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 Issues | Doctrine | J. C. Ryle : Public Worship

Thoughts on Public Worship

Ryle Reprint Series (Church Book Room Press, 1960)


“God is a Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” John 4, 24.

“We are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit.” Phil. 3, 3.

“In vain they do worship Me.” Matt. 15, 9.

“A show of wisdom in will-worship.” Col. 2, 23.

“How do we worship?” This question is of great importance today, particularly remembering that many people who attend church do so very infrequently; and that many who do attend regularly are not concerned about how the worship should be carried out. It needs to be remembered that the Bible points out that not all worship is right in the sight of God.

So it is important for those who are professedly Christians to understand the essence of worship. But it must be stated that we are considering only public worship, and not private worship, which includes prayer and Bible-reading. Such does lie at the root of personal Christianity, and in fact, without these private religious activities, public worship is really of little use. But it is solely public worship which is the subject here.


There are few who call themselves Christians who would deny that we ought to make some public profession of religion, and unite with others to worship God. Public worship has always been a mark of God’s servants. From the earliest Biblical times, right through to the present day, God’s people have met to worship. However few, and whatever the difficulties, they have met together for many other reasons, besides offering worship to God. For example, gathering for worship gives public testimony to the world; it is an encouragement, comfort and strength to those who join together, and it trains and prepares them for the worship of eternity.

Right through the Old Testament there are many examples of public worship – from the Patriarchs to the time of Christ. The Jew who was not a public worshipper would have been cut off from the congregation of Israel. In the New Testament, we find that Jesus Christ gave a special promise of His presence whenever two or three are assembled in His name. The Apostles, wherever they founded churches, made the duty of assembling together one of the first principles. It is an undeniable fact that where there is no private prayer, there is no grace in a man’s heart; equally, where there is no public worship there is no Church of God and no profession of Christianity.

This same thing can be seen in Church History. Public worship has always been one of God’s great instruments in doing good to the souls of men. Preventing public worship causes great spiritual injury to people. Only removal of the Bible itself could do greater harm.

It is true that public worship can become a merely formal act, and many do attend and get no benefit. But misuse is no argument against proper use, and people who attend in this frame of mind become, if anything, rather more impenitent and hardened. Further, if comparison is made between worshippers and non-worshippers it will be found that there is, on average, far more good amongst those who worship than amongst those who do not. Whatever may be said, worship does in fact make a difference to the individual.

We should never forget the exhortation in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhort one another” (Heb. 10, 25). We should act upon this exhortation and go on worshipping in spite of every discouragement. Let us say with David, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord”; and “I had rather be a door-keeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 122, 1; 84, 10).


The leading principles of public worship can be found by a thoughtful reading of the Bible, and so here they will be set out only briefly.

1) True worship must be directed to the Right Object.
The Bible is adamant that God alone should be the object of worship. Prayers and adoration to anything or anyone else are unwarranted by Scripture, a waste of time and most offensive to God. God is a jealous God, and He has declared that He will not give His glory to another. It is well to remember that the second commandment forbids us not only to worship, but even to “bow down” to anything besides God.

2) True worship must be through the mediation of Christ.
This again is fully commanded in Scripture. “No man cometh unto the Father but by Me” (John 14, 6). Christians are a people who “come unto God by Christ” (Heb. 7, 25). It is true that God is love, but He is also the God of infinite justice, purity and holiness, Who hates sin. Anyone who presumes to come to Him without an atonement and the Mediator whom He has appointed will find his worship unacceptable.

3) True worship must be wholly Scriptural.
In the New Testament there is an absence of direct injunction concerning worship, and thus Churches have a reasonable liberty in arrangements for worship. But as is stated in the XXXIX Articles, nothing should be done that is “contrary to God’s Word written”. We read concerning the Jews, “In vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15, 9). Thus, anyone who says that a man-made ordinance is as binding on conscience and as needful to salvation as anything appointed by Christ is saying something he has no right to say. Paul tells us that there is such a thing as “will-worship”, which has a “show of wisdom”, but is in fact useless because it only “satisfies the flesh” (Col. 2, 23).

4) True worship must be Intelligent.
Worshippers must know what they are doing. It is completely false to say that ignorance is the mother of devotion. The charge against the Samaritans was, “Ye worship ye know not what” (John 4, 22). God made man an intelligent being with mind as well as body. Worship in which the mind takes no part is useless and unprofitable, and would be as suitable for animals as for man.

5) True worship must be from the Heart.
Our affections as well as our intellect must be employed in worship; our inner man must serve God as well as our body. Many times in the Old Testament we read that the lip worship of the Jews was unacceptable to God (for example, Isaiah 29, 13; Ezekiel 33, 31). But God asks principally for the heart in worship, whether it be public or private worship. God is a Spirit, and He cares nothing for man’s bodily service, no matter how devout it may appear, nor how organised it may be, if it is not accompanied by heart service as well. The Bible tells us that man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart, and that He will not despise a broken and a contrite heart (1 Sam. 16, 7; Psa. 51, 7).

