What does it mean to worship God “in spirit and truth”?3
Everyone is familiar with the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4. But not everyone can explain what Jesus meant when he said that the Father is seeking men and women who will worship him “in spirit and truth” (v. 23)?
To say that we must worship God “in spirit” means, among other things, that it must originate from within, from the heart; it must be sincere, motivated by our love for God and gratitude for all he is and has done. Worship cannot be mechanical or formalistic. That does not necessarily rule out certain rituals or liturgy. But it does demand that all physical postures or symbolic actions must be infused with heart-felt commitment and faith and love and zeal.
But the word “spirit” here may also be a reference to the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul said that Christians “worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). It is the Holy Spirit who awakens in us an understanding of God’s beauty and splendor and power. It is the Holy Spirit who stirs us to celebrate and rejoice and give thanks. It is the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to see and savor all that God is for us in Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit who, I hope and pray, orchestrates our services and leads us in corporate praise of God.
This worship, however, must also be “in truth.” This is easier for us to understand, for it obviously means that our worship must conform to the revelation of God in Scripture. It must be informed by who God is and what he is like. Our worship must be rooted in and tethered to the realities of biblical revelation. God forbid that we should ever sing heresy. Worship is not meant to be formed by what feels good but by the light of what is true.
Genuine, Christ-exalting worship must never be mindless or based in ignorance. It must be doctrinally grounded and focused on the truth of all we know of our great Triune God. To worship inconsistently with what is revealed to us in Scripture ultimately degenerates into idolatry.
There are some who prefer to worship only “in S/spirit” but couldn’t care less about truth. In fact, they think that focusing on truth has the potential to quench the Spirit. The standard by which they judge the success of our worship is the thrills and chills they experience. Now, make no mistake, worship that does not engage and inflame your emotions and affections is worthless. Jesus himself criticized the worship of the religious leaders in his day by saying that whereas they honored God “with their lips” their “heart is far from” him (Matt. 15:7-9). True worship must engage the heart, the affections, the totality of our being. But any affection or feeling or emotion that is stirred up by error or false doctrine is worthless.
Others prefer to worship only “in truth” and are actually offended when they or others feel anything or experience heightened emotions. Not long ago I heard a prominent evangelical pastor say this: “I often wish that we wouldn’t sing or have music, but that I could simply see and say the words or the lyrics that express biblical truth. I don’t like being distracted by the emotions that rise up in me when we sing to musical accompaniment.” I couldn’t believe my ears! By all means, let us sing only what is true. But to do so without affection and feeling and heart-felt emotion is unthinkable to me.
Perhaps you’ve seen this statement by John Piper. In any case, you need to see it again:
“Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full . . . of artificial admirers. . . . On the other hand, emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates shallow people who refuse the disciple of rigorous thought. But true worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine. Strong affections for God rooted in truth are the bone and marrow of biblical worship” (Desiring God, 65).
There are many who would insist that this is simply impossible. The human soul, they say, can’t hold together simultaneously such seemingly conflicting realities. You will eventually default to one side or the other. Some insist that you can’t focus on the truths of God’s Word without turning into an overly-intellectual, arrogant elitist, while others argue that you can’t cultivate heart-warming, emotionally uplifting celebrations without deviating from the Bible and falling into unbridled fanaticism. I beg to differ! Better still, Jesus begs to differ! The Bible itself begs to differ! God forbid that we should ever find ourselves individually or as a church failing to worship God in both S/spirit and truth!
Genuine, Christ-exalting worship is the fruit of both heat and light. The light of truth shines into our minds and instructs us about who God is. Such light in turn ignites the fire of passion and affection and the heat of joy, love, gratitude, and deep soul-satisfaction. Some people will inevitably conclude that there is too much emotion at Bridgeway, where I serve as Pastor, while others insist there is too much doctrine. Some will say we’re too experiential in our worship, while others contend that we’re too theological. Personally, I don’t think you can be too much of either, just so long as they are both embraced and God is honored.
None of this means you have to worship the way other people at your church do. If the truth of God’s Word moves you to lift your hands, dance, shout aloud, or wave a banner, God bless you. If the truth of God’s Word leads you into solemn reverence, as you remain seated and immovable, God bless you. But let’s make certain that in either case we are worshiping in both S/spirit and truth! For it is just such people that the Father is seeking.