John MacArthur’s Worship: The Ultimate Priority represents the first book of his that I have reviewed. I have listened to a number of his sermons. I have read his ESV and NKJV Study Bibles. I have read two other books of his (this was before I did book reviews). However, I have never taken the time to review one of his books until now. I have also never read a book that had worship as a central theme.
This book is actually a classic; of all the books he has written, MacArthur notes the book “holds the record for being continuously in print longer than any other” (p. 12). I am reviewing the 2012 edition of this book. It appears this book was first published in 1983.
After a preface, fifteen chapters and the appendix follow. The book does not arrange the chapters into particular sections. However, it is obvious from the chapter titles that God and the subject of worship represent the dominant themes in this book; six chapter titles have “worship” in it and five chapter titles have “God” in it.
In the preface, MacArthur gives essentially the thesis statement of the book as follows:
This book is therefore a call to personal worship of the thrice-holy God. It is a call to a radically different type of living on the part of the believer: to a way of life that seeks to worship God continually — not just on Sunday. The call is new in the sense that Christians in our time have generally missed God’s emphasis. The call is old in the sense that it sounds forth again the psalmist’s invitation:p. 12
Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our
Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and
the sheep of His hand.
From this thesis, I see no less than three things. First, I see that MacArthur’s intended audience is believers, or Christians. Second, I see that this book is not simply informational; it is a call to action. Finally, I see Scripture as a part of this thesis. This is good because we see that MacArthur is letting Scripture have the authority in this book. Considering Scripture is both inspired of God and profitable for many a great thing (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Ephesians 5;22-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:6; 2 Peter 1:1-4), I am totally ok with MacArthur’s letting Scripture have the authority in this book.
In chapter one, MacArthur looks at worship in the Bible, when worship is wrong, and four kinds of unacceptable worship (pp. 13-26). One thing you notice in this chapter (as well as all others) is that MacArthur clings to Scripture throughout the book. With the exception of the introductory page (sometimes first two pages) to almost every chapter, one rarely comes across a page without a Scriptural reference of some sort (whether a citation or in long-form). In chapter two, MacArthur looks at the theme of Sola Scriptura as it applies to worship (pp. 27-42). In chapters three and four, MacArthur looks at worship as a way of life and how one is saved to worship, respectively (pp. 43-66).
Chapters five through eight look at the identity, omnipotence, omnipresence and holiness of God (pp. 67-122). In chapter seven, I started to notice a pattern with MacArthur’s Bible citations.
I should note that in the past I have been very critical of what I call “dishonest Bible citations.” What I mean by that is I would classify any Bible citation as dishonest if the verse was both not cited in full and had no ellipse to show that something was omitted. I used this criticism against Rick Warren (he is a Bible mangler and a blasphemer anyway). I used this criticism against Christine Caine (she too is a Bible mangler and a blasphemer). I almost used this criticism against the excellent author Warren Smith. However, I refrained from doing so because I thought on the overall his material was very excellent (I certainly could not say the same thing about the aforementioned blasphemers Warren and Caine). After starting to notice that MacArthur would also not cite verses in full while at the same time not using an ellipse, I am rethinking my stance on what exactly qualifies as a dishonest Bible citation. Perhaps I would prefer it if people used an ellipse if they did not cite a verse in full.
In order for you to understand what I am stating (assuming you do not understand already), let me provide an example. At the beginning of chapter seven, MacArthur cites the following from 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 (he uses the NASB unless otherwise stated). Here is how it appears in the book:
“The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God.”p. 93
Here are the verses in full. I bold the missing words compared to MacArthur’s citation:
7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
As you can see in the comparison, if one took the Scripture from MacArthur at face value, one would not realize that quite a few words were omitted. One could realize this if MacArthur had used en ellipse to show that some words were indeed omitted. Perhaps I am being too critical in my pointing this out. Nevertheless, Scripture does call Christians to be Bereans that test all things and hold fast to that which is good (Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1). I do look up Scripture references in any books I review (my review of the aforementioned Caine’s Unshakeable is proof of that). When I looked up MacArthur’s Scripture reference on page 93 as well as other pages (pp. 101, 113, 137, 169, 180), I could not help but notice the pattern of verses not cited in full without the simultaneous use of an ellipse.
Beginning with chapter nine, MacArthur devotes a significant amount of space (about four chapters) to some form of the Greek word for worship (proskuneo; pp. 123-164). At the beginning of this discussion, he looks especially at John 4. This is a great passage on worship given its emphasis on worshiping God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24; see also pp. 123-128, 145-146, 153-155). MacArthur then spends the next two chapters on exploring the truth of how worship is glorifying God (pp. 165-184). He also expands on a definition of worship he gave in chapter three (p. 165):
WE BEGAN CHAPTER 3 WITH this definition: worship is honor and adoration directed to God. Throughout this study, the concept has expanded, so that perhaps a fuller definition is appropriate: worship is our innermost being responding with praise for all that God is, through our attitudes, actions, thoughts, and words, based on the truth of God as He has revealed Himself.
