How would you answer these questions?:
How can we most glorify God on the earth? How can we experience most of his presence? How can we see him most clearly revealed? How can we get the maximum possible spiritual benefits from the Lord? How can we do the most good to our fellow believers? What is the best antidote to backsliding and apostasy? Where can we experience the Lord doing his greatest works on earth? What is the closest experience to heaven we can get in this world?
What do you think? What would you suggest?
They’re not trivial questions, are they? Surely every true child of God should been keenly interested in the answers to these questions. But I wonder how many of us would be surprised at the answer. For the answer is the same to each of them, at least according to the Puritan pastor David Clarkson who ministered in London in the 1680s, first as the great John Owen’s assistant, and then as his successor. The answer, says Clarkson, is the public worship services of your church.
Was that your answer? I wonder how many Christians today would say that going to church is the best way to accomplish all those things.
Clarkson’s thesis is based on Psalm 87.2: The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. His point was that the Lord delights in the public worship of his gathered people (in Jerusalem) even more than their private worship as individuals or families (in the dwelling places of Jacob). Since the death and resurrection of Christ, in the New Testament the people of God are the living stones comprising the temple of God, built upon Christ as the chief cornerstone (1Cor 3.16; Eph 2.21f; 1Pt 2.5). So the gates of Zion today are found wherever a true church gathers to worship the Triune God in spirit and in truth. And the Lord delights in that worship even more than all our personal devotions.
This doesn’t mean that the Lord doesn’t love it when we read the Bible and pray to him on our own—simply that he loves our public gathering for worship even more. Clarkson gives twelve biblical arguments for why public worship should be even more pleasing to God than private (I’ll list them at the end).
His challenge is clear, simple and even more relevant today than in the 17th century. As it is with the Lord, so it should be with his people. If the Lord delights most in public worship, so should his people. Do you?
If public worship is the most spiritually significant, momentous thing we can do on earth, is it any wonder that the Devil attacks it more than anything else. We are constantly tempted to devalue the public worship services of our church, for all kinds of reasons.
· Perhaps through individualism: what really matters is what I do on my own, what God says to me personally.
· Perhaps through pride: ‘I can look after myself spiritually; I don’t need pastors, elders, deacons, and other Christians.
· For some the temptation might lie in self-preservation: maybe you’ve been badly hurt by other Christians and you want to protect yourself by withdrawing from church life.
· For others it could be arrogance: you don’t like being challenged about your sins; your itching ears want to hear only nice, pleasant, encouraging things.
· Perhaps you’re a bit of an introvert and you find it exhausting and daunting to be among people. Even the best churches are messy, frustrating places. If you put a lot of sinners—even sinners who are being sanctified—in one place together, there are going to be problems. People will say insensitive things, there will be different perspectives, there will be weak and immature Christians to deal with. It would be so much easier to stay at home and avoid it altogether!
And then we have the lure of online ‘church’. The vast majority of us had to sacrifice public worship during the months of lockdown and make do with an online substitute. But perhaps over the weeks and months many Christians started to prefer it to the real thing. After all, it was very convenient! No need to dress up; no commute to a building – just a few steps to your living room. You could visit any church in the world. If you want to listen to a better preacher than your own pastor, well SermonAudio alone has 34,891 speakers and 1,974,764 sermons to click on. If you’re not gripped by one message, click to something different. If it’s too hard or too light or too dry or too challenging, find something else. No wonder many churches are worried that people will not only work from home after the covid restrictions are lifted, but will want to worship from home as well.
Now maybe the vast majority of Gentle Reformation readers are unlikely to give in to that temptation, but we do need to guard our hearts and remind ourselves that the public worship of God that is the most important thing we can ever do, and that it’s here that we will find most blessing.
So I commend Clarkson’s sermon to you as a great antidote to the temptation to downplay the importance of public worship, and as a tremendous way to prepare for returning to public worship, if you haven’t already done so. You can read it online for free here, and here’s a handy outline of his twelve reasons why public worship is to be preferred to private produced by Kensit Evangelical Church in England. A printable version can be downloaded here, and they suggest printing it out and keeping it beside your alarm clock for Lord’s Day mornings! Alternatively, why not take the first six reasons to meditate on and pray through in your own devotions or family worship Monday to Saturday of one week, then the next six the following week?
1. The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private. God is glorified by us when we acknowledge that He is glorious, and He is most glorified when this acknowledgement is most public.
2. There is more of the Lord’s presence in public worship than in private. He is present with his people in the use of public worship in a special way: more effectually, constantly, and intimately.
3. God manifests himself more clearly in public worship than in private. For example, in Revelation, Christ is manifested “in the midst of the churches.”
4. There is more spiritual advantage in the use of public worship. Whatever spiritual benefit is to be found in private duties, that, and much more may be expected from public worship when rightly used.
5. Public worship is more edifying than private. In private you provide for your own good, but in public you do good both to yourselves and others.
6. Public worship is a better security against apostasy than private. He who lacks or rejects public worship, whatever private means he enjoy, is in danger of apostasy.
7. The Lord works his greatest works in public worship. Conversion, regeneration, etc., are usually accomplished through public means.
8. Public worship is the nearest resemblance of heaven. In the Bible’s depictions of heaven, there is nothing done in private, nothing in secret; all the worship of that glorious company is public.
9. The most renowned servants of God have preferred public worship before private. The Lord did not withdraw from public ordinances, though they were corrupt. Public worship was more precious to the apostles than their safety, liberty, and lives.
10. Public worship is the best means for procuring the greatest mercies, and preventing and removing the greatest judgments.
11. The precious blood of Christ is most interested in public worship. Private worship was required of, and performed by Adam and his posterity, even in a sinless state, but the public preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments have a necessary dependence on the death of Christ.
12. The promises of God are given more to public worship than to private. There are more promises to public than to private worship, and even the promises that seem to be made to private duties are applicable and more powerful for public worship.