Worship is a Result of Forgiveness

Why do we sing? What makes us praise? As a people, the things that we do are strange. I am not sure that many in the world understand why we would do what we do, especially when it comes to getting together and singing on a Sunday morning.

Of course, there are multiple reasons that we sing. We sing because God commanded us to do so. We may sing because we genuinely enjoy singing with others. We sing, because it teaches us truth. We sing because, well, we have always sung.

Psalm 51:14

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.

Psalm 51 is one of those famous Psalms. It is the one where David is writing after a major sin. It has those popular lines that we know like, “Against you and you only have I sinned,” and “Create in me a clean heart.” But what got my attention as I recently read it was this little verse about singing.

What is David saying? Is David making a deal with God? If you’ll forgive me, I’ll sing you a song. No, that is not what is going on. God is not going to have us purchase his forgiveness with promises. We cannot pay him anything, including obedience, to earn grace.

I think something much better is going on here. David is making it clear that he knows that singing, true and joyful singing, is a proper human response to being forgiven. David knows that genuine joy is to be found in knowing that our sins are covered. We will sing as we realize that God has cleansed us from a genuine guilt.

Singing and other acts of worship, acts that confuse the world around us, are right responses to the grace of God. You see, unlike the rest of the world, we know ourselves to be guilty, really guilty, before the Lord. We know we have earned wrath from God. But, as believers, we also know that our sins have been covered by the astoundingly lovely sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. God chose to save us. God sent his Son who did the work to save us. The Son of God declares us to be his before his Father. And in doing so, we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son of God. We are transitioned from being destined for hell to being eternally destined for heaven. We Move from being lost to forgiven.

What is the right response to all that? We should love the Lord. We should sing. We should praise. We should bow and pray and weep in gratitude. We should magnify the Lord, the Holy One, who loved us enough to make us his own.

Why do we sing? One reason is that we are forgiven. That is surely enough.

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Not That Way

Here is a simple yet significant warning. Be careful attempting to worship the Lord in the way that seems most natural to you. Why? As a sinful human being, your choices, your natural instincts, your most comfortable ideas are apt to be wrong. It is very possible that a person might come up with a sincere plan to please God. The plan may seem logical and even meaningful. But, if it is not in accord with the will of God, that plan will be nothing but offensive to God.\

I thought of this while reading through Deuteronomy. Take note of the warning God gives Israel early on in his reiteration of his law regarding worship.

Deuteronomy 12:1-4 1 “These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. 2 You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way.

God told the people that, when they enter the land to possess it, they are to physically destroy Canaanite temples. Why? Look to the final verse. God tells the people, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way.” Why would God have to make this statement? It is because the people would have naturally chosen to worship in that way. God was warning them, not against something that was no temptation, but against something that is the most common of human temptations. God was warning them not to worship in a way of their own devising.

Friends, the truth is that we will very naturally come up with all sorts of things we think must be great ideas for worshipping the Lord. But God had to warn people early on not to come up with new plans, new strategies, new methods of worshipping him. God had a very clear will as to how he should be worshipped.

Does that bother you? He is God after all. God has every right to say what pleases him and what does not. God is in no way obligated to accept human worship at all. God is certainly not obligated to accept human worship which he finds offensive. And God is not obligated to be pleased with our ideas for worship. This truth is doubled when we realize that God has told us how to please him in his word. God gave Israel instructions in the desert. God has given his church instructions in the first century. How dare we determine to go our own way?

But, beware. The reason the command had to be given is that it is in our sinful nature to attempt to worship in ways that do not please the Lord. Remember, the thing that made Cain most angry early on was the fact that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and his was not. Remember that Aaron’s two sons died for offering a fire to the Lord that the Lord did not authorize. Remember, from right here in Deuteronomy, that God had to warn the people not to worship like the Canaanites. Understand that, if you leave things to your own best ideas, if your worship is not governed by the word of God, you will displease the Lord in the very act of what you think is worship.

An Example of Fearing God Rightly

In Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the nation of Israel of her history and the covenant between the Lord and the people. Of course, early in that reminder is the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments. And right along with the story of the commandments being given is the reminder of how the people responded to the whole event.

If you recall, God spoke in the hearing of the people. He made the mountain smoke and quake. And the people of God who saw it were utterly terrified. They were rightly afraid of the holiness and power of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 5:23-27 – 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’

The people came to Moses and acknowledged they had heard the voice of God and seen a glimpse of his power. They then asked Moses to serve as a go-between to tell them what God had to say. Why? They were afraid of that might and that purity. They could not imagine that any nation could really see the glory of God and his holiness and his power and still live to tell the tale.

Now, here is the point that makes me write. These people saw the spectacular and heard the voice of God. They rightly assessed the situation by being amazed that they could catch a glimpse of the one true God and live. They understood that God’s holiness is deadly. So they trembled. And in a respectful awe, they asked Moses to represent them to the Lord and to communicate to them for the Lord.

