(Caveat: this post is largely for a Christian audience. Nevertheless, I hope that those who are not Christians may still profit from it).
My past few blog posts have sought to engage with some ideas current at the moment – medical ethics, domestic politics and the effects (good or otherwise) of social networking. In this post, however, I wish to explore a topic that may appear to be more personal, perhaps more devotional, in character and complexion. Nonetheless, it is still a vitally important topic, especially for Christians who seek to found their lives upon godly truth. It could even be said that the topic to which I refer is actually a very public thing. Though it most certainly is personal, it is not thereby private. Indeed, as I hope to show, what I want to look at in this post stands over-against everything else that Christians do as disciples and pilgrims in this world, framing every dimension of our lives.
I am here talking about worship, for worship forms a central part of the Christian’s life. We should never doubt this, since to worship is to express, enact, dramatize and reflect the truth of God. But why is this important? Why should God want to be worshiped? Moreover, what is the connection between worship and truth anyway? These questions have been rattling around my mind for a little while, and in order to provide a semblance of an answer, I shall turn to the book of Romans.
It’s strange that I should look to this particular part of Scripture to shed light on these questions. Paul’s letter to the Romans reads more like an elaborate theological treatise than it does a missive to a particular congregation dealing with particular issues. Nor is it the first book one thinks of if one wants to develop some kind of biblical understanding of worship. Psalms, for example, might seem to be a more appropriate contender. That said, behind and beneath the lofty themes of universal sin, the achievement of the cross, justification, sanctification, glorification, resurrection and God’s sovereignty, one will uncover another strand in Romans – less overt, to be sure – dealing with the theological importance and rationale of (proper) worship. Now, I shall spend a bit of time following the thread, so please bear with me. Hopefully, it will be worth it!
The strand begins in the very first chapter of Paul’s epistle. After a preamble, where he outlines the purposes of his letter, the apostle goes on to survey the dreadful, and universal, condition of humanity. Romans 1:18-32 is a broad-brush diagnosis and description of the problem of human sin. At the end of this section, after having offered us his theological analysis of the origin and evolution of human depravity (to which I shall return), Paul lists a number of sins that characterise the human condition: greed, malice, gossip, slander, ruthlessness, and the like (vv.28-32). Not that every person has been guilty of all these sins; but Paul’s point is to suggest that their very presence in humanity is evidence that it has gone awry.
As I said, Paul does offer an explanation of sorts. The sin we witness around us, the unrighteous acts – whether earth-shattering, or more “trivial” in nature (though sin is never really trivial in nature) – find their ultimate source in the rejection of truth. Specifically, it is the rejection of the truth of God that has led to the corrupt human landscape that Paul surveys. The notion of truth and related concepts are important for Paul in these early sections of his letter. In verse 18, as a way of commencing his diagnosis, Paul speaks of men (read: humanity) actively suppressing the truth (of God). Then, over the next couple of verses, Paul develops his point, by suggesting that the knowledge of the true God, though it has been apparent (vv.19-20), has been spurned by humanity; people have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, worshiping instead “created things” (v.25). Despite the pretence of wisdom, those who have engaged in such acts (which means all of us) have in fact departed from ultimate reality – namely, God. And with that departure has come a darkening of thoughts, of hearts and of feelings (cf. v.21). Estrangement from God has also meant estrangement from his truth, with both mind and will mutually corrupted and mutually corrupting.
It’s a rather heavy way of beginning a letter, but it is the necessary ground for what Paul wants to say later about the majesty of God’s salvific plan. What ought to concern us at the moment are a couple of points that emerge from Paul’s polemical opening, the relevance of which will become apparent as I proceed. First, truth (and its loss) stands at the heart of the human problem, as Paul sees it. He refers to this predicament in a variety of ways: the exchange and suppression of truth; the futility of thinking apart from, and in opposition to, God; “foolishness”; the acceptance of lies; the false claims of wisdom made on the part of sinful humanity; and the loss of divine knowledge. This constellation of words and concepts, all found in Romans 1:18-32, constitutes a theological package that Paul uses to explain the problem of human depravity and spiritual need. In effect, the truth of God has been rejected, spurned, arrogantly dismissed. Humans have arrogated for themselves the position that God rightfully occupies, and have attempted to claim for themselves the wisdom that belongs to him. Rather than perceiving themselves and their position in God’s creation correctly, people have turned from him – the source of all truth – and have followed tantalising, yet spurious, substitutes. Indeed, Paul says as much in verse 21, linking the refusal to give God his due as God with the degradation of thought, heart and will alike. This is no mere refusal to accept an intellectual proposition. Rather, Paul correctly declares that a loss of truth has degraded humanity on a multiplicity of levels. Depraved thinking leads inexorably to depraved behaviour – which is exactly the link the Apostle makes in v.28 (…”he [God] gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done”).
