The Puritan, Jeremiah Burroughs, once wrote: “When we worship God, we should worship Him with fear and reverence, with humility and with strength of intention.”1Jeremiah Burroughs. Gospel Worship: Worship Worthy of God. ed. D. Kistler ( Grand Rapids: MI: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990), 110. We have a tendency to say we agree with him, but our practice often falls short.  This is not the place for a discussion on instruments and “styles” of worship.  Instead, it is best to focus on our hearts in worship.  It is, after all, not how somebody sings or their way of doing things that ultimately matters.  What matters is the heart behind those things and if it is in proper communion with God or not.  We know that: “the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  (1 Sam. 16:7).  We will try and analyze the heart, rather than external matters.

If our hearts are transformed by God’s grace and our lives in line with His Word, then Burroughs’ statement should be true of us.  If we are off the proper path, then we will not offer proper worship.  Rather, our actions will serve to satisfy our desires, instead of presenting God with what is pleasing to Him.  This has become all too prevalent in churches today.  A bad understanding of worship has taken root.  The result is a decaying spirituality.  Many well-intentioned Christians have focused too much on the external, rather than the internal.  Somehow, God has been subordinated to our feelings in worship.

Is this necessarily wrong though?  Burroughs believed that the fear of God was the key to how we worship.  Was he right?  Surely God is love?  Would that not mean that fear is an ancient and archaic understanding of worship?  In order to find out we will have to study the Scriptures.

Biblical Analysis

The famous verse rings true: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”  (Prov. 9:10).  We are called, in this verse, to fear God.  This is the beginning of our path to wisdom.  In that quest, knowledge of God is also required.  We are told that this knowledge is “insight”.  What Solomon means is that if we know God and increase our knowledge of Him, then we will better understand all things.  Questions such as “why do bad things happen”, “what is the point of life”, and many more find their answer in the knowledge of God.

As we grow in our knowledge of God, we begin to create an armory of resources which aid our worship.  The more we know Him, the more we can pull that knowledge into worship, making it more and more profound.  Developing our knowledge of God makes us more able to worship Him for all He is.  That is why Jesus said that: “Those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  (Jn. 4:24).  We cannot worship Him in any spiritual manner without being filled with truth and knowledge.  We will look more at this aspect of worship in the next article, but for now it is important to highlight this.

Wisdom and knowledge go hand in hand with worship.  Solomon linked them together for a good reason.  We need to be informed on a situation if we are to respond wisely to it.  We need knowledge if we are to be wise.  We also need wisdom when we have knowledge so we know how to use it.  The two go hand in hand and this is seen in amazing ways in worship.

The wisdom we must have stems from the fear of God.  Throughout the Bible, this idea of fearing God is prevalent (Deut. 8:6; Ps. 34:9; Prov. 1:7; 2 Cor. 7:1).  If we are to come to Him in a spiritual manner, then we must come to Him in the right manner (Spirit and truth).  This focus on the fear of God shows us that fearing God is an essential element of worship.  The more we know about Him, the more we will reverentially fear Him.  We will drop all pretense, knowing He knows everything about us.  We will drop our personal desires, knowing He is the object of our worship and not us.  As we grow in sanctification there will be less of us in worship and more of Him.  That finds its expression in our fear of Him.

What is this fear?  Are we to whimper away as little children in the face of a giant?  Does it merely mean respecting God as we respect our earthly fathers?  Neither answer is sufficient.  The fear of God is the holy reverence we have before Him.  As we worship Him in Spirit and truth, we must realize that we are coming before the holy and sovereign God of this universe.  He will not accept worship on anything other than His own terms (Deut. 10:12).  It is imperative that we do it the right way.  Knowing He could wipe us out with less than words, we humbly submit ourselves to Him in worship.

Yet, that is not all.  John says:  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.  For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”  (1 Jn. 4:18).  So, are we to fear God or not?  I think the answer is simple.  We are to maintain that holy reverence, but under the knowledge that He will not wipe us out.  Yes, we will make mistakes in our worship.  We will come with harder hearts than should be.  We will even treat worship as a flimsy add on to Christian living sometimes.  Our gracious God, however, does not condemn us for our failures though?  Why?

Because His Son has taken our punishment on Himself.  Fear is to do with punishment and our punishment has been paid.  His love has bridged the infinite gulf between us and God.  We have access to Him through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:18).  What does that look like today?  It is simple.  We maintain holy reverence under all this knowledge about His almighty and sovereignly glorious character.  At the same time, we express reverence under the full realization of His mercy.  He has provided the sacrifice already, we will not be burned up for making mistakes.

Think about how we deserve to be received as we come to the Lord.  We come with no merit in ourselves, as filthy sinners, and less ashamed of those things than we ought to be.  If such a filthy beggar came before an earthly king, he would be thrown out of the throne room.  But not with our heavenly King.  Thanks be to Christ, God does not only permit our entry and listen to us.  He also allows us to approach through His Son’s mediatorship.  We have direct fellowship with God where He listens to our prayers and praise (Heb. 4:14-16; 1 Jn. 2:24).  We are acceptable to Him because His Son was perfectly suitable to die for our sins.

This makes our worship all the more profound, as we will now see.

Practical Worship

Perfect love has cast away fear.  Not that it has been eradicated, but that we are guided into a fresh way of thinking.  There is much about fear and reverence in the New Testament alongside John’s statement.  This ensures that we do not misunderstand John (Matt. 10:28; Lk. 1:50; Eph. 5:21).  The reverence we have for God remains.  It remains under the knowledge of the fulfillment of covenantal requirements by Jesus Christ.  This, in turn, gives us more information and desire to praise Him.  We never could have worshiped God perfectly in this life and, because of Christ, we do not need to.  We need only inform our minds, and react to Him as is appropriate (Eph. 4:23).  This means we will continually seek to do better, but are not condemned for our failures.  God is forgiving and merciful.  This is truly praiseworthy.

In this framework understanding the fear of God serves to ripen our worship.  Jesus Christ has died to take away our sins.  What a wonderful opportunity for praise.  Not only that, but the bridge to Him is open and always accessible.  We can worship Him at any time.

As we cross the bridge and approach the throne to worship Him, may we learn to reflect on all His attributes.  Yes, He is loving, merciful, and gracious.  But He is also sovereign, glorious, and just.  As we blend all of His attributes together in our worship, it will flow into a beautiful tapestry. We will worship God for all He is, rather than just the aspects we want Him to be.

Do you want to be enriched in your worship?  If so, take this idea to heart.  Study God’s Word and see what it says about fearing Him.  Reflect on why we are to fear Him.  Study His attributes and incorporate what you have studied into your reverent worship of this amazing God.

The fear of God is not some old, outdated concept which is done away with in the New Testament.  It is a living, breathing truth that should shock our hearts into the proper form of worship.  If we are to worship, we are to worship with the fear of God seeded into our hearts.  Ask yourself now if this is the case for you and your church.

We worship in fear as we remember what Christ endured for us.  Every little mistake and all our sin was paid for on the cross.  We should surely want to understand that in deeper and deeper ways so we can know why we are worshiping.

How, then, do we worship?  We worship with the fear of God in our souls. This is a far cry from how things are done in many churches today.  What can we do?  Easy.  We can study God’s Word, work through it and come to biblical conclusions on how He would have us worship Him.  We will continue to look at this in the next two articles.

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    Jeremiah Burroughs. Gospel Worship: Worship Worthy of God. ed. D. Kistler ( Grand Rapids: MI: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990), 110.