The Trinitarian dynamic of worship

The author explores the link between the doctrine of the Trinity and worship.

 

Our thoughts about God determine the way we worship Him. Therefore, a correct theological framework is essential for good liturgical practice. In other words, theology shapes the way we worship. That being the case, I can hardly recall a time when I intentionally let the Adventist doctrine of God impact my worship ministry in a major way. My interest in renewing worship had more to do with changing the format than looking at the deep structures of worship. I firmly believe in God as a Trinity, yet could hardly see the link between the Trinity and worship. Like all committed Christians, I acknowledge the matchless love of the Father, the incomparable sacrifice of Christ, and the sanctifying power of the Spirit, but the problem involves not having articulated these truths clearly in my own experience and the worship style of the church.

This gap between theology and practice does not come about due to a lack in the Adventist formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Our second fundamental belief clearly states, “There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons. God is immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, above all, and ever present. He is infinite and beyond human comprehension, yet known through His self-revelation. He is forever worthy of worship, adoration, and service by the whole creation.”1

This article attempts to explore the link between the doctrine of the Trinity and worship and to reflect theologically on Trinitarian worship, leaving the pastoral and liturgical implications for another time.

I start with a simple premise: if worship is God centered and if God is a Trinity, then worship must be Trinitarian.2 Paul captures this Trinitarian emphasis in Ephesians 2:18, where he declares that “through him [the Son] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (NIV). How does this really happen in worship? Basically, we come first and foremost to the Father through the work of the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that all Three Persons of the Godhead are involved in our worship.

In its simplest and most authentic form, Trinitarian worship equates with our Spirit-empowered response to the Father’s call to worship through Christ. In what follows, I will explore this Trinitarian dynamic of worship in terms of three images: (1) the Father seeking worshipers; (2) the Son leading worshipers; and (3) the Holy Spirit empowering worshipers.

The Father seeking worshipers

In His conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:7–26), Jesus emphasized that God seeks worshipers more than worshipers seek God. This shift of emphasis reminds us that God initiates true worship by confronting us with His love. Thus, worship becomes our response to God’s seeking and self-revelation. The initial downward movement from God shapes authentic Christian worship.

In that same conversation, Jesus also highlighted the fact that true worship is not tied to geography, ethnicity, rituals, or traditions but to a new way of relating to God—as a “Father in spirit and in truth” (v. 23, KJV). This relationship component comprises the key to the understanding and enacting of worship. Effectively, worship is not predominantly based on what we do but on how we relate to God. We cannot truly worship God unless we relate to Him and to Christ properly. The most excellent way of communing with God means relating to Him as a Father.

True worship is ultimately to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. The preponderance of the Father does not mean that we cannot ascribe honor and praise to the Son and the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus clearly taught that giving glory to the Son means giving glory to the Father (John 17). However, in the New Testament, prayers to and worship of the Father far outnumber that offered to the Son and the Holy Spirit. Early Christians were urged to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:18–20, NKJV). Similarly, worship allusions and references in the New Testament often followed a Trinitarian pattern, without, of course, a worship of the Father that in any way diminished the importance of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This same Trinitarian movement can also be seen in Galatians 4:6, “[B]ecause you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ ” (NKJV).

Hence, our worship of the Father depends on the activity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, God cannot be embraced as a Father without Christ and the Holy Spirit. Only through Jesus and the Spirit can we can get a clear picture of the Father. Moreover, we cannot understand worshiping the Father apart from the work of Christ for us and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in us. In Christ, we can approach the Father; in the Spirit, we can know Him experientially.

Thus, Christian worship is more relational than cultic. In God’s economy, religious services do not take precedence over worshipful hearts, for God is more interested in the condition of our hearts than in our most elaborate worship services. This understanding of a loving and seeking Father, as demonstrated in the gospel, gives fresh impetus to our worship, making it clear that the Father is more interested in seeking worshipers than in simply seeking worship. His greatest joy is to be in relationships with us as we respond to His love.

The Son leading worshipers

Worship also has a Christological focus.3 We worship God as a Trinity because of the Christ event. Through His incarnation, death, and resurrection, He offered us a window through which we can catch a clearer glimpse of God. As the Son of man, He offered perfect worship to God by glorifying Him through His spotless life and ministry. As Emmanuel—God with us—He represented and revealed the Lord of creation. Throughout His entire ministry, Jesus acted and spoke on behalf of the Father. Hence, Jesus could say, “ ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father’ ” (John 14:9, NKJV).

Worship becomes possible only because of the reconciling ministry of Christ. On Calvary, Jesus reconciled humanity to God by destroying sin, hence opening the way for a new covenant. He offered Himself on the cross so that we could, in turn, offer our lives as a willing sacrifice (see Rom. 12:1, 2). Without Him, our worship would be idolatry because we would be worshiping a self-constructed image of God, something built outside of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ.

True worship cannot be separated from the gospel. It is Christ centered and cross focused. For instance, the book of Revelation constantly depicts Christ as a kingly warrior and a slaughtered lamb who is worthy “ ‘to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise’ ” (Rev. 5:12, NIV). By conquering the grave, Jesus delivered us from the hands of the evil one and transported us into the kingdom of God’s love. This explains why Jesus shares the same authority (Rev. 5:6–9; 7:17; 12:10) and glory (Rev. 5:13; 21:22, 23) as the Father. Praise, worship, and honor belong “ ‘[t]o him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb’ ” (Rev. 5:13, NIV). What applies to God the Creator equally applies to Jesus the Lamb.

