Experiencing the Trinity in Worship

One of the most vivid memories I have of church as a child is of the entire congregation singing the doxology as the ushers brought the offering forward.    In fact, this is the first memory I have of being exposed to the doctrine of the Trinity.  If I close my eyes I can still here that little country church singing:

 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise Him all creatures here below

Praise Him above ye, heavenly hosts

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Every Sunday, no matter what else we did, we sang that chorus.  This practice may seem outdated today, but our Pastor intentionally build this into our worship as a reminder of the Trinity.  While I’m not advocating a return to the singing of the doxology each, although it wouldn’t hurt occasionally, I do want to extol the merits of a Trinitarian shaped worship experience.

Biblically, our approach to God is always Trinitarian.  Paul expresses this idea in Ephesians 2:18 when he says, “For through him [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Our access to the Father is made possible through the work of Christ and is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  As we’ve already seen in the earlier chapters, the Trinity shapes the way we are saved, read the Bible, and even pray.  It should be no surprise, then, that the Trinity would also shape the way we worship.  True worship is offered to the Father, through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

The Importance of Worship

In some ways, this chapter may be the most important in the entire book because God’s driving passion and central purpose is His own glory.  God’s focus on His own glory is displayed in several passages throughout the Bible.  In Isaiah 43:6-7, for instance, God says He created man for “His glory.” In Ephesians 1:3-14, God’s motivation for saving us was for, “the praise of His glory.” (v.6, 12, 14) John 1:14 says Jesus came to earth to reveal God’s glory.  Philippians 2:1-11 reminds us that one day every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, “to the glory of God the Father.”  God’s passion for His own glory, therefore, is what fuels our understanding of worship.  We were created and redeemed to worship God.  This teaching is summarized in the Westminster Shorter Catechism when it says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Since worship plays such a central role in the economy of God,  it is important for the church to get it right.  Too much of the modern discussion about worship is centered on the issue of style.  While we tend to think this is as a relatively recent debate, it actually pops up in nearly every page of church history. Today we debate the merits of contemporary songs and the use of praise bands, while in the past the church has debated whether or not any instruments should be played and whether it was permissble to sing anything but the Psalms. All of these were primarly focused on the issue of style, but missed a far more important issue. While we have been fighting over style, Satan crept in undetected to attack the shape of our worship. The evidence of this is seen in the way the Trinity is neglected in our worship.

 

The Neglect of the Trinity in Contemporary Worship

 

To get a glimpse of the role of the Trinity in contemporary worship I’ve analyzed fifty of the most used contemporary worship songs, according to the website of a major music publisher.  What I found is that 34 refer to God in general sense without naming any specific member of the Trinity.   Two songs specifically mention the Father, twenty-six refer to the Son and the work of redemption, while five refer directly to the Holy Spirit.  Surprisingly, only one song on the list, “How Great is Our God,” refers to all three members of the Godhead by name and uses the title Trinity.

In examining the lyrics of these songs, I came up with two important observations.  First, is that contemporary Christian music has a strong emphasis on the redemptive work of Christ.  Over half of the song on the list refer to Jesus by name while also emphasizing His work on the cross.  This emphasis on Jesus is a hallmark of evangelical worship and is a thoroughly Biblical focus because our access to God the Father is made possible by exclusively through Jesus the Son.  That’s why even in heaven, the focus of worship is on the redemptive work of Christ (Revelation 5:16-14).  So, in this regard contemporary worship music is very strong.

But I also noticed an alarming trend.  Thirty-four of the fifty songs used the generic “God” or “Lord” while only two referred directly to the Father.  On one hand, this may not be too big of a deal.  All three members of the Trinity are, in fact, divine and worthy of worship.  So, simply referring to them by the title “God” is perfectly fine.  On the other hand, this trend may show a growing lack of clarity and precision in our understanding of God.  This is alarming because worship music plays an important role in how doctrine is taught in the church. If we continue down this road, my fear is that we could eventually become functional, if not outright, Unitarians.  In all honesty, this is not just a problem for contemporary music, traditional hymns also struggle to adequately capture the doctrine of the Trinity.  Balance is very tough thing to maintain, but we must strive to do the very best we can.

One way to protect ourselves from this doctrinal slide is to vigilantly maintain a Trinitarian shape in our worship service.  Doing so will not only promote orthodoxy but may even result in a deeper experience with the living God.     An age-old problem, is our sinful desire to make worship about us.  This has been true in every generation since the fall.  God, however, has given us specific instructions on how He wants to be worshipped — we see this throughout the Bible.  While the New Testament allows for a great deal of flexibility in the forms worship, it makes it clear that the overall shape is to be thoroughly Trinitarian.

