Worship in Spirit and in Truth

Worship in Spirit and in Truth

by Jeremiah Cox, via Watchman Magazine 9-7-2018

"God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24)

The profundity of Jesus' words must be taken into consideration. We often skim over this statement without stopping to ponder its deep spiritual implications. We take it to be one of the simpler statements of inspired truth. Yet, the waters of this statement run deep. A plunge beneath the surface gives greater insight into the essence of true worship.

The Common Approach

True worship is defined by Jesus in His statement to the Samaritan woman. It is "in spirit and truth." While Jesus makes a distinction between these two facets of true worship, often the intimate relation between the two is missed. While He clearly distinguishes "spirit and truth," Jesus in no way implies by such that they are so separated as to exist alone. This approach to the text leads to the idea of a "balanced worship" — that a people can be worshiping God in truth only to be lacking in spirit; or worshiping God in spirit only to be lacking in truth; but true worship is one that maintains a balance of spirit and truth.

"Balanced worship" implies the possibility of being half-right before God, and half-wrong. This contradicts the spiritual principle to which James appealed for his argument — "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10). The idea of partially acceptable worship is every bit as wrong as partial acceptance through partial obedience.

"Balanced worship" calls to mind a picture of a scale, where in order to gain balance, additions and subtractions are made to either side. Jesus does not paint this picture with His words. His desire is not for compromise, nor simply for balance, but for true worship. True worship cannot be achieved by taking away from the side of truth to make room for spirit, nor by taking away from the side of spirit to make room for truth.

Semantically, truth and spirit are not synonymous. They are distinct words with distinct definitions. However, spiritually, truth and spirit are so intimately related that the two cannot thrive without each other. The idea of "balanced worship" implies "unbalanced worship." Such would be worship where either spirit or truth exist, while the other is lacking. Yet, Jesus speaks of "true worshipers" which implies true worship, and true worship implies a false worship. When spirit or truth is lacking, it is not merely unbalanced. Rather, it is simply wrong. If there is worship which is void of truth it is vain worship. There is nothing good about it. The same can be said of worship void of spirit. Ultimately, worship that is not in truth cannot be in spirit, nor can worship that is not in spirit be in truth. Their relation in regard to true worship is a coexistence. If one facet of true worship is missing, then no degree of true worship is achieved.

True Worship is Predicated Upon God's Nature

PDF One cannot understand why Jesus said that true worship is "in spirit and truth" without first considering Jesus' foundational statement, "God is Spirit." The coexistent relationship in true worship between spirit and truth rests upon this revelation about the nature of God.

"God is Spirit." While we are created in His image (cf. Genesis 1:26), being spiritual beings ourselves, this description is somewhat difficult to understand. Speaking of the spiritual birth resulting from baptism, Jesus explained to Nicodemus, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). "Spirit" is the translation of the Greek, pneuma. Pneuma is literally "a current of air, i.e. breath (blast) or a breeze" (Strong). By analogy, or figuratively, pneuma is put for the nature of God. As one cannot explain the wind, to a greater degree one cannot explain God who is Spirit — "As you do not know what is the way of the wind [spirit — KJV], or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so you do not know the works of God who makes everything." (Ecclesiastes 11:5, NKJV)

While God is partly revealed in the creation (cf. Romans 1:18-20), the greater truths about Him cannot be known without His spiritual revelation. The revealed existence and glory of God in the creation stands as a springboard into searching Him out to learn more of Him (cf. Acts 17:26-27). One may know He exists by observing His creation, but one cannot know much about Him specifically unless it is revealed to him. So, Paul announced to the Athenians, "Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23).

The Athenian idol worshipers had erected an altar ascribed "to the unknown god" (Acts 17:23). The idea of this "unknown god" likely came from the implications in the observation of creation — One Who has created such has the invisible attributes of the eternal power and Divine nature (cf. Romans 1:20). Yet, while to a certain degree they could conceptualize a transcendent god, such a one was too great for them to understand by themselves. This lack of knowledge concerning the true nature of God inevitably led them to worship Him in ways contrary to that of "spirit and truth" (cf. Acts 17:22-29). The Athenians had not received the revelation of spiritual truth, and their worship reflected such. It was reduced to the physical realm, and God with it.

Paul explained, "For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God" (1 Corinthians 2:11). This includes, not only the desires and ways of God, but details about His nature. In fact, the way man comes to partake in the divine nature is through participation in revealed knowledge (cf. 2 Peter 1:2-4). Paul continued to explain that he, and the other apostles, had received the Spirit of God in order to know the things given by God (2 Corinthians 2:12). This was according to the promise of the Spirit by Christ (cf. John 141516). He thus continued, "which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words" (v. 13, NASB).

Christ said, "God is Spirit" (John 4:24). Can anyone explain this? Those who claim the ability within themselves to do so are exposed as the fool they are by the very wisdom of God. And this by His design! (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-253:18-20) Thus Paul's approach to preaching — "And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). Paul never tried to declare the testimony of God with his own wisdom. Such was impossible. Instead, he spoke on spiritual truths with the spiritual words revealed by the inspiration of the Spirit of God.

