The Majestic Motive of Worship

December 02, 2016

by Scott Oliphint

Nothing should motivate true Christian worship more than the majestic mystery of God. Things that we understand, that we can wrap our minds around, are rarely objects of our worship. We may seek to control them. We may try to manipulate them. We may want to change them. But we will not worship them, not really. If what we are seeking is true worship, it is the riches of the mystery of God and His ways in the world that will produce and motivate worship in us and to Him.

Christian worship, as well as Christian theology, begins with mystery. Mystery is not something that functions simply as a conclusion to our thinking about God. It is not that we learn and think and reason as much as we can and then admit in the end that there is some mystery left over. Instead, we begin by acknowledging the mystery of God and His ways. We begin with the happy recognition that God and His activities are ultimately incomprehensible to us. When we begin with that recognition, we can begin to understand God properly and so worship Him in light of who He is and what He has done.

In his monumental work of theology, Herman Bavinck says that “mystery is the lifeblood of theology.” “Lifeblood” is a particularly apt metaphor here. Whenever certain kinds of illnesses arise in the body, one of the primary ways that doctors begin their diagnosis is through an analysis of the blood. Our blood speaks volumes about what is actually going on with specific organs, muscles, and nerves inside of us. Because all aspects of our bodies need blood to flow through them properly, the effect of blood on our bodies and our bodies on our blood is a central diagnostic tool in medicine. If there is no blood, there is no real life (Lev 17:11). What permeates our bodies, and brings life to them, is the blood.

So also, what gives life to all dimensions of our Christian thinking and living is the “lifeblood” of the mystery of God’s character and His working in the world. If we think that mystery is no part, or only a“leftover” part, of our understanding of Christian truth, then what we think is Christian truth can actually be a dry, “bloodless” idea, with no real life remaining in it.

Nothing should motivate true Christian worship more than the majestic mystery of God.

Suppose, to carry the metaphor further, we pick up one of the latest Christian books that deals with the topic of salvation. As we begin to read it, we notice that there is something wrong with the way the author is thinking about his topic. Suppose, for example, that he wants us to believe that the faith that we have is self-generated; we produce it, and God responds to it. How do we begin to diagnose what exactly the problem is with this view?

We might begin by looking into what God actually says about salvation, in all of its multifaceted beauty and complexity. As we do that, one of the first things we could ask in this circumstance is whether, and how, the biblical notion of mystery fits into the author’s thinking about salvation. Is it possible, we could ask, that the reason he wants to argue that our faith is from ourselves (and not from God) is because if it were not from us it would not be our responsibility to have and exercise it? It has to be only and completely our faith, self-generated, he maintains, or we could make no sense of the biblical command to have faith, or believe in Jesus Christ.

But is that how Scripture views our faith (just to cite one example, see Ephesians 2:8)? Could it be that Scripture affirms both that the faith that we have is ours and our responsibility to have, and at the same time that we cannot have it unless and until God changes our hearts and gives us that faith? Could it be that the view set forth in our imaginary book has yet to give due credit to the “lifeblood” of biblical thinking? We might then want to explore whether our own view of faith undermines the biblical truth of the mystery of God’s salvation to us.

In other words, because—as we shall see—there is mystery at every point of our Christian thinking and living, it is important to give a proper, biblical account of that mystery as we think through the various truths of Scripture. If mystery is absent from our considerations of biblical truth, it may be that we will need to reconsider those truths in light of the “lifeblood” of theology. It might just be that the reason we have come to believe certain things about God, or about Scripture, or about salvation, or about anything else in Scripture, is because we are less than comfortable with a robust, majestic, biblical view of the mystery of God and His ways.

Palatable Mysteries

But if mystery is indeed the “lifeblood” of biblical truth, what would make us wary of mystery in our attempt to understand that truth? There are many answers to this question, but chief among them, at least historically, is that we have a natural (i.e., sinful) tendency to ensure that everything that we believe is easily and obviously palatable to anyone at any time.

We can see this clearly in the history of ideas. For example, John Locke, a 17th-century philosopher, wrote a small book titled The Reasonableness of Christianity. In that work, Locke set out to discover just exactly which truths in Scripture could be grasped fully by the human mind. He argued that only “reasonable” truths were worthy of belief. He was deeply concerned to cull out all mystery in Scripture, since our usual ways of thinking could not contain such things. Consequently, Locke’s view of Christianity was “bloodless”; it had no life left in it. For him, Christianity could teach only what was comprehensible to limited (and sinful) minds like ours. Thus, Locke created a dull, empty, minimalist religion. Locke’s “rational” religion was a far cry from the glorious and majestic mysteries of the truth of our Christian faith.

We are called to love the Lord with all of our minds, but we are not meant to seek to contain Him with our minds.

What is ironic about Locke’s book is that he was trying to combat the Deism of his day. Deism believed in a god, but it was not a god who was present in the world. Around the same time as Locke published his work, John Toland, a deist, published a work with the long and formidable title Christianity not Mysterious: Or, a Treatise showing, That there is nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor above it: And that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call’d A Mystery. Toland’s deism was set forth so that we would have no more difficulty in conceiving of God than conceiving of anything else in the world. Toland’s view, for example, was that we should view God’s character in the same way that we view human characteristics. It must all be reasonable to us; nothing could be left to mystery.

Locke wanted to combat this view, but his own response to Toland was too similar to the view he wanted to reject. For both Locke and Toland, our beliefs were restricted to only those things that could be comprehended by the human mind. For Locke, Toland, and others, Christianity could not be mysterious. If it were, it could not be “adequately” understood, and if it could not be adequately understood, they thought, it should not be believed.

These ideas undermine the glories of Christianity at its root; they make the human mind the sole judge of what is true. If the mind is the judge, only what is able to be contained by our typical ways of thinking can be affirmed by us as true. As with Locke, the depths of the riches of God’s ways are drained dry, and nothing but a shallow pool of superficial affirmations remains.

This view of things is light-years away from the “lifeblood” of Christianity. We are called to love the Lord with all of our minds, but we are not meant to seek to contain Him with our minds. If we approach our Bibles as Locke did, seeking to expunge anything that goes against our natural ways of thinking, then we will, in the process, lose the heart and soul of the Christian faith. This is a price not worth paying; its cost requires that we miss the glorious mystery of God’s triune majesty.

This post was adapted from K. Scott Oliphint, The Majesty of Mystery: Celebrating the Glory of an Incomprehensible God (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 4–8. Used with permission of the publisher.

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

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