Second, Paul implicitly suggests that the rejection of God as the proper object of worship did not thereby mean that humans worshiped nothing. Not at all. On the contrary, Paul is canny enough to see that once God is displaced from that proper position, other things – “images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (v.23) – ended up filling the gap. A person’s pattern of thinking, and thus the actions linked to it, never occurs in a void. It can either be framed by God’s truth or it can be framed by veneration of something else. In the society in which Paul wrote, physical idols would have been most dominant. Greco-Roman culture was replete with an entire galaxy of gods that were honoured and worshiped. In our own day, there are many such “idols” that vie for our attention. They may not be made of gold or wood or stone, but they exert a similar influence over people, dragging them away from the true God who created them. Paul is perceptive enough to realize this fact – that rejection of God’s truth does not entail the birth of a new kind of humanity, or the elevation of people to a new moral or sapiential plane. It simply means the replacement of one god with another. Similarly, Paul knows that this idolatry is indissolubly linked with the loss of true knowledge that I spoke about a moment ago. What is witnessed externally is invariably a reflection of what occurs internally, within a person. As thinking is transformed, so too is belief and action. These dimensions, concurrent within a person, go hand-in-hand.
So, what are we left with? Paul offers us a diagnosis for the universal condition of sinful humanity. He will spend the next few chapters unpacking both the problem and the solution, ending with the climax of his high theological drama in Chapter 8. Strange as it may sound, I want to skip over Chapters 2-7, in order to focus on what Paul says in the eighth Chapter of his epistle. The intervening sections outline the process by which God responded to humanity’s predicament, but for my purposes here, I want to concentrate on the telos, the end-point of that process. For it becomes clear that the grave problems the apostle outlined in the first chapter find their ultimate resolution in this particular section of Paul’s missive. Chapter 8 is the counter-point and the answer to Chapter 1, helping to frame what lies in-between. Indeed, it almost reads like a deliberate reversal – more than that, a redemptive elevation of God’s creation to something beyond that which it was prior to sin’s baleful effects.
In Chapter 1, for example, the apostle referred to humanity being able to perceive God’s reality through the material, created order (vv.19-20). In Chapter 8, he writes that creation itself eagerly awaits the revelation of God’s newly created people (v.19). Rather than worshiping it, God’s redeemed will lead creation into a new era of freedom, so that it, too, may experience the liberation God’s renewed image-bearers will experience. That renewal takes place within the wider context of the advent, the bursting forth, of God’s new creation. Further on in Chapter 8, Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that those saved by God will be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Jesus)” as a part of their salvation (v.29). This seems to be a deliberate, counter-posing allusion to his earlier description of humans giving up their worship of the true God for created “images” (v.23). Those saved by God will no longer worship created things, thereby being conformed to them. Instead, they will be shaped according to the image and likeness of Christ, thereby attaining the glory that humanity has always sought (albeit through rebellious autonomy from God). In other words, humanity exchanged God’s glory for the idolatry of the created world, which included “mortal man”; through the coming of Christ, the true man – who is simultaneously the image of the immortal God – God’s image-bearers may take possession of the glory that they had lost (v.30; cf. 1:21, 23).
What has all this to do with worship? It might sound like a powerful statement of God’s gracious and redemptive activity in this world, which culminates with the sacrificial work of Christ. But at what point does this story link up with the notion of proper worship? The answer lies in the first couple of verses of Chapter 12. After digressing to make some (important) remarks on the implications of the gospel for unbelieving Israel, Paul turns his attention to the practical and ethical implications, for believers, of what he has written. There, he writes:
“Therefore, I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…” (Romans 12:1-2b).
