Acceptable to God by Jesus Christ
A popular opinion of our time is that it does not matter how we worship God just as long as our hearts are in what we do as worship. However, the scriptures reveal that since the beginning of time, and in every age, God has been very particular about what He has accepted as worship. Worship in all ages of time, since man’s fall from his original state of purity in Eden, has involved some kind of offerings or sacrifices.
In Genesis 4:3-5, we read, “And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”
This is the first record we have in the Bible of man worshiping God after the fall, and we see from this account that one sacrifice was “acceptable” and the other “unacceptable.” Throughout the Old Testament there is much said concerning acceptable and unacceptable sacrifices. Only certain kinds of sacrifices were accepted, and, in many instances, those sacrifices could only be burned on a special kind of altar and by a special kind of fire. After the Levitical priesthood was set up and ordained by God, an offering of incense burned by a fire kindled by the worshiper himself was not acceptable. It had to be burned by “holy fire” and the offering had to be made upon a holy altar. It was a very serious thing to offer “strange fire” before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-7). Those particulars pertaining to the literal sacrifices of the Old Testament were types and shadows of the particulars pertaining to the spiritual sacrifices of the New Testament.
Colossians 2:23 speaks of “will worship.” Will worship involves the will, the desires, the personal likings, or the whims of the worshiper. The offerings of Nadab and Abihu, as recorded in Leviticus 10:1, were a form of will worship. Cain’s sacrifice was also a form of will worship. He offered it according to his own personal liking, and it involved that which meant the most to him—the product of his own toil and the work of his own hands. Will worship can never produce a sacrifice that is acceptable to God.
The apostle Peter, speaking of the worship of God by the New Testament church said in 1 Peter 2:5, “Ye… as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
This scripture gives us much insight into what kind of worship is acceptable to God in this dispensation of time. To be acceptable, it must be (1) a “spiritual sacrifice” and (2) offered in the divine element of His Son, “Jesus Christ.” I believe that one reason Cain’s offering was not accepted by God in the beginning was because it did not reflect a faith in the future atonement of the promised Messiah. Abel’s did, therefore it was accepted. Cain’s sacrifice, the fruit of his own labors, reflected a faith in his own works, the human element, while Abel’s sacrifice, the life of an innocent animal, reflected his faith in the future atonement of Christ, the divine.
It is quite obvious that all worship, in whatever dispensation of time, has had to be carried out according to God’s provision for that particular dispensation in order to be accepted by Him. Let us examine a few scriptures. In Hebrews we read that “Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.” (Hebrews 8:5) “Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary…. Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.” (Hebrews 9:1,9-10)
By these scriptures we see that even in Old Testament times God had a prescribed system of acceptable worship. It had to be “according to the pattern,” even though it did not make the worshipers perfect as pertaining to the conscience, or inner man. That system of worship was but a type and shadow of something better that was yet to come. God had a better plan in mind, which would reach the need of the inner man. This plan would completely remove sin from the heart and thereby perfect the conscience and put man back into spiritual communion with his Creator. This, God knew, would produce the kind of worship He really desired.
In John 4 we have an interesting account of Jesus conversing with a Samaritan woman who met Him at Jacob’s well. In verses 19 through 24 we read, “The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
These scriptures reveal the true element in which God must be worshiped in New Testament times. Adam Clarke says, “A man worships God in spirit, when under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he brings all his affections, appetites, and desires, to the throne of God; and he worships in truth, when every purpose and passion of his heart and every act of his religious worship is guided and regulated by the Word of God.”1 “Thy Word is truth.” (John 17:17)
[Adam Clarke; Commentary on John 4:24]
This kind of worship was fully made possible when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost. It was in the divine element of the Holy Spirit that God set up His eternal kingdom in Christ, and it is only in the element of His living Spirit working in connection with His written Word that all true worship now takes place. Any worship outside these parameters is now unacceptable to God.