Today, I wonder how many who claim to know the Lord have any concept of this fear. I wonder how many who attend church on a weekly basis can even begin to grasp the holy fear that made the people of God ask Moses to listen in their stead. I wonder how many believe that any person should even think twice before approaching the Lord.

I believe wholeheartedly that Christians have been given the right to approach God in freedom and confidence (Eph. 3:12). I believe that God has adopted believers as his own children (John 1:12-13). I understand that we are made righteous because of the imputed righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). And yet I also know that there is something very right about thinking about how one approaches the Lord. Our God is holy, holy, holy (Rev. 4:8). From his throne come flashes of lightning and rumblings and thunders (Rev. 4:5).

It would be a good thing, I think, if we remembered the holiness of God that caused such trembling in the nation of Israel. It would be good if we were in awe of the concept of a people being allowed in the presence of God. It would be good to shake our heads in wonder at the concept of hearing the words of God and yet living. And then it would be good to enter that presence of God, humbly, under the grace of Jesus, with proper gratitude. I think relearning a little of the fear of God in this way would honor him well even as it helps us to be truly grateful for grace.

The Heart of the Worshipper Matters

In many religions in the world, the acts of worship that are performed are ceremony or ritual. And in those religions, the performance of the ritual itself is the significant point. A person might be sprinkled with sacred water, drink of a ceremonial wine, eat of a ceremonial meal, or speak certain ritualistic words, and, when they do such things, the performance of the religious action is assumed to be what is important. But this has never been the case with biblical faith whether true Old Testament Judaism or Christianity.

Proverbs 15:8

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.

Note the opposing parallel statements in this proverb. God is deeply offended by the sacrifice of the wicked. God welcomes the prayer of the upright. What is the difference? In both lines, a person participates in religious ritual. One makes an offering. One says a prayer. And the differentiation between acceptable and abominable is the heart and life of the one performing the religious act.

Take something simple today, perhaps the singing of a song as an act of worship. What pleases God? Is God pleased when a person with a great voice sings a great song that she actually does not mean? Or is God more pleased when a person who lacks in talent sings a song of truth with deep sincerity? It is the sincere-hearted, faithful believer who pleases the Lord.

Or, go further. Both a genuine Christian and a person who does not know the Lord can participate in religious ceremonies like baptism or Lord’s Supper. A lost person can convince church leaders that he should be allowed to join in the ceremony. But God’s word is clear that such participation is an abomination to God. The Lord is not pleased with the religious ceremonial acts of an unconverted person, one who opposes the Lord in his heart.

Christians, we should not allow this to make us assume that ceremony does not matter. Nor should we let ourselves think that any religious action we come up with will please God if we are simply sincere. We need to worship the Lord in accord with his commands. And the Lord has commanded formal and informal acts of worship. But as we obey those commands, we should also recognize that the worship that pleases the Lord is worship from a sincere, forgiven believer who comes to the Lord with a genuine heart.

Singing of Wrath

When we sing as believers, we sing of happy things most often. At least that is true in our modern culture. We like to sing of God’s grace. We like to sing of his faithfulness to us and his comforting love. Songs on Christian radio like to sing of the way that the writers assume God views us and to claim victories over all sorts of issues.

But a look at Scripture tells us that the people of God often sin about things that might not make the pop station very popular. God’s word includes songs of sorrow and lament. God’s word includes songs of imprecation, of crying out for God to judge the wicked and oppressor. And God’s word includes many a song that declares that God is right in all his actions.

Revelation 15:1–4 – 15 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.

2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and amazing are your deeds,

O Lord God the Almighty!

Just and true are your ways,

O King of the nations!

4 Who will not fear, O Lord,

and glorify your name?

For you alone are holy.

All nations will come

and worship you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

In Revelation 15, we see a gathering of the saints of God. This chapter opens by declaring to us that God is about to pour out his wrath on the world for its evil. And we see that the people of God, forgiven in Christ, are set apart from that fury of god. And as the people of God are set apart, witnessing what the Lord will do, they sing.

Note the point of the song. Without a full exposition, I think we can see the truth that feels so strange to our minds. They see the judgment of god coming, and they declare that God is absolutely good and right and holy in all his ways. These people are not giving themselves the right of judgment over God. They are not declaring that God owes them an explanation for his actions. They are not faulting God for not doing things in the way that they expect. They just see who God is, what God is doing, and they know that all that the Lord is and does is right.

