In his book, Brief Instruction in the Worship of God, John Owen writes: “That God is to be worshiped, and that according to his own will and appointment, is a principle branch of the law of our creation written in our hearts . . . but the ways and means of that worship depend merely on God’s sovereign pleasure and institution.”
Owen here points out something very, very important about the worship of God that we must understand even before we learn what worship is – that God prescribes right worship and doesn’t leave it up to human beings to decide which of their worshiping efforts ought to be acceptable to God. Because He is an infinitely holy, just, and perfect God, He deserves (and rightly demands) worship. And because He is infinitely holy, just, and perfect, we cannot afford to worship Him in a way that doesn’t actually honor or please Him, as He is.
I specifically say “as He is” because we now operate in a culture of cheap Christian faith that doesn’t truly care to know God as He is through careful and objective study of Scripture, yet somehow still prides itself on being enthusiastic and sincere in worship. And as a result, their worship rings hollow. Their songs and shrines of praise are powerful for nothing more than provoking emotional highs and false assurance. They may worship in spirit, but not in truth (John 4:24) – and this makes their celebration bitter and ineffective in the sight of God.
There is a plethora of books and sermons on the subject of what constitutes the act of worship. In a nutshell, worship of God is praising and honoring Him deliberately, often through mediums of song, the proclamation of Scripture, and other celebrations of His attributes.
As the Puritan George Swinnock defines it, “Worship comprehends all that respect which man oweth and giveth to His Maker. . . It is the tribute which we pay to the King of Kings, whereby we acknowledge His sovereignty over us, and our dependence on Him. . . All that inward reverence and respect, and all that outward obedience and service to God, which the word ‘godliness’ enjoineth, is included in this one word Worship.”
The problem with much of what is touted as modern and contemporary “worship” is it easily loses sight of Who precisely it is supposed to be glorifying and honoring. This happens either through too much focus on the human self or through too much celebration over a god who isn’t consistent with the God of Scripture. I think one of the most dangerous and subtle lies that pervades our culture’s spiritual landscape is that it only matters whether or not you worship sincerely – regardless of who or what exactly you are worshipping. But this sentiment is a product of our pluralistic society; it is not a philosophy of worship we find in Scripture.
If worship is about God and the celebration of His attributes (and it is), then we can’t worship without knowing who God really is. This is why good theology is imperative to worship, and bad theology actively hinders it. Bad theology inevitably leads us to the sin of idolatry. It causes us to praise and entrust ourselves to a version of God that doesn’t match up to reality (regardless of how attractive it is). We end up creating a false god – and worse, we try to equate it with the Christian God. So if the contemporary church wants worship without concern for theology, it will end up worshiping with bad theology, since theology itself is unavoidable whenever we’re on the subject of God. And if we aren’t on the subject of God, then we aren’t doing true worship at all.