Worship with Godly Fear

Question: Why does the third commandment require the holy and reverent use of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinances, word, and works?

Answer: We offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28–29).

Two principles are crucial to Reformed worship — the regulative principle and the dialogical nature of corporate worship. The former permits us to do in public worship only what God commands in His revealed Word. The latter, by underscoring the nature of worship as a meeting between God and His people, assigns to the appropriate parties certain roles and functions in the worship service. Thus these two principles guide us regarding the what (the elements), the when (the order), and the who (the participants) of worship. Still another important way to apply these principles has to do with the how of worship: they instruct us also about the tone and mood of worship.

Put another way, we learn from these principles not only what is permissible in worship, but what is wise in worship. The Bible tells us that we must worship God with fear and sobriety. We do not merely meet God in prayer, Word, song and sacraments, but we do so in a reverent fashion. So acceptable worship is a dialogue with God that displays awe and godly fear. It is not enough to have the right elements. It is not enough to have the preached Word of God by a properly ordained minister of the Word. To conduct these elements with flippancy or carelessness is to offer worship that is as displeasing to God as worship that had improper elements such as dance or drama.

John Calvin wrote that “pure and real religion” manifested itself through “faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence.” But our irreverent age, borrowing from the idioms of Wall Street and Hollywood, has cultivated such informality and false intimacy that it renders any notion of reverence, much less willing reverence, increasingly remote.

For this reason, much of today’s worship is oriented, consciously or not, around the idea of entertainment. Pastors and elders as leaders fall under tremendous pressure to keep the people in the pews entertained, lest in our market-driven evangelical subculture where the consumer is king, folks will leave and worship at the church across town with the better band, bigger stage, and more sophisticated sound and lighting system. Sermons are becoming “messages” whichsound softer and less threatening than a sermon. And the “message” is delivered by one of us, a “regular guy,” not God’s servant who is a steward of the mysteries of God, who must handle the Word of truth with the utmost of care. Writing in the Christian Century, Edward Farley recently commented that contemporary worship creates a tone that is “casual, comfortable, chatty, busy, humorous, pleasant and at times even cute.” He goes on to suggest that “if the seraphim assumed this Sunday morning mood, they would be addressing God not as ‘holy, holy, holy’ but as ‘nice, nice, nice.’”

Some defenders of contemporary worship go so far as to deny that there is any distinction between the purposes of worship and the purposes of entertainment. In a recent book tellingly titled Worship-Entertainment, one megachurch pastor argued that effective worship is measured by the extent to which it is good entertainment. Worship that is irreverent is a violation of Godly style. God desires reverent worship, worship that reflects the seriousness of God’s presence among His saints.


To understand what Scripture teaches regarding reverent worship, it is helpful to begin by saying what it is not. First, dignity in worship is not achieved through elaborate ceremonies or complex liturgies. In fact, Calvin believed that “wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of the heart is rare indeed.” And so reverence must always be accompanied by simplicity. It is all too common these days to hear of Christians, even Reformed Christians, who are so fed up with the superficiality of evangelical worship that they take refuge in the Episcopalian or Roman Catholic Church. Why have they gone to Canterbury or Rome and not Geneva? Often, we fear these liturgical migrants are still motivated by personal taste, except that now their taste has become a little more refined.

Further. there is no uniform way for expressing reverence. Bowing in the East and Western handshakes each express respect in culturally appropriate ways. So too there are a variety of ways for churches to embody reverence, depending on their culture. But however it is expressed, reverence must always characterize our worship.

Finally reverence does not leave out room for joy, contrary to the charge of some critics of Reformed worship. Joy—along with a full range of emotions such as grief, anger, desire, hope and fear—should be a part of worship. But the need for reverence and decorum dictates that any expression of emotion in worship should be tempered by moderation, self-control and above all, respect for who God is and an awareness of our place before Him.

Having stripped away false notions of reverence, we would argue that reverence is simply a consequence of proper theological reflection. The doctrine of God, of His holiness and justice, the doctrine of man, our sinfulness and depravity, and our doctrine of Christ, His sacrificial atonement, together prompt Christians to come into God’s presence with holy fear.


Since the fall of our first parents, the Old Testament tells us, man could come to God only through the shedding of blood. And so for the Israelites, “sacrifice” was synonymous with “worship.” “Bring an offering and come before him,” we read in I Chronicles 16:29, the implication being, of course, that you don’t come to God without one.

