One of the drums I will never tire of beating is this: All biblical worship is rooted in and made possible by the cross of Christ. In my experience, the contemporary church (and any church, for that matter) is always in danger of neglecting the gospel in its songs. I said it this way in my book, Worship Matters:
The gospel is not merely one of many possible themes we can touch on as we come to worship God. It is the central and foundational theme. All our worship originates and is brought into focus at the cross of Jesus Christ.
Glorying in Jesus Christ means glorying in his cross. That doesn’t mean looking at some icon or two pieces of wood nailed together. Nor does it imply that every song we sing has the word cross in it. It has little to do with church gatherings that are more like a funeral than a celebration.
The cross stands for all that was accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. It focuses on his substitutionary death at Calvary but includes everything that gave meaning to that act. His preexistent state in glory. His incarnation. His life of perfect obedience. His suffering. His resurrection. His ascension. His present intercession and reign in glory. His triumphant return.
I will always plead that worship pastors lead gospel-centered worship that is characterized by:
- an awareness that the cross/gospel should be referenced somewhere in the time of singing.
- viewing the gospel as our primary motivation for praising God.
- helping people understand that only Jesus enables us to approach God – not music, musicians, worship leaders, or particular worship songs.
- encouraging congregations to be most enthusiastic about the theme the Bible is the most enthusiastic about – the Lamb of God who was slain.
When the Gospel Loses Its Power
But over the years I’ve seen learned that this vital truth can be misapplied. We can practice gospel-centered corporate worship in a way that is more obligatory than faith-filled. What once magnified the glory of Christ becomes lifeless repetition. My friend, Jon Payne, shared some thoughts with me on this topic that I found helpful. He pointed out that a formulaic approach to gospel-centered worship can lead to some of the following problems:
- thinking every song should be exclusively about justification, boldness before the throne, or our sins being completely forgiven.
- thinking every song list should climax with a “gospel” song.
- an inability to reference or articulate uniquely other aspects of the gospel – adoption, reconciliation, union with Christ, etc.
- a scarcity of other themes in our songs such as the wisdom of God, the eternity of God, the power of God, the incarnation, the kingship of Christ, heaven.
- worshiping a doctrine rather than allowing that doctrine to lead us to a living Savior. We are not “crowning the gospel with many crowns.”
Leading gospel-centered worship in a faithless way can lead to some bad fruit:
- The gospel and the Savior lose glory in the eyes of bored worshipers.
- People develop a limited view of God and his attributes.
- People don’t learn how to apply the gospel to other areas of life/Biblical themes.
- The gospel becomes a crude, repetitive statement of facts rather than a lens through which we view all of life.
- We think an explicit reference to the gospel makes our worship acceptable, rather than trust in a crucified and risen Savior.
- Rather than expecting to encounter God because of the gospel people come expecting to repeat faithless facts.
It’s our responsibility as leaders to make sure, as the Puritans said, that we always “labor to be affected by the cross.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest news the world has ever heard and our singing should show it.
What have you done to make sure that singing about Christ’s redemptive work on the cross never becomes rote?
Great post! “People think an explicit reference to the gospel makes their worship acceptable, rather than trust in a crucified and living Savior.” … What a statement. I recently heard Sinclair Ferguson say something like ‘In a real sense there is no such thing as grace. There is only Christ and your soul.’ Bob, thank you for helping us, on the one hand, contend for the centrality of the gospel, and on the other, avoid the danger of turning it into a theological abstraction.
Thanks Bob. Awesome stuff.
I’m not a worship leader, but this is really good thinking material before I start my own daily quiet time worship.
One of the ways I have tried to make sure that singing about Christ’s redemptive work on the cross never becomes rote is by way of simple reminder to the congregation about why we choose gospel centered songs.
I rarely take time during the service to say very many words between songs, but last week I did just that, reminding the congregation why we choose to sing gospel centered songs and why we always will.
Good questions to ponder Bob. I always find it interesting that in Revelation a multitude is heard singing the song of Moses, and the song of the lamb. Just what is the song of the lamb? I do not know, but there is this strange reference:
Zep 3:17 The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
Great post! Thank you for refusing to stop beating this drum. The church today needs to hear this.
I think, to answer your question, if a church’s ministry as a whole is gospel-centered, than that will be expressed during the singing. If our Bible studies teach the gospel, apply it to our lives, and demonstrate its centrality in Scripture; and if our sermons are filled with the doctrines of grace and gospel-motivated application; and if our congregation is exhorting one another in the gospel – how could singing about the gospel become boring? If that’s the foundation and center of everything in the ministry, I think the singing would become an overflow of praise to God for his amazing grace.
Zach, Great thoughts. I think over time, the gospel should only become sweeter and more amazing.
You referenced a Puritan quote to “labor to be affected by the cross”. I love that. Is there a particular resource where I can find that quote? Who said that?
Joe, I think there may be an exact quote elsewhere, but the one I’m thinking of is from The Fountain of Life, written in 1671 by John Flavel.
