“The one essential condition of human existence is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great. If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair. The Infinite and the Eternal are as essential for man as the little planet on which he dwells.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed (New York, 2005), page 663.
As nice as it can be to tuck ourselves away in some nook and cranny, all by our lonesome, and read the Scriptures we want to read, pray the prayers we prefer, play the songs we like, memorize the verses we pick, and fast from food when it’s convenient — as important as it is to pursue a regular rhythm of “private worship” in these personal disciplines — this is not the pinnacle of our Christian lives.
We were made to worship Jesus together. Among the multitude. With the great hoard. Swallowed up in the magnificent mass of the redeemed. God didn’t fashion us to enjoy him finally as solitary individuals, but as happy members of a countlessly large family.
When the fog of everyday life clears, and we catch a glimpse of heaven’s bliss, we don’t find ourselves sequestered at a study desk or hidden alone in a prayer closet in paradise, or even standing alone before the great Grand Canyon or mountain peak of God’s majesty, but joyfully lost in the worshiping throng of Christ’s people from every tongue and tribe and nation.
We were made for corporate worship.
Cheerfully Lost in the Crowd
Heaven will be more spectacular than we can dream — and the new earth, even better than heaven — but it might be surprising to hear that perhaps the best foretaste we can get on this side is with the gathered church, worshiping Jesus together. Not that eternity will amount to an unending church service, but that we will be wonderfully immersed in a joy-multiplying multitude of fellow worshipers.
And in heaven’s adoration, we join not only “many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11) — you might say “innumerable angels” (Hebrews 12:22) — but also the innumerable communion of the ransomed,
a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10)
While the corporate worship of Jesus by the church universal is an essential element in our great destiny, it is the corporate worship of Jesus by the church local that is a vital means of God’s grace in getting us there.
Most Important Means of Grace
And it may be the single most important means of grace, and our greatest weapon in the fight for joy, because like no other means, corporate worship combines all three principles of God’s ongoing grace: his word, prayer, and fellowship. It is corporate worship, with its preaching and sacraments and collective praises, confessions, petitions, and thanksgivings, which most acutely brings together the gifts of God’s voice, his ear, and his body.
And so, according to Don Whitney, “There’s an element of worship and Christianity that cannot be experienced in private worship or by watching worship. There are some graces and blessings that God gives only in ‘meeting together’ with other believers” (Spiritual Disciplines, 92). Or as Richard Foster says, “When we are truly gathered into worship, things occur that could never occur alone” (Celebration of Discipline, 164).
Perhaps your own experience of corporate worship as a means of grace has, at times, echoed that of Martin Luther: “at home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.”
Worship Is No Means
But talking about worship as a means of grace is tricky, because, as John Piper cautions us, true worship is not a means to anything.
Worship is an end in itself. We do not eat the feast of worship as a means to anything else. Happiness in God [which is the heart of worship] is the end of all our seeking. Nothing beyond it can be sought as a higher goal. . . . [T]rue worship cannot be performed as a means to some other experience. (Desiring God, 90)
What then do we mean when we say that corporate worship is an essential means of God’s grace? Can it really be such?
The Secret of Joy: Self-Forgetfulness
One distinction to make is between the essence of worship as joy in God and the context of corporate worship as the gathered assembly. While praising Jesus together is its greatest expression, worship is bigger than just the gathered church — for Sunday mornings and for everyday life (Romans 12:1). And related to this is the difference between how we think about corporate worship (and the various motivations for it and benefits from it) and how we experience it in the moment.
There is more to be said about the “graces and blessings that God gives only in ‘meeting together’ with other believers” — which can inspire our faithful engagement and help us appreciate the irreplaceable role corporate worship plays in our Christian health and growth — but for now, the question is, where should we turn our hearts and minds collectively in the moment to experience this grace from God?
The answer is that our focus should not be self-consciously preoccupied with how we’re being strengthened or what grace we’re receiving. Rather, our focus together is the crucified and risen Christ, and the incomparable excellencies of his person and work. Which illumines all the various spiritual disciplines. Corporate worship is a means of grace not when we’re caught up with what we’re doing, but when we experience the secret of worship — the joy of self-forgetfulness — as we become preoccupied together with Jesus and his manifold perfections.