I have heard some brethren express their concern about the spiritual side of worship in the Lord's church. They claim that the church of Christ has neglected the "spirit" side of worship by overemphasizing the "truth." I have even heard some suggest that members of the church could learn from the surrounding denominations about worship that is in "spirit." This idea comes from the concept of "balanced worship" — that the denominations have the "spirit" side down, just not the side of worship that is "truth." Yet, how could they possibly have the "spirit" concept of worship when they are erring concerning spiritual "truth?"

How can one possibly know what is truly "spiritual" without the revelation of spiritual truth? Worship in "spirit" has been reduced in the minds of some to mere emotionalism. Emotions for the sake of emotions are not acceptable to God (cf. Malachi 2:13). In fact, emotions in themselves are not spiritual. The suggestion that we can learn about the "spirit" side of worship from those in the denominations even though they transgress the precepts of God is a suggestion that they know God better than Himself; as if their concept of worship in spirit is more accurate than that revealed in scripture! "For 'who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?' But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16). True worship is revealed in "the mind of Christ," which is the New Testament scripture. It thoroughly equips us for every good work, including worship (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17). The only way we can understand what is worship in spirit is if God reveals such to us. And He has — "let God be true but every man a liar" (Romans 3:4).

True Worship is Predicated Upon God's Revelation

While the time of worship according to the copy and shadow in the earthly sanctuary with fleshly ordinances was soon to expire when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, true worship still existed. It was not that all worship prior to that of the New Testament worship was false. True worship is that which is according to the prescription of God, and it has always been God's desire that worship be in "spirit and truth." While the worship of the Old Testament was inferior to that of the New Testament due to its shadow relationship to the figure, God was pleased with the worship offered Him under that testament so long as it was true. Yet, the Samaritans did not offer Jehovah true worship. Jesus gave the reason, "You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22).

True worship is that which aligns with God's revealed will. This is not simply worship in truth, but worship in spirit. One cannot worship God in spirit if one is in spiritual rebellion to His truth. Jesus never indicated that the Samaritan woman, or her people, were insincere in their worship offered on Mount Gerizim. Yet, none of their worship was accepted by God because they rejected His revelation of true worship to be in Jerusalem (cf. Deuteronomy 12:51 Kings 5-8). The worship of the denominations cannot be in spirit and truth any more than the worship of the Samaritans could be, because they reject God's revelation of true worship. The truth facet of true worship is not the only one predicated on God's revelation. To understand such is to grasp the intimate relationship between "sprit and truth" in true worship.

David wrote, "For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart — these, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:16-17). This scripture is often viewed as if David was emphasizing the spirit side of worship over that of the truth. In reality, David's inspired words considered worship that is in "spirit and truth." David did not neglect the sacrificial requirements of God for his sin. His acknowledgments in Psalm 51 in no way minimize the importance of full compliance with God's specific requirements. In fact, in this Psalm, David emphasizes God's revealed requirements for true worship — "a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart." A heart in such a condition will not do what is contrary to the revelation of God, but will submit in full sincerity.

The glaring problem of the worship of the Jews observed in the Old Testament was not simply the observance of commands without the heart. For, the insincere and heartless observance of any command is not truly a fulfillment of that command. We can understand this in regard to New Testament worship. One who partakes of the Lord's Supper without discerning the Lord's body "eats and drinks judgment to himself" (1 Corinthians 11:29). One could assemble with the saints on the first day of the week and put all he has into the collection plate, but if he does this "as a grudging obligation" (2 Corinthians 9:5) he has not truly fulfilled the commandment. Those who lift their voices in song, whose minds are on other things, do not fulfill the commandment of God to sing and make melody in their hearts to the Lord (cf. Ephesians 5:19). Such worship is not in spirit, but neither is it in truth.

In Psalm 50, God rebuked Israel for improper worship. His quarrel with them did not concern the form of worship they offered — "I will not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are continually before Me" (v. 8). However, this does not mean they offered worship in truth, but simply neglected to worship in spirit. Their worship neglected God's revelation of truth concerning true worship — "Offer to God thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me" (vv. 14-15). Worship in truth is worship which fully acknowledges who God is in both mind and practice. It reveres God to the utmost degree by doing exactly as He says with the understanding that He does not depend on these offerings, but we do. To do exactly as God says in form with a mindset that diminishes who God is, and what worship is all about is in no way worship in truth. Contrariwise, the sincere claim to understand what worship is all about and who God is, only to fail in full obedience to His revealed requirements is in no way worship in spirit.


Jesus revealed true worship as that which is offered "in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). The inseparable nature of these two facets of true worship must be understood. The idea that one can worship in truth only to neglect spirit, or worship in spirit only to neglect truth is foolish. The aspects of "spirit and truth" in true worship cannot be separated any more than faith and obedience, or gospel and doctrine. For one to truly worship in spirit, he must be offering worship in truth. For one to truly offer worship in truth, he must worship in spirit. Worship according to truth is spiritual worship. Spiritual worship is that which is according to God's truth. When an attempt is made to separate "spirit and truth" on any level both are made shallow. Spirit worship becomes a simple consideration of sincere emotionalism. Truth worship becomes a matter of empty rote. Let us never forget the deep spirituality which inheres in sincerely obeying God's every command. The essence of spirituality is in the law of Christ, and this revealed truth of Christ under-girds true spiritual worship.