WCF 21: Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day
Modern worship, even by some definitions, has more to do with feelings than form. What matters, it seems, is not the quality of the offering but the affection of the worshiper. Actually, both are important. We must worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:23). But attitudes do not trump actions. However sincere you are, if you invite a polka band to my birthday party it was for you not me.
What we offer in worship matters. And, as much as we prefer personal expression over rigid rules, there are actually regulations and limits in the right worship of God. To understand the propriety of rules in worship we must grasp our fundamental calling to worship the triune God.
The Duty of Biblical Worship
We don’t need the Bible to reveal a God who is worthy of worship. We know it from nature. The reason people worship idols or feel an unexplainable reverence in the presence of beauty is because nature reveals God’s invisible attributes (Rom. 1:19, 20). The best human characteristics—like love, trust, service, and honor—tell us that there is a God from whom these impulses flow. The yearning to worship God can only be suppressed with difficulty.
But natural reason doesn’t tell us the acceptable way to worship; this is why worship practices differ so wildly among humans. To worship God worthily we need the Bible. Our imaginations are eager to “improve” biblical worship to our own credit. So God warned against making a “visible representation” of himself. “God did not offer himself to the artists.”[i] Sadly, many churches look at worship as an opportunity for self-expression and unsuspecting people are drawn in. But God sets the rules for worship. We must worship only the Triune God, through his appointed mediator Jesus Christ, in the ways he has outlined in his word.
The good news is we can worship anywhere. We don’t need an earthly holy place. So it isn’t quite right to “view our church buildings as sanctuaries;” our sanctuary “is no longer on earth, but in heaven.”[ii] That is no an inconsequential truth. “Christ having entered into the upper sanctuary, he alone continues to the end of the world to present the prayers of his people, who are standing far off in the outer court.[iii] We have no earthly sanctuary. But we come in Christ to a heavenly sanctuary. This is why true worship can happen outside of a church building. And it must. While corporate worship is essential for setting the rhythms of our lives we should also worship “daily in families, and privately [as] individuals.”
God is. So we must worship him. And not according to our imaginations but according to his unchanging word. So what should worship look like?
The Disciplines of Biblical Worship
At least three disciplines must shape the public worship of God.
Christians Worship by Offering Prayers
Through prayer we thank God and seek his help in all “things lawful.” We have a ministry of intercession. We must pray for all “sorts of men,” who do live or will live, though not for those whose eternity is already cast (2 Sam. 12:21–23).
Congregational prayer must honor God’s rules. But it should never be a mere routine. Prayer requires effort. It must be offered “with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance” in understandable language. Jesus worked so hard in prayer that he sweated profusely (Luke 22:44). Thankfully, we aren’t praying in our own strength. The Spirit of Jesus prays with us and for us (Rom. 8:26).
Christians Worship by Honoring the Scriptures
We must read the Bible “with godly fear,” recognizing that when Scripture is read God is truly speaking. So that we might more faithfully trust and obey God’s word it must be explained and applied by ministers and heard and obeyed by all of God’s people. And so that we might better meditate on God’s truths, instruct our friends, and bless the Lord we must also sing Scripture in the form of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).[iv]
Christians Worship by Celebrating the Sacraments
Through sacraments God impresses on our senses his promise of grace and belonging. Sacraments urge us to trust the Lord and thank him for his saving grace.
God is pleased when we worship him through prayer, and in devotion to his word and sacraments. And we need these means of grace. For this reason the public worship of God must not be “carelessly, or willfully … neglected, or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calls thereunto.” Since God sets the rules for worship we also need to think biblically about the “when” of worship.
The Day for Biblical Worship
Every worthy enterprise requires a schedule. People serious about exercise go to the gym regularly not randomly. So “God hath appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath.” The word “Sabbath” can be confusing because of its association with the seventh day, what we call Saturday. But Christ has fulfilled the Jewish Sabbath and appointed the first day of the week as the “Christian Sabbath.” The early church met on the day of Christ’s resurrection (1 Cor. 16:1, 2; Acts 20:7) what we call “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10).
Lord’s Day worship habits of congregations and families will vary. But several universal principles help us truly honor God’s holy day (Ex. 20:8).
Distinguish the Days
Once a week we must rest from our own works, words, and worldly concerns and be refreshed in the Lord. That won’t happen if we allow our ordinary responsibilities to intrude on every day the same. For Sunday to refresh us we should order our “common affairs beforehand” through six days of diligent work. Be clear about how the Lord’s Day should differ from the other days of the week and plan accordingly. If Sunday is barely different from the rest of the week you recognize nine commandments, not ten.
Devote Yourself to God
While we should worship God daily, our weekdays do not always allow ample time to serve him. So Sunday is the only day we can organize fully around worship. This is partly why Christians have commonly worshipped twice on Sunday. Scripture doesn’t explicitly command morning and evening services but it is hard to imagine a better way of framing the Lord’s Day with the activity for which it is designed.
Do Necessary and Merciful Works
Some Christians use Jesus’ Sabbath healings to legitimize nearly any activity, and thereby de-sanctify the Lord’s Day. Providence will present opportunities for proper work even on Sundays; hospitality, visiting shut-ins, and providing emergency assistance are examples. But be sure that your goal is to delight in God and help others do the same, and not to do your own pleasure (Is. 58:13, 14).
Clearly, even in such a personal matter as worship true religious devotion demands conformity to God’s will. But worship obedience is also a matter of the heart. “A due preparing of [the heart]” helps us see the Lord’s Day as a kind gift from a gracious God, and a welcome occasion to honor him who is “to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served” with our whole being.
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.
[i] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 277.
[ii] Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 22, 23.
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.20.
[iv] The Confession only mentions the “singing of psalms.” But the proof texts of this phrase also points to hymns and spiritual songs.