Spirit and Truth


We Christians can be a scrappy bunch, especially when precious expressions of our faith are critiqued or criticized.  Perhaps nowhere else is this more apparent than in the popular nomenclature assigned to internal church debates over the corporate praise of God.  We call it the “worship wars,” and with good reason.  Tell a sweet elderly church lady in a polka-dot dress that you are chucking the organ and the hymnal and she may get medieval on you in a hurry.  So too, tell the young hipster to turn down his amp and write a worship song with more than ten words and a chorus of “yeah, yeah, yeah” and you may get stiff-armed so fast you don’t even have time to read the Hebrew tat on his forearm.

Ok, so writing that first paragraph was fun, but this isn’t really a post about worship wars.  At least not directly.  And for the record, I’m a member of a church that has a blended approach to worship style- something I greatly appreciate.  Rather, I want to address a phrase that is often invoked by all sides of these debates and show why I think it is being seriously mishandled.

You may have found yourself in this situation: You’re having a conversation or even a debate about worship, and you feel like you are making great points when all of a sudden the person you are speaking with plays the trump card.  It goes something like this:

 “Well, I can see what you are saying, but I just don’t worship that way.  God wants us to worship in spirit and truth, and that type of worship just doesn’t move me.”

What presuppositions underlie that statement?  It’s become conventional wisdom that “spirit and truth” equates more or less directly to “emotion and sincerity.”  It’s not hard to see how you can make this jump.  After all, “spirit” sounds like something inside of me that has to do with my feelings (thus “emotion”) and truth surely means that I am to be true to myself in how I express my devotion to God (thus “sincerity).  It sounds plausible, but is this what Jesus meant when he used this phrase?  Did Jesus really mean that the Father is seeking those who would worship Him in “emotion and sincerity?”

Let’s look at the verses in question, John 4:19-26:

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.”  Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

I want to show why reading “spirit and truth” as “emotion and sincerity” is not a good way to handle that passage with the following three points.

1. This text is making a distinction between how things have been previously, and how things will be in the future.

When Jesus says “the hour is coming…” he is saying that something new is on the horizon.  His Messianic appearance is going to inaugurate certain changes in way true worshipers offer praise to God.  Therefore, if “spirit and truth” mean “emotion and sincerity,” we would have to conclude that “emotion and sincerity” are novel and unique aspects of worship in the New Covenant.  But that’s clearly not the case!  Worship has always been deeply emotional and God has always demanded sincerity from those who praise Him.  The lives and testimony of the Old Testament saints bear this out.  David knew that external sacrifices meant nothing if his broken heart was not offered to God as well (Psalm 51:16-17).  Moses did not instruct the nation of Israel to go through empty motions of service to God, he told them to obey the commandments from a circumcised heart full of love (Deuteronomy 30:6-8).  The Psalms (which was a worship book used in the Old Covenant and written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Himself!) pulse with so much emotion and sincerity I won’t even bother listing references.  Therefore Jesus cannot have been talking about emotional and sincere worship as something that would be unique and new.  God has always demanded His true worshipers offer their praises with more than a rote and hollow externalism.

2. The context of Jesus words is about location and approach, not emotion and sincerity.

I’ve already shown in the point above that not only were emotion and sincerity already a requirement in the true worship of God, they are something that God demands and delights in.  So I’m not depreciating emotion, nor am I disparaging sincerity.  But just because we are supposed to worship that way, it doesn’t mean that this text is talking about that.  Let’s not fall into the “right doctrine, wrong text” fallacy.

Jesus says that the Jews worship is Jerusalem, and the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim.  These locations had competing temples, but Jesus is saying that the hour is coming when worship in a centralized physical location will be done away with.  He is saying that there will not be a physical and set location for a temple and recurring sacrifices.  Why?  Because the Christ has come, and he is ushering in the New Covenant.  In the New Covenant the types and shadows give way to the brighter light of the unveiled gospel.  Jesus is the sacrifice offered once for all, and his redeemed people are the living stones built together into a living temple.  The ESV Study Bible notes that

Jesus is inaugurating a new age in which people will not have to travel to a physical temple in one city to worship, but will be able to worship God in every place, because the Holy Spirit will dwell in them, and therefore God’s people everywhere will become the new temple where God dwells (p. 2028).

The full impact of this truth is felt when we bring in the third and last point…

3. “Spirit and Truth” have specific reference not to us, but to the worship of the Father through the Holy Spirit and the Son.

