Worship – The Divine


(Because this article is dealing more with the heart of worship than with practical issues unique to all cell and church leaders, not just worship leaders.)

In previous articles, we have learned about (a) the vital importance of worship in our church life, (b) developing worship leaders, (e) increasing participation in worship and (d) building a
repertoire of great worship songs. But nothing could be more important to our development as worshipers and worship leaders than this 10th anniversary issue’s subject: What is it that pleases or displeases the Lord in worship?

In the first recorded act of worship, Cain and Abel both brought offerings to the Lord. According to Scripture, however, only one was acceptable. “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor” (Gen. 4:4-5).

In I Peter 2:5, we learn that the reason we are being built together is to become “a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Together, let’s look through
the Scriptures to discover the differences between acceptable and unacceptable worship. As we do, let’s not approach it as an academic exercise, but rather, as a discipline of the heart. “Search me, O God, and know my heart . . . see if there is any offensive way in me” (Ps. 139:23-24). After all, God looks on the heart.


Let’s begin our study with Jesus’ own words on worship: “God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Meditate for a moment on the word “must.” There is a divine imperative in these specifications. He’s not saying this is optional. Spirit and truth are essential requirements for our worship. Without these two pillar qualities, our worship is simply not acceptable . . . even if everything else is perfect!

Based on Jesus’ imperative for worship, I would like to offer two definitions.

1) Unacceptable worship is an offering that is offensive to God, violating either His Spirit or His truth.

2) Acceptable worship is an offering that is pleasing to God, in harmony with His Spirit and in accordance with His truth.


First, let’s look at what makes worship unacceptable.

Unresolved conflict. “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come an offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24). Fractured relationships hinder acceptable worship.

Anger. “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer without anger and disputing” (I Tim. 2:8). The inward attitude of anger can render the beautiful outward act of lifting hands unacceptable.

Doubt. In the New King James version, the previously quoted Scripture says “without wrath or doubting” Doubting and questioning, like anger, can cancel out the effects of our acts of worship.

Lack of concern for the needs of God’s people. One of the most challenging Scriptures for Christian musicians is found in Amos 5 and 6. “Though you bring me choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (5:22-23). Why was God upset? “You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on your musical instruments . . . but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (6:5-6). Ouch!

As much as God likes music, it’s not pleasing to him if it’s not connected to his heart of compassion for the needy.

Lack of respect for God. Another challenging passage on unacceptable worship is in the first chapter of Malachi, especially verses 6-14. The problem here was that the worshipers were giving God
blemished sacrifices, not the best. Service to God had become a burden rather than a joy. “‘If I am a master, where is the respect due me?’ says the Lord Almighty” (vs. 6).

Placing human traditions above God’s word. Jesus quoted Isaiah in addressing a problem of worship in his day: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain” (Mt. 15:8-9). The hollowness of their worship was essentially due to placing human traditions above God’s word (15:3-6).


The following are some of the Biblically specified characteristics of acceptable worship.

Truthfulness. We usually think of the word ‘truth’ as pertaining to correct doctrine. But ‘truth’ also means authenticity and reality. Worshiping in truth (John 4:24) points us to genuine expressions of our devotion to God, not just going through the motions. What’s the present “reality quotient” in your small group’s worship?

Dependence on the Spirit. The true believers, according to Phil. 3:3 are those “who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.” If we are confident in our own abilities apart from God (the flesh), our worship is unacceptable. True worship requires the activity of the

Gratitude. “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be Thankful and so worship God acceptably” (Heb. 12:28). Like basil in a tasty Italian sauce, gratitude is one of God’s favorite spices. Season your worship with it generously.

Reverence. Hebrews 12:28 also tells us that acceptable worship should have reverence and awe. John Stott, in The Contemporary Christian, says “we who call ourselves ‘evangelical’ . . . seem to have little sense of the greatness and the glory of almighty God.”

Faith. Hebrews 11:4 says that it was faith that made Able’s worship acceptable. Verse 6 says that without faith, there’s nothing we can do that pleases God!

Humility and Brokenness. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” Ps. 51:17. No comment necessary!

Righteousness. After God’s refining and purifying work in our lives, righteousness is found in our worship and it is pleasing to God again (Mal. 3:3-4).

Joy. God likes the sound of joy in worship (I Chron. 15:16)! “Rejoice in the Lord always. I win say it again: rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).

Wholeheartedness. We are to love the Lord with all of our hearts (Mk. 12:30). Wholehearted love for God yields wholehearted worship to God. God is not moved by half-heartedness (Rev. 3:15,16), but loves wholeheartedness (I Chron. 29:69)!

The list of attributes of pleasing worship will grow. It will include simplicity, a simple stone altar (Ex. 20:25), the love of justice (Amos 5:23-24), and self-giving (Eph. 5:1-2). In fact, if you
have a heart like Jesus, who constantly pursued thankful and so worship God acceptably” pleasing his Father (John 8:29), you will (Heb. 12:28). Like basil in a tasty Italian be adding to your knowledge of what pleases God in worship throughout your entire life!


And what will be the outcome of churches and cells that discover and practice such worship? The answer is: ‘no telling!’

God responded to Elijah’s worship with heavenly fire and a whole nation was turned back to God (I Kings 18). God answered Jonah’s worship with deliverance from an impossible situation (Jonah 2). God answered Solomon’s worship with a cloud of glory (II Chron. 5). God answered the worship of Jehoshaphat’s choir with victory over their enemies (II Chron. 20). God answered Paul’s worship in prison with an earthquake, and more importantly, the salvation of a jailer and his family (Acts 16). And these are just a few examples from both the Old and New Testaments.

So fellow worship leaders, cell leaders and pastoral leaders, there is a divine imperative: true worshipers must worship in spirit and truth! Any “old offering” is not good enough for our King! In light of His greatness, and the awesome ways He wants to show Himself to us, let’s be faithful to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable worship, and diligent in leading the people of God to offer bountiful sacrifices of praise that are pleasing to Him!

Gerrit Gustatson founded WholeHearted Worship and is a seasoned man of worship. He works with small groups in the Nashville, TN area.