We cited 1 Peter 2:5 awhile ago as revealing that worship in the present dispensation must involve “spiritual sacrifices” offered in the element of Jesus Christ. Let us expound further on what we mean by “in the element of Jesus Christ.” There was a time when the Word (Christ) was made flesh and dwelt among men, and men beheld His glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). But though He was manifested in the flesh, He was “justified in the Spirit” and “received up into glory,” (1 Timothy 3:16) “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:4) And “though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more.” (2 Corinthians 5:16) Christ, “the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45) Yes, He is still the same in “person,” but He has transformed from “flesh” into the “spiritual” element, a transformation that we too shall experience at His second coming (1 Corinthians 15:35-55). “We know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2; Philippians 3:21) But in the meantime He has sent the Holy Spirit to connect us in our present state with Him in His present state. And it is through this medium that He now comes to us and sups with us, and we with Him (John 14:15-26; 15:26; 16:13-15; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 3:20, etc.).
New Testament worship involves an interaction and communication between the spirit of man and the Spirit of God. Without this it is impossible to be a “true worshiper” in this dispensation. The primary interaction between man’s spirit and God’s Spirit comes through the work of regeneration (Titus 3:5), or the spiritual rebirth (John 3:3-8). It is only by being “born of the Spirit” that man’s spirit connects to the element of Jesus Christ and enters into the kingdom of God, the realm of divine worship. It is this interaction that introduces the spirit of man to “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost.” (2 Corinthians 13:14) And remember, that which begins “in the Spirit” can never be “made perfect [or consummated] by the flesh.” (Gal. 3:3)
All New Testament worship is in some sense a “spiritual sacrifice” offered to God in the element of Jesus Christ through the Spirit. There are three basic parts of divine worship in the New Testament. They are (1) prayer, (2) praise, and (3) prophesying. Let us consider each one of these.
(1) Prayer. In prayer we speak directly to God, “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit.” (Eph. 6:18) “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God.” (Jude 1:20-21)
(2) Praise. In praise we may speak directly to God in thanksgiving, “giving thanks for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 5:20) or we may extol Him by speaking of His wondrous works to or before others. “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me.” (Psalm 50:23) “By him [Christ] therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” (Hebrews 13:15)
(3) Prophesying. In prophesying we “speak unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort,” which “edifieth the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:3-4) Prophesying can, and does, include the predicting of future events by divine inspiration and insight; however, in its broader and more general sense from the Hebrew and from the Greek it means “to speak or sing by inspiration” (Hebrew, naba) and to “speak under inspiration” (Greek, propheteuo). On the day of Pentecost, Peter quoted from Joel 2:28, saying, “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:16-17) Prophesying is a very important part of New Testament worship. “If all prophesy,” says the apostle Paul, “and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)
According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, “Prophecy comprehends three things: prediction; singing by the dictate of the Spirit; and explaining the mysterious, hidden sense of Scripture by an immediate illumination and motion of the Spirit” (pg. 535). Besides Holy Spirit inspired preaching, prophesying may include singing, testifying, teaching, or exhorting “by motion, or inspiration of the Spirit.” All these, when done under the inspiration and anointing of the Holy Spirit, comfort and edify the church, and are an integral part of New Testament worship.
Singing may be either prophesying or praise, as through singing we may speak either to men or to God or to both. “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16) “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19)
Prayers, praises, and prophesyings that pour forth from hearts that are tuned with and inspired by the Holy Spirit rise up before God as sweet incense. These are “spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ,” and He regards these sacrifices as “worship.” Revelation 8:3-4 speaks of the “prayers of the saints” ascending as incense before the throne of God. Also, Malachi 3:16 says, “they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.” This shows the regard God has for prophesying, or “speaking unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.” (1 Corinthians 14:3) “What is it then: I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” (1 Corinthians 14:15)
It is obvious then, that all prayer, praising, and prophesying (worship) must be done in the Spirit. Outside of that our worship becomes merely a product of the human element and is, in reality, “will worship.” There are many different forms of will worship. Any self-motivated style of worship wherein the worshiper seeks fulfillment of certain emotional, sensational, or intellectual cravings is will worship. Will worship can manifest itself in different ways, depending upon the temperament of the worshiper. Our temperament is our “inclination or mode of emotional response—disposition.” In will worship it is often the temperament that regulates the will and the will becomes the regulating factor of one’s worship. Will worship can take place when the temperament of a person is such as to cause him, or her, to crave the achievement of certain sensations of ecstasy or to experience certain intellectual delights. These sensations and delights can be achieved by listening to, producing or participating in certain styles of music, hearing a demonstrative, piquant orator, etc. In Acts 12:21-22 we read of Herod giving an oration that so inspired the people that they “gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.” These kinds of motivations, however, come from the human element rather than the divine. God cannot be worshiped on the basis of any kind of human temperament. Human temperament may, and does, become involved in worship when touched by the Spirit of God, but the essence of all true worship lays within the element of God’s own Spirit and His truth. Humanity cannot worship God aright without the moderation of His Spirit and the light of His truth. We must worship within the element of who God is, not who we are. Nothing but God Himself and the very essence of His own person can truly sate the cravings of the human heart.
