Clarkson on the Profitability of Public Worship

“And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

For Christians living in the rampantly-individualistic twenty-first century, the command of Hebrews 10:25 may seem strange, unnecessary, or even a nuisance. Yet corporately assembling together within a local church as the saints of God has inestimable benefits for the saints. David Clarkson (the successor of the renowned John Owen) understood this well and taught on this very topic in his treatise, Public Worship to be Preferred Before Private. Utilizing Psalm 87:2, Clarkson makes the case that corporate assembly is the blessed duty and highest privilege of every child of God, as well as God’s priority and preference.

What Is Public Worship?

Before we can understand the necessity, benefits, or privilege of public worship, we need to define public worship. Clarkson explains that public worship incorporates three things:

“1. There must be such ordinances as do require or will admit of public use; such are prayer, praises, the word read, expounded, or preached, and the administration of the sacraments…

2. There must be an assembly, a congregation joined in the use of these ordinances…

3. There must be an officer.”[1]

From this, we can say that public worship is a gathering of saints wherein ordained elders lead the congregation to utilize the means of prayer, praises, and the sacraments, and especially have the Word of God publicly read, expound, and preached. These ideas may be simple, but they are peculiar to those gatherings of saints; an individual cannot baptize themselves or administer the Lord’s Supper alone; they cannot preach to themselves, for Gospel preaching requires both an audience and ordained preachers (Rom. 10:14-15). Clarkson already makes it clear that public worship offers certain elements that cannot be found in private worship.

God Delights in Public Worship Over Private

Expounding upon Psalm 87:2, Clarkson stated that,

“The Lord may be said to love the gates of Zion before all the dwellings of Jacob, because he prefers public worship before private. He loved all the dwellings of Jacob, wherein he was worshipped privately; but the gates of Zion he loved more than all the dwellings of Jacob, for there he was publicly worshipped.”[2]

Why would this be? Perhaps one simple answer is that the collective prayers and praises of the saints offer a greater and more beautiful aroma to God than what ascends to Him privately. While this is not intended to downplay the significance and importance of privately studying the Scriptures, praying, and praising God, it does highlight the importance of doing these things publicly with other saints.

Understanding this requires that men recognize the blessings that God has bestowed upon a local church in equipping it with godly men to serve as leaders in teaching the Scriptures, building up the saints, and promoting unity (Eph. 4:12). In fact, the rampant pride of individualism must be replaced with a joyful view of unity as Christ’s Body.

My personal experience has been that, when “church shoppers”[3] don’t find the perfect church-going experience they were searching for, they will opt to simply stay home instead and “privately” worship. But is it truly best to stay home and worship? What about those who simply show no desire in attending public worship services?

Such questions seem strange at best and totally antithetical to the great doctrines of corporate worship throughout Scripture. After all, do not many of the Psalms indicate that the praising of God is to be done as an assembly of gathered saints? Psalm 22:25, 35:18, 107:32, 109:30, 111:1, and 149:1 all speak of praising God in the assembly of saints, and that does not begin to scratch the surface of corporate worship as it is presented in the Psalter.

Clarkson found himself needing to defend the viability and importance of public worship before those who insisted on the practice of private over public worship:

“To what purpose did the Lord choose the gates of Zion, to place his name there, if he might have been worshipped as well in the dwellings of Jacob? How do men of this conceit run counter to the Lord? He prefers the gates of Zion, not only before one or some, but before all the dwellings of Jacob; and they prefer one such dwelling before the gates of Zion. What is this but to disparage the wisdom of God, in preferring one before another when both are equal; in preferring that which is unworthy to be preferred? What presumption is this, to make yourselves wiser than God, and to undertake to correct him? He says the gates of Zion are to be loved, public worship before private; you say no, you see no reason but one should be loved as well as the other. Who art thou, O man, who thus disputest against God?”[4]

Indeed, to reject public worship in favor of private is to dispute with God and His Word. God delights in the worship He receives when His people collectively gather to praise Him. Clarkson puts it like this:

“The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private. God is then glorified by us when we acknowledge that he is glorious. And he is most glorified when this acknowledgment is most public. This is obvious. A public acknowledgment of the worth and excellency of any one tends more to his honour than that which is private or secret.”[5]

The Benefits of Public Worship Over Private

Clarkson maintains that there are numerous benefits for the Christians who publicly assemble to worship Him. Perhaps at the height of these benefits is the simple truth that

“There is more of the Lord’s presence in public worship than in private. He is present with his people in the use of public ordinances in a more especial manner, more effectually, constantly, intimately.”[6]

The presence of God is that most desirable reality for the Christian.[7] In public worship, we are surrounded by the presence of God for we are surrounded by other saints filled with the same Holy Spirit we are, and through the public ordinances of prayer, sacraments, and Word, we receive more of the blessing of God’s presence than we otherwise would privately. Such wonderful blessings necessarily lead to the equipping of the saints and the building up of the Body of Christ.

Methods to Desire Public Worship

Public worship is to be desired even above private worship. But how are Christians to stir up a desire within themselves to publicly assemble when they feel little desire to do so? Clarkson offers several methods.

First, “Come not unprepared.”[8] Would one go unprepared to a business meeting? Knowing that there was a large test in the morning, does the ready student not study? So too must the saint prepare themselves for public worship. Get a good night’s rest the night before that your mind be not dull. Pray in the morning that your mind be guarded. Eat a good breakfast that your flesh not distract you with hunger. Prepare yourself to worship in the presence of God!

Second, “Get acquainted with your spiritual condition.”[9] Know that you are a sinner and that it is only the grace of God that saves. Trust in Jesus with unwavering faith and delight in your Triune God.

Third, “Come with hearts hungering after the enjoyment of Christ in his ordinances… Use the ordinances with holy fear and reverence.”[10] We must know that we live by every Word that proceeds from God’s mouth (Matt. 4:4). We need the preaching of God’s Word and other Church ordinances as oxygen to our souls.

Finally, Clarkson suggests:

“What you do in public worship, do it with all your might. Shake off that slothful, indifferent, lukewarm temper, which is so odious to God. Let your whole man tender this worship… Then will the Lord draw near, when our whole man waits on him; then will the Lord be found, when we seek him with our whole heart.”

Public worship is hard work, but it must become joyful work. The benefits are innumerable and through it our God is more greatly glorified as we also receive His embrace along with that of one another. As much diligence as we put forth in our private worship, let us put forth even more into public worship. Let us join the brethren in churches and, as the Body of Christ, worship God!

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Mt. Bethel Church of McClure in Central Pennsylvania. He has spent time as a reporter, journalist, and editor, and has written for various Christian websites. He and his wife, Kayla, currently have one son, Josiah. He is completing his M.Div. through Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Related Links

"David Clarkson and Soul Idolatry" by Bob McKelvey

"Family Worship Is a Matter of Prudence" by Calvin Goligher

"The Forgotten Gift of Evening Worship" by Jim McCarthy

What Happens When We Worship? by Jonathan Landry Cruse

40 Favorite Hymns of the Christian Faith by Leland Ryken


[1] David Clarkson, Public Worship to be Preferred Before Private.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Or, as R. Kent Hughes identifies them, “nomadic church hitchhikers.” R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001), 170. 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The great Aaronic benediction focused primarily on the presence of God and seeing the face of God (Num. 6:24-26).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

Jacob Tanner