See, then, the pregnant application to corporate worship in this summary by Piper:
All genuine emotion is an end in itself. It is not consciously caused as a means to something else. This does not mean we cannot or should not seek to have certain feelings. We should and we can. We can put ourselves in situations [corporate worship] where the feeling may more readily be kindled. . . . But in the moment of authentic emotion, the calculation vanishes. We are transported (perhaps only for seconds) above the reasoning work of the mind, and we experience feeling without reference to logical or practical implications. (92)
In this way, corporate worship, which is no means to anything else, is a powerful — even the most powerful — means of God’s grace for the Christian life.
So come to corporate worship for the many blessings, and then let the calculations vanish and lose yourself in the Blessed. Get yourself there with a reminder about how good it will be for you if you do, and as the gathering begins, go hard after the goodness of God and seek to forget yourself as you focus on his Son.
One effect of close attention to Scripture is that sweeping generalizations become problematic. This is notably true of the way our works (including our attitudes and words and behavior) relate to our salvation.
The biblical texts relating to this issue are many and diverse, but not contradictory. If you take any one of them and treat it as the whole picture, you will almost surely lead people astray.
For example, Paul rejoices that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). I take that to mean that anything we bring to Christ other than faith has no part in the ground (Christ) or the instrument (faith) of our justification. This is a glorious truth, and our life hangs on it.
But if we carelessly speak of justification as having no relationship to works, or if we generalize about salvation being apart from works of the law, we lead people away from the Scriptures.
Toward More Clarity
Justification does have a relationship with works. It secures the removal of God’s wrath so that his Spirit flows freely in a union where works are possible and necessary.
And salvation is a larger reality than justification. Justification is one aspect of salvation. There are other aspects of it that are not “apart from works” but are, in fact, dependent upon (though not merited by) works.
I invite you to ponder the following three ways to speak of our works in relationship to our salvation. And if you agree that these are biblical, let’s strive to speak with the kind of care that does not nullify one when affirming another.
1. Jesus Is Our Righteousness
When we are united to Christ by faith alone, God counts Christ’s perfect deeds as ours. He is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). Thus, in a real sense, we have performed perfectly in Christ the good deeds required of us (Matthew 5:48; James 2:10). Christ’s deeds are counted as ours. On this basis, God may be trusted, from the point of faith forward, as 100% for us.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God,righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30)
That I may be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Philippians 3:9)
2. We Work Out Our Salvation
In union with Christ by faith alone, as we enjoy God’s being 100% for us, we now, by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13), through faith in God’s future grace (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12; 1 Corinthians 15:10), “work out our salvation” (Philippians 2:13), bearing “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), in a life of practical righteousness, and we thus confirm our saving faith, and our union with Christ, and in this way obtain the inheritance of salvation. Our inheritance is not earnedby our lived-out righteousness (Romans 8:15–17; Galatians 4:7), but belonging to the family and being an heir is confirmed by it.
If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)
God will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:6–7)
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7–8)
I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things [the works of the flesh] will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:21)
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:27)
Bondservants, do the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord. (Ephesians 6:5–8)
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:41–42)
Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities [and another over five]. (Luke 19:17)
The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 10:41–42)
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23–24)
If this thought of varying degrees of reward and happiness in the age to come is new to you, and you would like to hear one of the most profound descriptions of it, I once recorded a section from Jonathan Edwards who explains it beautifully.
The upshot of this is:
Let us speak with the same degree of differentiation that the Bible does about our works and our justification and our entrance into the final kingdom and our rewards there.
Let us glory in the gospel that no works we perform are the ground of our justification.
Let us be “diligent to confirm our calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10) by the love we show in the power of the Spirit.
In all our vocations, let us work heartily as to the Lord, knowing that “whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.”
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Isa. 43:1-3
Heavenly Father, your Word is a balm for the broken, ballast for the bewildered, and bread for the hungry. This isn’t theory, or only good theology; it’s experientially true. You’ve promised to “show up” and be enough, and you are. In the storms of life, you are nearer than the storms themselves.
