Christian congregational worship is Spirit-gathered, Spirit-dependent, Spirit-engendered, and Spirit-empowered, because left to ourselves we will not worship the right object, according to the right standard, for the right motivation(s), through the right means and to the right end. It is the Holy Spirit who creates, enables and energizes our desire and capacity to worship. By his ministry we are ushered into God’s presence and commune with him. The is one of the lessons of Jesus’ words in John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24 ESV).
One of the first steps to truly worshiping God is to recognize that, left to our own devices, we can’t and won’t and don’t. We need help. We need the help of the Spirit. We can’t even pray without him. This is why Paul says, in Romans 8:26-27 “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26-27 ESV). The Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God, or in other words, the Spirit intercedes for us in accordance with the truth, and so it is not surprising that the Spirit is essential our worshiping in spirit (or better, in Spirit) and truth.
C.H. Spurgeon, in a brilliant sermon called The Axe at the Root-A Testimony Against Puseyite Idolatry preached on Sunday Morning, June 17th, 1866 explains why spiritual worship is so difficult and rare. Basically, Spurgeon says that it is easy, very easy to go through the motions of external rituals but that “it is hard, very hard, to bring the heart down to humble penitence, and the soul to holy meditation. The last thing that most people will do is to think.” So, Spurgeon explains that spiritual worship is demanding: “Humbly to tremble before God, to confess sin before him, to believe him, to love him — this is spiritual worship.” And that is not easy. And so, we are tempted to worship unthinkingly, unthoughtfully. To perform the duty without the heart and mind fully engaged.
Spurgeon addresses this even as it comes to bear on our congregation singing. He says: ” I am afraid too that many of you are content with singing through the hymn; now all that singing which is not thought-singing is of no use; you may have very sweet voices but God does not regard your voice, he hears your heart, and if your heart does not sing you have not sung at all.” I have lost count of the times I have sung a hymn, a favorite hymn, a solidly biblical and theological hymn, but at the end of my singing, I realize that I have not really been praising God with its truth or lifting it up as a prayer to hymn, but on auto-pilot, going through the motions.
To worship God in spirit and truth, fully engaged, from the depths of our souls, with all that we are . . . is hard (and it can’t be pre-packaged and franchised, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all). And so, many Christians, and Christian leaders, opt for something easier. It may be (for high church types) an “ancient,” mystical, sacramental liturgical routine or (for low church types) it may be a loud, emotionally cathartic “worship experience” — both approaches provide alternative, substitute experiences for real worship. The high church liturgy “feels” holy. The cathartic emotional experience feels “raw and real and deep” (at least at first).
To worship spiritually is (1) to worship the one true and living God (as opposed to the god of our imaginations). There is a god we want and the God who is, and the two are not the same. Spiritual worship gets that. And deliberately chooses to worship the true triune God as he has revealed himself in his word.
To worship spiritually is (2) to worship according to the word (as opposed to our own imaginations). The Puritans called humanly invented worship forms “will worship.” That is, when we invent ways of worshiping God that he has not commanded or asked for, we are worshiping ourselves (not him), thus it is our will, our desire, that we actually value more than God.
To worship spiritually is (3) to worship God for the right reasons, with the right motivations. For instance, we do not worship him to get him to be gracious to us, we worship him because he is gracious to us, in his Son. Our worship doesn’t cause and condition his love, it responds to it. We love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Furthermore, we don’t worship him in order to get something out of him that is more important to us than he is! He is not a giant vending machine, he is our heavenly father. Whatever gifts he gives (and he gives amazing gifts!), none of them is better than the gift of himself. That’s why John Piper can provocatively say “God is the Gospel.” Meaning, God himself is the greatest and best good we can ever receive or experience. So, our worship isn’t motivated by trying to get things out of him that we care about more than him (Lord, I worship you because I want you to make me rich, healthy, powerful, happy), but our worship is motivated by the fact that we see in him the ultimate satisfaction. The Giver himself is better than any gift that he gives.
To worship spiritually is (4) to come to God in worship via his appointed way — faith in Jesus. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” Rock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.” Real worship is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We do not come to God by our own obedience. We come by the obedience of Christ. We do not come to God by another other mediator. We come by Christ alone “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Act 4:12 ESV). We do not come in Christ plus anything else. Christ and Christ alone. Christ and him crucified. This is our hope and this is the way into the presence of God – “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain” (Heb 10:19-20 ESV). Faith is the alone instrument, by which we are saved. And by faith we enter into true worship. Jesus is the alone mediator of his people. And only through Jesus can we worship.
To worship spiritually is (5) to praise God for the ultimate end of his own glory. We get blessings in worship. Huge blessings. And it is not wrong to want those blessings. But in worship, our ultimate goal is to give to God the glory due his name, to declare that he is what is most valuable, that he is more important and worthy than anything in this world. To acknowledge that he is creator, ruler and redeemer. To be lost in wonder, love and praise at the gift of his Son and our salvation. To have our hope strengthened and rekindled for his return. All of which glorifies him. And, when we do that, we are doing what we were originally created to do. And when we do that we find ourselves in the sphere of unnumbered blessings. But our worship is ultimately Godward. Psalm 115:1 “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psa 115:1 ESV).