The God of Worship

Worship God Conference | Gaithersburg, Maryland


    Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
    sing to the LORD, all the earth! 
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
    tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous works among all the peoples! 
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
    he is to be feared above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
Splendor and majesty are before him;
    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 

Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples,
    ascribe to the LORD glory and strength! 
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
    bring an offering, and come into his courts! 
Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness;
    tremble before him, all the earth! 

Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
    Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
    he will judge the peoples with equity.” 

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
    let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 
let the field exult, and everything in it!
 Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for he comes,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
 He will judge the world in righteousness,
    and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96)

I want to begin setting the stage by describing the biblical mindset and the secular mindset that makes some things in the Bible for the secular mindset unintelligible. And that is the challenge that worship leaders are up against as well as pastors who are worship leaders. When I choose the word mindset, I am groping for an English word for the Greek word phronema. It is only used a few times. It is usually translated mind, like the mind of the flesh, phronema tes sarkos. It is a really unusual word. And the verb form, phroneo — we don’t have anything in English quite like this Greek word because if you translate it mind it sounds so intellectual and it isn’t.

If I were to create a word it would be attitude set, not mindset, but attitude set or emotion set or mind-set. It is a set — an orientation to the world — but it isn’t just the orientation of thinking about the world. It is responding to the world and feeling about the world and an attitude toward the world. So when I say biblical mindset and secular mindset, think broader than mind — a set of your whole person. The secular mindset is not necessarily a mindset that rules out God or denies the principle of the Bible. It is a mindset that begins with man, has man as the basic given reality in the universe. What is a given? What is there? Man is there. I am here. That is the basic given of reality. All thinking starts with that given and it moves out from there, from that assumption.

Man at the Center

My rights, my desires, my expectations are my starting point. What the secular mindset views as a problem is a problem because things in the world are not presently fitting with my starting point, my rights, my desires and my expectations. Something is out of sync. That is a problem.

So the way the secular mindset defines problem is that it is not fitting. It is not working with my starting point, my center. And successes in the world, things that make you glad, are things defined from the center, from the starting point. If it fits with my rights, if it fits with my desires, if it fits with my expectations — success. So the whole world and how we see it in successes and problems and good and bad and beautiful and ugly all starts from, orients around, and is defined by that. My rights, my expectations are the measure of all things. That is the basic, secular mindset. It can be very religious.

That is why I said it doesn't rule God out of account or the Bible, because you can use all of that as stuff to express that mindset. That mindset is the mindset every one of you and me and everybody else in the world were born with. We have it by nature. It is what Paul calls the mind of the flesh in Romans 8:6. Or he says this is the way the natural man thinks. Natural man — the way we are born and what we are by our first birth — is this way. Every child is born this way. And we stay this way until we are born again. And fundamentally what happens in the new birth is that that mindset is replaced by another. We have this mindset and remnants of it even as Christians, and it is so subtle and so common and so at home in us that we don’t know we have it, and we don’t realize we have it until it collides with another mindset, which it does on almost every page of the Bible. Unless you read the Bible with such glasses that you turn everything on its biblical head and see it as an expression of your secular mindset.

God at the Center

So what is that other mindset, the biblical mindset? It is not simply that it includes God or that it says the Bible is true. The devil includes God and he knows the Bible is true. The biblical mindset begins with a radically different starting point, namely, God and his rights and goals as opposed to you and your rights and desires. It starts there. It centers there. It defines everything there. God and his rights as the creator and his goals as the guider of all things is the center, the ground, the starting place, the goal. Everything is defined by him. Everything is measured by him.

We need to pause regularly to fix in our minds some of the most obvious breathtaking things in the world, namely the existence of God. The sheer, raw, absolute existence of God outside, above, before anything else. It is just so radically different from the secular mindset.

We start by saying God is there and he is absolute. We and the whole universe with all of its galaxies came later and are dependent. “I am who I am,” he said to Moses. “Tell them I am sent you.” Whenever you see the LORD with all caps in your Bible, you have got Yahweh, and Yahweh is built on the Hebrew word for he is or I am, and therefore, hundreds and hundreds of times the Bible reminding us with that personal name is: This is absolute reality. Everything else you see in the universe is contingent. Everything else is small.

The construction of galaxies and the universe amounts to nothing more than finger-work for our Sovereign Creator.