As this sacrificial system developed in the history of God’s people, it culminated in the rules and regulations that were carefully detailed in the book of Leviticus where God directed His people to worship Him through complex layers of ceremony. Only clean and spotless animals were to be sacrificed. Only priests appointed by God could act as the intercessors between God and His people. Only the high priest could offer the highest sacrifices in the Holy of Holies, only on the annual Day of Atonement, only when he is properly bathed and attired. The priest was to perform the offerings in a carefully choreographed order that had to be followed with unqualified precision.

All of this was a constant reminder of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness. Without this scrupulous attention to detail and unwavering obedience to God’s instructions, God would find the worship unacceptable. The Israelites knew that if God did not consume the sacrifice He would consume the worshipers. God’s righteous curse bars our access to Him, and God in His capacity as judge is angry toward us. Hence a mediator must intervene, offering a sacrifice on our behalf in order that God’s wrath may be appeased and that we may obtain His favor. Needless to say, the OT sacrificial system cultivated Godly fear and reverence.

In the New Testament, God also requires fear and reverence from those who would worship Him in Spirit and in truth. The writer to the Hebrews provides an infallible commentary on the OT ceremonial law. All of the “onlys” in Leviticus served to prefigure the fulfillment of God’s purposes: only Christ. The one-and-only, Jesus Christ, the only Redeemer of God’s elect, fulfilled Israel’s rituals. New covenant worshipers enjoy the reality that the Old Testament only foreshadowed. The church has the perfected Sacrifice, and that sacrifice provides a better way to worship God.

To be sure, the New Testament proclaims a radical transformation in worship thanks to the coming of Christ. When the shadows have disappeared and the fulfillment of the types arrives, Christ transforms the cowering fear of God in Leviticus into bold access. Paul writes that through faith in Christ “we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Eph. 3:12). This idea is echoed in the letter to the Hebrews at several points. “Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence,” the author writes in 4:16. Similarly, he says in 10:19 that “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy place by the blood of Jesus.” Thus we can do what the Old Testament believers could not do — we can approach God with boldness and confidence.

So it can be said that in one sense, the whole ceremonial law in Leviticus is obsolete for the Christian (Heb. 8:13). But we must not overlook another sense in which the Levitical rituals are still of abiding relevance. Leviticus provides the theological categories for understanding Christ’s priesthood and for our worship through Him. The same God who established the sacrificial system for Israel sent His own son as a sacrifice in the fulness of time. Consequently, in studying the principles of worship revealed in Leviticus, we can learn how God still requires us to approach Him.


Protestants believe that through the perfection of Christ we worship with confidence. But it is precisely on this matter of confidence that confusion has arisen in evangelical worship. When we came to Christ, we first approached God fearfully. The demands of His law weighed heavily against our souls. The Holy Spirit convicted us of our sin and misery, and through the mediation of Christ, who has hushed the thunder and quenched the flame of Sinai, we came to God, not the angry Lawgiver, but the loving Father whom we lovingly and enthusiastically embraced. But that was then. That was our conversion. Now, we come before the Father each week in worship. Worship becomes trivial and routine. We do it all the time, and we no longer need a Mediator since we have been saved. We approach God by ourselves and in the process we do so casually.

To follow Marcion is to have a gravely false sense of confidence. It is to remove Christ as the object of our confidence, and thus to twist confidence into presumption. And it is to misunderstand the book of Hebrews. Hebrews warns that the fire of Mount Zion is far greater than the fire of Mount Sinai. Our confidence in our right standing before God, the full assurance that we bring to God in worship, comes only on the basis of Christ’s objective work. Yes, we draw near to the Father with “full assurance of faith.” This assurance drives out all bondage and fear. But it does not promote indifference, casualness or presumption, which is false assurance.


Even the most casual of contemporary worship services will be occasionally marked by some sobriety. Most will concede that at least some reverence is required, for example, when the church observes the Lord’s Supper. Yet even in these expressions of reverence a false notion prevails. What tends to happen is that worship services toggle back and forth between these seemingly contradictory emotions: a little upbeat praise here, some somber reverence there.