Many of the themes I have already canvassed have been compressed into these few short sentences by the apostle. Worship, conformation to external conditions (whether good or ill, degrading or redemptive), right thinking, and so on, are all present. If Chapter 1 was the outline of the problem, and Chapter 8 the final, climactic outline of the solution, then the commencement of Chapter 12 is the first step in the practical, ethical consequences for believers. No longer are they to participate in the idolatry Paul railed against at the beginning of Romans; no longer are they to be shaped by the world (as it exists in rebellion against God) or created things; no longer are they to allow the effects thereof degrade thinking and corrupt action (a la Rom. 1:28-32). Using the language of sacrifice, Paul urges his readers to devote themselves to God as an act of worship and to allow him to renew their minds (note the passive “…be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, which indicates an activity initiated by God). His readers are to offer themselves wholeheartedly to Him. All of this stands in stark, and deliberate, contrast with what Paul spoke of in Chapter 1, and is the direct consequence of what he declared in Chapter 8.
As Christians, then, our worship is to be directed to God. That much is obvious. Also obvious (though no less important) is the conviction that worship is an act of gratitude, to be sure. Paul says that we ought to do this “in view of God’s mercy…” (12:1), which implies a thankful attitude. But my point is to suggest that worship is a more layered, more multifaceted, phenomenon than some might assume. Firstly, it is a way of standing against the universal (human) reality of sin and untruth, as Paul so clearly intimates. Secondly, it is a marker, a sign, that we are renewed people, led by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Our worshipful acts not only oppose and challenge the overt and latent forms of idolatry by which sinful estrangement from God is manifested; they also constitute declarative acts, by which we say that we are redeemed and being redeemed daily. Everything Paul wrote about humanity in Chapter 1 is to be deliberately counter-posed by Christians worshiping the true God and being conformed – nay, transformed – to God’s true image, Jesus Christ, who is simultaneously the pattern of true humanity. It is a prophetic witness, flowing out of the work that God has performed to undo the universal effects of the situation Paul has already discussed. Through it, we too participate in the undoing of the primal sin of idolatry, directing ourselves, our lives, our bodies, to the One who created us. As renewed people, who will take their places in God’s new world, our worship is a revelatory act, which springs from the revelation that we have received. Not that we possess it in its totality. Nonetheless, we rest our hopes upon Him, for we trust in his promise to complete the work that he has started. As we Christians give ourselves to God, we do so in an anticipatory sense: through worshipful acts, we enact and experience a foretaste of the liberating truth of God, which will inhabit and envelop his creation with the consummation of his salvific plan.
Finally, then, our worship of God – which flows out of, and is a response to, the initiating steps he took to rescue us from our sin and idolatry – further enables us to escape the corruption of thought and will that has characterised idolatrous humanity. It is, in itself, a means of change. Having been brought from the realm of sin and death into the realm of holiness and life, we can now take our proper places as God’s true image-bearers, offering our entire lives in service to him (rather than the world as it now stands). That is why Paul can so readily link worship with the renewal of mind and thought. It is also why transformation is to be seen against the backdrop of human depravity. If the original human problem was characterised by the spurning of God’s reality for idols, and the resultant loss of divine knowledge, then its opposite is characterised by worship of the One who is actually God, leading to the reclamation of truth, the vanquishing of sin, the purification of the will, the redemption of bodies and the ennobling of a sanctified mind (contrast Rom. 12:1-2 with Paul’s earlier talk of a “depraved mind” in 1:28). And if some suggest that worshiping God, regardless of its apparently beneficial effects, is simply an exercise in divine ego-stroking, then one can point them back to the comment I have already made: that worship occurs universally, whether God is the object or not. If we are meant to be framing our lives around God, and have been created for that express purpose, then to do otherwise is a denial of our nature (apart from a denial of who God is).
