The church at worship – Robert Letham

Robert Letham Robert is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at the Union School of Theology, formerly Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Westm
01 July, 2007 3 min read

Guest Column

The church at worship

by Robert Letham

Legem credendi lex statuit supplicandi (‘the rule of faith establishes the rule of prayer’). This slogan was first coined by Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century and has reverberated down the centuries. It is still relevant today.

In practice, it points to the fact that the way we worship reflects what we believe – and vice-versa. In other words, there is an integral and mutual connection between worship and belief. These are not watertight compartments with no bearing on each other.

The Object of worship

The first thing to consider is that the sole object of worship is God. But who, exactly, is God? In the fullest sense he has revealed himself to be tri-personal – he is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, indivisibly one being in three irreducible persons.
Jesus told his apostles to baptise in the name (the one name) of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Our prayers are made by the Holy Spirit through the Son to the Father (Ephesians 2:18). The gospel message includes the declaration that Jesus is the Son of the Father (1 John 5:12).
The Trinity is absolutely central to what we are as Christians – to baptism, prayer, evangelism and everything else. It should therefore lie at the very heart of Christian worship.
Jesus declared that the Father seeks worshippers who worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24) – and for John (with only two exceptions) every reference to spirit (pneuma) is to the Holy Spirit. Concerning worship in truth, Jesus himself is truth incarnate (John 1:9,14,17; 14:6).
Our worship, then, in church and family, is to be focused on the holy Trinity. It may surprise us that the Eastern church, for all its faults, has done better here than we have. Many of our cherished hymns and choruses lack this trinitarian focus.

Grace comes first

Secondly, it is an axiom that will resonate with readers of this paper, that God’s grace comes first. What God does in creation, providence and grace precedes our action and, indeed, enables it. We love him because he first loved us; we believe because he first gave us new life by the Holy Spirit.
The same principle is true in worship. The amazing thing – worth pondering at length – is that when the church gathers to worship our triune God, he is the first one there! He has ordained and established the worship of his church and his Spirit draws us together to meet him.
Moreover, when the minister pronounces the call to worship he does so in the name of the living triune God, ministering in the name of Jesus Christ his Son. Through the words of the human messenger, God the Father calls us to worship through his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As the service unfolds he speaks to us in his Word, read and proclaimed – condescending to use human lips to do so. Strikingly, Paul tells the Ephesians that Christ ‘came and preached peace to you’ (Ephesians 2:17). Yet Christ never visited Ephesus! It was Paul who planted the church there.
So Paul’s preaching was Christ’s preaching. Again, in Romans 10:14 the subjective genitive (preferred by most) renders Paul’s question, ‘how shall they believe him whom they have not heard?’

Feeding on Christ

Similarly, in the unity of the indivisible Trinity, the Father receives our praise and worship through his Son by the Holy Spirit – and communes with us in the sacraments, enabling us to feed on Christ by the Holy Spirit through faith (Westminster Confession of Faith XXIX:7).
He then sends us into the world with his blessing in the benediction. More than the purely human is at work. There is a dialogue in which the holy Trinity takes the initiative; there is address, promise, warning, encouragement, communion – and all from God not man.
It follows that church worship is far more than a social gathering. Into these mysteries angels long to look. Worship is the meeting place of heaven and earth. No greater activity takes place anywhere. It is the most important event in the world.

The Bible in worship

All this highlights the fact that we cannot abstract doctrine from worship, nor worship from doctrine. It demands that the church’s use of song should also be faithful to the triune God. Pre-eminently it should have the aim of bringing glory to him.
If this is so, our worship will be shaped by God’s Word – for ‘the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by God himself’ (Westminster Confession of Faith XXI:1). And I would argue that worship should contain a generous portion from the Bible itself, particularly the Psalms. If the Bible is central to what we believe, should it not be integral to the way we worship?
In a day when we are urged to emphasise the societal dimension of the church’s task – rightly so in reaching out to a lost culture – the recovery of authentic trinitarian worship is crucial.

Robert is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at the Union School of Theology, formerly Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Westm
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