In contrast to such schizophrenia is the language of our Reformed confessions. For example Q&A 100 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism instructs us, when in prayer, to “draw near to God with all holy reverence and confidence.” Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism tells us to come to God our Father in prayer with “childlike reverence for and trust in God” (Q&A 120). Our Catechisms discourage us from imagining that we come to the Father with reverence and confidence as if we had to balance delicately two contradictory sentiments, tight-roping between extremes. On the contrary, they saw that reverence and confidence were mutually reinforcing. We can be truly confident because we are reverent. Likewise, we can be truly reverent because we are confident.



And so the Belgic Confession contrasts Godly fear with “foolish fear,” the latter being a fear that is dislocated from the work of Christ. And the Heidelberg Catechism insists that Godly fear characterize our use of God’s name. According to Q&A 99, the third commandment requires that we not “profane or abuse the name of God” but rather that “we use the Holy Name of God in no other way than with fear and reverence, so that He may be rightly confessed and worshiped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works.” Finally, the Canons of Dort link reverence and joy as complementary not antagonistic characteristics. Perseverance works “humility, reverence, piety, patience, prayer, endurance in suffering, confession of the truth, and rejoicing.”

The teaching of our confessions suggests a simple test for distinguishing between genuine and counterfeit joy in worship: is it accompanied by reverence or not? Are we boasting in our Savior or are we boasting in ourselves? Are we looking to Christ for access to God, or are we feeling good about our own merits? We overcome our fear only through the death and resurrection of Christ. We are spared death and judgment only because Christ willingly submitted to both. How dare we observe Christ’s work in any superficial or indifferent or irreverent manner! If we do, we are surely prone to relocate the source of our confidence. If we overcome our fear through any other means than the blood of Christ, we are committing idolatry.

The funeral of a Christian contains characteristics that should also be present in worship. Such funerals are times of reverence and joy. When we contemplate the death of a loved one we are filled with sadness and are reminded of our own frailty. Yet. when the deceased is a believer, the service is also an occasion for joy because we trust that God has called one of His children to be with Him, and that the believer has been “made perfect in holiness” and has “passed immediately into glory.” Why should a worship service, where the death of our Lord is central, beany different? His death is one that we caused, death that should provoke hatred for our sin and humility for our unworthiness. (This is the ethos, by the way, of most observances of the Lord’s Supper, a fact that may argue for weekly communion in order to ensure reverence in our worship.)

Of course, we do not stop with Christ’s death in our worship. We go on to rejoice at His resurrection without which, the apostle says, we would not have hope. Still, the joy we experience in contemplating and worshiping the risen Savior is an emotion that always is tinged with sobriety and humility. It is not the high-fiving ecstasy of fans who have just seen their team with the national championship. Nor is it the celebration of a job promotion. It is not the champagne-spraying celebration of World Series champions. It is a joy that not only recognizes the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, but also recognizes our own complicity because of our sin, in His pain and death. When we contemplate the suffering of Christ we come in humility, restraining sinful impulses, and we embrace a bleeding Savior as the fountain of our comfort.

Reverent worship is not an effective way of persuading the world that Christians are capable of having a good time. That is because modern culture cannot see God as frightening. Seeker-sensitive worship has replaced a consuming fire with an affirming and empowering God, one who accepts whatever we do. It has substituted the meeting of “felt needs” for the demands of His law. From this it follows that we no longer need a mediator. Of course, many will say we still need Christ. but their attitude and posture in worship suggest otherwise. When we fail to gather on the Lord’s Day to offer unconditional honor to the Savior, we are exchanging true worship for man-made and idolatrous imitations. Many contemporary innovations in worship reflect unwarranted confidence in the self. The work of Christ is silenced and pushed to the margins of our life. No longer is His sacrifice our only hope for access to the Father.

By practicing reverence, Christian worship can confront our therapeutic culture with the truth that God comes to us only on His terms, and never on ours. His terms are the sacrifice. Only in the death and resurrection of Christ do we meet God and escape His wrath and curse. In Christ we find both the “goodness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). God accepts our worship because as a consuming fire He has consumed the Sacrifice on our behalf.

fended God. Worship should be characterized by Godly fear and humility. It is not done lightly but with care and attention. It is the natural response of creatures in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. And it is worship that conforms to God’s Word: “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29).

D.G. Hart is librarian and Associate Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA). He serves as an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, PA.  John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).