Imitating God: Doing Justice as a Condition of Authentic Worship

I would guess that some readers of RW will find the theme of this issue, namely, worship and justice, a bit exotic; rather like yoking together a horse and an ox! Perhaps the editors were at their wits’ end to find a topic that had not already been treated. Some may even find the topic worrisome: if we aren’t careful, the social activists will take over! In this article I hope to show that our failure to think worship and justice together, or, worse yet, our resistance to thinking them together, represents blindness to some of the deepest themes in Scripture.

Most of us know at least some of the passages in the Old Testament which declare that Israel’s failure to practice justice outside the assemblies makes the worship Israel performs inside its assemblies offensive to God—passages such as Isaiah 1:11-17; Isaiah 58:3-7; Amos 5:14-24; and Micah 6:1-8. “I hate, I despite your festivals,” says God in Amos 5,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

A plausible interpretation of these passages, if read in isolation, would be the radical interpretation that God wants social justice instead of worship. But when read in the context of Scripture as a whole, that interpretation has no plausibility. Instead what is being said, so I suggest, is that social justice, along with genuine repentance for injustice, are conditions of authentic worship.

Everybody believes that some worship lacks authenticity. Some people believe that the use of set prayers deprives worship of authenticity; the prayers must be prayers that the Spirit leads us to pray spontaneously. Some believe that having an ordained woman lead the service deprives the worship of authenticity. Some believe that the minister’s failure to hold certain theological views deprives it of authenticity. Some believe that worship without “enthusiasm” is deprived of authenticity. And so forth. Perhaps some of these views about the conditions of authenticity are implied by Scripture; none is explicitly taught there.

Scripture does explicitly teach that if worshipers fail to practice justice in their everyday lives, then their worship lacks authenticity. What I mean by worship lacking authenticity is that God finds it offensive.

Justice Within and Outside the Assembly

This teaching is surprising. All the views I mentioned as common among us have to do with what takes place within the worship assemblies: within the assembly a woman preaches; within the assembly people use set prayers. The emphasis of the prophets is entirely on what is done outside the assemblies. Our failure to practice justice outside the assemblies makes what we do inside the assemblies displeasing to God.

But there are also passages in Scripture that do mention things occuring within the assemblies that deprive worship of its authenticity. Paul, in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, cites behavior within their assemblies that makes their celebration of the Lord’s Supper displeasing to God. The well-to-do people got there first and sated themselves with food and got tipsy on wine; when the poor people arrived after work, there was nothing left. This, says Paul, “is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” And the writer of the letter of James is biting in his allusion to what has been happening among those to whom he is writing:

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-4)

“You have dishonored the poor,” he says, going on to ask, “Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court?” The allusion to the declarations of the prophets concerning justice and injustice is unmistakable. Not only does injustice outside the assemblies deprive worship of its authenticity; injustice inside the assemblies does so as well.

Why is this? What’s going on here? It must be that a certain understanding of worship is being assumed, and a certain understanding of justice and its relation to God. What might those understandings be?


Start with the understanding of worship that the prophets were implicitly attacking—worship as compensation and propitiation: one compensates for the injustice one perpetrates in daily life and propitiates the God who is upset over that by singing songs, offering prayers and sacrifices, sending up incense, and the like. God does not like injustice; but God does like to be worshiped. So one makes up for displeasing God by doing enough of the things that please God, thus ensuring that one’s balance is in the black rather than the red.

I doubt that many of us think about the relation of life to worship that way; or if we do, we do so implicitly rather than explicitly. Instead many of us think of going to worship as leaving behind our daily secular lives and entering a different space, a sacred space, so as to spend an hour or so centering on God. The architecture of our churches reflects this understanding. Our failure to center on God with sufficient intensity and humility might make God displeased with our worship; but since in worship we leave behind our secular daily life, what we have done in daily life cannot make God displeased with our worship. God is displeased if we do not leave behind our everyday concerns, if we do not center on him for a while, if we allow the thoughts of daily life to intrude.

What Then?

The prophets cannot have been thinking along either of these lines. Obviously they did not think that worship compensates for the injustice one perpetrates in daily life and hence propitiates God; but neither did they think that in going to worship one leaves behind the secular space of business, politics, law, and so forth, and enters a sacred space. There was for them no secular space; God is always there.

The self that enters the assembly for worship carries her daily life along with her into the assemblies—does not leave it behind but carries it along—so as now to present that life to God. In daily life she lives, as it were, with God behind her back; now she turns around and, facing God, presents to God her daily life. She thanks God for what she has found good in her life and that of others, she laments to God for what she has found painful in her life and that of others, she confesses to God what she and others have done wrong, she praises God for God’s incomparable majesty.

The person who perpetrates injustice and is unrepentant thereof—how can he possibly present that to God? All such a person can do is try to compensate by spending an hour or so doing things that God might really like. But worship is not for compensating. It is not for compensating for the injustice that one perpetrates outside the assemblies, nor is it for compensating for the injustice one perpetrates inside the assemblies. Worship is for presenting one’s life to God—one’s life outside the assemblies and one’s life inside the assemblies.


The biblical writers must also have been thinking of justice and injustice a certain way, and of God’s relation to those. What might that have been? Recall the passage in Exodus 3 in which God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. . . . I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” And now jump to the song that the elderly Zechariah was moved by the Spirit to sing upon the birth of his son John, the one who became John the Baptist:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Both passages are about deliverance—deliverance from oppression, from injustice. God is at work in the world delivering his people from injustice—redeeming them. God delivers indeed from all that makes us cry out, from all that brings tears to our eyes; but as is evident from these passages, prominent in God’s deliverance is deliverance from injustice. The God of the Scriptures is a God who not only creates but delivers; and that which God delivers from includes injustice. Take justice out of Scripture and you no longer have the God of Scripture. The God whom we worship in our assemblies is the God who loves justice and hates injustice.

The corollary of God’s deliverance of people from injustice is God’s call to his people themselves to pursue justice—to imitate God by themselves struggling to loose the bonds of injustice and practice justice. That is what lies behind the dismay that the writer of James expresses. “My brothers and sisters,” he says, introducing the passage to which I pointed earlier, “do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

Our worship, if it is well-pleasing to God, will be a sign, a sample, of justice. Our worship, if it is worship of the biblical God, will speak of God’s love for justice and will guide and energize us for our own pursuit of justice. And our worship, if it is authentic, will be the place where we lay before God all our hesitations and frustrations in the pursuit of justice, asking God to take what we have done and use it for the coming of Christ’s kingdom of justice and peace; we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” Reminded once again that justice is God’s cause, not just ours, we return to the sacredness of daily life with hope and patience renewed.

Worship is for presenting one’s life to God—one’s life outside the assemblies and one’s life inside the assemblies.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology (emeritus), Yale University. He is a member of Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 68 © June 2003 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.