Get to know Jonathan Edwards. Here is one of the things he said that simply blew me away in July of 1971. I was reading The Nature of True Virtue, and it goes something like this: If you were able to embrace all the universe, all beings in the universe, all devils, all angels, all humans, all creation and leave God out of account, you would be infinitely parochial, infinitely small. You would have embraced something so small God can barely see it.

Why do you think it is that the Bible in places like Psalm 8 says, When I consider your heavens, the work of your... what? Fingers. Why do you think it used the word fingers? Why not hands? Arms, shoulders? Because it was his pinky-work. Galaxies are God’s pinky-work. The point there is to say: This was no effort. He was not tired. When they tried to build that tower into heaven in Genesis, the Bible, in order to make plain the ludicrousness of it said he had to come down to see the top of it. What are they doing? It is just ludicrous. The whole world is ludicrous. The secular mindset is ludicrous. The world is insane in leaving God out of account, in making ourselves the center, in magnifying man and bragging about man’s achievements. Can you imagine what this will look like and feel like on the last day? What will Dawkins say? He will not laugh. He will shriek his way to hell, unless through your prayers, God might save him. May it be so.

The biblical mindset sees as problems not what the world sees as problems. The problems that the biblical mindset sees in the world are so different. Things that don’t fit with God’s rights, God’s purposes, God’s worth, God’s beauty, these are the problems. And successes in the world are things that fit with God’s purposes, God’s designs, God’s rights. So different.

Is God Arrogant?

So the question we need to ask is, What is the basic riddle of the universe? Is it to preserve man’s rights and solve his problems, say, the right of self determination and the problem of suffering. Is that the main problem? Or is the basic riddle of the universe how an infinitely worthy God in complete freedom can display the full range of perfections? — what the Bible in Romans 9:23 calls the riches of his glory, holiness, power, wisdom, justice, wrath, goodness, truth, grace. The secular mindset answers this one way, and the biblical mindset answers it another and the collision is most clearly seen in thinking about worship. Let me illustrate from the London Financial Times.

There was a man named Michael Prouse who in 2003 published an article in the London Financial Times, and he was writing about worship. He says, “Worship is an aspect of religion that I always found difficult to understand. Suppose we postulate an omnipotent being, who for reasons inscrutable to us decided to create something other than himself. Why should he expect us to worship him? We didn’t ask to be created. Our lives are often troubled. We know that human tyrants puffed up with pride crave adulation and homage. But a morally perfect God would surely have no character defects. So why are all those people on their knees every Sunday?”

So there you have a typical secular mindset looking at the phenomenon of worship and the God who commands it in saying he is just morally defective to require worship, because if I required worship of me I would be morally defective. You see where he is starting? Nothing is going to make sense to this man. Nothing in the Bible can possibly make sense to a mindset like that.

I wrote a letter to him, and I have it here. And I will just read you the next two paragraphs. I quoted what he said. I said, “I don’t understand why you assume that the only incentive for God to demand praise is that he is needy or defective. This is true with humans, but with God there is another possibility. What if, as atheist Ayn Rand once said, admiration is the rarest and best of pleasures? And what if, as I wish Ayn Rand could have seen, God really is the most admirable being in the universe? Would this not imply that God’s summons for our praise — our admiration — is the summons for our highest joy? And if the success of that summons cost him the life of his Son, would that not be love instead of arrogance?

So now we are at Romans 3 and the death of Christ, and there are a lot of ways to talk about the magnificence of God and the great centrality of God in his own affections. The safest place to talk about it is at the cross, isn’t it? Everything leads there. Everything goes out from there. So let’s do that. So the question we posed was: What is the riddle of the universe? Is it that man’s rights of self determination and his problems of suffering need to be solved? Or is it that God, willing to display the riches of his glory in the whole panorama of his perfections, has hit some snags in doing that and has to solve that problem.

God Died for God

How you answer that question will depend on how you see the cross. Romans 3:25–26 is where we are going to start. And the reason I started with that long meditation on the two mindsets is because this text is unintelligible to the secular mindset because the deepest problem that this text is facing, that mindset can’t fathom. It is incomprehensible. In fact, the deepest problem that this text is dealing with in the world is so contrary to our secular mindset that I would guess, in America, most Christians don’t see this either. At least over my last 35 years or so of trying to say it in various ways, it lands on so many audiences with perplexity and resistance. I hope not you. Our Christian mindset, I think, is so skewed by the natural secular man centered mindset that we can barely comprehend or love the God-centeredness of God in the cross.

