To borrow an image from the Catholic tradition, the liturgy brings its participants through a “stations of the cross” on every Sunday morning. In that way, every Sunday morning both observes Good Friday and celebrates Easter. Even more than that, such services zoom out from the crux of the gospel to include truths from the totality of God’s redemption story. While our own desires and preferences may lead us to emphasize certain themes over others in our services, allowing the gospel to shape our public worship means that each time the church gathers, it retells the entirety of the biblical narrative from creation to consummation.
I have attended numerous services at various churches where God’s love, glory, peace, joy, or faithfulness have featured prominently, but human sin and its resulting separation from God was either an afterthought or absent altogether. While Christians should celebrate all of those glorious aspects of God’s character, a church whose services consistently omit the bad news of our sin—against which God’s grace in redemption stands in even more glorious juxtaposition—will slowly but surely be swept away in the tides of nominalism or cultural Christianity. With the overall scope in mind, it is important to examine the individual parts of a traditional liturgy and how they guide the heart through gospel-shaped worship.
Most services begin with a Call to Worship, taken either directly from Scripture or drawing on Biblical themes or principles to invite the people of God into a designated, distinctive time of corporate worship as the body of Christ. The primacy of this call and its basis in Scripture have important theological underpinnings that should not go unnoticed. Just as God sought us out and initiated a relationship with all believers before we turned to Him in repentance and faith, so too the corporate worship service opens with the words of God, calling upon His people to worship Him. He makes the first action and His people respond to His leading.
While calls to worship may vary significantly in their content, they often consist of two main elements: an invitation and an explanation. The invitation literally asks or encourages the hearer to worship the Lord, as is common in the Psalms. The explanation provides a reason why the hearer should give praise to God. Psalm 95:1-5 provides an excellent example of both of these elements working together to call God’s people to worship. Notice both the invitation and explanation:
Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
The people of God have been invited to worship and given a reason why.
Once the people have been called to worship, they respond with appropriate praise to their God in song. To continue the illustration from Psalm 95 above, the people are entreated, “let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise,” so they do just that. They let their hearts do what comes naturally after seeing God for who He is and what He has done: they respond in praise. Here we see illustrated an essential principle that is to guide our corporate worship services: The people of God respond properly to the revelation of God with praise and worship to God. Once worshipers have lifted their eyes to behold the majesty of God, however, they quickly fall back upon themselves.
Being in the presence of a holy God has the same effect on all Christians that it had on Isaiah in Isaiah 6, where he proclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” The glory of God before Isaiah created an unbearable juxtaposition against the sinfulness within him. He had no delusions of righteousness; his sin was undeniable.
So, too, in our corporate worship services should the proclamation of the glory and goodness of God remind us of how far short we fall from His perfect standard. In that moment, we have no choice but to admit our sins before a holy God. That admission takes place in the form of a corporate confession of sin. Christians confess their individual sins, but do so in a corporate setting, reminding us of the truth from Romans 3: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We’re all in this boat together, so to speak. Though the prospect of being found sinful before a holy God is a serious matter, church bodies may draw hope from remembering that all stand equal at the foot of the cross.
Alternatively, for those participants in the service who have not yet had their affections kindled for God’s glory or who have not examined themselves to reveal the sinfulness of their own hearts, a corporate confession of sin forces all in attendance to affirm both their intrinsic and willful sin. Since this reality is the “bad news” that prerequisites the “good news,” no presentation and celebration of the gospel may be complete without it.
But God has not left us in our sins, leading next to an assurance of pardon for all those who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ for salvation. We pick up where we left off in Romans 3: though “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” repentant sinners “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:24-25). Confession of sin to a holy God signifies an acknowledgment of guilt deserving eternal damnation. Yet, it is that very same act that ensures a pardon of sin through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on behalf of his people. As John says in 1 John 1, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Since we have that assurance from Scripture, Christians should freely confess sin to God and to one another. The very act that, in a courtroom, would condemn a guilty party now sets sinners free from the burden of their sin. Reading a Scriptural assurance of pardon immediately following corporate confession not only confirms forgiveness, but does so from the very words of God. Pardon comes not from a priest or earthly intercessor, but from the very throne of God. The joy produced by a confirmation of absolution leads the worshipers to turn to God in worship once again.
