I love our liturgy and worship service. We sing the Psalms. We kneel to confess our sins. We read several portions of Scripture. We eat at the Lord’s table every week. We bring our tithes and offerings to the front while we sing. We sit under God’s Word. Perhaps nothing has changed more in the last ten years of my life than my approach to worship.
But men and women love to hide in a liturgy They love to have rituals that say, “I am holy” without actually striving for holiness. It works like this. We go the Lord’s house every week. We hear his word preached. We sing and pray with his people. We eat at his table. We fellowship with his people. But our lives do not change.We do not amend our ways. Sin is not put to death. Righteousness is not growing in homes and hearts. The liturgy becomes a way of pretending, a way of hiding from God, instead of a way of drawing near to Him and becoming more like Christ. Worship, not matter how high, beautiful, or Biblical, becomes a sham. The prophet Jeremiah spoke to this problem in Jeremiah 7:1-11
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.
Israel thought that the temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and her worship were enough. She thought that she could come to the feasts, worship at the temple, and still live in sin. She praised God. She sang the Psalms. She talked about the priesthood. But she did not “amend her ways.” So it was in Jeremiah’s day so it is in our day.
We must diligently guard our hearts against this hypocrisy. The Lord hates a worship service filled with people who dot all the liturgical “i’s” and cross all the “t’s” but their lives are filled with sin. They lie. They are proud and arrogant. They are unkind to their wives and children. They do not respect or submit to their husbands. They are greedy. But at least their worship is “according to the Bible.” Now this kind of hypocrisy can happen in any church, low or high, at any time. But the more serious a congregation takes its worship and obedience the greater this temptation is. A church that views worship as one hour of entertainment, which they can take or leave, is not as likely to slip into this. They will have other temptations, but not usually this one. A church that does not care much about obedience in day to day life is again not as likely to fall into this sin. But a church that believes worship is absolutely central to their corporate life and strives to obey Christ day in and day out will find that there are Christians who want to look serious about God on Sundays, but not the rest of the week. If you want people to think you are really serious about God what type of church would you go to?
What to Do?
First, for us pastors we need to know our people (i.e. pastoral visitation) and preach to their sins. I am not encouraging harsh or mean preaching. But I am encouraging hard words that help our people look in their own lives to see if sanctification is happening or not. It is easy to address the sins of people outside the church. It is also easy to preach sermons with little concrete application. Your congregation will leave with a vague sense that the Bible was preached and some understanding of the passage, but with little idea of how you want them to change either a belief or action. One purpose of the preached word is to expose our sins, call us to repent, and help us begin reforming our lives according to God’s Word. Does our preaching do this?
Second, for us pastors we need to know what boxes people like to check to be considered holy. What are the external marks of holiness that our people cling to? These will usually be good things that people should be doing such as family devotions, Bible reading, tithing, service in the church, homeschooling/private school, weekly communion, covenant renewal liturgy, singing the Psalms, learning the catechism, or expository preaching. These are all good things. But they are not a substitute for faithfulness to one’s spouse, patience, not lusting, learning to avoid anger and hatred, humility, confession of sin, repentance, joy, lack of trust in God, generosity, etc. Are the people in our congregations checking the boxes, but not really growing? I am not encouraging an attitude of constant doubt. That is unhealthy. But I am encouraging wisdom and keeping your eyes open.
Finally, for the members of churches that take worship and obedience seriously, those that have a “higher liturgy” and teach that all of life is to be made captive to Christ, make sure you are not a lot of show and little substance. Does the confession of sin in worship lead us to repent and seek forgiveness throughout the week? Does weekly communion help us to love for the members of our church in concrete ways? Does the three Scripture readings and the preaching lead us to obedience Monday through Saturday? Does our tithing lead to generosity in our day to day life. Are we fighting against bitterness, lust, anger, pride, and malice? If our corporate worship does not bleed over and change our life it will not be pleasing to the Lord. The greatest liturgy in the world cannot cover up or compensate for a life of sin.