So, worship is not simply something in which we engage on a Sunday morning because it has been determined by tradition (though corporate praise is a vital part of the life and witness of the church). Let us not forget that Paul exhorted believers to offer their whole bodies – not just their voices – to God. Indeed, worship is inescapably ethical in character. Still less has the practice of worship been instituted by an insecure god who needs to be glorified. Rather, worship – for Christians, that is – constitutes an all-encompassing embrace of God’s reality and truth, in conformity to our true natures, and against the backdrop of the rejection of divine truth. In this scheme, we allow ourselves to be moulded by the wisdom that was always meant to shape humanity. At the same time, we also offer a prophetic critique to, and of, a world that pursues a multiplicity of false gods and deities in much the same way that the subjects of Romans 1 did. I can think of many, even in the city of Melbourne: aside from religions that deny the reality of God (as he truly is) and the revelation of his truth, people are enraptured with consumerism, materialism, post-modernism, sport, success (however defined), hedonistic living, and so on. They are ultimately futile, for they do not lead to the God with whom we have been created to have a relationship. They certainly cannot lead us into his new world, for they cannot erase – and in fact, reinforce – the very problems that have alienated us from him in the first place.
Two final points. First, I have not yet offered a portrait of what God’s truth actually is. It’s all well and fine to critique the false claims to truth that abound in this world. But what is the truth around which we are meant to revolve our lives? I’ve already hinted at it, but it bears repeating in a more explicit way. God’s truth is embodied in the One to whose image we are being conformed – Jesus Christ. Of course, truth, whether divine or secular, is intellectual, cognitive, conceptual. Paul’s references to the mind and to thought would be meaningless without this basic understanding. Belief in the nature of God, and in how he has revealed himself, is a vitally important aspect of worship. But truth, in a biblical scheme, is also deeply personal. Jesus Christ is God’s personal truth enfleshed. In him, we see what God is like and how we are to live. In him, we witness the pristine revelation of God and the abiding image of true humanity, co-mingling and co-existing. And, as the Jesus of John’s Gospel declares, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). Earlier in that book, Jesus counselled a Samaritan woman to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (cf. John 4:24). Bring these two verses together, and what do we have? A call to worship God, to devote oneself to him, through and in the truth made incarnate in Jesus. When we read the Scriptures, which proclaim Christ hidden and revealed, we begin to see what God’s truth – and hence, the truth about who we are to be – actually looks like.
Second, we do not come to God of our own volition; neither can we worship God merely as we are. It requires the abiding presence of God’s Spirit to reveal, enliven, encourage and inflame. Paul speaks of the importance of being led by the Spirit in the eighth chapter of Romans. Before talking about Christian disciples as God’s redeemed, liberated people, the apostle offers his readers two ways: the way of the flesh; and the way of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:4-12). It is the way of the Spirit that leads one into the truth of God (which is to say, the very character and presence of God himself). And when we arrive at Paul’s statement about worship at the beginning of Chapter 12, he says explicitly that it is a spiritual act. Such a declaration dovetails nicely with John 4:24, which I surveyed above. The fact is that true worship of the true God can only be accomplished in the Spirit. It can only be achieved when a person’s life is saturated in Him. Not only so, but it requires the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about receptivity in sinful people. Word and Spirit – God’s wisdom and intimate presence – work in unity to bring about a newly created people, who are saturated in his truth and worshiping in it.
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We rightly celebrate, and dutifully declare, God’s truth to a sinful and broken world. However, let us not forget (those of us who are Christ’s followers) that the reason we have access to the Father, and have been empowered to imitate Christ, is the fact of his (Christ’s) own sacrifice. Indeed, his sacrifice makes possible our own acts of devotion before God (which is part of Paul’s point in Rom. 12:1-2). I have referred several times to Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans in connection with the redemption of God’s people. But what I said there is only possible because of the act of oblation that Christ himself performed on our behalf. Sure, Paul speaks about being set free from the corruption of this present world. He speaks about being led by the Spirit as the mark of truly redeemed people. Yet that has only come about because of the epochal work of Christ on the cross, who allowed God’s condemnation of sin to fall upon his own person (8:3). Given the reality of this great act of divine mercy, which is simultaneously the revelation of the truth of the triune God; and given that our goal as Christians is to be conformed to the likeness of the Christ who embodies that truth, in life and in death, there is only one question: why would we not worshipfully participate in this redemptive process?