With all the talk of reverence in Reformed worship, it makes it seem as though our worship is somber. This is how those new to a Reformed worship service perceive what is happening. Is our worship somber, that is, lifeless? The answer is no. Is our worship sober, that is, serious? The answer is yes. Being in the presence of the Triune God causes a sober realization of who we are, who He is, and what we are to do in response to this meeting. This is why Hebrews 12:28–29 is so important to our consideration of worship: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Yet this does not mean worship is boring, cold, and stale. The Psalmist expresses that it cannot be, saying,
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Ps. 100:1–3).
In his treatise, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, John Calvin addressed this issue when he wrote,
…we do exhort men to worship God neither in a frigid nor a careless manner; and while we point out the mode, we neither lose sight of the end, nor omit any thing which bears upon the point. We proclaim the glory of God in terms far loftier than it was wont to be proclaimed before, and we earnestly labor to make the perfections in which His glory shines better and better known. His benefits towards ourselves we extol as eloquently as we can, while we call upon others to reverence His Majesty, render due homage to His greatness, feel due gratitude for His mercies, and unite in showing forth His praise.
So what about the human emotion of joy? In this article we want to tackle this question in order to communicate to those who come to our churches from non-Reformed backgrounds so that they will understand that our worship is joyful, although it may not be what they think joy is.
Speaking of Reverence and Joy Biblically
Culturally speaking, joy has been turned into upbeat, happy feelings about God. The “joy of the Lord” has even been equated with uncontrolled “holy laughter,” as was the teaching of the so-called “Toronto Blessing” and “Pensacola Revival” in recent years. Yet, the joy of the Lord is not merely an emotional feeling of happiness, but a delight in the Lord’s grace and goodness. Timothy Keller, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, explains this, saying,
Psalm 130:3-4 is a famous text that proves the “positive” content in the biblical term “fear of the Lord.” Here the psalmist says, essentially, “I fear you because of your forgiveness.” This means that “the fear of God” contains joyful amazement as well as humble and sobering awe.
As New Covenant Christians, we assemble corporately on the “Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) in joyful amazement that He would cast a pitying eye on such a people as us. We gather in order to express the biblical response to such grace and mercy. That heartfelt response is summarized best by the beautiful words of the Psalmist, who says that in worship we are to “rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11). This is the paradigmatic text for the attitude of believers in worship.
In worship, reverence (fear/trembling) and exuberance (rejoice) are mingled together; as the old songbook, The Psalter, says, “Mingle trembling with your mirth.” It is that “childlike reverence for and trust” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 120) in God our Father that we have because of the work of Christ and the Spirit that causes the sense of transcendence, mystery, and wonder for who the Lord is and what He has done for us. “You who fear the LORD, bless the LORD!” (Psalm 135:20 cf. 22:23)
Objectivity and Subjectivity in Worship
When we speak of joy and celebration in worship, we must be careful to do so biblically. Joy can never be associated with unbridled emotions or with Pentecostalism. Excitement is not joy. Joy is an attitude, a quality of the heart. To be joyful is to be grateful for the Lord’s deliverance of us from our guilt. This is a point we need to stress. Joyful worship will only be cultivated and expressed when people are deeply and profoundly impressed with their sin and misery.
Scripture roots joy and reverence in the knowledge of the mighty deeds of the LORD. Our subjective emotions must be rooted in the objective work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet the objectivity of the Word and work of the Lord must not drown out subjective emotions, feelings, and experience.
Since joy is the subjective response to the objective works of God, it is something that cannot be mechanically produced if it is to be pleasing to God. This is in contrast to much of contemporary Christian worship in which worship leaders manufacture emotion in order to give people a sense of connection with God— all the while keeping them entertained. Joy is not manufactured, but is cultivated. It is something that takes concentration and resolve, as it is very easy to get swept up in the flow of the liturgy and worship mindlessly. When this happens, there will be no joy.
In describing our response to the Lord in worship, W. Robert Godfrey speaks of both joy and reverence in worship in these words:
Today these two responses, joy and reverence, are frequently set in opposition to one another. One kind of worship is called joyful, uplifting, and exuberant, while another kind is called reverent, sedate, respectful. However, in the Scriptures joy and reverence are not antithetical but always complementary. Worship can be joyfully reverent and reverently joyful. Joy and reverence should always be united in our worship…This combination of joy and awe may not always be easy to achieve, but it must be our goal... [R]everence does not always mean quiet, and joy does not always mean noise. Joy and reverence are first of all attitudes of the heart for which we seek appropriate expressions in worship.
