The Spirit of Puritan Worship
In John 4:24, the Lord Jesus declares, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” New Covenant worship is not about holy places such as the temple in Jerusalem but about holy hearts worshipping the Triune God. The multitude of Old Covenant ceremonies are replaced with the simplicity of spirit and truth (Heb. 9:9–10).93 The Puritans recognized that the essence of worship is inward and spiritual.94 Burroughs said that if we would please God in worship we must bring God His own, both in the matter and the manner of our worship. The matter must be dictated by the Word, but that is not enough; the manner must be full of God’s Spirit.95
The principal worship we offer to God comes from the work of the Holy Spirit in us to make us holy.96 We worship God with our spirits when our affections are kindled by fire from heaven so that our worship sparkles with holiness.97 This is only possible when we look to Christ to make us holy by His Word and Spirit.98
Owen reminds us that people may participate in religious worship not only with diligence but also delight, and yet worship for the wrong reasons. They do not have “delight in God through Christ” but instead may delight in the outward pleasure of worship such as an eloquent speaker, engaging stories and sermon illustrations, pleasant music, and impressive ceremonies; or perhaps they enjoy worship because it quiets their guilty consciences and gives them a sense of self-righteousness; or they might worship with joy because it improves their reputation in the eyes of men.99
John Preston (1587–1628), Puritan preacher to the royal court, warned that God has reason to complain, “This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me” (Isa. 29:13).100 Worship performed by unrepentant sinners, people not regenerated by the Holy Spirit, is an abomination to the Lord (Prov. 15:8; Isa. 1:13–15; 66:9).101 Even if the outward acts are done in conformity to God’s command, they are not done in the manner He requires; that is, with faith and repentance (Heb. 11:6). How tragic it is when people think they do God a great service by coming to church and participating in the worship service without repenting of their sins!102 As Owen said, without the exercise of faith, love, and reverence, the “outward duties of worship” are “utterly useless.”103
This does not imply that we can ignore or neglect the external means of worship that God has ordained in the New Covenant. Hildersham said that God requires “the service of our whole body in presenting ourselves before him in the public assemblies.”104 But worship with the body is nothing without worship from the Spirit.
Spiritual worship is not a passive experience; it requires concentration, exertion, diligence, and “striving” with all your might (Rom. 15:30) to serve God with a single-minded focus upon His glory (Col. 3:22).105 David prayed in Psalm 86:11, “Unite my heart to fear thy name.” In worship God must be the center of our attention and affection. Charnock said that “all our thoughts ought to be ravished with God” as our “treasure,” not easily distracted by “every feather” and “bubble” of this world.106 So Burroughs said, “When we come to worship God, if we would sanctify God’s name, we must have high thoughts of God; we must look upon God as he is upon his throne, in majesty, and in glory.”107
But how can the worshiper focus his mind on an invisible Spirit? We must not imagine some visible shape to God. Rather, Preston said, “fix thy mind chiefly on his attributes”: God’s power, grace, patience, mercy, faithfulness and purity.108 Baynes said that we must “tune our hearts” to the attributes of God: “If I sing of his goodness, I must find my heart inflamed with love to him; if of his wisdom, or power, I must have a holy admiration of them; if of his works of mercy to the saints, I must [rejoice with them] in it; if of his judgments, I must fear.”109
At the heart of worship is faith in Christ. Love for God can only live and thrive in the context of approaching God by faith in the Mediator. Like Luther, Perkins said, “Saving faith is the very root and beginning of all true worship. For love which is the fulfilling of the law, must come from it (1 Tim. 1:5).”110 Burroughs said that relying upon Christ as Mediator “is the greatest ingredient of all” in our worship. Christ is the altar that sanctifies our gift—by Him alone we have access to God.111 Owen said that “believers enjoy the privileges of the excellent, glorious, spiritual worship of God” by “the blood of Christ.”112 Thus Puritan worship is centered on drawing near to the triune God by faith in Christ the Mediator.113
I might also add that the spirit of Puritan worship was a spirit of patience towards the church. Love for God overflows in love for imperfect people. It is one thing to pray and work towards the reformation of worship according to the Scriptures. It is another thing to be divisive, judgmental, and destructive to the body of Christ. Such a striving and contention about worship reveals that we worship for the sake of self, not God.114
