Worship and the Presence of God
By Dr. Christopher Cone
A common theme in contemporary Christian worship music is the idea of coming into the presence of God to worship Him in a deep and meaningful way. Songs that emphasize this concept challenge believers to pause from their normal daily life in order to do something different. One popular lyric illustrates:
As I come into your presence
Past the gates of praise
Into your sanctuary
Til we’re standing face to face
I look upon your countenance
I see the glory of your holy face
The lyric employs Old Testament terminology to describe Christians coming to a metaphorical place for a spiritual experience. Lyrics like these retask the Old Testament idea, setting an expectation that believers today can and should have similar experiences. But what about when a person doesn’t have that experience? What about when they don’t find themselves “face to face” with God? What about when they don’t see the glory of His holy face? Is this a failure of the individual believer to worship properly, or is it a problematic expectation in the first place?
The gates of praise and the sanctuary in this lyric seems a reference to the tabernacle and temple, perhaps even the Holy of Holies – the inner room in which only the High Priest was allowed to go. Those structures do not exist today, and were part of Israel’s culture and responsibility in obeying God. They are not part of the church’s experience in walking with God. One might correctly suggest that there is indeed a true tabernacle and sanctuary, as Hebrews 8:2 describes, but they are not here, nor does the Christian go there to be in His presence. (Certainly, as in Heb 4:16, we go boldly before the throne of grace, but that is to receive mercy and find grace in time of need – it is not normative for the believer’s worship.)
Now, as an artist, I want to be very cautious about critiquing the art of another, and critiquing art is not my intent here. I simply wish to point out that songs like this create an expectation that a believer has to get out of his or her normal mode of life in order to worshipfully come into the presence of God. There is an expectation that believers need to prepare their hearts for worship – as R.C. Sproul highlights in an article entitled Preparing Your Heart for Worship: “It is very important that we take time to prepare our hearts to worship God when we set foot in the sanctuary on Sunday morning…” Also using the tabernacle imagery, Sproul parallels the church’s preparation for worship to that of Israel. (Not a difficult concept for Sproul, since Sproul’s covenant theology concludes that the church is the true Israel.) Somehow, in this perspective, the Sunday morning service has become the sanctuary, and when we go there, we are somehow uniquely in His presence. The Biblical record seems a bit simpler than all that. Shouldn’t our hearts always be prepared properly, since we are with Him always, as His Spirit is in us?
Our songs often spring from our theology, for better or for worse. In this case it is no surprise that a theology confused about the church’s relationship to Israel would be comfortable conflating the two cultures in practice. But the New Testament shows no such confusion regarding normative expectation for believers. Rather than anticipating a sometimes–spiritual approach, the Biblical expectation for church age believers is that every minute of their lives will reflect the reality of the presence of God:
The meaning of life is to know Him (Jn 17:3) – a holy, holy, holy God (Is 6:3, Rev 4:8).We are to be humble in His presence, and He will exalt us (Jam 4:10). In doing so we are to allow His word to be at home in us (Col 3:16), we are to walk in His Spirit (Gal 5:16, 25), allowing His Spirit to fill or control us to the extent that every relationship of ours is governed by that principle (Eph 5:18-21). We are to be constantly speaking to Him in prayer (1 Thes 5:17), constantly expressing gratitude to Him (Col 3:16), and recognizing that all we do is done in His presence (as was the case with the Thessalonians in 1 Thes 1:3).
In short, we are always in His view, and never separated from Him in spirit. One day, we will come into His presence in a very physical and geographical way (e.g., Php 1:23-24, 1 Thes 4:17). In the meantime, our worship is not only in song (though it should also be in song), but it is rooted in obedience, as Romans 12:1 describes: “Therefore, I urge you brethren by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service of worship.”