 

Trinitarian Shape of New Testament Worship

When I say, worship is to have a Trinitarian shape, I’m referring to the Biblical truth that we worship the Father, through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.  At the beginning of the chapter, I mentioned how my former Pastor purposely included the Doxology in our worship services each week. Today, he might choose songs like How Great is Our God or We Believe to carry out the same goal.  But his goal would still be the same — keep the doctrine of the Trinity before us every week. While including songs that specifically mentions the Trinity is a great first step, it falls short of having a truly Trinitarian shaped worship service.  For that to happen we must once again return to Ephesians 2:18, “For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”  As we’ve seen in earlier chapters, this verse gives a Biblical understanding of how we approach God.  In worship, just as in salvation, Bible reading and prayer, we come to God the Father, through the Son in the power of Holy Spirit. Worship involves all three members of the Trinity.  Let’s look at role each member of the Trinity plays in worship.

 

  1. Worship is Made Possible by Jesus

Because of the fall, we cannot approach God in worship on our own merits.  This separation is dramatically illustrated in the Old Testament worship through the Tabernacle and the Temple.  The architecture of both buildings was designed to convey the idea that people were separated from God by their sin.  The first sign of this in the Old Testament was the outer wall of the Temple, which separated God’s chosen people from the Gentiles.  Further inside the court was a second wall through which only the Priests could enter and still further there was the Holy of Holies, in which only the High Priest could enter once a year to make sacrifice for the sins of the people.  Everything in this building was designed to show that our sin has separated us from God.

In addition, to its architecture, the entire worship system of the Old Testament Temple showed the need to approach God via a substitute.  All of this was intended to point us to Jesus who is the means, motivation, and minister of our worship.  Let’s look more carefully at how Jesus fulfills each of these roles.

Jesus is our means worship, because it is only through His sacrificial death on the cross that we are qualified to approach God’s throne.  He is fully God and the perfect revelation of the divine nature (Heb 1:1-3) but He is also fully man.  After dying on the cross for our sin, He ascended back to heaven where He stands for us before God the Father (Heb 9:24) giving us access into His presence (Rom 5:2).  If it were not for the work of Jesus, we could not come before God.  (John 14:6) That is why Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God…” It is only through Jesus that our worship is acceptable to the Father, therefore, He is the means of our worship.  (see also 1 Peter 2:4-5)

But Jesus also gives the motivation for our worship.  Romans 12:1-2 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The “mercies of God” summarizes everything Paul had talked about in the first eleven chapters of Romans — namely, the redemption and reconciliation offered to us by Jesus.  But Paul has more than just an emotional response in mind by this command.  The word translated as “spiritual,” is the Greek word logikos, referring to our reasonable or logical response to God.  Our worship is reasonable in the sense that it’s motivated and informed by Christ’s redemptive work.

Commenting on this verse, Douglas Moo writes, “I am afraid that what passes for worship in some churches goes little beyond an emotional reaction to a certain form of music.  Some writers of music and certain kinds of worship leaders know how to get people excited but I am not always that they are getting people to worship.” (Moo 2000, 398)  True worship must be both thought-filled and heart-felt.  One without the other will always fall short of what God desires from us in worship. Thought-filled worship reflects a robust theologial understanding of the work of Christ, which naturally leads to a heart-felt surrender of our emotions, mind and will to God.

In addition to serving as the means and motivation of our worship, the Bible also teaches that Jesus serves as our heavenly minister of worship.  Hebrews 8:2, refers to Jesus as “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.”  The word translated as “minister” is the Greek word, leitourgos, which refers to “one who serves.” David Allen says this word was used in reference to the priests who served in the Tabernacle and is “virtually synonymous with ‘high priest’ with an emphasis on the activity of worship and priestly ministry.” (Allen 2010, 441) The picture here is of Jesus, our High Priest, representing us before the Father and simultaneously leading us in worship.

We can directly measure the quality of our worship by examining what it says about Jesus.   Since Jesus is the means, motivation, and minister of our worship, He should occupy the center stage of our corporate worship.  This requires more than merely mentioning His name a couple of times in each service.  True Biblical worship will call to mind all the major facets of Jesus’ ministry — His incarnation, atoning work on the cross, resurrection, ascension and second coming.  It will also include a balanced picture of His attributes — His eternity, righteousness, holiness, sovereignty, grace, and love.  For true Biblical worship to occur, leaders as much time thinking about how to balance and present these themes as they do chord charts and orchestration. Once again, we must strive to lead the church in worship that is both heart-felt and thought-filled.

 

  1. Worship is Focused on Glorifying the Father

Jesus’ primary mission on earth was to glorify God the Father.  We see this idea fleshed out in several places in the Gospel of John.  In John 6:38, for instance, Jesus says “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”  Then in John 14:31, He says, “…but so that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me.” Later in His high priestly prayer, recorded in John 17, Jesus says that everything He did was focused on glorifying the Father by carrying out His will. (see v.4, 6, 8) The glory of God was the utmost issue in Jesus’ mind in everything He did.

