John Owen on Delighting in Worship

Like me, many young reformers of my generation and even younger came out of a myriad of non-Reformed but evangelical churches into a Reformed church. Recall the struggles. One of them, no doubt, was over the theology and practice of worship in a Reformed church. In former churches we were taught that the effectiveness of any given Sunday's "worship" (aka, the music) was to be measured by our subjective experience of it in terms of how "uplifted," "powerful," and "enlivening" it made us feel. This is why when we walked into a Reformed church for the first time and then walked out of its doors on that Sunday, it seemed as though all emotion was gone and that our subjective experience of worship was a moot point. "How could I have just worshipped God when I don't feel like it just did?"
So . . . what did the great Puritan, John Owen, say about our level of experiential delight in the weekly worship of God? Do we actually believe that worship should be a delight? Is it okay to feel anything in worship? Owen's A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God and Discipline of the Churches of the New Testament (1667) came to be known as "The Independents' Catechism" (Works 15:447–530). This treatise speaks to us today as we seek a helpful way forward for ourselves and our family, friends, and visitors to our churches who feel like we may be cold.
In one of the more beautiful and practical sections of this treatise, Owen spoke of our delighting in the divine service. Picking up in question and answer seven, we read Owen saying that when we gather for the divine service there are four “chief things that we ought to aim at in our observation” (Works 15:455–456):
  1. To sanctify the name of God.
  2. To own and avow our professed subjection to Christ.
  3. To build up ourselves in our most holy faith.
  4. To testify and confirm our mutual love.
Owen went on to explicate this first aim, or, chief end, of the Christians' observation of the divine service by further dividing it into five parts (Works 15:456–459):
  1. to reverence God’s sovereign authority in appointing his gospel institutions.
  2. to regard God’s special presence in his ordinances.
  3. to exercise faith in the promises of God annexed to his ordinances.
  4. to delight in his “will, wisdom, love, and grace” manifested in his gospel ordinances.
  5. to persevere in our observance of Christ’s ordinances.
For our purposes, here I want to focus in on the fourth point that Owen made, namely, that we sanctify the name of God in worship by our delighting in God's will, wisdom, love, and grace as they are manifested to us in the gospel ordinances (by which he means, Word, sacraments, prayer, and discipline). So what precisely does it mean to "delight" in worship?
First, Owen says what it does not mean. Our delighting in the service does not mean what he called a “carnal self-pleasing, or satisfaction in the outward modes or manner of the performance of divine worship.” What did Owen mean by this? He was saying that our delight in worship was not to be found in our sinful and experiential delights. In a word, worship is not about you! Further, he was saying this against those in his time who sought for delight in the outward form and beauty of the liturgy itself. Here Owen sought to cut off any idea that worship was for our pleasure, whether in serving our emotions or even serving our eyes, such as in the Mass or the English Prayer Book with its pomp and ceremony in the days of Archbishop Laud's high church experimentation. So our delighting in the divine service is not about "what we get out of it," to use an evangelical phrase. For many of us who became Reformed later, we get this. But here is where Owen warns us in a way we need to hear. We are not to find our delight in the divine service in the mere fact that our liturgy might have ancient roots, or in the trappings of candles, banners, crosses, incense, kneeling, coming forward for communion, vestments, the Geneva robe, or the fully printed-out liturgy itself. Owen is saying, be careful of the trappings of high church.
Instead of this, Owen said that our delighting in the divine service was rooted in “contemplation on the will, wisdom, grace, and condescension of God.” Our God has drawn near to us! And he has done so, as Owen wrote, “of his own sovereign mere will and grace." Why? Owen gave five beautiful reasons:
  1. so to manifest himself unto such poor sinful creatures as we are
  2. so to condescend unto our weakness
  3. so to communicate himself unto us
  4. so to excite and draw forth our souls unto himself
  5. and to give us such pledges of his gracious intercourse with us by Jesus Christ
When we gather for the Divine service (meaning, God's service to us in Word and sacrament and our service to him in prayer), we are to find our delight in our covenant God himself, not in anything else, whether within us or whether external to us that we have contrived. It is our communion with God that brings us delight and the means of grace serve to bring us closer to him that we might glorify him and delight in him.
Christian, God has so stooped down to you that he invites you into his heavenly presence in worship. What a privilege! Believer, delight in worshipping the Lord your God!
Danny Hyde