Joy is also an eschatological reality because it is grounded in the once for all work of Christ, whose sacrifice ushered in the last days and the age of the Spirit: “But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
The deep emotion of joy expressed in the Psalter, rich as it is, was only a semi-realized joy. Those who sang in the Old Covenant only sang joyfully of that for which they fulfillment of all the promises of God (2 Cor. 1:20). This means that we ought to be more passionate and more joyful than the Old Testament saints who worshiped so exuberantly, yet only with the types and shadows to fuel their subjective responses. As New Covenant Christians our emotions ought to be even more palpable because of the fact that we stand on this side of the empty tomb and we have been lifted to Christ’s right hand in the heavenly places (Eph. 2). “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28).
Some Ways of Manifesting Joy
Realizing that joy in worship is a subjective topic, and that God has made us all different in His image (Gen. 1:26), reflecting corporately His image and likeness (Eph. 4:24), I will attempt to lay out a few ways of manifesting joy when we assemble as the church of the Lord.
The first way of manifesting joy is coming to worship with a sense of purpose. We come not only to give the Lord the glory due His name (Psalm 29) in serving Him, but most especially to receive His service to us of grace and mercy in the preaching of His Word and celebration of His sacraments. We come with this sense of purpose because we know in holy worship alone Christ Himself bends a branch of the Tree of Life into time so that we can receive a foretaste of heaven now.
Another way of manifesting joy is coming to worship to fellowship with your fellow brothers and sisters. A sense of belonging to the community of faith is what the Psalmist expressed when he said, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD’” (Ps. 122:1). When we come and when we go to the house of the Lord, we ought to be moved to talking with our brothers and sisters, laughing with them, and manifesting our united joy. We need to cultivate a lively and robust fellowship with one another as well as with those who visit us and walk through our doors week by week.
Third, joy should be manifest though singing loudly. We need to lift up our voices in praise. Notice how Psalm 32:11 says, “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” The context of this command is telling: it comes after the Psalmist has confessed his sins and received absolution from the LORD. This is why the bulk of singing in Reformed worship comes after the reading of the Law, confession of sins, and declaration of pardon. It is because we have something profound to sing about. Our sins have been forgiven!
Fourth, joy is manifest in singing from the heart. The “heart” is a biblical term for our innermost self, what we sometimes call “the depths of our soul.” Paul calls us to be wise in these evil days, shunning drunkenness for being filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:15–18). Then in Ephesians 5:19 Paul explains what this looks like: “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” To be filled with the Spirit is to edify one another by means of song—and sing with all of our heart, that is, all that we are. Paul also says in Colossians 3:16 that we are to sing “with thankfulness in your hearts.”
Finally, another way of manifesting joy in worship is in the lifting up of hands in prayer and praise. The Bible often reveals the postures in which prayer is offered and the lifting up of hands is one such posture.
The raising of hands is not to be falsely identified as a Charismatic or Pentecostal idiosyncrasy, but a biblical posture. In the same way that we are to be reverent in silence, bowing our heads, standing in the presence of God, and even kneeling, so too the raising of “holy hands” in prayer is an outward manifestation of joy (1 Tim. 2:8). While it must be acknowledged that this was a cultural posture of prayer, which remains to this day in the Middle East, this does not negate the fact that this posture is also a universal posture. For example, the universal posture of raising of hands is even understand in our culture when a little child raises a hand to show that he/she is petitioning up to a parent or teacher.
We see this posture throughout Scripture: Moses stretched out his hands in interceding for Pharaoh (Ex. 9:29); Solomon did so in praying a prayer of adoration at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:22); the Israelite congregation raised their hands and shouted “Amen and Amen” when the law was read (Neh. 8:6); and the people called upon the priests in the Temple to raise their hands to the LORD in intercession as well as benediction (Ps. 134:2).
What is the meaning of raising the hands? We may find an answer in the instructive words of Lamentations 2:19. After calling the people to “cry out” and “pour out” their hearts to the LORD, Jeremiah says, “Lift your hands to him.” The lifting of hands is an outward expression of the heart, of crying out to God (Cf. Lam. 3:41; Ps. 28:2, 63:4, 77:2, 143:6). It is a physical way we reach out to God in our time of need. Again, think of the illustration of the little child that lifts a hand in the direction of a parent or teacher. As well, it is a visible way we call upon “Our Father who art in heaven.”
The lifting of hands is associated with the fact that the posture of the body is a part of the acts done in worship. For example, if we kneel or stand, it is because we recognized that we were in the presence of our holy King and want to express reverence. It is fitting, then, for us to use this posture as a way of expressing our reliance and joy in the Lord. Reformed ministers used to raise their hands when they prayed. Some still do. It is also fitting for the people of God to show their reliance upon the Lord and joyfully raise their hands as well (maybe it will keep you awake!) in The Atonement and suitable places such as the singing of doxologies that do not require the use of a hymnal.
In whatever manner we as Reformed people respond in public worship because of the great things Jesus Christ has done for us, may it be not only with reverence and awe, but gratitude and exuberant joy.
Rev. Daniel Hyde is the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.