God’s Priorities for His Churches: Grace (3)
O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens! Psalm 8.1
David, therefore, when reflecting on the incomprehensible goodness which God has been graciously pleased to bestow on the human race, and feeling all his thoughts and senses swallowed up, and overwhelmed in the contemplation, exclaims that it is a subject worthy of admiration, because it cannot be set forth in words.
- John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 8
Draining the grace
An unhealthy tendency in Christian worship these days may be having the opposite effect of what it intends. Designed to maximize the experience of God’s grace, much contemporary worship actually drains the grace out of worship, by defining grace in terms of our needs rather than God’s character.
Consider the lengths some services of worship go to create an environment in which people feel happy, loved, and safe – in which they experience “grace”. We focus the lyrics of our songs on ourselves and the wonder and pleasure of what we experience in God’s love, and then we cast those songs in the forms of pop culture, since we are more familiar with finding delight in such music.
We minimize anything in worship which might create feelings of discomfort, guilt, regret, or remorse, and we emphasize experiences and ideas that make us feel good about ourselves before the Lord Who loves us, just the way we are. This, after all, is “grace”, is it not?
We may even omit from our order of service any elements or forms of worship that might distract from our welcoming, friendly, and accepting environment. So, no confession of sin or time for silent introspection. No hymns with somber overtones, which might break the upbeat mood we want to establish. Nothing formal or ancient or difficult, which by nature, we assume, cannot be hip. And no terms or ideas in our preaching that might create discomfort rather than acceptance on the part of hearers, or seem to make demands rather than assure one of full acceptance.
Our purpose is to make our service of worship as full of grace and the Lord as we possibly can. And the testimony of those who love our worship just the way it is, is that it’s working. Grace, they insist, is flowing just everywhere, and every week they go away refreshed and renewed.
But is this truly grace? Worship will not provide an experience of grace, and of the Lord Who shows such unmerited favor toward His people, as long as we define grace in terms of what we experience, or hope to experience, rather than of what God Almighty freely and bountifully bestows.
Grace is a concept that can be easily misunderstood. Even more, grace is not readily experienced, and what many people assume to be an experience of grace in worship, leaving them happy and fulfilled and eager to return next week, may be something other than grace as God shows it. It may be just a kind of holy fun or sanctified diversion.
For us truly to know the grace of God in worship, and to be enlightened and empowered by that grace to fulfill God’s calling for our lives, we must keep our focus on God throughout the service of worship, pursuing and magnifying grace as it exists in Him and flows from Him, and not as we suppose we should experience it. We must submit to worship according to what He defines and requires, and not merely as we prefer it.
Psalm 8 provides a good outline for thinking about how to know the grace of God in worship. Worship must focus on God, on His excellence, glory, immensity, sovereignty, beauty, holiness, and infinite justice, faithfulness, and love. All three Persons of the Godhead must be set forth in their magnificence and uniqueness, and we must see ourselves as arrayed before them, to be inspected, corrected, and redeployed.
The service of worship should direct the eyes of worshipers beyond themselves – beyond the room, beyond the skies, and even beyond the seen world – into that vast and glorious unseen realm where God sits to rule in irresistible power over all things in heaven and on earth. Worship should circle around the utter beauty and terrifying enormity of God. It should rise to join heavenly choruses of perfected saints and angels, who are down on their knees in adoration and praise to their holy Creator, Redeemer, and King. Worship should recall the mighty works of God – creation, providence, and redemption – and show how in our Lord Jesus Christ the full potential of everything in heaven and earth finds its realization and fulfillment.
And then worship should remind us that we have no business being in the presence of such an awesome, terrifying, all-powerful, and holy Being, except as a consequence of His grace.
We are not experiencing the grace of God when we are merely happy and glad to be gathered with our Christians friends in an agreeable environment. Grace does not merely leave us giddy and pleased. Grace will fill us with awe, wonder, and fear. It will cause us to feel stunned, discomfited, and humbled. Then it will gather and surround us in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the power of His Spirit, lift us out of our sins, out of our everyday lives, out of the merely contemporary setting we tend to regard as home sweet home, and into the heaven of heavens, to join our worship with saints and angels, cleansed of our sins because we have confessed and repented of them, and having paved our way into the presence of God with lofty, magnificent, soul-stretching words and songs of praise and thanksgiving.
In that environment, then, God will receive our requests and answer them from the riches of His Word, as He shows Jesus to us through preaching and sacrament, and ensconces our lives ever more deeply in Him. Such grace will leave us trembling, fearing, weeping, rejoicing, and eager to take up our callings in the world, so that the excellence of God we have experienced together in worship will, by His grace at work in us, spread out through all our works to cover the earth with the knowledge of His glory.
Grace in the gap
Grace is experienced in the gap between Who God is and who we are, between His perfections and our imperfections, His wisdom and our folly, His enormity and our puniness, His infinite power and our inveterate weakness. Only as we magnify God in worship, and rightly assess ourselves and our needs, will we find in the infinite gap that separates us the all-sufficient grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Then, renewed in grace – true grace – we will embrace our calling to exercise dominion and advance the rule of King Jesus into every area of our lives and all aspects of our experience (Matt. 6.33; 1 Thess. 2.12).
No wonder Paul wished that grace would be the increasing possession and experience of the churches entrusted to his care.
Worship affects church life
In my third Conversation with Rev. Robert Lynn, we talk about the role worship plays in shaping a church’s self-image. If we get worship wrong, because we do not understand grace, we’re likely to get our sense of who we are in the world wrong as well. You can watch this Conversation by clicking here.
Prayer for Revival
“‘How wonderful your name.’ Through this name, in fact, death was dissolved, demons imprisoned in bonds, heaven opened, gates of paradise thrown wide, the Spirit sent down, slaves made free, enemies become sons, strangers become heirs, human beings become angels. Why speak of angels? God became man, and man became God; heaven accepted the nature from earth, earth accepted the one seated on the cherubim along with the angelic host. The wall was removed, the partition dissolved, what were separate were united, darkness was banished, light shone, death was swallowed up.”
- John Chrysostom (344-407 AD), Commentary on the Psalms 8.1
God has called His people to be bringers of grace and joy to the world. Our booklet, Joy to Your World!, can show you how this can work out in the lives of the people you serve. Order your copy by clicking here.
Please prayerfully consider sharing with The Fellowship of Ailbe through your giving. You can contribute to The Fellowship by clicking the Contribute button at the website or by sending your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 19 Tyler Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452.
T. M. Moore
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).