Worship in Spirit & in Truth via Liturgy (Part 2)

Jesus declared in John 4:23-24 that “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.” In my last article, I showed how using liturgy in worship enables us to worship in God “in truth,” as the language of the prayers and liturgy of the best Prayer Books in the Anglican tradition are steeped in and drawn from Scripture (click here for the full post). Let us now turn to the question of whether liturgy can facilitate worshipping God “in spirit.”

Much debate has occurred over what exactly Jesus meant by “in spirit and truth.” At a bare minimum, his charge implies that worship cannot simply be mental assent to things which are true, with no involvement of the heart. This type of heartless religious observance often characterized Israel’s worship of God; He had instructed them at Sinai as to the ins and outs of the sacrificial system, while calling them to love Him with their whole hearts. As time progressed, the sacrifices kept being offered physically, even long after the hearts of the Israelites had strayed to other gods. This empty worship earned them the rebuke of the prophets. Isaiah, for instance, critiqued the Israelites as a people who honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him (Isaiah 29:13).

The contention that liturgical worship leads to same place as Israelite worship is where many opponents of liturgical worship take their stand, as I myself once did. Such worship, they contend, results in a dead faith. It is not without reason that the nickname “the frozen chosen” has been put upon those within the Episcopal tradition! Reliance upon written prayers and pre-formed service orders can result in the mindless reading of prayers and creeds. This can be as true for the clergy as for the people, with nary a heart engaged in the proceedings. While this critique can be valid, it need not be so. To see a prescription for this malady, let us look at one point of revival in Israel’s history, found during the ministry of Ezra.

In Nehemiah 8, the people of God had returned to the land after being in exile, and were gathered together in Jerusalem. There Ezra read to them from the Torah. Nehemiah 8:8-9 recounts that after the reading, the Levites “helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This text is often used as a reference to the role and importance of preaching, and rightly so! But consider also that a portion of the Law, Genesis-Deuteronomy, contains the liturgies for Israel’s worship of God. They heard the stories of Creation and Fall, God’s preserving Noah through the Flood, His choosing of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, His mighty deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and His preservation of His people through the wilderness. They heard also of all the moral laws given with the covenant at Sinai. And they heard about all of the different sacrifices and rituals they were commanded to offer up and partake in for their right worship of God. The explanation of the Levites would have needed to cover all these things. So, it was not just the explanation of doctrines and recounting of narrative, but a meaningful explanation of worship practices and liturgies as well.

Personally, I have found such explanations to be vital for worshipping God in a liturgical setting. As I have better understood the flow of the liturgy, the underlying purpose of each prayer and how each part flows together into the whole, it has greatly strengthened my heart’s personal engagement with liturgical worship. Understanding how the opening prayers and responses of a Holy Communion service, for example, repeatedly emphasize the need for the human heart to be shaped to desire God, His Word, and His ways, has helped me to pray with a heart that is engaged (for the full liturgy on this section, click here). The more I have learned the origins and purpose of each part of the liturgy, the more I am able to be engaged in worship in both spirit and in truth.

For the final, and more important corrective to dead ritual, let us return to John 4. Jesus’ words do not merely speak of engaging our hearts and minds in worship, but that above all our worship must be empowered by God’s Spirit. In regards to this text, Craig Keener notes that “only religion born from the Spirit, utterly dependent on God’s empowerment, can please God.”[i] Our hearts can only engage in true worship when they are enlivened by the Holy Spirit. After all, in John 15:5 Jesus said that apart from Him we can do nothing, which must include offering pleasing worship to God! Without the Spirit’s indwelling our prayers and praises, they are empty, regardless of their beauty and source. Education on the purposes, meaning, and flow of the liturgy is important, but it is useless without a lively faith and the Spirit’s movement.

Whenever you approach God in worship, I commend to you the following prayer, known as the Collect for Purity, which we use in our Holy Communion services at the very beginning of the service. Its words are beautiful, but more than this, it acknowledges our need for God to cleanse and direct our hearts and desires before we can offer Him true worship:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Help us, O Lord, to worship the Father in spirit and in truth.


[i] Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Volume 1, 618.