MacArthur concludes the “chapter” part of the book with a chapter on “Worship as It Was Meant to Be” (pp. 185-196). In the chapter, he unpacks four checkpoints from Hebrews 10:22 that “test our readiness for worship” (p. 186).
In the appendix that follows the last chapter (said appendix having eighteen note entries, more than any chapter in the book and five note entries short of the amount of note entries from the fifteen chapters combined), MacArthur gives some interesting information on how the writing of hymns basically stopped at the end of the nineteenth century (p. 197). What took the place of hymns were “gospel songs”, pioneered by singer/songwriter Ira Sankey (p. 197). MacArthur notes that while hymns were songs of praise addressed directly to God, gospel songs were evangelistic (as a rule) but doctrinally light songs “with short stanzas followed by a refrain, a chorus or a common final lyric line that was repeated after each stanza” (p. 197). Furthermore, gospel songs “were expressions of personal testimony aimed at an audience of people” (p. 197). MacArthur does state that these gospel songs do deserve a prominent place in church music given its playing “an important and effective evangelistic and testimonial role” (p. 201).
What I really appreciated in this appendix was MacArthur’s level-headed approach between old songs and contemporary songs. The following quote should serve as evidence (p. 199):
In general, however, the rise of the gospel song signaled a diminishing emphasis on objective doctrinal truth and a magnification of subjective personal experience. The changing focus clearly affected the content of the songs. It is worth noting that some of the archetypal gospel songs are as lightweight in biblical and theological truth as anything the hard-core opponents of current contemporary Christian music could ever legitimately complain about.
As a matter of fact, traditionalist critics who attack contemporary music merely because it is contemporary in style — especially those who imagine that the older music is always better — need to think through the issues again. And please understand that the concern I am raising has to do with content, not merely style.6 Judging from lyrics alone, some of the most popular old-style music is even more offensive than the modern stuff. I can hardly think of a contemporary song that is more banal than the beloved old standby, “In the Garden”…
After critiquing the lyrics of “In the Garden”, MacArthur makes the important point that, “When it comes to church music, older is not necessarily better” (p. 200). In light of his critique, I would say he is right.
What I really appreciated in this appendix was the historical information MacArthur gives as it pertains to hymns, contemporary music, gospel songs, praise choruses, etc.. He even explains who wrote some of these things. Here’s a good quote that follows a sentence on MacArthur’s explaining how gospel songs do have their place in church music (p. 201):
But it was unfortunate for the church that by the start of the twentieth century, gospel songs were virtually all that was being written, nearly ending the rich tradition of Christian hymnology that had flourished since the time of Martin Luther and even long before.
Prior to Sankey, the dominant hymn writers had been pastors and theologians—men skilled in handling Scripture and sound doctrine.8 With the shift to gospel songs, just about everyone with a flair for poetry felt qualified to write church music. After all, the new music was supposed to be personal testimony or a simple expression of feeling, not some kind of lofty doctrinal treatise.
But classic hymns were written to teach and reinforce biblical and doctrinal concepts in the context of worship directed to God…..It would have never occurred to our spiritual ancestors that worship was something to be done with a subdued intellect. As we have stressed from the start of this book, the worship God seeks is worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).
The modern and postmodern notion of worship as a purely emotional workout has taken a heavy toll in churches. It has led to a decreasing emphasis on preaching and teaching and an increasing emphasis on sentimentality and raw passion. All of this leaves the Christian in the pew untrained and unable to discern, and often blithely ignorant of the dangers all around him.
I had no idea that pastors and theologians were the ones writing the hymns of old. In his notes for that sentence (which has the number “8” at its end), MacArthur explains how Isaac Watts, John Rippon, Augustine Toplady and Charles Wesley were well-known hymn writers who were “first of all pastors and theologians” (p. 210). Given the information in this appendix, I wonder if some of today’s well-known legitimate pastors/preachers (Steve Lawson, Chris Rosebrough, Paul Washer, MacArthur, Gabe Hughes, Joe Schimmel, Phil Johnson, etc.) would perhaps throw their hats in the ring and write some good hymns to counter a lot of the unbiblical and vapid nonsense from the heretical quartet of Bethel, Jesus Culture, Hillsong and Elevation “Worship.”