The New Testament also focuses on the present ministry of the living Christ, who stands in “the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24, ESV). He is our High Priest and Mediator through whom we have access to the Father (Heb. 7:25). He is also our leitourgos (Heb. 8:2), heavenly Liturgist, or worship Leader, who carries our names, lives, petitions, and praises on His heart as He ministers in the heavenly sanctuary. He cleanses and purifies our tainted worship and prayers to offer them spotless to the Father.

In short, Christ mediates God’s blessings and salvation to us but also mediates our worship to God.4 For that reason, worship becomes our participation in Christ’s own perfect worship.

Obviously, this image of Christ leading worshipers strips our worship of its Pelagian tendencies. It has become increasingly common in some circles to view worship as our ability to move God’s heart through our singing, our thanksgiving, or our prayers, as if worship was a liturgical ride to impress an impassive God. This emphasis on our response, our faith, and our sincerity is theologically flawed and spiritually unhealthy because it subtly focuses our attention on self rather than on God. This eclipse of Christ’s mediatorial role on our behalf is often matched by the ascendency of worship leaders and preachers. Regrettably, they are too often viewed as unique instruments for bringing us into the manifest presence of God. This is a return to a pre-Reformation concept of worship where the priest serves as the link between the worshiper and God. Under such conditions worship is viewed as a performance done for an audience instead of a communal activity done by the body of believers.

This is not to disparage the fact that the body of Christ has individuals that have been clearly set apart for leading worship. Yet, we need to be reminded of Christ as the Supreme Worship Leader. We do not come into the presence of God through gifted worship leaders but through the merits of a mighty Savior. The blood of Jesus gives us access to the throne room, not human giftedness. Within such a vision, the local worship leader does not act on behalf of worshipers but among them in recognition that a single High Priest now serves on our behalf in the heavenly sanctuary.

The Holy Spirit empowering worshipers

Any understanding of worship must be closely linked to the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the church. As the apostle Paul declares, we receive the Spirit of sonship whereby we can approach God as “Abba Father” and proclaim Jesus as Lord (Rom. 8:15, NIV; 1 Cor. 12:3).

Unless the Holy Spirit empowers the worshiping community, worship loses its relational and prophetic aspect. In worship, we declare God’s praises while being continuously transformed for service in the world. We are prophetically proclaiming that God’s kingdom finds its expression in the life of the church until it manifests itself fully throughout the universe at the end of ages. The Holy Spirit, as the Divine Connector, brings us into the presence of God and helps us become what God wants us to be. The church, animated by the Spirit, becomes a catalyst for praises in the world by reminding its inhabitants of their supreme reason for living—to glorify God. While God brings His work of redemption to its historic climax, it becomes our privilege to declare God’s glory and summon people to join God’s redeemed and faithful remnant in true worship (Rev. 4:6–12).

Viewed thus, worship is not our attempt to impress God or prove how much we love Him, but our response to the Father’s work of salvation in Christ and of His transformative power through the Holy Spirit in anticipation of the renewal of the whole cosmos.

As a community, the church supremely manifests herself as God’s people through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Ellen White puts it beautifully: “Not by seeking a holy mountain or a sacred temple are men brought into communion with heaven. Religion is not to be confined to external forms and ceremonies. The religion that comes from God is the only religion that will lead to God. In order to serve Him aright, we must be born of the divine Spirit. This will purify the heart and renew the mind, giving us a new capacity for knowing and loving God”5

Spirit-led worship honors God because it finds its source in God—it is the work of God, not of humans. True worship depends on a new life that comes from above, re-creating and reorienting us. In other words, worship can be spiritual only if the worshiper becomes spiritual. In fact, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the worshiping community turns worship into an eschatological event. Worship provides worshipers with a foretaste of the future glory by allowing them to experience the life of the kingdom in the here and now. For this reason, what characterizes genuine worship is a sense of immediacy and an awareness of new possibilities.

An implication for the practice of worship that arises from the eschatological nature of the Holy Spirit’s presence is the challenge to have Spirit-filled services that are creative and relevant. There can be no teaching, no preaching, no healing of human brokenness, and no genuine communion unless worshiping communities are baptized into the creative and life-giving power of the Divine Spirit.

Conclusion

Trinitarian faith means Trinitarian worship. This theological posture is biblical and deserves further exploration and amplification. However, unleashing this Trinitarian dynamic fully in our worship is easier said than done and requires thoughtful theological reflection and a real desire to fully honor God. Hence, pastors and worship leaders should recognize the importance of engaging themselves in further Trinitarian thinking and meditation so as to carefully plan worship services that magnify the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The songs we sing, prayers we offer, thanks we give, sermons we preach, and the bread and wine we partake of, must declare the glory of the Godhead.

Trinitarian worship is not a theological fad. Rather, it proclaims God’s love and redemptive movement towards us. Trinitarian worship helps us to remember that we are not left to our own devices as we respond to Him in love and worship. God is actively involved in bringing the best praises and adoration from us.

 

 

1. Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines, 2nd ed. (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association, 2005), 23.

2. See James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 1996); Robin Parry, Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Milton Keynes, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 2005).

3. For a recent discussion on early Christology and worship, see James D. G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence (London: SPCK, 2010).

4. Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

5. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 189.


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March 2011

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