You and I may not agree with every detail in the way that the Puritans worshipped, but one thing is sure: the Puritans were zealous for pure worship, because God is zealous for the glory of His name. It may surprise people to hear it in this man-centred world, but the Puritans taught that God loves His glory even more than He loves our very lives. Burroughs said that the glory of God’s name is a million times more precious to God than the lives of a million people.115
Yet God’s zeal for His glory has expressed itself in the sending of His Son to die for sinners. Dear believer, Christ died to bring you near to God. Since He bought this privilege for you at such a high price, will you not make full use of it? A child of God loves nothing better than to be in the presence of his Father. What delights the Father more than to have His children gathered close to Him? The more you give yourself to worship, the more “there will grow a sweet and blessed familiarity between God and thy soul,” as Burroughs said.116
Come to worship with a sense of holy expectation. Owen said that to pretend to come to God but not with an expectation of receiving great blessings from Him is to despise God. We must always come to God as the fountain of goodness and grace, the source of everything we need, and the giver of all we can desire, even for happiness that lasts forever.117
True worship gives God His rightful place in creation, in the church, and in our lives. True worship is occupied with God Himself and with His glory; it glorifies God when we are satisfied with Him, delight in Him, and love and obey Him. True worship falls hopelessly in love with God; ten minutes of true worship contains more joy than the world can provide in ten years. True worship prepares us for eternity. When John Preston was dying, he said, “I shall but change my place, I shall not change my company.”118 What about you, dear friend? Have you kept company with the living God and His saints now while you are on earth? Are you enjoying His presence in the worship of His church—worship that coincides with what He commands in His Word? Are you enjoying worship as a foretaste of heaven, where Christ, and through Him, the Triune God, is all in all?
93 Hildersam, Lectvres upon the Fovrth of Iohn, 178.
94 Perkins, Cases of Conscience, 2:62; Diuine Worship, 189. Perkins recognized that spiritual worship “must be free and voluntary, without all constraint and compulsion,” which distinguishes the “service of the kingdom of God” from the honor given to “earthly princes” (Diuine Worship, 199). Here is the seed of liberty of conscience.
95 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 86–87.
96 Perkins, Diuine Worship, 202.
97 Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:299, 312.
98 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 67–68.
99 John Owen, Phronema tou Pneumatos, or, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, in Works, 7:423–30.
100 John Preston, Life Eternall, or, A Treatise of the Knowledge of the Divine Essence and Attributes (London: by R. B., 1631), 2:33.
101 Perkins, Diuine Worship, 186.
102 Perkins, Diuine Worship, 186–88.
103 Owen, Being Spiritually Minded, 7:434.
104 Hildersam, Lectvres upon the Fovrth of Iohn, 182.
105 Preston, Life Eternall, 2:35, 37.
106 Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:301. See Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 81. For Puritan counsel on overcoming distractions in worship, see Richard Steele, An Antidote against Distractions, or, An Indeavor to Serve the Church, in the Daily Case of Wandrings in the Worship of God (London: for Elizabeth Calvert, 1667), reprinted as A Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in the Worship of God.
107 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 71.
108 Preston, Life Eternall, 2:46.
109 Bayne, Ephesians, 635. “Rejoice with them” is a modernization of the original, obsolete use of “congratulate.” On shaping our worship by the attributes of God, see Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 93–102.
110 Perkins, Cases of Conscience, 2:63.
111 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 91–92.
112 Owen, “The Nature and Beauty of Gospel Worship,” 9:55.
113 Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 678.
114 Ames, Conscience, 2:63; Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:313. On worshiping God for self, see Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 72–78.
115 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 22.
116 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 35–37.
117 Owen, Being Spiritually Minded, 7:437.
118 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 38.