In this day and age, many churches have spent a lot of time considering or debating, the question, “Which musical style is best for worship?” But I would like to pose a more crucial question regarding worship. Is God pleased with any of our worship, considering how sinful we are? Are even our best efforts at worship, acceptable to Him? How can the worship of sinful men and women be good enough for a holy and perfect God?
Even the best worship of the Israelites was not acceptable without a mediator. The high priest in Israel wore a plate of pure gold with an engraving on his forehead to signify that he was bearing the iniquity of their gifts to God. Their gifts and sacrifices were polluted by their own sin, but by bearing the iniquity of their gifts, the high priest made their gifts acceptable to God.
Exodus 28:36-38 says, “You shall also make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet: HOLINESS TO THE LORD. And you shall put it on a blue cord, that it may be on the turban. So it shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things which the children of Israel hallow in all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD” (NKJV).
John Calvin wrote, regarding this passage, “Out of Christ we are all corrupt, and all our worship faulty; and however excellent our actions may seem, they are still unclean and polluted” (Harmony of the Law). In other words, we also, like the Israelites, are so tainted and polluted by sin that even our best moral acts, including our worship, would be unacceptable to God if we did not have a perfect Mediator in Jesus Christ, our High Priest, who bore our sins and thereby renders our worship acceptable to God.
Calvin also wrote that this was a remarkable passage because from it we learn that absolutely “nothing proceeds from us pleasing to God except through the intervention of the grace of the Mediator,” for Moses makes no “reference here to gross sins the pardon of which it is clear that we can only obtain through Christ, but the iniquity of the [gifts, offerings, and sacrifices] was to be taken away and cleansed by the [high] priest” (Harmony of the Law)
Calvin continued, “So the iniquity of the offering must be purged by the priest, because no offering, in so far as it is of man, is altogether free of guilt. This is a harsh saying, and almost a paradox, that our very holinesses are so impure as to need pardon but it must be born in mind that nothing is so pure as not to contract some stain from us” (Harmony of the Law)
So why is our very worship polluted and unacceptable to God, except through the mediation of Christ? First, as Calvin wrote, our worship is polluted because we are polluted. James wrote in chapter 3, verses 9-10 of his epistle, “With it [the tongue] we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things out not to be so” (NKJV)
So then we are unclean vessels. Even our tongues, which have been polluted by our sinful speech, are unfit to praise the LORD. Apart from the imputation of Christ’s righteousness through justification by faith and being cleansed from our sins through his shed blood, we are unfit to offer any gift or praise or service to God.
Second, let’s consider the quality of our worship in and of itself. Our very worship itself, no matter how devout, is mingled with and tainted by sin. When we go to church, our true worship is mingled with and tainted by sinful thoughts, pride and self-righteousness, ulterior motives, a lack of sincerity, poor concentration or inattention, a lack of gratitude, and a lack of appropriate affections. At any given moment, we may even have sinful motives or sin in our hearts of which we are unaware.
Yet through the mediation of Christ, our worship is rendered acceptable and even pleasing to God when we offer our worship through Christ by faith in His shed blood. Hebrews 13:15 says, “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (NKJV).
How then can this knowledge of our incapacity and poverty before God, help us in our feeble attempts at worship? First, we should be humbled. This knowledge should take away any pride or self-righteousness, or any tendency we might have to pat ourselves on the back for our giving, our service, or our praise. Apart from Christ, “all of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, NKJV). Nothing we do is acceptable or pleasing to God without Christ’s mediation.
Second, from this passage in Exodus, we should be encouraged. God does accept our worship though mingled with and polluted by sin because Christ is our Mediator. Our inept and sin-tarnished efforts at worship are pleasing to Him because Jesus, our High Priest, is well-pleasing to Him.
Third, we should be motivated. Since we are in Christ and we have the Holy Spirit within us to sanctify us through His word, we can grow in holiness in our worship. By the Spirit, let us lay aside those things that distract us. Let us forsake the sin that so easily besets us (Hebrews 12:1). By the knowledge of the riches of God’s kindness (Ephesians 2:7), let us grow in our affections toward Him, knowing that when we keep Christ’s commandments, we abide in His love (John 15:10).
Fourth, we should be hopeful. One day, we will be delivered from our corruptible bodies and freed from indwelling sin, and our worship will be perfect in heaven. Be humbled! Be encouraged! Be motivated! And be hopeful! We are righteous in Christ. We are accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6).