6) True worship must be Reverent.
Our Lord began and ended His ministry with practical protests against irreverent worship. Twice He drove out from the Temple those who were profaning its courts. So called Christians who spend their time in Church staring about, whispering, fidgeting and so on, but not really praying or listening, are no better than those cast out by Christ. Admittedly “bodily service” alone is useless, but there is a proper way to behave when we come near to God. If it is worth while to attend worship at all, then it is worth while to do it properly, carefully and well. “Let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Hebrews 12, 28-29).

These principles show that there are many in our churches who are worshipping in an utterly useless way; in a way that is without Scripture, without Christ, without the Holy Spirit, without knowledge, without heart and without benefit to the worshipper. Anyone trying to worship in this way might just as well not be in the congregation. Every Christian must always be on guard that his worship does not fall short in any way. It is worth remembering that God looks for the quality of worship and not quantity. The inward and spiritual character of the congregation is of far more importance in His sight than the number of worshippers, or the outward signs of devotion which they show.


Many people today are worried concerning what should be the elements of worship. This is particularly true of the “outsider” who hears the various denominations claiming that each one’s method is the only really correct way to worship, and in consequence, he is left to wonder.

Now it is true that there is little said concerning the nature of public worship in the New Testament, and in this respect there is a wide difference between the law of Moses and the law of Christ. The Jewish religion was full of strict and detailed directions concerning worship; the Christian religion contains very few directions, and even these are very simple and general. The Jewish religion was full of types, emblems and figures; the Christian religion has only two, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Jewish religion approached the worshipper mainly through the eye, whereas the Christian religion appeals directly to the heart and the conscience. The Jewish religion was confined to one particular nation, but Christianity was meant for the world. The Jew could turn to the writings of Moses and see at a glance every item of his worship; but the Christian can only point to a few isolated texts and passages which are to be applied to every Church according to circumstances. In fact there is nothing in the New Testament which is equivalent to Exodus or Leviticus in the Old. Nevertheless a careful reader of the Scriptures can hardly fail to pick out the essential parts and principles of Christian worship. So it may be said that where these essentials are present, there is Christian worship; but where they are absent, the worship is defective, imperfect and incomplete. So let us examine these principles which are essential for complete public worship.

1) The Sabbath should always be honoured.
God appointed one day for the purpose, among others, of giving men an opportunity to meet together in His service. Its observance was made part of the Ten Commandments, and the worship of God on the Sabbath was observed by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The early Christians made a practice of meeting together on at least one day a week, although they met on the first day instead of the seventh. (Acts 20, 7; 1 Cor. 16, 2.) To assemble in God’s house on the Christian Sabbath – Sunday – has been the custom of all professing Christians for nineteen hundred years. The best and holiest of God’s saints have always impressed upon others the value and usefulness of such worship. No doubt it sounds fine and spiritual to say that every day should be a Sabbath to a Christian, and that one day should not be kept more holy than another. But experience shows that human nature does require such helps as fixed days and hours for carrying on spiritual business, and that public worship never prospers unless we observe God’s order. “The Sabbath was made for man”, by Him who made man at the beginning and knew what flesh and blood is!

2) There should be a Ministry.
Let it first be made clear that there are no grounds for saying that it is an absolute necessity for the ministry to be an Episcopal ministry. The orders of other denominations are just as valid. But it is the mind of God that ministers of some kind should conduct the worship of Christian congregations, and be responsible for its decent and orderly conduct in approaching God. While respecting their views I cannot understand how anyone reading the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Timothy and Titus can deny that the ministry is an appointment of God. How often is it found to be the case that business which is left to no one to attend to is a business which is in a very short time completely neglected. Once let a people begin to neglect Sunday and the ministry and they will soon have no public worship, no religion and no God.

3) The Preaching of God’s Word.
In every record of Church assemblies in the New Testament preaching and teaching occupy a most prominent position. It appears to be the chief instrument by which the Holy Ghost not only awakens sinners but also leads on and establishes saints. In the last words of Paul to Timothy, at the time a young minister, he especially enjoins him to “preach the Word” (II Tim. 4, 2). Consequently it seems that any system which makes little of the sermon cannot be a Scriptural system of worship, and it is unlikely to have much blessing from God. Bishop Latimer said that it is one of Satan’s great aims to exalt ceremonies and put down preaching, and a contempt for sermons is a sure mark of a decline in spiritual religion.