The classic Reformed interpretation of this text is partially corrective of the modern conventional wisdom.  Calvin says

What it is to worship God in spirit and truth appears clearly… it is to lay aside the entanglements of ancient ceremonies, and to retain merely what is spiritual in the worship of God; for the truth of the worship of God consists in the spirit, and the ceremonies are but a sort of appendage.  And here again it must be observed, that truth is not compared with falsehood, but with the outward addition of the figures of the Law; so that- to use a common expression- it is the pure and simple substance of spiritual worship (Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XV11, pp. 163-4)

This classic Reformed interpretation is certainly an improvement.  The thrust of the statement is taken off of what the individual feels and put on what God requires.  But here too I must say that the classic Reformed interpretation still misses the point.  R. Scott Clark proposes a different reading, one that I think does better justice to the context and to the lexical use of the terms “spirit” and “truth.”  He writes

Rather than understanding “spirit” to mean “that which is immaterial,” and “truth” to refer primarily to “propositions that accord with reality and the revelation of God” (as distinct from those which do not), we should capitalize Spirit and understand it to refer primarily to the person of the Holy Spirit.  In the same way, we should capitalize Truth and see it as a reference to the Second Person of the Trinity, who was addressing the woman at the well (Recovering the Reformed Confession, pp. 272-3)

Such an interpretation has much to commend it.  Clark is able to offer many examples of the Apostle John using these words with reference to the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, John Frame agrees significantly with this reading (although he doesn’t directly equate “truth” with “the Son”) when he writes that Christ

…was not merely predicting a more sincere or heartfelt worship among his people… Worship “in Spirit and truth,” then, is Trinitarian worship- worship that is aware of the distinctive work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit for our salvation (Worship in Spirit and Truth, pp. 6-7)

As a brief aside, I think that The Decablog should introduce a new rule.  We already have the Trueman Rule (if Trueman wrote it, read it); now we need the Clark/Frame Rule.  Seeing as those two so often disagree strongly with one another, I propose than whenever they agree on something it is probably a safe bet that they are right.  This rule does not of course apply to issues of baptism or church polity.

In conclusion, I want to reaffirm that God does desire emotion and sincerity in our worship.  He also demands that we worship him in accord with the truth of his revelation.  But both of those interpretations miss the real heart of what Jesus says to the woman at the well.  True, God has always been Trinity, but the hour has come when the full Trinitarian glory of the gospel has broken through.  Old Testament saints were certainly saved by Christ alone, and certainly did experience the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, but we are living now under a better covenant. The Spirit and Truth of verses 23-24 is the same Spirit and Truth of verse 10- the promised Messiah and the sent Gift, the Helper poured out in these last days.  We worship the Father in Spirit and Truth- approaching him as people indwelt by the Holy Spirit, pleading Jesus as the only Way, Truth, and Life.  In the New Covenant our access and our knowledge is greatly increased.  Types and shadows are no more.  God is building His temple not on a mountain, but through the addition of living stone upon living stone- a edifice of His grace and the saving power of the blood of Christ.

So whatever the answers may be to worship style and other circumstantial things- let’s all focus on the fact that our worship is at its heart the adoration of the Triune God.  True worshippers come to the Father in Spirit and Truth.  It is such that the Father is seeking.  Perhaps we ought to lift our eyes above the smaller concerns of style and even above our own desires, and seek Him as He would be sought.  Perhaps we need to refocus on the Triune object of worship Himself- Father, Spirit, and Truth.

(by: Nicolas Alford)

14 thoughts on “Spirit and Truth

      1. haha @Nick, keep in mind we don’t always post things we “like” or even necessarily agree… just pointing to stuff 😛 haha but yes, i did personally like this 🙂

  1. Yes! Amen!

    I’ve been saying this for a long time now. It’s so good to see another person clearly showing the true meaning of worshipping in spirit and truth. Actually, lastnight, in my family worship, I went over this passage with my wife. In summary, I told her that Jesus is talking about a transition from Old Covenant worship to New Covenant worship. In fact, if I ever preach on John 4:21-25, I’ll call the sermon “Transition from Old Covenant to New Covenant Worship” (or something like that). I also made the point that if Jesus was talking about sincerity and truthfulness, then that would mean that OC worshippers didn’t worship that way (which is ridiculous). As this post demonstrates, to worship in spirit in truth is, in essence, to worship in the fuller revelation of the Spirit and the Son of God. The Temple worship is done away with, for Christ has fulfilled it. The Church of Christ now is the Temple of God. I always point people to Philippians 3:3 and Romans 12:1 when explaining the true meaning of John 4:23-24. Paul is essentially saying the same thing in those passages.

    Great post!

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