God Has Something to Say in Your Worship Service
Modern society brims with opportunities for people to get together and talk about something. In meetings, discussion groups, clubs, classes, forums, conferences, rallies, and protests, people gather to discuss matters that are important to them.
It is understandable, then, that we often treat corporate worship services in our local churches as a time for us to get together to talk about God, as though he were not present. For this reason, our worship services sometimes feel like a memorial service for someone who has died, as though we have gathered together to keep God’s memory alive by sharing stories from his life. Yet, if our worship unwittingly conveys the impression that God is absent or even dead, how will unbelievers fall on their faces and worship God, declaring that God is really among us (1 Cor. 14:25)?
The Scriptures correct us by teaching that worship is not where we gather together to speak about God; rather, worship is where God summons us into his presence in order to speak to us. To be sure, we will speak as well, but only as a response to what first God says to us.
In Reformed churches, this approach came to be called the “dialogical principle” of worship. God has established worship to be a time to do business with us through his Word, and our responsive praise and prayers. God begins the dialogue, calling us through his Word into his presence for worship. In response to God’s summons, we praise our Almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Then, God speaks again through his Word to convict us of our sin, and we respond with prayers of confession. Continuing the dialogue, God responds to us from his Word with an assurance of his pardon through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, and we respond again with praise—but this time to praise God’s grace, mercy, and work of redemption through Christ. Back and forth the dialogue goes, all the way until the end, when God gets the final word by his benediction, in which he puts both his blessing and his name upon his people (Num. 6:27).
Psalm 50 stands as an enduring witness to this reality: “The Mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Ps. 50:1). From all these nations of the earth, God particularly calls his covenant people: “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” (Ps. 50:5). The psalm is filled with imagery and language from the Mosaic covenant, including Sinai-like fire and storms (Ps. 50:3; Ex. 19:16–20), and echoes of the Shema from Deuteronomy: compare “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4) with “Hear… O Israel… I am God, your God” (Ps. 50:7).
Importantly, God has not appointed worship to be a social mixer for his people to mingle, network, and share their ideas. Rather, God convenes his people for the specific purpose of covenantal judgment: “that he may judge his people” (Ps. 50:4). Once the covenant people are gathered, the King and Judge declares the purpose of their assembly: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God” (Ps. 50:7).
Every Lord’s Day when we gather for worship, God summons us to judge us in at least three ways.
First, God judges our half-hearted, formalistic worship: “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me….Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Ps. 50:8, 13). God does not need our offerings in the way that the pagans believed that their sacrifices literally fed their gods. Instead, as C. H. Spurgeon writes, “They thought the daily sacrifices and abounding burnt offerings to be everything: he counted them nothing if the inner sacrifice of heart devotion had been neglected. What was greatest with them was least with God.”
Second, God judges us for failing to offer him true worship: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps. 50:14–15). John Calvin explains that “[p]raise and prayer are here to be considered as representing the whole of the worship of God, according to the figure synecdoche.” A synecdoche is where a part represents the whole, so that the full range of what God requires from us in worship is summed up by praise and prayer that come from the depths of the heart.
Third, God judges us for all our wickedness: “But to the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips? For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you’” (Ps. 50:16–17). As God’s Word is read, sung, and preached in worship, God condemns us for all the ways that we have fallen short of his Law, in spite of professing to obey him.
Nevertheless, while every worship service is a real judgment according to God’s Word, it is only a dress rehearsal for the final judgment. When we gather each Lord’s Day as God’s corporate, covenantal people, our Lord renders his provisional judgment in order to give us an opportunity to repent: “Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver! The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” (Ps. 50:22–23).
How, then, do we order our way rightly? After God speaks his word of condemnation through the law, he then speaks his gracious, comforting word of the gospel: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In worship, God gathers us to judge us and to declare that for all those who have trusted in Christ, his judgment has already been satisfied at the cross of Christ. Thus, the root of the gospel way is God’s word of justification through faith alone, in Christ alone. Through the preaching of the gospel and the assurance of pardon, God declares this gracious word of forgiveness and righteousness to all who trust in Christ.
Then, the fruit of the gospel way is that God also enables us “unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation” (WLC #32). Even for those who have been justified through faith in Jesus Christ, God convicts us of our sin in worship so that we may once again repent and seek forgiveness, as we are “purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience” (WLC #76). Through the reading and teaching from the Word, God teaches his people how to live and enlivens them to walk in his ways.
What the Lord now declares through his ministers every Lord’s Day, he will finally, publicly, and personally confirm on the Last Day by the direct declaration of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Judge of the living and the dead.
This coming day of judgment is indeed something that we should be talking about with our friends, family, and neighbors. Our worship services, however, are something altogether different from those conversations. Rather, in our worship services God summons us to dialogue about these things with us: “Our God comes; he does not keep silence” (Ps. 50:3).
Jacob Gerber is Senior Pastor of Harvest Community Church in Omaha, NE.
"Worship and the Christian's True Identity" by Jonathan Landry Cruse
"Owen on the Importance of Worship" by Danny Hyde
"The Blessing of Sunday Evening Worship" by Mary Beth McGreevy
Pleasing God in Our Worship by Robert Godfrey
What Happens When We Worship? by Jonathan Landry Cruse
 Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42–89) (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013), 2:162–63.
 Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, rev. ed., 5, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 429.
 Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, 2:165.
 C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1963), 1:386.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 2:269.