Ephesians 2:18 is a beautiful test. “For through him, that is through Christ, we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father”.
This is the central message of the gospel. We sinners who were far off now have access to the presence of God, through faith in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. The gospel and the church’s worship are connected. See Paul’s logic: we sinners were once far off, unable to draw near to the sanctuary of God’s presence, but now through Christ in the Spirit we have access, we can draw near. We are no longer strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God. There’s the phrase again, signifying the place of meeting with God is in His temple, His dwelling place. The emphasis in Ephesians 2 is even more than having access to the actual presence of God. The goal of the worship is to enable us to draw nigh unto God and into His presence, in His house, in His temple, where we are then able to have open and free fellowship and communion with God. That’s the nature of what we’re doing when we gather for worship.
Hebrews 10:19 “having therefore brethren boldness to enter into the holiest, by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way with which he hath consecrated for us through the veil that is to say his flesh and having an high priest over the house of God let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith
”. The author deliberately uses Old Testament worship language to describe the nature of the gospel. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and because He is our high priest, we can draw near to God and fellowship with Him.
The goal of the gospel is to form a temple where God’s people meet with Him. This is only possible through the sacrificial atonement of Christ. The primary purpose when we gather for worship is to fellowship with God through Christ’s sacrifice. This understanding of our purpose has very significant implications when we come together to worship as His church.
- Worship is primarily for believers
Corporate worship is for believers, those whose sins have been forgiven and been given access into the presence of God. Those who can draw near to God are members of the household of God and are part of the temple. Only believers can truly commune with God. This doesn’t mean we forbid unbelievers from gathering with us. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 that believers gathering to meet with God is profoundly evangelistic. Unbelievers see that we are meeting with God and when the Holy Spirit works in their hearts, they will acknowledge “The Lord is among you
”. When unbelievers come, they come as witnesses, to hear and be exposed to the gospel. They don’t come to participate in worship because they are not in the presence of God, unable yet to gain access into His presence.
Perhaps even more relevant in our present age, we must never design corporate worship based on what unbelieving people want. We are not to take a poll of unbelievers and say what do you want the church to be like. No more than what took place in Israel’s temple was based on what the uncircumcised pagans wanted. No, corporate worship is for believers to meet with God, according to the instructions that He has given to us in His Holy Word.
- Worship is relational
Based on this imagery, corporate worship is also relational. We don’t gather simply to go through a series of rituals. We meet to cultivate, nurture, and grow our relationship with God. This is the emphasis of Ephesians 2. The whole passage is a description of God building a temple, by His Spirit, and it expresses these realities in relational terms.
The gospel that results in this temple is not just a legal transaction, or a ticket to heaven. It is a reconciliation of our relationship with God. We gain access to God, through Christ. We are then welcomed into His presence. When we gather, we come to develop and grow that relationship that we now have through Christ.
- Worship is formational
Corporate worship is also meant to be formational, for the edification of our souls, even as believers who have access to God through Christ are members of God’s household. We are members of His living temple, even though we freely admit that our relationship with God is not perfect. It is still growing, maturing, and deepening.
We must continually work to cultivate and mature a closer relationship with God. We allow His Word to correct us and to sanctify how we approach and respond to Him. We are to do this through personal bible study and prayer, but corporate worship is also given to help to mature our relationship with God. The Word of God is inspired scripture and “profitable for teaching and correcting us and reproving us and instructing us in righteousness
It is the gospel that continues to sanctify us. Paul teaches in Titus 2:11-12 that the grace of God is the saving grace that shows salvation to all people. The gospel of grace also commands us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly and righteously in this present age. The gospel that saves is also the gospel that sanctifies. The gospel that reconciled us to God, enabling us to draw nigh unto God, is also the same gospel that continues to grow and cultivate our relationship with God. The gospel must be prevalent in our corporate worship. When we gather for corporate worship, we are renewing ourselves in the gospel.
- Worship is covenant renewal
Historically Christians often referred to corporate worship as “covenant renewal”. A way for believers to renew their covenant with God. We are to renew our covenant promises regularly. The image of a marriage perfectly depicts this, as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and His church. A man and a woman commit to one another on their wedding day, in a way akin to our salvation. God makes a commitment to save us, out of His great love. We make a commitment to love and serve Him. Baptism (and Church Membership) are like our wedding vows where we formalise that covenant relationship in the presence of witnesses. Once the two are married that doesn’t change until death parts. But the relationship between a husband and wife rises and falls over time. Many things can harm that relationship and many things can rekindle it.
Your personal devotional time with the Lord each day, your reading of the scriptures and prayer is like a husband and wife having a conversation with one another. It’s very important to renew and grow that relationship. Some married couples renew their wedding vows from time to time, repeat the same vows to one another. Those vows don’t get them married again but by repeating them they help to remind and renew their love for each other.
In a very similar way, corporate worship is like renewing our gospel vows to Christ. Corporate worship renews our vows and assures us of pardon through the sacrifice of Christ. When we come together for worship, we come to reform our hearts and renew our relationship with God. The hymns chosen, prayers prayed, and scriptures read should all help to express worship to the Lord absolutely, but also to form our hearts, to grow our hearts, to mature our hearts. Everything about the service is meant to edify, to form, to convict, to comfort, but in all cases to grow our relationship with God.
Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-chief of G3 Ministries and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He is a teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy, he lectures around the country in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. He holds a masters degree in Theological Studies, a masters degree in Aesthetics (NIU), and a PhD in Worship Ministry.
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