Since God is a spirit and can only be truly worshiped in spirit (His own element), is it possible to worship Him through any means outside that element, such as by any human invention or mechanical device? Since prayer, praise, and prophesying must all be in the Spirit to be acceptable, can any part of divine worship, therefore, be mechanically produced? The answer is NO! Let us look at a scriptural principle regarding this fact.
In Acts 17 we have the account of the apostle Paul during his visit to Mars’ hill in Athens, Greece. He said, “For as I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” (Acts 17:23-25)
Man’s ability to worship God lies completely in his endowment from God by creation and in nothing that his hands are able to produce. God formed a spirit within man (Zechariah 12:1) and it is through this avenue that man is able to worship God and God is able to communicate with man. “There is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” (Job 32:8) This inspired understanding produces the intelligent communication and interaction between man’s spirit and God’s Spirit, which God accepts as “worship.” It is by Him whose fullness dwells in Christ that we, by the Spirit who maketh intercession for us, offer up the holy incense of prayer that is received before the throne of God according to His will (Romans 8:26-27; Revelation 8:3-4). It is by Him that we “offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” (Hebrews 13:15) And it is by Him that we prophesy, that is, “speak under inspiration” in preaching, teaching, exhorting, testifying, and singing “by the dictate of the Spirit.” None of these things can be accomplished through any kind of mechanical means. All these things relate to a creation possessing spiritual endowment and involved in a spiritual interaction. These are all “spiritual sacrifices,” and they are made “acceptable to God by Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 5:2) our supreme sacrifice. We may safely conclude, therefore, that every aspect of New Testament offerings and sacrifices, as pertaining to our worship to God, must lie within the same spiritual element as Christ’s sacrifice. It could not be otherwise. Now in what element did Christ offer His sacrifice? In Hebrews 9:14 we find the answer: “Christ… through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God.” It is, therefore, within the element of that same eternal Spirit that we must offer all our sacrifices of worship to God.
Jesus stated the above truth like this: “For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.” (Mark 9:49) Every New Testament worshiper, as well as what he offers to God as worship, must be salted with “fire” and “salt.” Now I want to ask a question. Is it possible to salt a piano, organ, guitar, or any other instrument or mechanical invention created by man with the kind of fire and salt Jesus spoke of here? If not, then it is impossible to offer an acceptable sacrifice to God by any such means. Fire and salt are figures of speech relative to the Holy Spirit. Only those sacrifices that are offered with the warm and seasoned inspiration of the Holy Spirit are accepted by God today as worship. And again, all such sacrifices must necessarily be of a spiritual essence and must involve a spiritual interaction. There is nothing spiritually interactive between a mechanical instrument and the Spirit of God. This is an all-important truth and worthy of your utmost consideration!
There are, of course, sacrifices of service to the Lord, such as alms giving, ministering to the poor, sick, or needy, and distributing to temporal needs relative to the promotion of God’s cause and kingdom here on earth. “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” (Hebrews 13:16) These sacrifices however, fall into a somewhat different category than worship itself, although they are related to our worship and the laying up of treasures in heaven. There are also three ceremonial ordinances of the New Testament that may be considered acts of worship. They are water baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and feet washing. But even in the observance of these the spirit within us must be in tune with the meaning behind them, otherwise the acts are of no value to the soul.