Now my focus is really limited here. I am going to go beneath justification. I am going to go beneath reconciliation. I am going to go beneath forgiveness of sins to the bottom and the foundation of it all in the cross — what C. E. B. Canfield calls the innermost meaning of the cross. And as I read the text, just two verses, the question you should be asking, the thing you should be listening for is, What is the problem God is solving in the sending and the bruising of his Son? What is the deepest problem he is solving?

Romans 3:25: God put Christ forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith. This was to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance [or patience,] he had passed over former sins.

Now, boiled down, what is the basic problem he is solving? He wants to demonstrate his righteousness. This was to show his righteousness or his justice. The problem is that his righteousness needs showing. Something here has made it opaque or obscure or clouded. It is not clear. And he is jealous that his righteousness be shown, be vindicated, be upheld. Something has gone wrong and his righteousness is at stake here. If it cost him his Son, he is going to magnify his righteousness. I think that is crystal clear here. I hope you see it.

The burden in putting him forward as a propitiation is this is to show God’s righteousness, to clear his name, to vindicate himself, his reputation, his honor. Before the cross can be for our sake, it has to be for God’s sake. I think that was something like the original title of this message years ago — Did Christ die for us or for God? And the answer is, If he is to have died for us, he must first have died for God. His death is for the righteousness of God, for the vindication of God. This, I think, is the most important paragraph in the Bible. If you were to ask me to vote. It is not my favorite. I have got others that are more precious to me, but if you asked me importance — importance for your worship life, importance for you to get a handle on so that every service has this flavor — this is where I would point you.

What created that problem that is in this text? What created the problem that his righteousness needed to be shown, vindicated, upheld, cleared? And he says, really clearly in verse 25 “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Now what does that mean? So I want to show my righteousness in the crucifixion of my Son because I have passed over so many sins. The passing over of sins has created a massive problem, and the world doesn’t have a clue it’s a problem. It is not a problem to the world that God is kind at all. How many people do you know who are not believers lose any sleep at all worrying that the sun came up on the righteous and the unrighteous this morning, that the rains fall on the just and the evil, that God passes over sins? For Paul, this was the biggest problem in the universe.

The forgiveness of sins is the biggest problem in the universe for the Apostle Paul. It cost the highest price to deal with the problem. And rescuing you was not the first issue. It was the second issue. And if you get it backwards, everything goes askew in your worship services and there will be a flavor. Godly, deep, spiritual people will feel the difference. You don’t want to go there.

The Lord Has Put Away Your Sin

Let me give you an illustration of what I mean by passing over sins with David. You know what he did. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and he had her husband killed. God sends Nathan the prophet to him, and here is the key sentence that Nathan delivers. Nathan says in 2 Samuel 12:9, “Why have you despised the Word of the Lord?” And in another place, “Why have you despised the Lord?” David responds, “I have sinned against the Lord,” to which Nathan responds, “The Lord has put away your sin. You shall not die” (2 Samuel 12:13). Just like that. Adultery, murder — the Lord has put away your sins. You shall not die. Now right at this point you might break into the world. They might start to get it here if you say: No. No, no, no, no. Not if I am Uriah’s dad, not if I am Bathsheba’s mom. You can’t, Na-than, you can’t say that and just let it go. No judge in the universe would say that, Nathan. This is wrong to just pass over that sin like that. And you start to feel what Paul felt because God has done this mil-lions and millions of times.

One time, a judge on the Hennepin County bench does this and he is impeached — one time and he is impeached. And God has done it millions of times, including thousands of them for you. And the world doesn't feel this problem. The world mainly orients on a God, if there is a God, who owes me. He owes me the sunrise. He owes me safe water. He owes me health. And the only time I am getting serious about him is if he withholds it. And then I will get in his face. And as long as things are going right, God is doing his job and I don’t need to think about it. How many times has he made the sun rise on billions of rebels who belong in hell? That is what Paul means in verse 25 by the passing over of sins previously committed — all those Old Testament people, the saints.

All Have Fallen Short

Psalm 130:3 — “If you, oh Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand?” Or Psalm 103:10 — “He does not deal with us according to our sins or repay us according to our iniquities.” God was doing that century after century for the Old Testament saints. Now here is the question: Why is that a problem? Why is that a problem that he would pass over sins? What is the real issue there? The secular mindset can’t even grasp the situation of the problem. It doesn’t start with God’s creator rights, the right to be worshiped the right to be honored, the right to be cherished and treasured. It starts with the right of man to feel the way he wants to feel and to have the rights he believes that he has.