As Isaiah reminds us, you’ve created us and you’ve redeemed us. You summoned us by name, calling us to life in the gospel; and have given us the sweetest name imaginable—”Mine.” No more condemnation; no more orphan-like spirituality; no more making a name for ourselves. We are yours and your banner over us is love. Hallelujah, many times over.
Father, you don’t promise we won’t experience floods and torrents, fires and flames. But you do promise you will be with us, and that we won’t suffer ultimate harm. To know you are near and to know you are good is all we really need. We will go anywhere and do anything, as long as we’re convinced that you’re with us and for us.
We know ourselves to be “precious and honored in your sight,” because of what you’ve done for us in Jesus. We praise you for the one and only truly indescribable gift—given for us and to us (2 Cor. 9:15). And since you didn’t spare your own Son, we can trust you graciously to give us everything else we need (Rom. 8:32), in current and future storms. We don’t have to be afraid of anything or anyone, for you are with us and you are for us. So very Amen we pray, in Jesus triumphant and trustworthy name.
He is not naïve. He is 88! There is no romantic idealization for the final years of this life. It will be hard. “Aging,” he says, “is not for wimps.” Some may paint a rosy picture of life after seventy. Even John Wesley, Packer observes, said that at eighty-five “the only sign of deterioration that he could see in himself was that he could not run as fast as he used to.” With characteristic understatement Packer says: “With all due deference to that wonderful, seemingly tireless little man, we may reasonably suspect that he was overlooking some things.”
Nevertheless Packer realizes that
the assumption that was general in my youth, that only a small minority would be fit and active after about seventy, has become a thing of the past. Churches, society, and seniors themselves are still adjusting to the likelihood that most Christians who hit seventy still have before them at least a decade in which some form of active service for Christ remains practicable.
So, what shall we do with these final years? Packer notes that “the image of running was central to Paul’s understanding of his own life [1 Corinthians 9:24–27;Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16], and I urge now that it ought to be the central focus in the minds and hearts of all aging Christians, who know and feel that their bodies are slowing down.”
And how should we run? “My contention is . . . that, so far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out.” “The challenge that faces us is . . . to cultivate the maximum zeal for the closing phase of our earthly lives.”
A Wrongheaded Agenda
The world does not see it this way, and Packer is unsparing in his criticism of “worldliness” and “folly.”
Retirees are admonished, both explicitly and implicitly, in terms that boil down to this: Relax. Slow down. Take it easy. Amuse yourself. Do only what you enjoy. [It is] a warrant for taking it easy across the board and prioritizing self-indulgence for the rest of our lives.
This agenda, he says, “is wrongheaded in the extreme.”
The agenda as a whole turns out to be a recipe for isolating oneself and trivializing one’s life, with apathetic boredom becoming one’s default mood day after day. . . . Over time, [it] will generate a burdensome sense that one’s life is no longer significant, but has become, quite simply, useless. . . . “Wrong way!” That is what I affirm with regard to our culture’s agenda for aging. I think it is one of the huge follies of our time, about which some frank speaking is in order and indeed overdue.
“Whatever admonitions Paul might have addressed to aging Christians . . . recommending relaxation and taking things easy would not have been among them.”
Zeal Fed by Hope
When the world tells us to follow this pattern of self-indulgence, it is satanic: “By moving us to think this way Satan undermines, diminishes, and deflates our discipleship, reducing us from laborers in Christ’s kingdom to sympathetic spectators.”
No mature Christian of any age is
exempt from the twin tasks of learning and leading, just because they do not inhabit the world of wage and salary earning any longer, and for aging Christians to think of themselves in this way, as if they have no more to do now than have fun, is worldliness in a strikingly intense and, be it said, strikingly foolish form.
If we are to live “flat out” and full of zeal to the end, the key is hope. “Zeal should be unflagging every day, all day, and all the way. But if this is to happen, zeal must be fed by hope.”
The Roman Empire was a world that, like our world today, lacked any energizing hope of its own, which explains why so many listened hungrily to the Christian message. . . . Recovering and reappropriating this hope is a prime task for us who are aging today.
