I’m going to come straight out and give you the answer. The key to successful, God-pleasing worship is obedience. But wait. There’s more to this than meets the eye. Buckle up. Let’s jump in like this:
Throughout the Old Testament we see that right worship practices, while commanded by God, are not enough to please God. Worship actions, in and of themselves, weren’t enough. God, as we know, looks at the heart. The sacrifice of bulls wasn’t pleasing until the worshipper’s heart was broken and contrite. (Psalm 51). So often we see worshippers in the Old Testament perform the actions and rituals of worship perfectly, thinking this is enough to please God (after all, he commanded it, right?), but at the same time hates his neighbor. God saw this and called them out on it, saying essentially that their disobedience outside of worship negated their obedience in worship. This is precisely what Jesus was talking about when he said “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” The worship practices were right on the outside, but the heart was rotten on the inside. “In vain do they worship me.”
On the flip side (and on a much neglected topic that, alas! will remain neglected here), God also condemns worship practices that have veered from His commands. God commanded that sacrifices be unblemished. Yet we find the priests in Malachi’s day (for instance) offering marred and blind sheep. God was not pleased with this worship either. But if we look closely we’ll see that the root for God’s displeasure is the same. Worshipping God in a way that he has not directed is a problem because at its root, it is also a heart problem.
So if there is one thing we could conclude about successful worship after briefly looking through the Old Testament it is that full obedience is the key to God’s pleasure in worship. Who can ascend to the hill of the Lord? He who has clean hands and a pure heart. The worshipper must be pure and clean outside the Temple to assure successful worship inside the Temple.
This is extremely bad news for us. Wait. What? Bad news? But we just figured out the key to successful worship! Let me explain.
All Bible-believing Christians come to the same conclusion: The biblical key to successful, God-pleasing worship is our obedience. However, once this is discovered and a church tries to implement it, the results are devastating (sexy for a season…but in the end, devastating). Once it is conveyed that our worship will not ‘work’ until we are obedient, we immediately begin to see two things (among others); Guilt and Pride.
Guilt creeps in when we realize we don’t know if we’ve been obedient enough for our worship to achieve success. Our sin is too blatant. We look to others in the church who obviously have it all together. We can’t even compete with their standard, let alone God’s standard. This leads to unending anxiety and/or despair. We live in never ending worry, always trying and realizing our failure to worship, or we simply just give up. What’s the point?
Pride creeps in when we’ve figured out just how obedient we need to be to achieve success in worship. God-pleasing worship becomes a formula. Do this, don’t do that, and worship becomes a success. Our sin isn’t as big a deal because it isn’t blatant (unlike those people). Over time, the standard we’ve been able to meet becomes our standard, the standard. (But of course, we maintain with confidence that it’s really God’s standard). We live in never ending false-assurance and judgmentalism. And the only thing that threatens our stability is when someone challenges our standard (how dare they challenge God’s standard!).
There is nothing new under the sun. This is exactly what the Israelites were doing in the Old Testament. This is what people were doing in Jesus’ day. The prideful Pharisees and the guilty tax collectors. And this is exactly why it is bad news for us that obedience is the key to successful, God pleasing worship. But it’s God’s plan, right? How can God’s plan be bad news? Well, God’s plan is actually good. Perfect actually. Holy. The problem isn’t God’s plan, the problem is us, and a holy plan is bad news for unholy people.
When it comes to successful worship, we simply cannot turn the ‘key’ to achieve anything. We can’t even put the key in the key hole. Our dirty hands work like a resisting magnet when we come close to the key. As much as we want it and as hard as we try the key will always be just outside of our reach. The guilty know this and freak out. The prideful are too busy looking through the key hole and gloating over their vantage point. Big whoop. They’re all still outside. No one is pleasing God with their worship. Bad news.
But the good news is this; Jesus was obedient for you.
God is the same. He never changes. He is holy. His plan is always good. This means that the key to successful, God-pleasing worship is still the same: obedience. But now we no longer need to be dependent on our own obedience, on our own righteousness, to please God! This is why Jesus came; to do for us what we were helpless to do. So worship is still dependent on obedience, but now it’s flipped. God provides obedience, through Christ, on our behalf. This obliterates pride. I didn’t do it, Jesus did. It annihilates guilt. Jesus has given hope to the hopeless and rest for the weary.
Now when we enter into the presence of God, because of, and through Jesus, God is pleased with our worship! This does not mean we ought to fall into immorality because Jesus will pick up the slack. This cannot be the case. The reason? Because now that Jesus has accomplished full obedience on our behalf, and we are given access to the Father who is pleased with our worship, we will be transformed in His presence. Like Isaiah, an encounter with the living God is a life changing, life cleansing experience. Our hearts are changed because true, God-pleasing worship always leads to sanctification.
Now that Jesus has turned the key and opened the door, giving us access to God in worship it certainly doesn’t mean that we revert back to our own standards of righteousness. That would be like thanking Jesus for letting us in and then leaving him at the door. Then we’re left wondering why our worship is bland, boring, lifeless, ugly, and ineffective. We sense that God is not pleased, so we return to the Bible, like the good Protestants we are, rediscover the key to God-pleasing worship is obedience and because we assume Jesus is cool just being the gatekeeper we try to jumpstart our worship with more of our own obedience, fueled by our perceived ‘righteousness’. But God is still holy and without Jesus all of your obedience is like filthy rags in his sight. If God sees that you left Jesus at the door to get your own groove on in worship he’ll boot you the hell out. Door slammed in your face. Flaming sword. Scary angles. All that jazz.
In my estimation this Leaving-Jesus-At-The-Door type of thinking has largely infected much of modern Evangelical thought and worship. I recall attending a worship conference and listening to a rock solid, well known preacher speaking about the subject of how worship is linked to obedience and moral living. He had every opportunity but he said nothing about Jesus’ obedience on our behalf! His reasoning is far too common: “The Bible says obedience is required for God-pleasing worship so…let’s all obey!” It makes you want to weep in sadness. That, or smash your head through a plate glass window out of frustration. To separate from Jesus, and begin operating by way of your own righteousness and obedience, well, we’re back to where we started at the very beginning. No need to call your friends, Pride and Guilt, and invite them back to the party. They already came in through the bathroom window. But God is gracious through Christ, even to dunderheads who leave Jesus at the door. The point is, don’t leave Jesus. Without him, worship is vain.
The key to successful, God-pleasing worship is obedience, just not our obedience. It’s Jesus’ obedience on our behalf.