What is "Reverent" Worship?1
Hebrews 12:28-29: Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
Given the above command all Christians should desire to worship God in a "reverent" manner. There really can be no such thing as "casual worship" (I am not talking about the kind of clothing we wear) of God, as meeting with the triune holy God of the Bible is never a casual experience. But what exactly constitutes acceptable and reverent worship? How do we know that our church or any church is worshipping God reverently? This is an important question, because this one of those areas that we often allow our own preferences and traditions to define "reverent" worship instead of the Bible.
Simply stated, reverent and acceptable worship to God is worship that is done according to the truth of God's word, and with a willing and thankful spirit. As Jesus said in John 4, true worshippers will worship the Father in "Spirit and in Truth." Let's break this down.
Reverent Worship is Worship in Truth:
Worship that is to be acceptable and reverent must be done according to the truth of God's word. The way we approach God in worship must conform to what he tells us is the right and true way to worship him. To put it another way, God cares not only that we worship him, but how we worship him. Good intentions are simply not enough. If we do not worship God according to the truth of his word, then our worship will not be acceptable to him. The Bible teaches this from cover to cover, but take the second commandment as one example. Clearly, God is not worshipped properly if he is worshipped through the means of an image, regardless of our intentions or motivation.
This desire to worship God in truth is reflected in chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession. There it states that we must only do things in public worship that are clearly taught in the Bible. What are some of those things? Mainly preaching, praying, reading the Bible, the sacraments, singing hymns and spiritual songs, and a few other things from time to time (see WCF 21). We know we are worshipping reverently when the elements of our service correspond with how the Bible tells us we are to worship God. In light of this, we must be very concerned with the trend to remove parts of historic Christian worship merely for the sake of relevence or pragmatism.
Reverent Worship is Worship in Spirit:
For worship to be truly reverent, it must also be done in spirit. That is, we must come to worship ready and willing to offer our body as living sacrifices to our great God with thanksgiving and joy. The outer forms of worship must reflect the inner reality of our hearts. Again Jesus himself condemns worship that honors God with our lips, while our hearts are far from him. Jesus is alluding to the many denunciations by the prophets of Israel’s worship of God. Israel was very careful to observe the sacrifices, days of fasting, and all of the other external commands of God for worship. However, the prophets condemn them because it is mere externalism and does not reflect a true love for God or for neighbor. Take the prophet Isaiah as an example, who rebukes the people even though they were offering all of the required worship, but not in spirit.
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. "When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations-- I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. (Isa 1:10-14 ESV)
In other words, you cannot have reverential or acceptable worship of God if we are not right on the inside no matter how "true" it is on the outside. This is clear in the Hebrews 12 context as well, as the author commands us to come with an attitude of thanksgiving as we contemplate the great kingdom that God has given us by his sheer grace alone. A holy God has, out of his love for us, given his only Son to take the judgment that we deserve so that we can come not to Mount Sinai, but to the heavenly Jerusalem. That amazing truth should create a reverential fear and awe in our hearts each week as we have a foretaste of our final salvation in corporate worship. So a critical component of reverential worship is checking our own hearts. Are we acknowledging our sin and need for grace? Are we truly giving thanks to God for receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken?
The Westminster Divines affirm this understanding of acceptable and reverent worship in the Directory of the Public Worship of God. This directory was written before the Confession and Catechisms as a guide for churches on how to worship God rightly. In chapter 47, two important statements bearing on acceptable and reverent worship are written:
47-5. Public worship must be performed in spirit and in truth. Externalism and hypocrisy stand condemned. The forms of public worship have value only when they serve to express the inner reverence of the worshipper and his sincere devotion to the true and living God.
47-8. It behooves God’s people not only to come into His presence with a deep sense of awe at the thought of His perfect holiness and their own exceeding sinfulness, but also to enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise for the great salvation, which He has so graciously wrought for them through his only begotten Son and applied to them by the Holy Spirit.
So we see that both the Bible and our reformed heritage answer the question of "what is reverential worship?" with the answer that it is worship done according to the truth of God's word, and with a humble and thankful heart.
What is important to note, in closing, is that acceptable and reverent worship are not tied in the Bible to the type of clothing, the type of musical instruments or style used, the building in which worship takes place, or even the level of formality of the service itself. This is where, as I said at the beginning, we need to be careful we are not being more biblical than the Bible. Many times we assume that the more formal or liturgical a service is, the more reverent it must be. Moreover, all of us have certain traditions and worship styles that we were raised in that we prefer to others. Sometimes we assume that our preferences are the only way to do "reverent" worship, but that is simply not the case. Biblically speaking, a worship service is not more or less "reverent" if the minister wears a robe or doesn't, if only a piano is played or an electric guitar, or if the church meets in a gothic cathedral or a school gym. These are circumstances of worship that the Bible doesn't address. What matters is are we offering God worship that is according to the truth of his word, and are we doing that with thankful hearts, joyfully presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice to him (Rom 12), offering the fruit of our lips which praise his name (Heb 13).