As we’ve already seen earlier in this chapter, God’s overriding purpose is “the display and furtherance of His own glory.” (Man 2000, 81)  John Piper observes that, “The Biblical vision of God is that he is supremely committed, with infinite passion to uphold and display the glory of His name.” (Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad 1993, 99) The overwhelming focus of Jesus’ life and ministry was the glory of God.  In this, He sets the example for the church. God created us for His glory (Isa 43:6-7).  He saved us for His glory (Eph 1:3-14).  Even in heaven, the central focus and activity will be worshipping and glorifying God (Rev 5). Glorifying God through worship, therefore, is not one of the many activities we perform as a church — it is the central reason for why we exist.

But we need to raise this discussion in the modern church beyond the issue of style.  Glorifying God transcends the issue of style.  Truthfully, God can be just as honored by a Skiffle influenced ska band as he can a Southern Gospel quartet.  He can be just as glorified by an electrified Polka band as He can a five-piece rhythm section or a Pipe organ.  Style is a matter of culture.  Worship is a matter of our heart.  A rapper who loves Jesus can be just as effective in leading God honoring worship as a classically trained musician.  Frankly, God would rather hear 10,000 out of tune hillbillies who can’t keep time but who have a white-hot passion for His glory than four dudes whose hearts are cold and indifferent but can sing in perfect harmony.  The fact that we make such a big deal about style is the best sign that our focus is in the wrong place.  Worship is about God!  Not us!  Therefore, we must make sure our focus is on glorifying God rather than satisfying our flesh.  Below are three major areas of focus that we must keep to glorify God the Father.

  1. Focus on His Attributes

The Bible is filled with examples of people praising God for what He is like.  Psalm 8 celebrates God’s power in creation and His sovereignty over the universe.  In Isaiah 6, the angels declare His holiness.  In 1 Chronicles 16:23-29, David praises God for His glory.  Psalms 102:25-28, focuses on His immutability, while Psalms 113:4,5 talks about His transcendence.  Psalms 89:1-8 talks about His faithfulness, Proverbs 3:19-20 about His wisdom, Psalms 139:7-12 His omnipresence and Psalm 139:1-6 His omniscience.  We could go on and on, but I think you get the point.  God’s attributes have been celebrated in the worship of the church from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, in modern churches many of His attributes have fallen into neglect.  My survey of 50 often used contemporary worship songs revealed 34 referred to God the Father, but of these the clear majority focused exclusively on His grace and mercy to the neglect of His other attributes.  In fact, only two mentioned any of His other attributes — His eternity and holiness.  Noticeably absent were themes such as His righteousness, faithfulness, and immutability, all of which have traditionally been regular subjects of Christian worship.  To see what I mean just compare the lyrics of Isaac Watts, William Cowper, or the Wesley brothers with the most often used songs in your church.

This does not mean, however, that all contemporary hymns writers are neglecting the attributes of God.  I’ve found several composers such as Keith and Kristen Getty, Stuart Townsend and Chris Tomlin are writing theologically rich music, which deal with a wide variety of God’s attributes.  The problem is that our familiarity with some of the more popular songs hinder us from digging into the rich library of hymnody, both traditional and contemporary, available to the church.  So that you won’t think I’m picking on the contemporary music, let me point out that this problem is often far worse in traditional churches, where familiarity with a handful of songs have given them a false status of being quasi-divinely inspired.  The truth is that both the contemporary and traditional churches limit themselves by not planning worship to focus on a wide variety of God’s attributes.  We will examine how this can be remedied later in the chapter, but for now let’s turn to the second focus that should be clear in our worship.

 

  1. Focus on the Great Works of God

The Bible commands us to focus on the great works of God in our worship. In Psalm 105:22, for instance, we are commanded to “Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!” In 1 Chronicles 16:9 as David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the tent that he had pitched for it, he said, “O give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name; make know his deeds among the people! Sin to him, sing praises to him tell of all his wondrous deeds.”  A good example of how this was carried out is Psalms 66, where the Psalmist says, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of His name; give to Him glorious praise!  Say to God, how awesome are your deeds!”  After inviting the worshippers to consider the works God has done on their behalf, the Psalmist then lists several of them — crossing the Red Sea (v.6-7), preserving the life of the nation (v.8-9), and delivering them into the promised land (v.11-12). This is a good pattern for modern worship — we need to invite people to see what God has done and then show them.