Before I conclude, I would like to offer final commentary on the above at-length quote. Here is a quote from my review of the movie The Kinsey Syndrome:
In my review of such works as Warren Smith’s A Wonderful Deception and Good Fight Ministries’ The Submerging Church, I have noted the bad foundation laid around the 1980’s (perhaps earlier if you include people like Norman Vincent Peale) by people like Rick Warren, Dan Southerland, Robert Schuller, Peter Drucker and Bob Buford among many others (the latter 3 deceased). This foundation involved both a disgust for discernment and absolutely no regard whatsoever for biblical fidelity (not to mention demonic cultish tactics levied against those who would offer biblical critiques against false doctrine). This bad foundation has done incredible harm to the church. Instead of proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations, you have people like Warren and many others preaching narcissistic self-help sermons and writing books infested with Bible-twisting, narcissism, blasphemy, works-righteousness and attacks on the precious doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone (among other things).
In light of the information MacArthur presented, it is possible that I might be off on when this bad foundation of both a disgust (perhaps absence) of biblical discernment and little to no regard for biblical fidelity began. If hymn-writing (done by pastors and theologians who were skilled in handling Scripture and sound doctrine), which has its focus on singing praises to God, basically stopped at the twentieth century (which would be 1900-1901), and in its place you have gospel songs that do not emphasize teaching and reinforcing biblical precepts in the context of worship directed to God (something hymns do emphasize), then is it any wonder that people like Alfred Kinsey, Adolf Hitler, Fritz von Balluseck and any of the musical artists mentioned in the earliest years covered by They Sold Their Souls For Rock And Roll can rise up and just cause chaos in the overall world in some way, shape or form? If hymn-writing continued to the present day, would there have been more biblical discernment in the church? Would there have been better biblical fidelity that would have been more intolerant of the mass amount of false teachers and awful, irreverent and/or biblically illiterate songs that run wild today? It is certainly something to think about.
MacArthur’s Worship: The Ultimate Priority is a keeper. MacArthur clings tightly to the biblical texts as he explains the importance of worship. While he could have been more clear in his Bible citations via using an ellipse to show he omitted stuff, I am glad he let Scripture dominate this book. Finally, his appendix on worship concludes the book with an absolute bang. I can see why this book has been in print longer than any other one he has written; it is a classic that is as relevant now as it was when it was written in 1983. Get this book if you have not done so already.
Please understand that the only way you can worship God is if you are a Christian. Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the separation of the sheep (believers) and the goats (unbelievers) takes place before any work is brought into account (Matthew 25:31-46). By default, you’re born a goat. Specifically, you’re born dead in trespasses and sins.
Ephesians 2:1-10 explains:
2 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
The Bible is clear that people are born dead in trespasses and sins (2:1-3). God’s being rich in mercy makes one alive in Christ (2:4). Furthermore, it is by grace through faith that one is saved (2:5-9). It is not based on works (2:9).
If you do not believe what Ephesians 2:1-10 states, I would ask you please look at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17. Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen something, even if it was small? Have you ever used God’s name in vain? Jesus said that whoever looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus also said that if you ever get angry at someone, you’ve committed murder in the heart (Matthew 5:21-26). Just the mere thoughts of adultery and murder make you guilty of the very acts themselves.
Please understand that it only takes one murder to be a murderer, one lie to be a liar and so forth. David said in Psalm 51:5 that he was conceived in sin. Genesis 6:5 states that every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually. Clearly, man has a sin problem. Romans 3:23 states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Man is in big trouble with God because of his sin. This is more amplified by the fact that perfection is the standard (Matthew 5:48).
Now, some people try to justify their sin by trying to balance it out with the good deeds that they have done. However, if you were to try that in a court of law, the judge would throw the book at you. A good judge would not accept a bribe. He would cast you off into jail. God likewise will not accept a bribe, for there is no partiality with Him (Deuteronomy 10:17; Ephesians 6:9).
Thankfully, Jesus came to solve the sin problem over 2000 years ago (Isaiah 53:1-12). You and I broke the law. Jesus paid the fine (Matthew 26:14-28:20). This means that the judge can do what’s legally right in dismissing your case. He can say, “This person has broken the law, but someone has paid his fine. He’s out of here.” This is good news.
There are two things a person must do. He must repent. This means to turn from his sin (Mark 1:16; Luke 24:36-49; 2 Timothy 2:19-26; Acts 17:30-31). He must also put his trust in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31, 17:30-31; Romans 4:1-25, 10:1-17; Galatians 3:1-14; John 6:26-29). These gifts of repentance and faith are granted by God (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:22-26). If you repent and put your trust in the Savior Jesus Christ, He will forgive you of your sins and grant you everlasting life (John 6:47). Oh may you know His mercy and grace today if you have never repented and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
May the LORD bless you and I hope you found this helpful.
NOTE: I tweeted this review. I tagged MacArthur in it.