On this Sunday, as many of us ready ourselves for corporate worship, perhaps the most significant single biblical text for guiding the essence of what we’re pursuing together when we gather is Jesus’s words in John 4:23–24.
“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Head And heart
True worship, says Jesus, is in spirit and truth. The “truth” part is plain enough — and with the coming of Jesus (“the hour is coming, and is now here”) that truth centers on his person and work, the one who is himself “the Truth” (John 14:6) and the message about his saving accomplishments for us, which is “the word of the truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:5) and “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13). It is this “word of truth” (James 1:18) by which we’re given new birth, this “word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) that Christian workers endeavor to handle aright, and this truth that anchors and saturates worship that is truly Christian.
But what about “spirit”? Is this our spirit or God’s Spirit? Jesus’s memorable statement in John 3:6 helps: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” It’s not either-or, but both-and. For those who are new creatures in Christ, our spirit owes its existence and vibrancy to the Spirit of God. As John Piper writes, “True worship comes only from spirits made alive and sensitive by the quickening of the Spirit of God” (Desiring God, 82). God’s Spirit ignites and energizes our spirit.
The Bone and Marrow
Christian worship engages both heart and head. It necessitates true doctrine about the Father and his Son, and their partnership in rescuing sinners, and due emotion about that doctrine. It is both an affair of the heart and an affair of the mind. Piper sums it up as “strong affections for God rooted in truth.” Worship must be vital and real in the heart, and worship must rest on a true perception of God. There must be spirit and there must be truth. . . . Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full (or half-full) of artificial admirers . . . . On the other hand, emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates shallow people who refuse the discipline of rigorous thought. But true worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine. Strong affections for God rooted in truth are the bone and marrow of biblical worship. (81–82)
What It’s Not
So the essence of true worship is not external, but internal — heart and head, emotion and thought, spirit and truth — whether we’re talking all of life as worship (Romans 12:1) or corporate gatherings for worship.
Yet we’re so prone to identify worship with the externals: how nice (or shabby) the building is, how many are in attendance, how good the music is, how gifted the preacher is, whether someone near us is doing something on their smartphone other than reading a Bible app or taking notes, or whether one of the worship leaders is waving a hand distractingly or doing those odd facial expressions or swaying or even jumping. (There’s something to be said about “undistracting excellence” for those planning and leading worship services, but that’s for another time.) But while the external forms that our worship takes are not insignificant, they are not the essence. They don’t make it, and they shouldn’t break it. True worship is not centered on and coextensive with the forms, but flowing from the heart. Spirit and truth.
Whatever Your Context
Take this reminder with you as you ready your heart and roll up to your next corporate worship gathering. The externals do matter, but they are not the essence. They need not rule the day. Whether your corporate context is wonderfully conducive to what moves you most, or grates against all your personal preferences, the heart of worship need not be hindered — because the heart of worship is the heart. At bottom, it’s not what we do (or don’t do) with our hands (or what someone else is doing or not doing), but what we do with our hearts and minds — because the one who has captured our hearts and minds. Worship is in spirit and in truth.