Kingdom Worship on Kingly Terms

Jon D. Payne
Friday, October 30th 2009
Nov/Dec 2009

In our day, the evangelical church in America is experiencing a blitzkrieg (lightening war) against biblical worship. The explosive shells of pragmatism, innovation, and amusement are slowly demolishing the church's understanding of both the nature and practice of Lord's Day worship. The chief strategist behind this bombardment is, of course, Satan himself, knowing that a successful assault on the theological foundations of Christian worship will bring remarkable confusion and injury to the citizens of God's kingdom (e.g., 2 Kings 21:9; 1 Cor. 10:1-22; 11:17-34). Readers of Modern Reformation will know that our own congregations in the Reformed and confessional heritage are not impervious to this attack. On the contrary, our churches are very much in the line of fire. We have also experienced setbacks in the battle, unwittingly trading in our culturally unfashionable spiritual armor for the more chic apparel of this world. In order to fight off the devil's attacks and recover a theology of worship that conforms to Scripture, it is important that we grasp the relationship between worship and the kingdom of God.

Worship and the Manifestation of the Kingdom

Mark writes that soon after commencing his public ministry, our Lord Jesus "came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15). Here Christ announced the profound significance of his divine mission. The grand yet mysterious unfolding of the history of redemption, which from the beginning anticipated the Messiah's earthly ministry, was now in its fullness (Gen. 3:15; Gal. 4:4-5). The "eternal purpose of God" was indeed "realized in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:11). God's sovereign timetable was complete; the kingdom of God was at hand. The sinless life, propitiatory death, and hell-conquering resurrection of Jesus Christ would thus be the glorious fulfillment of all God's covenant promises (2 Cor. 1:20). The beginning of the end had come, and God's children would be introduced to a new life of faith between the two ages. Citizenship in Christ's kingdom required repentance and faith, which are divinely imparted gifts to the regenerate (Acts 11:18; Eph. 2:8-9).

Since the dawn of this new age, Christians have lived between the already-and-the-not-yet; that is, "already" enjoying the blessings of the coming kingdom of God, though "not yet" in the fullest sense (e.g., beatific vision, freedom from sin, etc.). Indeed, according to the Book of Ephesians, those who are united to Christ are already redeemed through Christ's precious blood, justified by faith, adopted "as sons," and "seated with [Christ] in the heavenly places" (Eph. 1:5-7; 2:6, 13). Nevertheless, not until the "coming ages" will we "acquire possession of our inheritance" and apprehend completely the "immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 1:13-14; 2:7). As Paul states, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12). So what, you may ask, does all of this have to do with Lord's Day worship?

When the visible church gathers together before the triune God on the Lord's Day, and the divinely instituted means of grace are faithfully set forth, Christ and his eternal kingdom are distinctly and uniquely manifest to the church. In other words, when the gospel is preached and the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are faithfully administered by God's ordained servants, Christ's eternal kingdom powerfully breaks into this "present evil age." Through the unadorned media of water, bread, wine, and preaching, Christ faithfully exercises his munus triplex, that is, his three royal offices of Prophet, Priest, and King.

As Prophet, Christ himself declares judgment and salvation to the gathered church through the audible and visible Word (preaching and Sacraments). As Priest, he intercedes for his people, graciously tendering himself to them (through these same ordained means) as the crucified and risen Lamb. As King, he rules, guides, protects, and disciplines his blood-bought Bride through the faithful ministry of the elders/ministers (John 21:15-17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; 1 Cor. 5:3-5).

Therefore, in public worship on the Lord's Day–when the church is assembled before their sovereign King, and the divinely sanctioned means of grace are set forth by those whom God has commissioned–the kingdom of God is manifest like at no other time during the week. It is on the Lord's holy day that God's holy people, led by God's holy servants, hear God's holy Word, participate in God's holy rite (baptism), and partake of God's holy meal. No home Bible study group, Christian conference, or sanctified rock concert, as encouraging as they may be, should turn the church's primary attention away from what God himself promises to bless in the lives of his elect.

In public worship, God's people receive a precious foretaste of the coming kingdom; a limited but real participation in the worship of the eschaton. In the gathered assembly, therefore, when we offer grateful praise for the gifts and benefits of Christ's kingdom, we mingle our voices with the celestial chorus above, composed of angels and departed saints. Indeed, our earthly Sabbaths are designed, by God himself, to provide us with no less than a weekly foretaste of the eternal, heavenly Sabbath in Christ's kingdom, where we will worship God and feast at his royal table forever (Rev. 7:9-12; 19:6-10).