God has made man a very complex creature. He is capable of a vast realm of experience physically, mentally, and spiritually. God made us capable of enjoying the taste of good food. He made us capable of smelling the sweet scent of flowers. He made us capable of seeing His beautiful handiwork and enjoying it. He made us capable of hearing the sweet sounds of birds singing in the trees. He made us capable of feeling the gentle breezes blow upon our bodies. These are all physical pleasures. He made us capable of unlimited imaginations, marvelous inventions, and with an appreciation for, and ability to produce, fine arts. In these we find intellectual pleasures. And, by forming a spirit within us, He made us capable of inwardly enjoying Himself. In this we find spiritual pleasure. It is very important that we understand the differences in these experiences. It is possible to mistake our physical and intellectual delights for spiritual experiences when actually our spiritual being has received no divine inspiration at all.
A woman told me one time that a man who attended church services where she did brought his handsaw to service with him and demonstrated a very special skill that he had developed. By certain movements of the handsaw he was able to play the tune of the old familiar hymn, “What a Friend.” The woman said, “I got such a blessing from that!” I believe that what this woman actually experienced was “intellectual pleasure.” The artistic sensibilities of her intellect were touched and stimulated by the demonstration of the player’s skill and expertise, thus producing a sensation of delight and a pleasurable mood. She interpreted this stimulation as “a blessing.” There is nothing morally wrong with this kind of stimulation—but do the artistic skills and works produced by men’s hands really have any relationship to the “spiritual blessings” of New Testament worship? I would here like to quote from the late C. E. Orr:
God has made us physical beings and gives us physical pleasures. He has made us mental beings and gives us intellectual delights. He has made us moral beings and gives us happiness in doing good, but all this is not worship to God. You can have physical pleasures, intellectual delights, and moral happiness, and yet not worship God in the Spirit. In the realms of our intellectual tastes, and our finer artistic sensibilities we delight in beholding the beauty of sunset or the loveliness of flowers, but when we get in the Spirit and are given a vision of the wondrous perfections of God we do not want any bouquet of flowers to intercept our view.
It is only human hearts that can pour music into the ears of God. The Holy Spirit never pours incense on the tones of the organ and wafts them up to the nostrils of the Almighty. Heavenly incense is poured on nothing but the altar fires of God in the human soul. Our singing may be out of time and out of tune, but if there is melody in the heart to God, it rolls in sweet symphonies throughout the corridors of heaven and angels listen. My dear holy brethren, let me whisper a secret to you. Artistic music only touches the finer tastes and higher sentimentality of our intellectual and moral being and never touches the spirit being of man. God is a Spirit and it is only the Spirit of God that can touch and delight the spirit of man and it is only the spirit of man that can touch and delight the heart of God. Spirit beings have no ear to hear sounds made by material things.
[Charles E. Orr]
The question has been asked, “What is the difference in playing musical instruments in your home and in playing them in a church service?” Let us answer this question by considering another question. “What would be the difference in serving cookies and milk as an after-supper dessert in your home and in serving cookies and milk when observing the Lord’s Supper?” There is nothing morally wrong with cookies and milk, is there? But yet Jesus never authorized such to be served as emblems in His sacred memorial service. To do so would be to step outside the plan He ordained and miss the real purpose and blessing of the Lord’s Supper. Likewise, there is nothing morally wrong with musical instruments or with developing our skills with musical instruments, so long as they are not used in a way that displeases God. But when it comes to worship, neither instruments nor our skills were ever ordained or authorized by God to have any part in the New Testament arrangement of things. That arrangement is a spiritual arrangement. Why bring any thing into a worship service that His arrangement has not provided for? Inasmuch as we deviate from the New Testament design we miss the blessing and purpose of what New Testament worship was meant to be. Anything we try to add to the spiritual arrangement of the New Testament system actually hinders rather than helps it. It is complete and perfect just as Christ and the Father set it up in the Spirit. Nothing of man’s provision can add anything to it. Praying, praising, and prophesying in the Holy Ghost provide everything for the soul of man that God meant New Testament worship to provide. The tones of a musical instrument can never accomplish what “singing with the spirit and with the understanding” was meant to do.
