As a teenager, I attended a church that while not Pentecostal in name, was a place where God’s Spirit was welcomed, worshipped, and actively at work. There were a lot of outward expressions among the worshippers – shouting, standing, weeping and crying, hands raised upward, etc. I witnessed more than a few being “carried away in the Spirit.” We had old-fashioned altar calls every service with multiple stanzas of Just As I Am. I can’t say I always loved those services. While I never doubted their authenticity, the outward expression of emotions made me uncomfortable.
I used to think that’s what Jesus meant in John 4, when He told the Samaritan woman that God seeks those who worship in spirit and in truth. As a young believer navigating my own relationship with God, I thought I must be awfully hard-hearted and blind to my own sinful condition if every Sunday didn’t leave me emotionally distraught, weeping in the altar. I felt convicted because I didn’t feel convicted.
I’m thankful that’s not what Jesus meant. He’s continuing the conversation He had with Nicodemus just a few days earlier. God is looking for worshippers who are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Samaritan woman was caught up in religious rites taught by her people. There was conflict between them and the Jews over which mountain was the right mountain on which to worship. Jesus affirmed the Jewish faith as the source of salvation (indeed, salvation did come out of Jerusalem) but true worship takes place inwardly, as God regenerates the spirit of man and brings new life. Worship that consists of outward, rote, routine ceremony only, or in emotional outbursts and outward expressions only, is not worship at all. It’s simply a religious exercise that cannot impart eternal life.
What does it mean to worship God in spirit and in truth?
Spirit comes from the word pneuma, meaning breath. It refers to the immaterial, invisible part of man; the sentient element in man, that by which he perceives, reflects, feels, desires. The spirit has been defined as the life principle bestowed on man by God, the soul as the resulting life constituted in the individual, the body being the material organism animated by soul and spirit. Martin Luther defines “spirit” as “the highest and noblest part of man, which qualifies him to lay hold of incomprehensible, invisible, eternal things; in short, it is the house where faith and God’s word are at home.” The same word is used for the Holy Spirit and when referring to the spirit of man.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 teaches that man is composed of body, soul, and spirit. Because we are created in the image of God, we naturally desire to worship. Being dead in our sins (our spirit separated from God’s Spirit as a result of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden), we try to manufacture worship by our body (religious rites) and soul (our emotions, thoughts, and will). Unless God regenerates our spirit, reconciles us to God, and quickens (brings to life) our spirit by the Holy Spirit taking up residence in us, our worship is not acceptable to God. We must worship in spirit, and that can only happen when we are born again in the Spirit. One can appear to worship outwardly but be spiritually dead within.
Jesus also tells us we must worship in truth. True worship that pleases God – the kind of worshippers He seeks – are those who accept completely the revealed Word of God, Jesus. We worship without hypocrisy, in sincerity from the heart, and in submission to the commands of Jesus. To compromise God’s Word for cultural reasons (i.e., accept and approve of sin He condemns) exposes a false worship that is offensive to God.
Matthew Henry defines these two terms (spirit and truth) this way:
- In spirit, (Phil. 3:3). We must depend upon God’s Spirit for strength and assistance, laying our souls under his influences and operations; we must devote our own spirits to, and employ them in, the service of God (Rom. 1:9), must worship him with fixedness of thought and a flame of affection, with all that is within us. Spirit is sometimes put for the new nature, in opposition to the flesh, which is the corrupt nature; and so to worship God with our spirits is to worship him with our graces, (Heb. 12:28).
- In truth, that is, in sincerity. God requires not only the inward part in our worship, but truth in the inward part, (Ps. 51:6). We must mind the power more than the form, must aim at God’s glory, and not to be seen of men; draw near with a true heart, (Heb. 10:22).
We can go to church regularly, pay our tithes, and do good deeds without ever worshipping God. We can even have emotional experiences that appear spiritual in nature, but that doesn’t necessarily give evidence of salvation. Unless we have met Jesus personally, repented of our sins personally, and asked God personally to forgive us and save us, we are not born again. We are simply going through the motions like that Samaritan woman, doing what our ancestors told us to do, trying to earn our way to heaven. Salvation is a work of regeneration in our spirit, and we must worship God both in spirit and in truth.
Philippians 3:3 – For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.
Hebrews 4:12 – For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.