The Foundation of Puritan Worship

The Foundation of Puritan Worship

The foundation of Puritan worship is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jeremiah Burroughs (c. 1600–1646), a Puritan minister known for his peaceable spirit, wrote a book aptly titled Gospel Worship. He said that in worship we draw near to God (Ps. 95:2, 6; 100:2).[1] Who can lead us into the presence of God? The church tends to waver between two errors. On the one hand, people who feel their unworthiness, look to mediators to bring us to God, whether those mediators are earthly men or heavenly spirits. This was the error of the medieval church. On the other hand, presuming upon God’s love, other people rush into God’s presence like fools, forgetting His holiness. This is the error of the modern church.

The danger is that when we worship, we may forget who we are and who God is in Jesus Christ. William Perkins (1558–1602) said that the “foundation” of worship is “the knowledge of God, and of ourselves.”[2] One thinks immediately of the famous opening of Calvin’s Institutes, that all our wisdom consists of knowing God and knowing ourselves. Stephen Charnock (1620–1680), a gifted Puritan pastor and theologian, said that we cannot worship God unless we consider Him worthy of worship, and we cannot consider Him worthy of worship unless we know Him in Christ.[3]

All men owe God their worship, for nature itself reveals God as the Creator and our obligation to glorify Him (Rom. 1:21). Worship is God’s right by creation (Ps. 100:2–3).[4] In worship we give God the honor a creature owes his Creator.[5] But since the fall of Adam, no man can give God true worship apart from Jesus Christ.[6] Romans 10:14 says, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” We must know God both in His nature and in His covenant of grace as our God through Christ Jesus. Thomas Watson quipped, “In every part of our worship we must present Christ to God in the arms of faith.”[7] Without the gospel our worship falls into idolatry. Perkins said that when we do not know God rightly, we do not worship Him rightly, but worship the idols of our minds or devils.[8] Galatians 4:8 says, “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.”

We must know God, and we must know ourselves as the gospel portrays us—sinners worthy of damnation, but in Christ, adopted sons of God according to His great mercies.[9] Guilty consciences have little inclination to draw near to God in worship, for guilt makes God’s presence frightening to us.[10] By faith in the gospel, we worship as forgiven children of the Father. Christ taught that our worship is especially directed to God as Father (John 4:23). Arthur Hildersham (1563–1632), a great Puritan preacher, said that “the better a man is persuaded and assured of God’s fatherly love to him in Christ, the better service he shall do unto him,” for only then can we know that our worship is acceptable to God and so serve him with childlike love and reverence.[11]

We see then that this must be not just knowledge in the head, Perkins said, but a spiritual “sense” or experiential knowledge of the grace and love of God, occasioned by a “sight” of our sins and “feeling” of our spiritual misery, for that alone “breeds in us the true worship of God.”[12] In other words, the foundation of worship is an experiential knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the gospel comes home to the heart, then we are prepared to worship.

The Puritan view of worship was rooted in the Reformation’s insight that Christ is our only Mediator with God. Calvin wrote, “Since no man is worthy to present himself to God and come into his sight, the Heavenly Father himself, to free us at once from shame and fear, which might well have thrown our hearts into despair, has given us his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to be our advocate and mediator with him.”[13] Christ is our worship leader. Calvin said that it will “lead us most fervently to praise God, when we hear that Christ leads our songs, and is the chief composer of our hymns.”[14] Let us therefore depend upon Christ that our worship may be pleasing to God. Calvin wrote, “Let us learn to wash our prayers with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[15]

This then is the foundation of Puritan worship: knowing a reconciled God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. How precious it is to worship God through the Mediator! Burroughs said that “Christ takes us by the hand,” and brings us into the presence of God so we can offer up our worship.[16] Hildersham exulted, “Such is the wonderful goodness of God to them whom he loves in Christ, such is the delight that he takes in his own graces, in the fruits of his own Spirit” that “he takes marvelous delight in our poor services we do unto him.”[17]

Previous Posts in This Series:

  1. The Roots of Puritan Worship

1. Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel-Worship: or, The Right Manner of Sanctifying the Name of God (London: for Peter Cole and R. W., 1648), 26.

2. Perkins, Diuine Worship, 176.

3. Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, in The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 1:285. I quote his “Discourse upon Spiritual Worship.”

4. Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:288, 321.

5. Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 27.

6.Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:299.

7. Cited in John Blanchard, comp., The Complete Gathered Gold (Darlington, Eng.: Evangelical Press, 2006), 686.

8. Perkins, Diuine Worship, 179.

9.Perkins, Diuine Worship, 176–77.

10. Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 31–32.

11. Arthur Hildersam, Lectvres upon the Fovrth of Iohn (London: by G. M. for Edward Brewster, 1629), 176–77.

12. Perkins, Diuine Worship, 176–77.

13. Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.17.

14. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1853), 67 [Heb. 2:12].

15. John Calvin, Sermons on Election and Reprobation (Audubon, N.J.: Old Paths, 1996), 210. See David B. Calhoun, “Prayer: ‘The Chief Exercise of Faith,’” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, 358.

16. Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 27.

17. Hildersam, Lectvres upon the Fovrth of Iohn, 186.


Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

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The God We Worship, edited by Jonathan Master

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Reformation Worship Conference: Anthology


Joel Beeke