Well, to see the reason why it is a problem, look at verse 23. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” What is sin? Well, adultery, murder, yes. This says he fell short of the glory of God. What does that mean? All of us have sinned. We fall short of the glory of God. The literal translation is we lack —hustereo. And what does that mean? In Romans 1:23 it says they exchanged the glory of God, ex-changed, exchanged the glory of God for images. So I have the glory of God and there it is. I can love it, delight in it, be satisfied with it, admire it or I can look at an image, money, sex, family, food, jobs, success, church, ministry and I can exchange. Over there. I don’t prefer that. I prefer this. That is sin. All sin does that. All sin does that. It is an exchanging. It is a belittling. It is a preferring of anything above the glory of God. It is a counting as precious and pleasurable something more than pleasures of his right hand. All sin flows from there.

Now that sheds massive light on why God’s passing over sins called his righteousness into question. So here is sin and sin is a rejecting of the glory of God, a preferring of something and deliverance from guilt. Don’t let anybody know that I got her pregnant. Get her home. God, just fix this. Valuing all of that, not God, despising God in all of that and God then comes and says “Let’s just pass over that.” That looks as though he agreed with the low value of his glory. That is what it looks like. And when God agrees with the low value of his glory, he is unrighteous. It is wrong if God agrees with sinners in the low value of his glory. It is not low. It is infinitely high if he acts in a way that makes his glory look low in value he is acting unrighteously. He is wrong. And that is the way it looks like he is acting in passing over all those God belittling sins.

Here’s another illustration: Imagine terrorists have a very sophisticated plot to assassinate the cabinet and the President at the White House at a special gathering, and they almost succeed. Part of the White House is blown up. Some of the guards are killed, by some amazing stroke of providence, the president and his cabinet escape. They capture the terrorists and put them on trial. They are found guilty. And as the sentence is about to be pronounced they apologize. “We are sorry.” And the judge says, “Well, then go. We will let it go. You can go now.” What would that say about the value of the president’s life? And that is what God does with regard to his own glory over and over again.

Just and the Justifier in Christ

So here we are at 3:25 in Romans. He did this. He put his Son forward to show his righteousness, be-cause in his divine forbearance or patience, he has passed over all those God belittling sins, which made him look like he was belittling his glory and, therefore, acting in unrighteousness and, therefore, he needs to demonstrate that that is not the case. How will he do it? How will he be both just and the justifier of King David and thousands of others? And the answer is the death of his Son. He could have done it another way. He could have just sent us all to hell. That would even the score perfectly. An eternal hell for all the sins of the universe would show him perfectly righteous. He could have done it that way. He would not have wronged anybody. I hope there is a flavor of your worship that communicates God never wronged anybody. Nothing you have ever experienced or could ever experience by way of paying would be such that God is wronging you. Nobody is ever wronged by God.

He did not choose to do it that way by slaying his people. He chose to do it by slaying his Son. He could have accomplished it another way. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. We know this truth very well. We sing it. I love to sing it. I hope I sing it forever that Christ died for us, that our salvation is one of the goals of his sending Jesus. We know this. But do our people know the other truth, the foundation of it all? There is a deeper goal in the sending of the Son. Do we know that God’s love for us depends on a deeper love, namely, God’s love for his glory? Do we know that God’s passion to save sinners rests on a deeper passion, namely, his passion to vindicate his righteousness? Do we realize that the accomplishment of our salvation does not center on ourselves, but on God’s glory? The vindication of God’s glory is the ground of our salvation and the exaltation of God’s glory is the goal of our salvation. Christ has become a servant to the circumcised in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. That is why he came, that they might glorify God.

God's Love Through Self-Exaltation

In these last 11 years since I first prepared this kind of message, I have watched the responses in the secular world to Christ, and it is amazing to me the kinds of things that are said in response to the question I am about to ask: Can God’s design to exalt himself, to magnify his righteousness, to uphold his glory, to vindicate his justice be love? Because in the secular mindset in so many Christian heads, that emphasis doesn’t sound loving. God’s self-exaltation doesn’t sound loving.

Now let me give you an illustration from 10 weeks ago on NPR. Terry Gross, on Fresh Air, is interviewing Eric Reese who has written a book entitled An American Gospel. She asked a very pointed question. She obviously had read the book, and she said to him, “On page 28 you said after you quoted Matthew 10:37–39: ‘Who is this ego-maniac speaking these words?’ Would you elaborate on that?”

