A gospel-fueled worship service is a service where God serves the gospel to sinners in need of rescue—and that includes both Christians and non-Christians. Churches for years have struggled over whether their worship services ought to be geared toward Christians (to encourage and strengthen them) or non-Christians (to appeal to and win them). But that debate and the struggle over it are misguided. We're asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions.
Like many others, I once assumed the gospel was simply what non-Christians must believe in order to be saved, but after they believe it, they advance to deeper theological waters. But, as Tim Keller explains it, the gospel isn't simply the ABCs of Christianity, but the A-through-Z. The gospel doesn't just ignite the Christian life; it's the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing every day. Once God rescues sinners, his plan isn't to steer them beyond the gospel but to move them more deeply into it. After all, the only antidote to sin is the gospel—and since Christians remain sinners even after they're converted, the gospel must be the medicine a Christian takes every day. Since we never leave off sinning, we can never leave the gospel.
To describe his condition as a Christian, Martin Luther employed the phrase simul justus et peccator—simultaneously justified and sinful. Luther understood that while he'd already been saved from sin's penalty, he was in daily need of salvation from sin's power.
Paul calls the gospel "the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16) and contrary to what some have concluded, he didn't simply mean the "power of God for conversion." The gospel remains the power of God unto salvation until we are glorified because we're all "partly unbelievers until we die", as Calvin put it. We need God's rescue every day and in every way.
In his book The Gospel for Real Life, Jerry Bridges picks up on this theme—that Christians need the gospel just as much as non-Christians—by explaining how the spiritual poverty in so much of our Christian experience is the result of an inadequate understanding of the gospel's depths. The answer isn't to try harder in the Christian life but to comprehend more fully and clearly Christ's incredible work on behalf of sinners and then to live in a more vital awareness of that grace day by day. Our main problem in the Christian life, in other words, is not that we don't try hard enough to be good, but that we haven't thought out the deep implications of the gospel and applied its powerful reality to all parts of our life. Real spiritual growth happens as we continually rediscover the gospel.
The same dynamic explains the primary purpose of corporate worship: to rediscover the mighty acts of God in Christ coming to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. We gather in worship to celebrate God's grip on us, not our grip on God.
A gospel fueled worship service is a service where God's rescue in Christ is unveiled and unpacked through song, sermon, and sacrament in such a way that it results in the exposure of both the idols of our culture and the idols of our hearts. The faithful exposition of our true Savior in every element of worship will painfully, but liberatingly, reveal the subtle ways in which we as individuals and as a culture depend on lesser things than Jesus to provide the security, acceptance, protection, affection, meaning, and satisfaction that only Christ can supply.
The praising, praying, and preaching in such a service should constantly show just how relevant and necessary Jesus is. They must serve the gospel to sinners by telling and retelling the story that while we are all great sinners, Christ is a great Savior.
(To be continued…)