Other questions that are sometimes asked are, “Does God condemn those who use instrumental music in their worship?” or “Does God consider the use of musical instruments in worship a sin?” Consider this: did God condemn Cain for bringing an offering of the fruit of the ground, or did He count Cain’s offering a sin? The scripture simply says, “But unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect.” It seems that God did not condemn Cain on the basis of his offering in itself, nor did He count it a sin. He just simply did not regard the sacrifice acceptable. Why? Cain brought an offering that befitted his own temperament. It reflected a faith in his own work and skill as a “tiller of the ground,” and a desire to be accepted on his own merit. But Abel offered his sacrifice in a faith that extended to an invisible substance outside himself, apart from any skill or work of his own. His sacrifice reflected his faith in the future atonement of Jesus Christ. Therefore, “the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering.” (Genesis 4:4) God could not accept Cain’s offering because it was offered in the human element rather than the divine. When Cain saw that God did not respect or accept his offering, what he should have done was to have inquired of God what was wrong with the offering and how to go about offering a sacrifice that could be accepted and bring God’s respect and favor. God said, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:7) Cain had the privilege of offering an acceptable sacrifice to God had he sought out that which was indeed acceptable. But sadly, he chose to take another course.
If we find ourselves below the New Testament standard of worship, or having deviated from it to some degree, we have the privilege of allowing God to teach us the deep truth of what it means to offer “acceptable sacrifices” within the divine element of His Son. He longs to “bless us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ,” (Ephesians 1:3) by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). He wants us to know the “spiritual pleasure” that can only come from offering “spiritual sacrifices” salted with “fire.” But we must humble our hearts before Him and fully resign our wills to His will, realizing that we know not even how to pray as we ought, except the Spirit helps our infirmities. Neither can we worship acceptably unless the Spirit makes intercession for us according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27). As we tune our hearts to the mind of the Spirit and receive understanding from Him of how to remove those things from our worship services that He cannot salt with His holy fire (those elements that are foreign to the realm of His operation), He is then ready and anxious to fill the vacuum. As He fills it, we can then begin experiencing, to a degree unknown before, the blessings and benefits of true worship—praying, praising, and prophesying by the illumination, motion, and dictation of the Spirit. This is what “Holy Spirit leadership” means, relative to worship services. This is the kind of worship that searches and manifests the secrets of men’s hearts (1 Corinthians 14:24-25), and this is how it was experienced by the primitive church on the day of Pentecost and in the years following, before the great apostasy introduced other elements into worship.
If we have not yet attained to the same “breadth, and length, and depth, and height” (Ephesians 3:18) in Christ that some of our forefathers did, we may find ourselves having difficulty understanding their views regarding such issues as we here discuss. Nevertheless, it is wise to respect their views and prayerfully seek to be guided by the same Word and Spirit that guided them in their understanding and perception of divine things. Even in this modern age of “human reasoning” these two faithful Guides are jointly able to lead us to His thoughts that are higher than our thoughts and His ways that are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Also, we should keep in mind that not every child of God arrives at the same degree of knowledge and understanding of God’s thoughts and ways at the same time. Therefore we should always endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” with every truly born again soul, “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:3,13) The ultimate goal of every Christian should be to attain to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
When we arrive at a clear understanding of what New Testament worship really is, we are struck by the realization that the issue of musical instruments in worship is not so much an issue of right or wrong, as it is an issue of possible or impossible! It is simply impossible to bring that which has no connection with the Holy Spirit into the realm of New Testament worship. Only “spiritual sacrifices” are now accepted by God as worship, and they must all be offered within the element of His own dear Son, in the Spirit. Nothing outside that realm has had any place in true worship since the day of Pentecost.
May the Lord bless each reader as you consider, search, and weigh these thoughts in the fear of God.
—a brother in the Lord