As stated earlier, the people of God respond properly to the revelation of God with praise and worship to God. The revelation of God’s mercy in the assurance of pardon leads God’s people to respond in thanksgiving to him for all he has done for them. Within a liturgical framework, that thanksgiving takes the form of singing, prayers, and reading of historic creeds & confessions, but also of tithes and offerings. Out of gratitude for God’s bountiful provision—most notably in the person and work of Jesus Christ, but also in His everyday provision of food, shelter, and money—His people give back a portion of what He has given to them. They do so willingly and joyfully as this, too, occurs in the midst of the service as an act of worship. This relinquishing of earthly goods functions as an admission to God that He is greater than our daily needs and reinforces reliance upon Him as the Giver of all good things.
After reminding ourselves of God’s instantaneous provision in our justification and continual provision for our physical wellbeing, the people of God look to him once again for continual provision in our sanctification. We join with Peter in asking, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). This nourishment to the soul comes directly from God’s Word in the form of Scripture reading and Biblical preaching. All of the preceding elements of the service have prepared the heart for this, the very core of the body’s gathering.
In the sermon, God’s people hear his word taught by a man God has placed in authority over them (but still in submission to Him) to shepherd them, encourage them, challenge them, and point them towards Christ. They are uniting together to learn just as they already have to pray, sing, and read. They also participate in the Great Commission mandate of Matthew 28 by making disciples and teaching them all that Jesus commanded, uniting them together not only with those in the pews around them, but also with all believers around the world and throughout the ages.
After hearing the preaching of God’s word, believers are encouraged to act out the suffering of Christ on their behalf through the observance of the Lord’s Supper. This tangible representation of the broken body and shed blood of Christ continues to reinforce in the hearts and minds of those gathered why they are there. The meal points back to the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion and it points forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb that all believers will enjoy after Christ returns at the end of all things. It anchors believers squarely in redemptive history as those caught in the time between the times, the already-but-not-yet of God’s glorious plan for creation.
Finally, believers depart the church gathering with the words of benediction ringing in their ears. More than just well-wishing, a benediction proclaims the very blessings of Scripture over God’s people as they return to their lives outside the four walls of the church building. At CCWC, we end each service the same way, with the words of 2 Corinthians 13:14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” both now and forevermore. These words remind Christians of what is true throughout the rest of the week, as they work and eat and sleep and go about their lives. God does not simply dwell with his people for an hour on Sunday mornings. Because of the work of Christ on the cross, the veil of the temple was torn and “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Revelation 21:3). Through the power of the Spirit, the Tabernacle of God is the heart of every follower of Christ. We often forget this truth, but the blessings proclaimed over us strengthen us for the week ahead as we remember that, wherever we go, there God is.
Though the individual elements and their order may differ depending on tradition, occasion, and individual congregation, these stepping stones of God’s Biblical worship provide a helpful path for continually remembering, reinforcing, and reenacting the glorious truths of the gospel. We do not wish to get swept away in the current of what is popular or preferential, so we let those who have gone before us point out the safe spots to stand so that we may behold the majestic beauty of our God rightly every Sunday. We as humans tend to forget what God has done for us, so allowing our services to be shaped by and built upon these core practices keeps us in line with how God has revealed Himself and how the church has faithfully worshiped Him for the past two thousand years.
Suggested Further Reading:
Christ-Centered Worship: Letting The Gospel Shape Our Practice by Bryan Chappell
Reformation Worship: Liturgies From The Past For The Present by Jonathan Gibson & Mark Earngey
Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells The Story Of The Gospel by Mike Cosper