Who can Worship?

If the question were simply “Who worships?,” my answer would be easy. All humans are made in God’s image and, like mirrors, must reflect or worship something. Though what each one worships may vary, we conclude that everyone worships.

But the question we face in this article is more complex: Who can offer worship to God in a way God accepts? Most people imagine that this question, too, has a simple answer. To them, “God” is a good-natured grandfather in the sky who, like an elderly person in a care home, is only too grateful for any attention he receives. Anyone can worship this “God,” and in any way they wish. The modern wisdom on worship says: Don’t worry about what kind of worship works for God, but what kind of worship works for you.

However, this is not what the Bible says. It asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psa 24:3 ESV), and then proceeds to answer beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation. It insists that worship is either true or false, and the false it calls idolatry. This idolatry is shown to be the very essence of evil. The first commandment prohibits worship of false gods. The second includes this, but also prohibits the worship of the true God in the wrong way. Worship must be directed to the right God and be offered in the right way for Him to accept it.

Our Wrath-Provoking Worship

Before we can offer true worship, God must first reveal Himself to us, showing us who He is and how to approach Him. The uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian faith is that God has done just that. In the first half of Exodus God tells us His Name! And then in the various laws and tabernacle instructions of the second half, He reveals how Israel was to approach Him. In fact, the Bible testifies that God has shown the truth about Himself to everyone in every place (Rom 1:19-21; Psa 19:1-4). If we fail to offer Him true worship, we have no excuse (Rom 1:20).

But we have failed. Although we knew God, we dishonored Him, exchanging the glory of the God we were designed to image for images resembling creatures. Instead of worshiping our Creator, we worshiped His created things! This is idolatry, pure and simple – worship so deeply offensive to God that His wrath is being revealed from heaven against it (Rom 1:18-25; 3:23). Chastened, we whisper the question this time: “Who can offer acceptable worship to God? Who shall ascend His hill?” The Bible’s majestic answer is itself a cause for worship: God’s own incarnate Son has gone up the hill for us and there has offered a sacrifice infinitely acceptable to God. Now, because of His perfect act of worship, we can turn from our idolatry and worship God instead.

Christ’s Wrath-Averting Worship

The book of Romans eventually leaves off exposing our false worship and begins to tell us how we can offer “true worship” (12:1 CSB). And the way it changes from the false to the true is via the “redemption that is in Christ Jesus” and the “propitiation by his blood” (3:24-25 ESV). As created beings, we need revelation to worship, but as idolatrous beings, we need redemption. We also need propitiation. How else will God’s righteous wrath against our false worship be averted? All that we needed God has provided through the blood sacrifice of His Son – through Christ’s worship.

This is why Paul labors in the priestly service of the gospel. As he heralds the good news of Christ’s work upon the cross, idolaters from among the nations come to faith in the Lord Jesus for the fame of His name. They respond to God’s mercy in Christ by presenting their whole life in submission to God as a living sacrifice, and God finds such worship acceptable and good (Rom 1:5; 10:17; 12:1-2; 15:16).[1]

Two things implicit in the discussion of Romans above are made explicit in Hebrews. First, the Son’s work at the cross was an act of perfect worship and, second, His worship provides for our worship. “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:27 ESV). His worship was perfect because what He offered was Himself. And His perfect worship enables us to worship: Will not “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve [a worship term] the living God” (9:14 ESV)?

Only Believers in Christ Can Worship

By now it should be clear that in this NT era only believers in Christ can truly worship God. As Christ explained to the woman of Samaria, those who worship the Father must do so in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). Christ is the truth and the exclusive way to come to the Father (14:6). “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (5:23 ESV). God rejects any worship that rejects His Son.

It is true that the Gospels record a few instances where unconverted people are said to “worship” (e.g., Matt 9:18 KJV). But the word proskuneō means to bend low and doesn’t always have worship overtones. Other translations use “knelt” in this context.[2]

You Can Worship

If you’re a believer in Christ, you can worship! Your heart is sprinkled clean and your body is washed with pure water. Christ has opened up a way for you to enter the holy places through His blood and through His flesh. You can draw near confidently (Heb 10:19-22). Because the Lord Jesus went up the mountain, you too have been brought “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God … Therefore … let us offer to God acceptable worship” (12:22, 28  ESV).

[1] David Peterson, Engaging with God, 173-182. I am indebted to Peterson (note the spelling!) for several points in this article.

[2] Ibid., 85. See 1Sam 2:36 in the LXX for one example. Also, the story of Cornelius does not overthrow the point I’m making here, if Acts 10:35 is read carefully in context.