4) United Public Prayer.
St. Paul told Timothy, “I exhort, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks be made for all men” (I Tim. 2, 1), and throughout the New Testament prayer and supplication always form part of the religious assemblies. Such prayers should be plain and intelligible, so that all those present know what is going on and are able to join in. They should be the joint act of all, and not the act of one man’s mind alone. A congregation of professing Christians which meets only for the purpose of hearing a grand sermon, but takes no intelligent part or interest in the prayers, is one which falls short of the New Testament standard.

In saying this, I am not stipulating that the prayers should be either liturgical or extempore. Nothing is said on this matter in Scripture, so that there is a large liberty for the Churches. Further, any one who abuses another because he does or does not use a liturgy is, to my mind, narrow-minded and bigoted. However, for myself, I prefer to use a liturgical service. If all ministers prayed extempore always, as some pray sometimes, then I should be against a liturgy. But considering the general state of human nature I do think it better for minister and congregation to have a liturgical service. I am very thankful for the Book of Common Prayer, which, although it has defects since it was not compiled by inspiration, yet is a matchless book of public devotion and worship. I would not impose its use on another, but I do claim the right to use it myself undisturbed.

5) The public reading of the Holy Scriptures.
It seems evident that the reading of the Scriptures was part of the service in the Jewish synagogue. (For example, Luke 4, 16; Acts 13, 15.) Surely the Christian church was intended to honour the Bible as much as did the Jews.

Then there are many members of a congregation who, for various reasons, either cannot or will not read the Bible at home. The regular reading of the Bible in public is the best method of instructing such people. Further, a congregation which hears little of the Bible is always in danger of becoming entirely dependent upon its minister, and God as well as man should speak to His people.

To my mind, there is nothing in the public worship of the Church of England which is to be admired so much as the large amount of Scripture which is ordered to be read. I very much doubt whether the members of any other denomination hear so much of God’s Word every Sunday.

6) United Public Praise.
Again we find that this was the custom amongst the early Christians. Paul, in writing to the Ephesians and the Colossians, commended the use of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5, 19; Col. 3, 16). History too records that when they met they used to sing a hymn to “Christ as God”. The Old Testament also shows that praise occupied a very prominent place in the services of the Temple. Praise has been called the flower of all devotion, and we need to remember that it is the only part of our worship which will never die. Preaching, praying and reading will one day be no longer needed. But praise will continue throughout eternity. To my mind, a congregation which takes no part in praise, or which leaves it all to be done by the choir, as a deputy, can be hardly thought in a satisfactory state.

7) The regular use of the Two Sacraments appointed by Christ.
By baptism, new members should be continually added to the congregation, and publicly enrolled in the list of professing Christians. By the Lord’s Supper there should be a constant opportunity for Christians to confess their Master, to be strengthened and refreshed, and to be reminded of His sacrifice upon the cross. I am convinced that the apostles would not have regarded anyone who neglected these sacraments as a Christian, and this is said with every respect for those who do not have the sacraments as part of their worship.

It is a sad fact that the sacraments have been misused and idolised by some members of the Church over the centuries. But this does not alter the fact that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were ordained by Christ Himself as means of grace, and there can really be no doubt that he intended they should be used.

In commending these seven points as the essential parts of Christian worship it is more than likely that some things have been said with which other Christians do not agree. But this is not meant to be a judgment upon them in any way; nor does it mean that no one will be saved who does not fully agree with these essentials. However these points seem to stand out plainly on the face of the New Testament, and Christians attending a place of worship where any of these are neglected are suffering in consequence. They may be doing well in the Christian life, but in full worship as has been set out, they would do much better.


This is not a perfect world, and it is equally true that the visible church is not perfect. Consequently, it is possible to find faults and shortcomings in the worship of every church and denomination. The best service on earth will always fall short of the standard of the glorified Church in heaven. In fact it is true that the faith, hope and life of Christians, as well as their worship, are full of imperfections. Consequently, it is quite wrong to be continually moving from one church to another because small faults are found in administration and worship.

In spite of this, however, it must be stated that, at the present time, there are many things going on in English churches which are, to say the least, highly objectionable. We must be on guard about these matters, and seek to ensure that they do not damage our souls in any way. There are, in particular, three things to which attention must be directed.

1) A Disproportionate Honour.
In many churches today, some ordinances of Christ are exalted to the neglect of others. In some places, for example, nothing receives much attention apart from Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Everything else is driven into a corner. Worship of this sort is, in fact, useless to a man’s soul. The real idea of Christian worship is destroyed if everything else is buried under these two sacraments.

2) An Excessive quantity of Decoration.
In many churches divine service is accompanied by so much ceremonial that the very purpose of worship is destroyed. The New Testament does not give warrant for any sort of ceremonial or symbol except water, bread and wine. Further, the inherent wickedness of human nature is such that our minds are only too ready to turn from the spiritual to the material and visible. Whether people like the fact or not, the truth is that outward ornaments are completely useless without inward grace.

