Internal and External Worship

Augustine’s Paradoxical Reading of Psalm 51


My question doesn’t come from a worship planning meeting, but from my Bible study. I have been puzzling over the fact that God would command worship through animal sacrifice in the Old Testament but then inspire poets to write psalms that say “You do not delight in sacrifice . . . [or] take pleasure in burnt offerings” (Psalm 51:16). I understand that the point is to insist on sincere worship of the heart, but why then all the prescriptions for external sacrifices in the first place?


You are in good company in puzzling over this. Back in A.D. 425, Augustine reflected on this very dilemma in his famous City of God (book 10, section 5). Augustine lingers over Psalm 51:16–17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”

Augustine spotted a paradox—rather, he found a way, as he often did, to rephrase the point of the psalm in a paradoxical way: “Observe how, in the very words in which he is expressing God’s refusal of sacrifice, he shows that God requires sacrifice. He does not desire the sacrifice of a slaughtered beast, but He desires the sacrifice of a contrite heart. Thus, that sacrifice which he says God does not wish is the symbol of the sacrifice which God does wish.” In addition to carefully linking this text with Psalm 50:12–15, Micah 6:6–8, and Hebrews 13:16 (I encourage you to look these up), Augustine concludes, “A sacrifice, therefore, is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice.”

It’s worth lingering over this.

That “invisible sacrifice” is indeed a wonderful gift. But so often when we insist on only that, we end up being allergic to paying too much attention to the “visible sacrifice.”

Augustine’s formulation is like an antihistamine that squelches that allergy.

What matters is not just the heart, but connecting the heart with the external action. What matters is a contrite spirit in an external expression. The inside and outside are inseparable.

Indeed, a few chapters later Augustine concludes, “As to those who think that these visible sacrifices are suitably offered to other gods, whereas the invisible sacrifices—the graces of purity of mind and holiness of will—should be offered, as greater and better, to the invisible God, Himself greater and better than all others, they must be oblivious that these visible sacrifices are signs of the invisible, as the words we utter are the signs of things. And therefore, as in prayer or praise we direct intelligible words to Him to whom in our heart we offer the very feelings we are expressing, so we are to understand that in sacrifice we offer visible sacrifice only to Him to whom in our heart we ought to present ourselves an invisible sacrifice.”

A more robust answer to your question would press on to say why this internal/external connection is so important. One reason is that external actions in worship can so often change and transform what goes on deep inside of us, shaping our emotions, our will, and our innermost thoughts. Augustine and John Calvin each believed that both the sacrifices prescribed for ancient Israel and later Christian worship practices were a “school of godliness.” External action is not just an inside-out expression of what is going on deep within. Sometimes external action is part of an outside-in catalytic transformation process. Sometimes all of this may be happening at once.

The more I think about this question, the more I realize that this gets at something we don’t talk about enough. For all the thousands of books, articles, blogs, and websites about worship available today, the relationship between internal and external worship is a theme that seems all too rare. While it remains important to insist that deep, internal worship is essential, we should do so by celebrating how, by God’s grace, our external and internal acts of worship can connect and reinforce each other.

Throughout this year, Reformed Worship has featured several articles on spiritual disciplines. Every single discipline depends on this internal/external connection. We are faithful to the profound message of the Hebrew scriptures when we do everything we can to resist separating ritual and heartfelt piety—simultaneously resisting “ritualism” and “pietism”—and to celebrate the concord or connection between what we feel and know and what we say and do.

With all this in mind, the profound parallelism of Psalm 19:14 is even more powerful: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart [simultaneously!] be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (NRSV).

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 143 © March 2022 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.