Worship in Spirit & in Truth via Liturgy (Part 1)

I am a Christian who worships within the Anglican church, a tradition which utilizes liturgy in our worship of God. My family is not from this tradition; I was raised in broadly evangelical churches, where any prayers came straight from the pastor’s heart to his lips, just as God intended! I had the firm conviction from attending a few Roman Catholic services with friends that such cookie-cutter worship resulted in deadly ritualism and idolatry. I would have laughed at you fifteen years ago if you told me that not only would I join a liturgical tradition, but would be a pastor in one. Yet here I am, and my views on the use of liturgy in worship have undergone a seismic shift due to an extensive exposure to liturgy and a helpful education on its benefits.

My aim is to provide a few articles regarding liturgical worship, both highlighting its strengths and providing some helpful cautions. Before you read any further, just know that I am not attempting to convert any of you to Anglicanism. I merely desire to help inform any anti-liturgical attitudes out there while providing some food for thought for those worshipping within liturgical communities.

Let me begin with a positive: the best liturgical traditions bring prayers into the life of the church which are immersed in the words of Scripture. In my experience, this is part of what people within these traditions refer to as the beauty of the liturgy, since at some level they recognize that the words are ones which have been given to the church by the Spirit through the Bible. This featuring of biblical language can be seen by looking through the prayer books in the Anglican tradition.

From the beginnings of the Protestant Church of England in the mid-1500s until the present day, Books of Common Prayer have been ever-present in the life of Anglican worship. Most prayers and elements of the liturgy are either pulled directly from Scripture (and some that are not are so steeped in biblical language that they sound as though they were!) or from the prayers of early Christian worshipping communities. The beauty in the liturgy, at its best, is that it places the words of the Bible onto the lips of believers both gathered and scattered, over time imprinting them upon their hearts and minds. Just consider the following suffrage (a series of intercessory prayers or petitions), taken from the Evening Prayer service of the 2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer:

 Officiant  O Lord, show your mercy upon us;

   People   And grant us your salvation.

Officiant   O Lord, guide those who govern us;

   People   And lead us in the way of justice and truth.

Officiant   Clothe your ministers with righteousness;

   People   And let your people sing with joy.

Officiant   O Lord, save your people;

   People   And bless your inheritance.

Officiant   Give peace in our time, O Lord;

   People   And defend us by your mighty power.

Officiant   Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;

   People   Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

Officiant   Create in us clean hearts, O God;

   People   And take not your Holy Spirit from us.

For those who regularly read the Psalms, these intercessions should sound quite familiar. Many are direct quotes from Israel’s songbook, and all are sourced from ideas found therein. For comparison, read through the Psalms below (all taken from the ESV). Then read the suffrage above again. It is undeniable how the Word of God flows through the worship liturgies when viewing examples like these:

Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,

    and grant us your salvation. (Psalm 85:7)

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,

    for you judge the peoples with equity

    and guide the nations upon earth. (Psalm 67:4)

Teach me your way, O Lord,

    that I may walk in your truth;

    unite my heart to fear your name. (Psalm 86:11)

Let your priests be clothed with righteousness,

    and let your saints shout for joy. (Psalm 132:9)

Oh, save your people and bless your heritage!

    Be their shepherd and carry them forever. (Psalm 28:9)

May the Lord give strength to his people!

    May the Lord bless his people with peace! (Psalm 29:11)

Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,

    that he might make known his mighty power. (Psalm 106:8)

For the needy shall not always be forgotten,

    and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever. (Psalm 9:18)

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

    and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence,

    and take not your Holy Spirit from me. (Psalm 51:10-11)

Such liturgical prayers, based in the Scriptures, facilitate corporate prayer in the church at least as well as any extemporaneous prayer from the heart of the pastor. One is (hopefully) guided by the Holy Spirit in the moment, the other sourced by the Spirit ages ago. Both are capable of leading God’s people in prayer.