Now let me read you those words and you will see that his statement is not surprising. We read it and we just don’t hear it the way it sounds to people who aren’t religiously enculturated. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37–39). I mean, what else would a person say? That is an egomaniac talking! Love me more than your mom. Love me more than your family. Love me more than your work. Love me. Value me. You are not worthy of me unless, unless, unless, me, me, me, me.

The only eternal happiness for man rests in the riches of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

He answered like this. This is a direct quote. “Well, it just struck me as who is this person speaking 2000 years ago, a complete historical stranger saying that we should love him who are incapable of emotionally loving more so than we should love our own fathers or sons? It just seemed like an incredibly egomaniacal kind of claim to make.” So whether it is the Father on the cross magnifying his own righteousness or whether it is the Son of God on his way to the cross magnifying his own superior worth, it is a good question. Is that love? Me. Me. Me. Me. Is that love?

I wrote to Eric Reese as well. I try not to play games. If there is a real human being and I am going to quote how horrible what they said is, I will at least try to win them. I wrote him a letter, and tried to identify with him. His dad was a fundamentalist pastor. There are a lot of things he and I have in common. And I never heard back from him or Prouse, but I hope the letters got through. I am not encouraging you to bash people without pursuing people. I am pursuing you to bash their ideas and pursue them. Those ideas need to be bashed. Jesus is not an egomaniac, but the question is: Why not? Why not? And here is the simple answer that I have tried to give all these years in every book I have written, in every sermon I have preached. I just have this one thing to say, basically. So I could just leave tonight and somebody else could speak tomorrow.

Our Eternal Happiness in God’s Glory

This is love because the only eternal happiness for man is a happiness focused on the riches of the glory of God in the face of Christ. The only eternal happiness for man, eternal and full happiness of man is a happiness focused on the glory of God in the face of Christ. Therefore, in order for God to take me there to my fullest and eternal happiness, he must uphold and preserve what will make me happy, namely his glory. The root reason for why the cross is folly to the world is that it means the end of human self-exaltation and a radical commitment to God-exaltation. The word commitment may not be the right word there. I said the end of human self-exaltation and a radical commitment to God-exaltation. Commitment isn’t the right word at a worship conference, I don’t think. What these guys are doing up here, when they do this is not commitment. “Well, I guess we are supposed to do this, so we are committed to doing it.” That is not what is going on.

The reason the cross is folly to the world is that it is the end of human self-exaltation and is the birth of human exultation in the exaltation of God. You spell those words differently, right? You know those two words. Exultation with a “u” is what I do in worship. Exaltation is what I do to God. I exalt him. I exalt in him. And so it is not just a commitment to his exaltation. Yes, let that be the case intellectually and volitionally, but worship happens when the exaltation of God becomes my exultation. I exult in God’s self-exaltation. And that is the mindset that we must breed, pray, preach, teach, sing into our people’s lives.

The God-Exalting Mindset

So test yourself here at the end. What is your mindset? Do you begin with God and his rights and goals or do you begin with yourself and your rights and wishes? And then when you look at the death of Christ, what happens? What happens when your people look at the cross? Does your joy really come from translating this awesome divine work into a boost for self esteem, which is what happens so many places? We translate. We morph the cross into an indirect way of boosting my self esteem. Or are you drawn up out of yourself and filled with wonder and reverence and worship that here, in the death of Jesus, is the deepest, clearest declaration of the infinite esteem of God and his glory and his Son? In other words, am I excited about the cross because there God makes much of me? Or am I excited about the cross because there I was purchased and freed to enjoy making much of the righteousness and the glory that is vindicated there for me to see forever and ever?

So here we have an objective foundation for the full assurance of hope, for the forgiveness of sins, grounded, finally, not in my worth. This is very liberating in the end. If you get to the bottom of what I am saying, it is so liberating, because I cease to be the foundation of my salvation. Rather, the infinite worth of the righteousness of God becomes the basis of my salvation. God’s unswerving allegiance to uphold and to vindicate his glory for my enjoyment is the foundation of my salvation. God’s unswerving allegiance, commitment, faithfulness to uphold and display his righteousness, his glory, the full panorama of his perfections through the cross for my admiration and enjoyment forever and ever.

So I simply appeal to you with all my heart that you will stand on this and that you will live for this and that your hope would be in this and that you would be freed for the futile dead-end, suicidal mindset of the world that begins with man. When God’s exaltation of God in Christ is your joy, when God’s exaltation of God in Christ at the cross is your joy, your joy can never fail.