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How Good Worship Makes Us Feel Scrutinized

How Good Worship Makes Us Feel Scrutinized

Isaiah and the All-Seeing Eye

One of the most compact Scriptural illustrations of the narrative dynamic of a Gospel-shaped worship service is found in Isaiah 6. Many have noted Isaiah’s progression from encountering God’s presence, to cowering in confessional fear, to hearing the relieving news of atonement, to being sent forth on mission. Commenting on the particular moment of confession, veteran worship songwriter Matt Redman says,

Isaiah is broken, stunned and shaken in the presence of God. But this brokenness is not a destructive thing; God is stripping him apart in order to put him back together as a stronger, purer worshiper—a worshiper whose heart-cry is, “Here am I! Send me.” Of course, there’s a time in worship to be joyful, content and even comfortable. But there also comes a time when God will make us distinctly uncomfortable. He puts us under the spotlight of His holiness, where we begin to search our hearts ever more closely. Richard Foster calls it “God’s scrutiny of love.”*

Do we worship leaders recognize that part of worship’s job is to make us feel uncomfortable for a time? Contained in a well-balanced, full-bodied worship service should be at least a moment where each and every one of us feels jerked to a halt under the white-hot scrutiny of God’s holy eye. The holiness of God should feel, among other things, like the unrelenting sun in a shade-less desert. You can’t run from its blistering rays.

This metaphor doesn’t necessarily conjure up the kinds of feelings we typically think of as “worship-y.” Shouldn’t worship be uplifting? Shouldn’t the service be a place of comfort? Should people feel happy in a worship service? Don’t we want to avoid Christianity feeling like a judgmental, oppressive religion? At this point, it’s very helpful to rehearse a theological dynamic that became a paradigm-shifter for worship reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther.

The Law and the Gospel

Theologians often call it the “law-gospel distinction.” It’s something that Luther and Calvin, being tirelessly obsessed with mining the Scriptures, rediscovered as the heart of the biblical message. Put briefly (and maybe even a bit simplistically), the Law is anything in God’s communication to us that says “do,” and the Gospel is anything that says “done.”

The Law is all of the rules and regulations emerging from the character and heart of God and then some. The Law is God’s creational standard of impeccable holiness and absolute perfection. The Law is good, because it comes from the heart and identity of God Himself, and it is both written on our hearts and spelled out in Scripture as an act of grace to us. In giving us the Law, God has graced humanity with its owner’s manual so that we don’t have to grope in the darkness trying to figure out what we’re built to be and do.

Because of the fall, though, the Law doesn’t feel good to us, because its presence is constantly placing before us the standard that we’re perpetually failing to live up to—absolute perfection. This is what Paul means when he says: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20, ESV).

The Gospel, as the Reformers articulated it, then steps in as an out-of-this-world declaration that the demands of the Law have been met and kept by Another on our behalf. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:21-22, ESV).

The reason the Reformers belabored this distinction between the Law and the Gospel was because hearing both their unique voices was necessary to knowing, feeling and embracing God’s mind-blowing, counterintuitive grace. So what does this have to do with Isaiah and being uncomfortable in worship?

Liberating Worship Is First Scrutinizing

If our worship services are to be dynamic, powerful and, yes, filled with the Spirit, they must rally around the Fount of every blessing—the Gospel of Jesus’ rescue of wrecked sinners. But in all our talks of Christ-centered, Gospel-saturated worship, we can sometimes forget God’s “order of operations” for how we receive His gracious Word: first Law, then Gospel. We must first hear the devastating news that we don’t measure up. We must first feel the weight of God’s glory pressing us, pulverizing our vain attempts at good works into dust. Only after this do we grasp more of the fullness of “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The Gospel rushes into the enormous crater in our heart created by the blast of the Law, backfilling our emptiness with the righteousness of Christ.

So, finally, we can ask, “When and how is it in worship that we truly feel the scrutinizing force of the Law?” It is in the historic and biblical act of confession of sin. It is exemplified in places like Psalm 51, Psalm 130, Isaiah 6 and Nehemiah 9. Think about it. Grace can only appear as high and far as my sin is recognized as deep and wide. So, worship leaders and planners, are you providing a place for the people of God to confess their sins before hearing the good news? Are you carving out a place in worship for Christians to feel “God’s scrutiny of love?” And, by the way, confession can look different depending on the context. It can be a corporate reading, an individual’s prayer on behalf of the people, a recited psalm or a song or song-section. Confession of sin isn’t so much a “liturgical” element of worship as much as it is a biblical, human one. And, yes, it’s not a terribly comfortable worship moment. Confession is a moment of spiritual nakedness and psychological exposure. It’s not warm and fuzzy, but cold and prickly. But, remember what it’s like to walk into a warm home out of the freezing cold. It’s heaven, just like the Gospel.

(If the idea of the law-gospel distinction is new to you, check out One Way Love, by Tullian Tchividjian, for an accessible take.)

Zac Hicks is Pastor of Worship at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and blogger at zachicks.com and Liberate. He grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, and trained in Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary. Zac has been married over 10 years to his wife, Abby, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody and Bronwyn.

*Matt Redman, The Unquenchable Worshipper: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Ventura: Regal, 2001), 33. The quotation is from Richard J. Foster, Spiritual Classics (UK: Fount, 2000), n. p.

This article originally appeared here.