Today, when we think of praising God for His works, our minds tend to drift exclusively towards redemption.  Obviously, this is an important focus of worship and we will discuss it at length in the next section.  But we also need to focus on some of God’s other great works, such as creation and the way He providentially guides the universe.  Traditional hymns such as “How Great Thou Art,” and “O God our Help in Ages Past,” or more recent songs, such as “God of Wonders” are wonderful ways to praise God for His great works.

 

  1. Focus on the Redemptive Work of Christ

As you may have already guessed, the theme of salvation is a major focus of worship in both the Old and New Testaments (see 1 Chr 16:23-29, Ps 96:1-9, Isa 66:18-19 and Lk 2:20).    The Temple and sacrificial system were designed to point worshippers to the need and means of salvation. In addition, Ephesians 1:3-14 shows that God’s goal in our salvation was for His own glory.  Later in Revelation 5 we discover that even in heaven our salvation will be a major focus of praise.  Given the emphasis placed on this theme throughout the Scripture it makes sense that it should play a major role in the worship of the church today.

While evangelicals typically do a good job of keeping the themes of redemption and salvation as major focuses in our worship, we should be aware of two cautions.  First, we must be careful to keep our focus on salvation from becoming too man centered.  It is easy for us to fall into the trap of making salvation primarily about us, rather than the glory of God.  Therefore, we must carefully examine our worship to ensure we keep our focus on the big picture of salvation.  Second, we need to make sure we don’t allow our familiarity with this theme to lead to neglect.  Maintaining the proper focus in our worship needs thoughtfulness and careful planning, both as individuals and church leaders.   But we also need to remember that we are incapable of glorifying the Father and the Son on our own —true worship is always empowered by the Holy Spirt.

 

  1. Worship is Empowered by the Holy Spirit

It has become common place in evangelical churches to make the Holy Spirit a direct object of worship.  In a sense, this is totally permissible because the Holy Spirit is co-equal with the Father and Son, therefore, worthy of worship.  But merely mentioning the Holy Spirit in a few songs misses the important role He plays in focusing and empowering our worship.

The primary focus of the Holy Spirit, in the New Testament, is to point people to Jesus.   In John 15:26, for instance,  Jesus told His disciples, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” Jesus reiterates this teaching in the next chapter, saying;

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13-15)

The issue raised here is one of agency.  Just as Jesus served as an obedient agent of the Father carrying out the role of redemption, “the Spirit’s role is also one of agency — namely to communicate to the disciples what he receives.”  (Borchert 2002, 168)  As a faithful agent, the Holy Spirit never focuses our attention on Himself, but always points us towards Jesus.  True Spirit filled worship, then,  will always be focused on the the works of Jesus.

In addition to maintaining our focus, the Spirit also empowers our worship.    Philippians 3:3 says that we “worship by the Spirit of God.” Without denying the physical components of worship, we must acknowledge that it is primarily a spiritual act, therefore,  It must be directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit for it to be genuine.   Such worship, as we’ve already seen, will be God-centered and Christ-focused but it will also be guided by the Word to engage both the heart and mind.  Both are ncessary for true worship to have occurred. Engaging the mind to think deeply about the things of God is a matter of the intellect. But true worship will go beyond merely engaging our minds by also moving our will and emotions.

 

 

One of the key tests of whether we have experienced true Spirit-empowered worship is the change it produces in our lives.  Worship that merely stirs our emotion will fade once the enthusiasm wears off.  Worship that engages  the mind without stirring the emotions or moving the will, results in a stale orthodoxy. True spirit-empowered worship touches the whole person.  It moves our emotions, transforms our minds and directs our will to become more like the Son, to the glory of the Father.

 

Conclusion

The same Trinitarian shape we see in salvation, Bible reading and prayer carries into our worship.  True worship is offered to the Father, through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is the Biblical pattern for worship.  As we plan and evaluate worship in the church we should constantly seek to sustain this pattern. Three questions must constantly be on our minds as we think about the worship of the church.  First, was the redemptive work of Jesus central in this service?  It is never enough to merely mention the name of Jesus a few times in a worship service.  Biblical worship centers on the redemptive work of Christ, which offers our only means of access to the Father.

Second, did it glorify God the Father by focusing on His attributes and works?  Far too often we are guilty of worshipping God in vague and general ways.  While this is okay at times, we also need to get more specific.  Focus on praising God not just for His love and grace, but for His other attributes as well.  The same holds true for His works.  In addition to focusing our attention on redemption we should also include such works as creation and providence in our worship.

Finally, we need to ask, was this worship service empowered by the Holy Spirit?  Be careful how you answer this last question.  Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of merely evaluating the Spirit’s influence in terms of emotion.  Genuine spirit-filled worship moves our emotions, but also transforms our mind and directs our will.  Worship that doesn’t do all three is not true worship.  As you think about this chapter and discuss it with another believer this week, take time to prayerfully consider your worship life using the following questions.

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