Our Worship: Is it Acceptable?
How does God regard our worship?
We may get some insight from the verse: ‘The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord: but the prayer of the upright is his delight’ (Prov. 15:8), where sacrificing and prayer are taken as two examples of acts of worship. Yet it seems very strong language to describe any part of a wicked person’s worship, when addressed to the true God, as an abomination. But this is a statement of inspired Scripture. So we must receive it as truth and inquire why the word abomination is used to describe the worship of the wicked.
The wicked person is ‘he that turneth away his ear from hearing the law’ of God; he has no heart for it; his will is unsubdued; he is a rebel against the Most High. He is not necessarily a criminal, someone who sins with a high hand; he is simply someone whose heart is not right with God. Accordingly we should not be surprised to read further that ‘his prayer [like his sacrifice] shall be abomination’ (Prov. 28:9). In Isaiah’s time, the Lord thus described Israel’s worship: ‘This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me’ (Isa. 29:13). The outward elements of worship were present, but their heart was not; they were insincere in coming before God. And he could not accept it.
Besides, ‘the thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord’ (Prov. 15:26); they are focused on the world and the things of the world; they are the thoughts of someone who is intent on enjoying himself away from God; he cannot imagine himself being happy if he was conscious that God was near – any more than Adam and Eve felt comfortable when they heard the voice of the Lord God in the Garden of Eden. This is particularly true when such a person comes before God in worship. It may have been an Israelite in Old Testament times bringing his lamb to the temple to be offered as a sacrifice. He goes through all the outward ritual, just like a true believer. No one might notice any difference – except God, who can see into his heart and examine his thoughts and motives. And he sees nothing but sin. There is no sense of need, no faith, no repentance, no love to God, no desire for his glory. Perhaps the man’s only reasons for coming to the temple are to silence an accusing conscience and to maintain his reputation for being religious. There is absolutely nothing in which the Lord can take delight. No wonder the thoughts of the wicked are described as an abomination to God!
It is the same when someone today sends up petitions to God. The words may be appropriate, they may be expressed with eloquence and have an appearance of earnestness. Yet the prayer is an abomination to God; he can see nothing but sin in this person’s heart.
Indeed God is not glorified in anything he does. Even ‘the ploughing of the wicked is sin’ (Prov. 21:4). This statement may seem even more extreme than the first. After all, what can be wrong with ploughing? Of course, in itself, there is nothing wrong with it; it is a necessity – as much for the most God-provoking blasphemer who lives off the land as for the godliest man who ever lived. The point is that wicked people’s ploughing, or their bricklaying or nursing or teaching, is done without any regard to God’s glory and without any sense of dependence on him. The whole matter is summed up in the words: ‘without faith it is impossible to please him’ (Heb. 11:6). Those who will not acknowledge their sin, and who therefore will not look to Christ for salvation, cannot possibly please God. Further, there is nothing about what they do that can be at all pleasing to God. Manifestly, this is particularly true of all that the wicked may do in the way of worship.
Yet it should be clear that the wicked remain under obligation to worship God. Among those apparently converted in Samaria under Philip’s remarkable ministry was Simon, who had been a well-known sorcerer. It soon became clear that his was not a genuine conversion; he was still among the wicked. Peter spoke to him in no uncertain terms about the seriousness of his spiritual state: ‘Thy heart is not right in the sight of God’. But Peter went on to direct him to ‘pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee’ (Acts 8:21). Simon’s prayer, while he remained in a state of sin, would continue to be an abomination to God; but it was his duty to turn to God in true repentance, with sincere, God-glorifying prayer arising from his heart. Especially it was his duty to come before God in the name of Jesus, who had given himself a ransom for many. And it is the duty of all whose worship is unsatisfactory – because their heart is not right in the sight of God – to look to Christ to forgive the sins of their worship, and to send the Holy Spirit to create in them a new heart, so that they may begin to worship God acceptably.
A new heart is the result of the Spirit’s work in regeneration. Then the whole person is renewed; he may now be described as ‘upright’, someone who follows ‘after righteousness’ (Prov. 15:9). Whatever its defects, the prayer of the upright is fundamentally sincere. So David could, in all honesty, refer to his prayer as one that did not come from ‘feigned lips’ (Psa. 17:1). And the prayer of all who are upright, as David clearly was, is a delight to the Lord. As Matthew Henry puts it, ‘praying graces are his own gift and the work of his own Spirit in them, with which He is well pleased’. And because God delights in the prayer of the upright, it must be heard – but not for any worthiness in themselves, even after their regeneration. All their blessings, including answers to prayer, come to them for the sake of Christ, the ‘one Mediator between God and men’. Though they once ‘were far off’, they have been ‘made nigh by the blood of Christ’ (Eph. 2:13).
Thus Daniel presented his supplications: not ‘for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies’ (Dan. 9:18). Conscious of the sins that had brought his people into captivity, Daniel pled for forgiveness. And he asked the Lord to look upon his sanctuary, the temple which had lain desolate for so many years. This was a sincere prayer, offered up with a true desire for the glory of God – a prayer in which God took delight.
So today the Lord is pleased with his children’s prayers when, though sad at heart because of the desolation of the professing church, they come to plead that he would look on it in mercy. Let them then be encouraged to plead for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that multitudes may be awakened to a sense of their need and brought to ‘repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’. Let them pray that believers everywhere would become more trustful, that they would grow in grace and be more faithful to him who has called them out of spiritual darkness into his marvellous light. Let them pray that God would send many men out into the wide harvest of this world to preach the glad tidings of salvation through a crucified redeemer. And let them pray that Satan’s kingdom would be brought down – that the Lord would place a great restraint on sin and on false religion and rescue multitudes of sinners from it.
The upright may not feel able to pray as they should; they may feel that they are not able to pray at all. But they have the encouragement that ‘the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered’ (Rom. 8:26). The Spirit makes intercession through his work in the souls of believers, giving them grace to pray, even in desires which cannot find proper expression in words. And Christ, as the exalted High Priest, makes intercession by presenting the petitions of his people before the Father. Thus, however imperfect these petitions are in themselves, there is reason to hope that they will be answered, for when they are presented by the exalted High Priest, all these imperfections will have been removed, and nothing will be left but what is perfectly delightsome to God.
Rev Kenneth D Macleod is pastor of a Free Presbyterian Church on the Isle of Harris, Scotland. He edits The Free Presbyterian Magazine, and this editorial is taken from the May 2008 edition with kind permission.
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