Suffice it to say, if our churches deemphasize the centrality and importance of the Christian Sabbath and strip our worship services of the divinely ordained means of grace, we will be playing right into our enemy's hands. If we are not careful, our churches and worship services will increasingly resemble the kingdoms of this passing world more than the eternal kingdom of God (John 18:36).

Worship and the "Unimpressiveness" of the Kingdom

One day, God's invisible kingdom will become visible (Matt. 25:31-46). When God's kingdom does appear, it will be exceedingly impressive to both believers and unbelievers. Indeed, every knee shall bow (Phil. 2:10). For now, however, in this period between the two comings of Christ, the kingdom of God will be–from the world's perspective–profoundly unimpressive; in particular, as it is manifested in worship. But isn't this "unimpressiveness" God's idea?

Recently, our family went to Walt Disney World in Florida. My wife and I took great pleasure in watching our children enjoying the various rides, musicals, parades, fireworks displays, and character meals. One evening, during a spectacular fireworks show in front of Cinderella's Castle, it occurred to me how often we, the evangelical church in America, are more shaped by a philosophy of the Magic Kingdom in our worship and ministry than we are by a theology of God's kingdom. The two are very different, you know.

The Magic Kingdom exists to provide a wonderful and memorable time of entertainment and fun for families. The kingdom of God, the church, does not. The Magic Kingdom unconditionally affirms and accepts all people. The kingdom of God does not. The Magic Kingdom seeks to provide a casual, easygoing, happy-go-lucky environment, making mankind's comfort, well-being, and happiness the ultimate goal. The kingdom of God does not. The Magic Kingdom preaches that true joy, hope, and fulfillment come from believing in ourselves. The kingdom of God, however, does not. In fact, the kingdom of God is quite the opposite on all counts. Even so, what seems to be emerging–even, sadly, in some Reformed circles–is an increasing number of church planting and revitalization efforts that look suspiciously more like a production of Walt's Orlando than John's Geneva.

Attempting to imitate the Magic Kingdom's philosophy in our approach to worship and ministry is not only impossible (Disney will always do it a thousand times better!), it also demonstrates pronounced unbelief in God's promises to communicate Christ to the elect through the plain, unimpressive, yet life-transforming means of Word and Sacrament. Between the two ages, the manifestation of God's kingdom in worship, through water, bread, wine, and the preached Word, may not be outwardly impressive to a culture that is used to fast-paced Hollywood movies, high-profile sporting events, and multibillion dollar theme parks. Nevertheless, that is no reason to jettison the means to which God has attached his saving promises.

Worship and the Edicts of the Kingdom

God has issued royal edicts for worship. His kingdom worship is not what we ourselves devise. In other words, Christians are not free to choose how they will worship God, no matter how sincere their intentions might be to encourage fellow believers or to reach out to the lost. Ministers, therefore, who design worship services for their congregations, should not aspire to be creative, pragmatic, or utilitarian, but rather faithful to the voice of God in Scripture.

The writer to the Hebrews understood this point when he wrote, "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" (Heb. 12:28-29). Here we learn that there is, indeed, such a thing as worship that is unacceptable to God. The framers of the Westminster Confession explain:

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

The regulative principle of worship–that is, the principle that worship services must be constituted only of elements prescribed by God himself in his Word–is not some kind of dusty, outdated Puritan notion. It is a biblical principle that both protects and promotes true, divinely regulated worship for the gathered people of God in every generation (Exod. 20:4; Lev. 10:1-3; John 4:23; Acts 2:42). Every liturgy, therefore, should be filled with the following elements: The reading and preaching of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; 1 Cor. 1:18-24); prayers (Acts 2:42; 1 John 1:8-9); singing of psalms and hymns (Ps. 95:1; Eph. 5:19); tithes and offerings (1 Cor. 16:2); and the right administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper (Acts 2:38-39; 1 Cor. 11:17-34).

Worship is the most important activity for the citizens of God's kingdom. Doesn't it make perfect sense then that our infinitely wise and sovereign King dictates the stipulations for worship and not us? The episodes of Aaron and his recalcitrant sons should be ever-present reminders of what God thinks about humanly conceived methods for worship (Exod. 32; Lev. 10).

When we conform to God's royal edicts for worship, not only is God pleased and glorified, but we, his redeemed children, are immeasurably blessed. Why? Because when the means of grace are central, so is Christ; and when Christ is central, the elect are converted, comforted, and spiritually nourished in him. A recovery of this truth would do wonders for the health and expansion of the visible church, which brings us to our final point.