3) A Sacrificial Priesthood.
There are hundreds of English churches in which the Lord’s Supper is administered as a sacrifice and not as a sacrament, and the clergy are practically acting as mediators between God and man. The real presence of our Lord’s body and blood under the form of bread and wine, is openly taught, and the Lord’s Table is called an altar. The consecrated elements are treated with an idolatrous reverence as if God Himself was in them. The habit of private confession to a clergyman is urged and encouraged. Such worship, I believe is nothing but offensive to God, for the sacrifice of Christ on the cross cannot be repeated in any way, and He has never deputed His mediatorial and priestly office to any man. Nowhere in the New Testament is there anything to give the impression that the Apostles ever pretended to be sacrificing priests, or to hear private confessions and confer judicial absolutions. This fact alone should make men beware of Sacrificialism, the Mass and the Confessional.


*        *        *

Such worship as has been mentioned here is not, I believe, acceptable in God’s sight. Clever men may try to justify it, and it may be attractive to the eye and ear. But it has one fatal defect; it cannot be defended from Scripture. Sacramentalism, Ceremonialism and Sacrificialism will not be found if the Bible is read and interpreted fairly and honestly.

History shows us that England has had such worship in the past, and it has utterly failed. Its only results were superstition, ignorance, formalism and immorality. The spiritual state of the country was terribly low, and the priests were tyrannical. No one was helped spiritually at all by this system, and so today we ought to avoid such worship. Let us never again be content with worship in which baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the power of the priesthood, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the ritual that goes with these things are continually pressed on our minds.


Many people try to get over their difficulties by referring to their own feelings. Saying that they are not theologians and do not understand the different schools of thought, they add that such worship makes them feel better, so must be right.

But religious feelings are very deceitful. Religious music and religious spectacles produce a sort of excitement in some people which is not really true devotion. It is strong while it lasts, but it soon goes leaving no permanent impression. So let us examine some tests which will show whether worship is true spiritual worship.

1) True spiritual worship affects a man’s heart and conscience.
True spiritual worship will make a man feel more the sinfulness of sin, and his own unworthiness. This will lead to a deeper humility and inner life. It will strengthen a person spiritually, thus enabling him to grow in the Christian life; whereas false worship can only weaken a person spiritually.

2) True spiritual worship will draw a person into close communion with Jesus Christ.
True worship lifts a person above the need for material adjuncts to the King Himself. The more he worships the more he will be satisfied with Christ alone. In the time of need he will turn instinctively to Christ and not to some external helps.

3) True spiritual worship will extend spiritual knowledge.
True worship leads to a more full knowledge of self, God, heaven, duty, doctrine, practice and experience. A religion with these points is very much alive. On the other hand, false worship is dead, and although it involves much hard work, it never leads to any increase at all.

4) True spiritual worship leads to an increase in holiness.
True worship causes a person to be more watchful about his daily life and habits. He begins to use his time and abilities in a Christlike way, and his conscience guides him more decidedly.

Such true worship will stand the test of Christ’s great principle, “By their fruits ye shall know them”. It sanctifies the Christian’s life, and makes him walk with God, lifting him above fear and love of the world. It enables a Christian to show God to his fellow men. Such worship comes from heaven, and has the mark of God upon it.

Whatever is said, the real test of worship is the effect it produces on the lives of worshippers. People may claim that a ritualistic worship is the best means of worshipping God and they may despise simple and unadorned ceremonial. But such worship does not produce results in holiness and knowledge of God.

Without doubt, the best public worship is that which produces the best private Christianity. Consequently, if we want to know whether worship is helping us, it can be tested by these matters. Does it quicken our conscience? Does it send us to Christ? Does it add to our knowledge? Does it sanctify our life? If the answers to such questions are positive, then we have no need to be ashamed of our worship.

It needs to be remembered, however, that worship upon earth is always imperfect. We often have a sense of weakness and feel that we only know Christ imperfectly. The cares and sorrows of the world often make it hard to worship God joyfully, and we think that those who truly worship God are comparatively few.

But the day is coming when there will be the great congregation that will never disperse, continually praising God. It will be the assembly of those who have “Worshipped God in Spirit” upon earth. Then, with a glorified body, and really knowing Christ, with no sorrows and the great multitude that no man can number, we shall join in continual worship. Armed with such hopes, we can lift up our hearts and look forward. Let us contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, resisting every effort to spoil Scriptural worship, and working to hand on the true light of Gospel worship to those yet to come, in the knowledge that all those who have “worshipped in spirit and in truth” will, when He comes, be those who are gathered in to worship throughout eternity.



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