We Must Worship God on His Terms

God Enables Worship

Worship of the God of Israel is exclusively on his terms. As the Anglican scholar David Peterson says in his magisterial work Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, “Worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.”1 This is not simply an observation about the demands of the jealous God; it is also a statement about the human condition. True worship is not possible unless God himself enables it, because human beings are unable to truly worship him without his enabling.

If we are to understand it in biblical terms, the English word worship names what the people of God do in response to the divine initiative. Peterson explains how divine initiative leads to human response:

Acceptable worship in Old Testament terms involves homage, service and reverence, demonstrated in the whole of life. A common factor in these three ways of describing Israel’s response to God is the assumption that he had acted towards them in revelation and redemption, to make it possible for them to engage with him acceptably.2

YHWH is the God who reveals himself to his people and, in revealing himself, redeems them. In redeeming them, he enables them to relate to him—something that was not previously possible.

Reformation Anglican Worship

Michael P. Jensen

In this addition to the Reformation Anglicanism Essential Library, Michael P. Jensen examines how the reading and preaching of the Scriptures, the Sacraments, prayer, and singing all inform not only worship in Anglicanism, but worship as it is prescribed in the Bible.

God initiates a relationship with Abraham almost out of the blue, as it were, calling him to leave his homeland on the basis of the great threefold promise: a great nation, in a great place, with a great blessing. The trajectory of this promise is, from the outset, global, for “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). This God reveals himself to be a covenant-making God—a deity seeking an ongoing relationship with humanity. The word of God comes to Abraham in the midst of many things that contradict it (including his great age), so that it is a struggle for him to believe it. And yet, this word is not simply about the present but about the future that God will bring to pass. Abraham and his descendants are taught the theological lesson that God is the God who creates and redeems out of nothing; and thus they depend on him absolutely.

The Abraham Narrative

The Abraham narrative is the prelude for the main movement, which is the encounter of the people of Israel with God in the exodus. In that event, YHWH both reveals his name and redeems his people—his acts of redemption and revelation are intertwined with one another. Under the leadership of the aged Moses, he brings them to the “mountain of God,” Mount Sinai. At Sinai, God tells Moses:

Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Ex. 19:3–6)

The Israelites are the witnesses of God’s mighty act in defeating the Egyptians and of its extraordinary consequence: “I . . . brought you to myself.” What then follows is a description of the ongoing terms of the relationship with YHWH, along with all its stipulations and patterns. God himself lays out for the people the context for an acceptable response of worship to the almighty God—a pattern of life that distinguishes them as his but begins with their acknowledging him as Lord and Redeemer. At Sinai, God makes himself known to Israel and, in doing so, reveals his intention to be a special presence among them.

They are to be known as the people among whom God himself dwells. His special character of holiness is to become a character that they share and to which they give expression in their manner of life. They are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This signifies that the whole of Israel’s existence will be shaped by this relationship with YHWH. This will not be an occasional matter of observance. It is to be a distinctive, identifying mark of this people. They are in this way to be separated from the nations that surround them. But the notion of priesthood is significant here if we recall that the promise to Abraham was for the blessing of all the families on the earth. The Israelites were to be the people who demonstrated to all peoples what it was like to belong to YHWH, the Lord of heaven and earth. His character was to be embodied in their community life.

God is the God who creates and redeems out of nothing.

This then is the background to the giving of the Torah, or “the law.” The law was neither simply moral nor simply ritual. Both dimensions of the law were outlined as a matter of delimiting the boundaries for life together with God. Note that there was no sense of opposition between the notion of a divinely given word and the indescribable majesty and holiness of God’s character. As at the mountain, so in the tabernacle and in the sacrificial system, God was both hidden and revealed, both near and present, both concealed and other. What do I mean here? The people were to approach the mountain (or the tent of meeting) and encounter the real and present God. But to encounter him would in no way diminish his majesty or reduce him to simply containable categories. He was not in this encounter revealed to be manipulable or domesticated (in contrast to the idols of the other nations). And so, to meet God at Sinai was to hear the thunder and see the lightning at the top of the mountain, and to hear his words through the mediation of Moses.

Grace and Gratitude

The entire system of Torah taught this lesson: that God was revealed to Israel but not contained by Israel. The Decalogue was and is itself a demonstration of this theological reality. The Ten Commandments are all about worship. In fact, worship is the key to understanding what they are really about. The first set of laws directed Israel’s attention to the singularity and uniqueness of God and his demand for exclusive devotion—a devotion not in a manner that took his name “in vain” but as he directed. The hinge is the Sabbath command. It is the institution in the midst of the people’s common life that recalls the divine work in the days of the creation—themselves a reminder of the saving acts of God.

The tabernacle and the Levitical code, with its system of priests and bloody sacrifices, became in time that remarkable symbol at the heart of the nation’s life, the temple of Jerusalem. The notion of sacrifice and ritual was not unique to Israel, of course. Pagan cults of sacrifice abounded. Sacrifice was, in a sense, a familiar religious concept adapted for the expression of the particular theology of ancient Israel. To the pagan mind (illustrated amply by ancient literature—for example, in Homer’s Iliad), sacrifice was the way by which the goodwill of the various gods was secured. Indeed, security was the underlying theme. Sacrifice was (to generalize) an act of taking out insurance against the contingencies of life in an uncertain world.

For Israel, sacrifice would be described as something else again. It was marked by a pattern of grace and gratitude: the pattern of rituals and festivals ensured that the narrative of the great acts of God for his people was not forgotten by them; and it enabled a response of thanksgiving for the blessings brought about by those acts. In addition, the sacrifices were a graphic illustration to Israel of the ebbing away of human life under the impact of sin.

Being in the presence of God was not simply established by God moving closer; there was also the need for the atonement of sin. The shedding of blood for sin on the annual Day of Atonement was to purify the tabernacle and the people (Lev. 16). Peterson explains: “The life of an animal, represented by its blood splashed over the altar, is the ransom at the price of a life. Animal blood atones for human sin, not because of some magical quality or life-power in it but simply because God chose and prescribed it for this purpose.”3 Israel’s response to God was on the basis of his prior revelation of himself and his redemption of them. But what was Israel given to do? They were to do homage to God; they were to serve him, and they were to revere him.


  1. Peterson, David. Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Leicester: Apollos, 1992), 20.
  2. Peterson, Engaging with God, 73.
  3. Peterson, Engaging with God, 41.

This article is adapted from Reformation Anglican Worship: Experiencing Grace, Expressing Gratitude by Michael P. Jensen.

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