Hath Christ offered up himself a sacrifice to God for us? Then let us improve, in every condition, this sacrifice, and labor to get our hearts duly affected with such a sight of it as faith can give. (Excellency of Our High Priest’s Oblation, Pt 1, p. 149)
Bob, thanks so much for your ministry/music/conferences. I’m a changed man because of the songs you guys write. I have seen the gospel so clearly lately as a result of your songs. Thanks.
Regarding the post:
I think that the entirety of the post could be used as a curriculum for teaching pastors how to preach! We need all of those elements in our pastors sermons.
I enjoyed reading this post. I am especially appreciative of the section on bad fruit and will share it with my worship team as well as lead them to this post to read the entire article. Thank you for your service!
Yes, yes, yes…1,000 times yes! Great post.
Can the gospel be rote? Only if I lose sight of what my (daily) sins mean to a holy God.
“Once your enemy, now I’m seated at your table, thank you Jesus.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I think the same principal can be applied to our encouragement to one another, counseling, the way we discuss the sermon in small groups, and even the way we pray.
Can you identify some indicators that our worship or other areas of our walk are motivated by an obligatory response to the gospel versus a faith-filled response?
Echoing Mike Ruel, singing about (or any other approach to) the gospel will never be rote when we rightly see ourselves for who we are before God and approach in humility.
Humble worship is the only kind of worship there is because it is the only one that truly ascribes worth to our great God.
Thanks for your ministry Bob.
I have an angle that’s similar to Zach’s
– as a Charismatic Church that is constantly referencing the gospel, what Christ did for us on the cross is always coming out in the prayers that the congregation make, the songs they start, the prophecies they bring…
When we have essentially the same message to bring every sunday varying the voices bringing it can help keep it sounding fresh. The gospel sounds more authentic coming from children, the elderly, the suffering…etc etc not just the guy at the front.
A totally different point. The gospel can become ‘by rote’ if we take your comment too literally
The cross stands for all that was accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. It includes …his resurrection …ascension …present intercession…reign in glory…triumphant return.
I think if we make the cross stand for all that, not only can it minimize the resurrection etc by making it implicit instead of explicit, but it can minimize the cross by making it a theological catch all.
So I guess I’m saying I keep the cross central by singing about other things aswell.
(…waits for Sovereign Grace stewards to escort him firmly from the building…)
Matt, agree with you totally. We need to fill out what the cross means as well as continue to keep the substitutionary death of Christ at the center of all our worship. You may remain in the building.
Thanks Bob, it’s a very nice building.
Bob, thanks for this post.
“The gospel” means:
Forgiveness, atonement, sanctification, adoption, reconciliation, union with Christ, participating in his work, becoming witnesses to the glory of God, being made holy as God is holy.
And what would you add?
I’m trying to get a full picture of all aspects of the gospel that we can fully represent them appropriately when it comes to singing in worship at our church. What would you say is the important central feature of the gospel. The Glory of God?
Beat Attitude, “What is the important central feature of the gospel?” I’d have to say, like many others before me, that penal substitution is at the heart of the gospel. In the death of Jesus Christ, God has taken upon himself the punishment that we deserved for our rebellion against him. Or, “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 Cor. 5:21). And, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). All that the cross reveals (God’s love, holiness, justice, mercy, etc.) and results in (forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption, restoration, sanctification, glorification, etc.) is grounded in the reality that our separation from God has been dealt with fully, finally, and forever through the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Of course, all this is ultimately for the glory of God. But if we make that the central feature we tend to lose sight of why the gospel is so glorious.
Great posts. Thanks a bunch.
Thanks for the answer Bob! The truth of the gospel just floors me! I’ve given a try to explain why I think the gospel is incredible…
God is incredible because he was willing to turn his own wrath upon (effectively) himself, in the person of Christ.
This is incredible for us, because we realise that in that act God has demonstrated the full extent of what he was prepared to do to facilitate our reconciliation to him, though he did not have to.
It’s also incredible for us because where we previously had no hope of reconciliation, we now have a chance to escape the terrible consequences of our sin.
It is incredible for us because Christ’s sacrifice was so utterly complete that salvation is not dependent on our own ability to be good, but simply on our willingness to turn from our sinful self-reliance (and the destruction it brings) and turn to God.
It is incredible for us because the spirit of God has already begun his work of glorious transformation in us, and promises to carry it on to completion. He gives us hope instead of regret, peace instead of fear, and a worthwhile vocation to participate in the ushering in of the glorious kingdom of God. We have access to life in all its fulness when we follow Christ.
It is incredible for us because God has made it possible for us, who don’t deserve it, to become witnesses and participants in his glorious, holy, holy, holy nature.
It is incredible for us because we will be in glorious relationship with our glorious father, the glorious spirit who works in us and the glorious son who enacted the will of His father…and this glory will never end.
And God has done it all!
(Not complete by any means…the incredible-ness of the gospel is unfathomable!)