Worship and the Advance of the Kingdom

The kingdom of God is advancing, spiritually and numerically, through the regular, faithful, ongoing ministry of the local church in Lord's Day worship. Where the means of grace are carefully set forth, God has unequivocally promised that his kingdom will grow (Isa. 55:10-11). At first glance, however, this does not always seem to be the case.

Someone recently informed me about an evangelical church in the Southeast where attendance has grown to over ten thousand in a very short span of time. Surely reason to celebrate, right? Doesn't this kind of numerical success clearly demonstrate that God is smiling upon this church? I went to the church's website to investigate and watched several services. There I was introduced to the new pragmatism and what, I have since learned, is the new model for church planting.

The church's weekly order of worship consists of an edgy rock concert (about thirty-five minutes, complete with ornate sets and lighting), a brief devotional by an assistant, more music, concluded by an hour-long, markedly informal, Jay Leno-style talk. The pastor's messages were all very similar: topical, chatty, laced with humor (at times, crude), and generally moralistic. Also sprinkled throughout the messages were a few choice and, if I might add, prideful words for the "religious people" who question their church's methods. In one talk, he actually shouted "scoreboard" to his detractors. A clear articulation of the old adage, "The ends justify the means."

On another occasion, after expounding upon some of their unconventional methods of reaching the unchurched, the pastor confidently declared: "We are willing to do anything short of sin to see somebody come to Jesus." As noble as this may sound, is this really the manner in which God would have us work toward the advancement of his kingdom? A better question may be: If the faithful preaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline (three marks of a true church) are at best undervalued, and at worst disregarded altogether, is the kingdom of God really being advanced at all?

Inevitably, there will be some who point out that it was the apostle Paul's desire to be "all things to all men" (1 Cor. 9:22), thus giving Christians the green light to do whatever it takes to win unchurched Harry and Mary. But this is a common misunderstanding of a text that speaks more about Paul's willingness to remove unnecessary cultural barriers than about decentralizing the means of grace (read: decentralizing Christ) in public worship in order to grow the church. Elsewhere, Paul makes it abundantly clear that the health and advancement of the kingdom are absolutely dependent upon gospel proclamation through Word and Sacrament. Not only has God ordained the message of the gospel but also the method or means of its delivery (1 Cor. 1:18-21; 10:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21). What Harry and Mary need–whether churched or unchurched–is not another rock concert or talk show. What they need–what we all need–is a joyful but reverent encounter with the living, triune God in public worship, where the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proclaimed all throughout a Word-regulated liturgy.

According to the inspired Paul, Christians are converted and established by the unadulterated gospel which is the "preaching of Jesus Christ" from all of Scripture (Rom. 16:25; Luke 24:27, 44-45). Cornelius Venema adds: "Those with a biblical view of the power of preaching should not fall prey to any spirit that diminishes it. It is by means of preaching that Christ's Kingdom advances, his name is proclaimed, and his people are discipled." Although other tools for church growth were available in the first century as they are today, such as entertaining music and drama, the apostles advanced the kingdom on God's terms, not man's. Indeed, wherever God's Spirit led them they preached "Christ crucified" for sinners. Moreover, they established churches with theologically trained and spiritually qualified under-shepherds who were committed to providing spiritual oversight to the flock (2 Tim. 4:1-5; Titus 1:5ff.).

The advancement of the kingdom is God's sovereign work through God's ordained means. Therefore, let us be faithful to employ those divinely ordained means and trust God with the results. May faithfulness, not success, be our goal. Perhaps with this more biblical and God-centered approach to worship and kingdom advancement, ministers who experience growth will be less likely to shout out "scoreboard" and more likely to express with the apostle Paul, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:31; 3:7).

Final Thoughts

During the Second World War, the goal of the German blitzkrieg was to aggressively attack a small section of the enemy's frontline with an all-mechanized force (e.g., fighter planes and tanks) until the line was broken, only to subsequently proceed without concern for the flank positions. The purpose was to come at the Allied Forces with wave after wave of military might, causing intense fear and confusion.

Satan's tactics are similar when it comes to his assault on the kingdom of God and its most important activity of Lord's Day worship. He tirelessly comes at the church with wave after wave of temptation to be avant garde, deceiving us into replacing and/or deemphasizing the soul-saving, faith-nourishing means of grace with our own lesser means. Therefore, let us stand firm and joyfully obey the Bible's teaching on worship as it relates to the kingdom of God and its manifestation, "unimpressiveness," edicts, and advancement. Perhaps then our worship services will be in "demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that [our] faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:4-5).

1 [ Back ] The Westminster Confession of Faith, XXI.i.
2 [ Back ] Cornelius P. Venema, Christ and the Future (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 58.
Friday, October 30th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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