While it is easy to see how the liturgy is grounded in Scripture, and thus in the truth of God’s Word, this is not the only biblical requirement of worship. When Jesus was discussing with the woman at the well the proper location for God’s people to gather in worship, He brought forth a dual-requirement for worship. In John 4:23-24 He declared that “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.” Jesus taught that the worship of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, is characterized by both truth and spirit. The engagement of the heart in worship is one of the necessary cautions for those within liturgical traditions. This will be the topic covered in the next article in this series. Until that time, my prayer is that in each of our churches, we would worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

Standing Firm In Overwhelming Times

As we walk through 2020, it can feel at times as though things could not get worse in our society or our world. You may be experiencing this on an external level, depressed by the direction of our culture, the political battles, the pandemic, living in the midst of a partial societal shutdown. You may also be experiencing this internally – affected by grief, by the loss or restriction of interaction with friends and families, the removal of familiar routines and hobbies, the constant temptation and burden of your own sins, etc. It can be quite tempting to curl up into a ball and rock back and forth until such a time as the sun comes out from the clouds, the riots and election are past, and COVID is defanged.

Consider a snapshot from Middle Earth (if Lord of the Rings is not your pint of ale, as it were, feel free to skip this paragraph). One of the things I have most enjoyed about 2020 is reading through Lord of the Rings with my wife once our three little ones are asleep. We have finally made it to The Return of the King, which is one of my favorite books of all time. Early in the book there is a beautiful scene where Pippin, one of the pint-sized hobbits, has just arrived in the stronghold of Minas Tirith. He is gazing across the plains at the mountains of Mordor, wherein dwells the full strength of the evil Sauron. Pippin, overcome by the enormity of the battle before them and their long, long odds of success, cowers in fear. He remains so for some time before eventually regaining composure and encouraging himself with these words: “No, my heart will not yet despair. Gandalf fell and has returned and is with us. We may stand, if only on one leg, or at least be left still upon our knees.” Pippin’s hope rests not upon the strength of their armies, or the courage of their hearts – for he knew such things to not be sufficient – rather he finds hope in a transformed Gandalf, who has come back from the dead.

This scene struck me with regards to our Christian call to respond to the overwhelming circumstances of this life by looking beyond them to the crucified and risen Christ. Tolkien may not have been trying to write a Christian allegory, but in moments like this the Christian reader can no doubt draw important parallels to their own life circumstances. So long as we focus upon the circumstances and struggles of this life, despair is the best outlook, and we will sink like Peter as he noticed the waves (Matthew 14:30). We must draw our gaze away from these things and focus our attention to something even more powerful than the decay of society, the grip of sin, and the schemes of the devil. Pippin finds solace and strength to stand even in the face of evil because of a powerful being come back from the pit; we find solace and strength to stand because of a Savior who has died and rose again.

Here is where the illustration breaks down. We should not simply say “Christ died and is with us therefore let us have hope.” Rather, we rest upon the sure and certain truth that by His death He has defeated our enemies – sin, death, and the Devil. While we may not feel the reality of it yet, the destruction of all these foes is certain. Yet unlike Gandalf, our Lord Jesus is not “with us” in His physical presence, rather He has ascended into Heaven. He left us, in order that He could send us His Spirit, which He declared as being an even better situation than if He were to still be with us physically (John 16:7)! Although absent physically, He is doing greater work on our behalf; He is our Great High Priest representing us to God while preparing for us that new and eternal City and glorious New Creation promised in His Word (John 14:2-3, Revelation 21-22).  

How then can we stand firm in the face of despair and amidst the difficult circumstances of this life? I do not write this from an ivory tower. My wife and I are little more than a week removed from a miscarriage, one which left us awash in a greater grief than either of us had ever known. For comfort, I have taken my cues from Scripture. Whatever your struggles may be, I invite you to look with me to Christ, remembering that since we are His disciples, we should expect nothing less than to walk the path that He walked (Matthew 10:24-25). His way was the way of suffering in this life, only then followed by eternal glory (Philippians 2:1-11). 

In closing, I take great encouragement from how Paul constantly points to this identification with Christ as he considers the suffering of this life, saying in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Perhaps this perspective is best summed up in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, which after Paul considered the trials he had endured concludes thus: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

So, when you are tempted to despair, when your situation looks bleak and it feels like sin and death have won out, gaze upon the crucified, risen, and triumphant Jesus, in view of whom all the difficulties of our lives are re-cast as transient “light and momentary troubles.” Remember that He is with you by His Spirit as you walk His path of suffering, a path whose end is to be with Christ in glory. This is the only way I know to stand firm in the midst of overwhelming times.