The hope he unpacks is the resurrection of the dead.
We know that the experience of moving into this upgraded accommodation, our resurrection body, linked as it will be in some way with the body we have now . . . will come to us as an enormous enrichment of the embodied life as we have known it up till now. . . . In heaven, clothed in our new bodies, we shall see and be at home with Jesus our Lord in a way that while we inhabit our present bodies is not possible.
You Won’t Regret It
“Paul’s knowledge of his hope in Christ had great invigorating, driving, and refreshing force.” This is the key to aging with undiminished zeal. And this is our calling: Maintaining zeal Godward as our bodies wear out is the special discipline to which we aging Christians are called.
Whatever it takes, you won’t regret it. This kind of “spiritual ripeness is worth far more than material wealth in any form.”
One of the most beautiful passages in the Bible about the astonishing achievements of the crucifixion is Colossians 2:13–15. It contains the answer to our question, and so much more.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
The key question is the relationship between 1) the disarming of Satan in verse 15 (“he disarmed the rulers and authorities”), 2) the forgiveness of sin in verse 13b (“having forgiven us all our trespasses”), and 3) our new life in verse 13a (“God made you alive”).
How We’re Forgiven
Since we were dead “in our trespasses” (13a) and since we are forgiven “all our trespasses” (v. 13c), the link is established between our forgiveness and our new life. Trespasses were our death sentence. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:3). The soul that sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:4). We have committed many trespasses. They are all written in the records of heaven. The books recording our debts (Revelation 20:12) are enormous.
So Paul explains in three steps how our transgressions are forgiven.
At the root in verse 14c “the record of our debt” is “nailed to the cross.” It’s as if Jesus reached up to the Father and asked if he could hold the entire record of all our trespasses in his hand. Then he held it in his hand as the spike was driven through, and it pierced the record of our debts as it pierced his hand.
By means of this nailing, God “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (v. 14a). Literally, he erased it. He wiped the ink off paper. It’s as if the blood of Jesus, soaking the record of debts in his pierced hand, caused all the ink to dissolve and flow away. No more record of debt.
Third, by means of this nailing and canceling, “God set the record of debt aside” (v. 14b). Literally: he “took it out of the midst.” He doesn’t say the midst of what. We may assume: heaven, or the courtroom, or any legal consideration, or, as we shall see, the hand of Satan.
In these three massive acts of redemption, God was providing “forgiveness for all our trespasses” (v. 13c). That is how he did it, and what it cost.
Follow Paul’s Thought
Now, because of this blood-soaked forgiveness of our trespasses, we get new life. We were dead “in our trespasses” (v. 13a). The forgiveness is precisely of these death-causing trespasses. Therefore, the life that this forgiveness brings is a life free from fear of condemnation by God because of our sins.
But what about Satan and all the rulers and authorities he governs? Paul continues in verse 15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
Paul does not expect us to dream up what he’s talking about. He doesn’t expect us to dream up how God stripped, and shamed, and triumphed over the demonic powers. He expects us to follow the flow of his thought.
The Fearless Life
When Christ died and “wiped out” the record of our debts — our recorded trespasses — the courtroom-file of accusations was taken away from our prosecuting attorney, Satan, the great “accuser” (Revelation 12:10). Satan has no grounds for accusation anymore — none that stick. They have all been erased. His list of our condemning crimes is blank.
True, he is not yet cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10). He still prowls around. But his power to condemn is gone. He is disarmed of the only weapon that could damn us — unforgiven sin. He is made a fool in the court of accusation. His case against us fails miserably.
This too then is a source of our new life. Not only do we not fear the wrath of God, but neither do we fear the accusations of Satan. Our freedom from both these fears is based on the death of Jesus. The record of our debts, that gave Satan his power to condemn, and gave God the legal necessity of just punishment, has been wiped away by the blood of Jesus.
Therefore, we are alive with Christ, and forever safe from God’s wrath and Satan’s accusation. As Peter says, “we have been born again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3).
Live in the joy of this hope. Preach this to yourself morning and night. Resist the devil with this. Come boldly to the throne of grace with this. You have new life — forever.