The Covenant of Grace and the Style of Reformed Worship
When a Reformed church takes the covenant of grace seriously, what impact does that have on our public worship? That question gets addressed at length in a forthcoming book, “I Will Be Your God”: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace. If all goes well, this book should appear in early-mid 2015. In the meantime, here is an excerpt that deals with the style of Reformed worship and how the covenant of grace speaks to that.
Seeing God as having the prime place in the covenant of grace is also going to dramatically impact and distinguish the style of Reformed worship. By “style,” I mean things like our attitude towards worship, our dress and deportment, our church architecture, the way our music is played and sung, and so on. These are not trivial or indifferent matters. How we come into God’s presence and how we conduct ourselves in God’s presence matters tremendously.
We can learn that from Malachi 1, especially these words from verses 6-8:
6 “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ 7 By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. 8 When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts.
In many of the prophets, we find God pressing a covenant lawsuit against his people. He has this relationship with them and they have violated the relationship. They have not believed the LORD and followed him and so he goes after them with his prophets and confronts them with their covenant breaking. In Malachi 1, he speaks about their worship. On a superficial level, it looked like the people were worshipping God faithfully, as he commanded. However, God saw what was really happening.
What was really happening was that the people were bringing sacrifices that were second-rate and thinking that God would not notice. After all, other people did not notice. So, for example, verse 8 says that the people were bringing blind animals for sacrifices. It would not be obvious to anyone else that the animal was blind. Yet God’s law had expressly commanded that only the best sacrifices be brought to him (e.g. Lev. 22:22). God wanted only the best and healthiest animals. Yet here the Israelites were trying to cut corners, offering God the weak and sick animals, thinking he would not notice. He noticed. Then he says in verse 8, “Try and do that with a human ruler. Bring your human ruler your weak and sick animals as a gift; try bringing him your second or third best. See if he would accept that!”
That teaches us an important principle about worship. Since God is exalted, because he has the number one place in the covenant relationship, because he is our God, we want to bring him only our absolute best. He is worthy of that. That applies to external things like how we dress when we come to church. Do we really believe that we are meeting in a special way with the most exalted King in the universe? Then that should be reflected in the way we dress. We do not want to draw up a dress code for the church, and we should not be looking at others. Each of us should ourselves be conscientious about this. Should we not offer our level best as we meet with the King of kings? That applies to everything. It applies also to our singing, to the playing of musical accompaniment, to the preparation of sermons, to the way we treat our church building, our attention to the sermon – in everything we want to offer our covenant God the absolute best when we worship. He deserves it. He is worthy of it.
Yet let us be clear: it is not just about the external things. The external things are not even the most important thing. The most important thing is what is going on in your heart, your attitude as you approach the Holy One of Israel. The first and foremost thing he desires is your heart, a heart that loves him and wants to glorify him. When our hearts have been made alive by the grace of God, when we see how much we have been loved by this exalted God, when we see what a treasure the covenant relationship is, that is going to inevitably have an impact on how we come to meet with this covenant God. That will shape our attitude: do we come into God’s presence because we have to, or because we really want to?
To say it as clearly as possible: the style of our worship is going to reflect our understanding of whom this God is who has covenanted with us. Is he high and exalted, a majestic and transcendent God? Or do we think of him as a distant observer and not really present in our services? Or worse, do we think of him as a low-brow god who will always just take what he can get from us, even if it is second or third-best? Basically, do we accept and believe what God’s Word says about himself and let that impact the manner and style of our meeting with him?