I am surely not suggesting that Christians become morbidly obsessed with wrath, judgment, and death. We are a people called by God to communicate the good news of his grace and to make disciples of all nations. We do not find joy in the death of the wicked. But, we also must be a people who are not somehow different than the saints that we see in Revelation 15. We will pray God’s mercy over the lost world. But we will also sing of the holiness of God when his judgment comes. Our God is perfect and right. That must be our first assumption. The God who has revealed himself in Scripture is our Maker, our Master, and our Judge. May we worship him, singing of his grace and his judgment with equal awe.

Some Songs We Need

In the final section of Psalm 119, I notice a verse that has not previously gotten my attention, but which has it now.

Psalm 119:172

My tongue will sing of your word,
for all your commandments are right.

David writes that he is going to sing of God’s word. Of course, that is precisely what is happening in Psalm 119. It also is what we see done in Psalm 19. Those texts beautifully proclaim the value and perfection of the word of God.

The thing that got my attention is that, as someone who has led worship for years, I do not know of many new songs that really sing of the word of God. We sing of salvation. We sing of the joys of heaven to come (though not as much as we used to). We sing of Jesus. We sing songs calling the church to action. But, off the top of your head, what is a modern song about the word of God?

Without making this a challenge for people’s musical memories, and without discussing the value of a dated song like “Thy Word,” and without having someone demand a Psalms only song set, I would like to say that we need more songs, new songs, that sing of the word of God. God’s word is perfect. God’s word is our lifeline of revelation so that we know and can obey the Lord. Without God’s word, we are hopelessly floundering in life.

Now, note the devotional value in the verse too. David will sing of God’s word. Something about the word of God is so great to David to make it worthy of a song. Think of how many things around you are not song worthy. Then consider how great is the value of the word that God would inspire a man, in a song, to remind us that the word of God is worth singing about. O may we treat the word as a song-worthy treasure.

And, secondly, notice that David says all of God’s commandments are right. Do you believe that? Be careful. There are commandments in the word that tend to embarrass us. There are commandments that we hide from. Are you really ready to say that all God’s commandments are right?

I will say that all God’s commandments are right. How dare I? How can I say that? God is always right. I believe the word of God to be his revelation of himself to us. And thus, all his commandments are right. He shows us what is right by him showing us himself and his will. He defines right. God is not measured by a right that is outside of him. Right is measured by whether or not it fits the ways and word of God.

A Humility in Worship

Reading the account of Solomon preparing for the building of the temple, I was struck by the humble thoughts that come from the king as he sought out skilled craftsmen to help him build. Solomon, at this point, recognized a few important things about the project he was undertaking. He knew what the temple could and could not be. And Solomon knew what he was not himself.

2 Chronicles 2:4-7 – 4 Behold, I am about to build a house for the name of the Lord my God and dedicate it to him for the burning of incense of sweet spices before him, and for the regular arrangement of the showbread, and for burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths and the new moons and the appointed feasts of the Lord our God, as ordained forever for Israel. 5 The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. 6 But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him? 7 So now send me a man skilled to work in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and in purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, trained also in engraving, to be with the skilled workers who are with me in Judah and Jerusalem, whom David my father provided.

Two things should speak to us in this section, I think. One is the fact that Solomon knew, from the very beginning, that, no matter how great was the temple, it could never come close to being a house for God. The temple could not be the place where God resided. All the temple could be is the place where God was worshipped. But the entirety of the heavens could not contain the glory of the Lord.

Solomon also asked a significant question, “Who am I?” Who indeed is Solomon to lead in this undertaking? Who is Solomon to build something for God? Solomon knew that he did not have the skill to make anything worthy of the Lord. This is why he was sending out for the greatest goldsmith and craftsmen he could possibly get.

I think that we could learn something from Solomon that would impact how we worship today. When the church of the living God is gathered together, Peter tells us that we are living stones being built together into a temple of our God. We, the people of God, are now where God is worshipped. This is a glorious honor, something we cannot deserve. Worshipping our Lord is a privilege. We should see the concept that God would ever receive praise from us as the highest honor available to humanity.

But

At the same time, some of the humility Solomon displayed would be good for us. We should ask, “Who am I?” Who are we that the God of the universe would hear our prayers? Who are we that the God of the universe would accept a song from our lips as worship? Who are we that the God of the universe would be pleased when we speak truth about him? Who are we that the God of the universe would give us his word so that we might know his ways?

Remember, when asking those questions, that the answer to the “who am I” question is never correct if the answer starts with what we bring to the table. We were sinners, rebels against the Lord. We were lost and hopeless. God, in his great mercy, chose to love us, save us, and adopt us. Now we know that we are in Christ, children of God, and allowed access to him in our Savior. We should not hide from worship, because God welcomes us. But we also should know that he welcomes us, not because of the good that we bring him, but because of the good he has given us.

Christians, worship the Lord with joy. Remember what an honor it is to be allowed to speak his praise. And be humble, knowing that God has given you a grace that you could never have earned on your own.