As we’ve looked at the relationship between worship and holiness, we’ve seen two big ideas: one, the worshiper not only becomes like what he worships, but he becomes how he worships. Which is to say, the form or shape of worship ought to correspond to the object of worship. Two, there is a reciprocal relationship between holiness and worship. Holiness both produces and depends on worship; worship both produces and depends on holiness.
Today, I want to develop things further by adding a third idea: in order to have this transforming effect on our lives, the form of our liturgy must express who God is as He is revealed in the gospel. More simply, the gospel drives holiness. Too often we think of the gospel only as something that makes holiness an obligation – now that you are a follower of Jesus, you need to obey. That’s very true, but it’s also true that the gospel is the engine that enables our pursuit of holiness. “Are you so foolish,” Paul asks, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” It isn’t true that the gospel saves us, and then we have to be holy in our own strength (as if we had any). It’s grace all the way! The gospel drives holiness, and only the gospel drives holiness. We’ve tried resolutions, and effort, and turning over a new leaf, and guilt, and all the rest. There simply isn’t any other motivation or power source that works! Since this is true, our worship services need to be gospel-shaped in order to produce gospel holiness. The service preaches a message just as much as the sermon does. The way that we worship teaches in a different manner than a sermon does, but it teaches nonetheless. So if our worship doesn’t give us the gospel, it isn’t giving us holiness, either.
Here’s a brief example of how this works: if the worship service doesn’t regularly include confession of sin, the service is teaching the worshipers that they don’t need to confess their sins in order to approach God. Now, the people running the service might not intend to send that message, and the sermon might even contradict the message the service is sending. But the message still gets sent. In this circumstance, at best, there will be confusion on the part of the worshiper, and at worst, a wrong understanding of the gospel. So we need to do our best to make sure that the message the service “preaches” is the same as the words that are spoken during the course of the service, especially during the sermon.
On the other hand, the fact that the way a service is structured preaches a message helps us explain how some liturgical churches can survive, and people can still be be spiritually fed and growing in holiness even under weak and lame preaching. The service itself is still preaching the gospel, even if the sermon isn’t. Of course, it’s best to have both the sermon and the service speak with a united voice, with both the form of the worship and the content of the preaching exalting the glorious gospel story of our Triune God.
In light of this, I want to continue in the coming weeks and months to look at our form of worship, and bring to the forefront the gospel that our worship is already “preaching” behind the scenes.