The Fork in the Road: Moral vs. Positive Law: Worship in Spirit and in Truth

Quite a while ago, I wrote some posts that were a pretend debate between two friends over lunch regarding instrumental music. The friends are IM and AC. Here’s an excerpt —


IM: In the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, he speaks of the promise of “living water,” and then she seems to change the subject. She asks Jesus whether the Samaritans are right to worship on Mt. Gerizim although the Jews worship on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

(John 4:21-24) Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

It seems we can’t get very far discussing Christian worship until we understand what it means to worship “in spirit and in truth.”

AC: Well, that’s not much of a riddle. All my life I’ve been taught that it means to worship according to God’s laws (“truth”) and with the right attitude (“spirit”).

The Samaritans had a good attitude but followed the wrong rules. The Jews worshiped in the right place, but with the wrong attitude.

IM: You’d agree that v. 23 indicates a contrast – that Christian worship would be different from Mosaic worship?

AC: Yes.

IM: And that v. 24 says the difference will be that Christian worship will be in spirit and in truth, in contrast to worship under the Law of Moses?

AC: Yes.

IM: And that the difference would be that worship under the Law was a matter of getting the forms right and that Jesus would require his followers to also have their hearts right?

AC: Yes.

IM: Have you even read the Old Testament? I mean, other than Bible stories as a child, do you bother reading the prophets?

AC: That’s more than a little offensive. We’re a New Testament church, but we study both testaments!

IM: I doubt it. I mean, the prophets repeatedly criticize the Jews for worshipping with the right form and the wrong heart. God has never accepted worship that was not from the heart.

(Deu 4:29) But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.

(Deut. 6:5) Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

(Deut. 10:16) Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

(Isa. 1:11-17) “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies. 14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

(Amos 5:21-24) “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

God has always demanded heart worship. There is no way you were taught correctly on this.

AC: [a bit red faced] OK. You’ve made your point. I actually knew those passages. We studied them a few years ago in a summer series. I’d just never put the two together!

If you’re so smart, then, what did Jesus mean?

[AC thought about leaving, but it was IM’s turn to pay. Besides, AC thought sure he’d score some points on such a familiar passage!]

IM: As always, context is everything. Let’s start with “Spirit.” What is “living water”? I’ll make this easy. Flip over to John 7:37–

(John 7:37-39) On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

It’s the indwelling Spirit! I mean, it could hardly be more clear.

Now, back in John 4, Jesus said, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Plainly, the second “spirit” has to have the same meaning as the first “spirit,” right?

“God is spirit” means God is made of a substance – spirit – different from what we’re made of – flesh and blood. Surely, Jesus’ saying that we must worship in the Holy Spirit, means we must somehow be connected to the world of God, the world of spirit, because flesh and blood isn’t good enough.

AC: Then why doesn’t the Bible say this elsewhere?

IM: But it does.

(Phil. 3:3) For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh–

Here it is. Paul says that the true people of God–the church–are shown to be such because only they worship by the Spirit of God and put no confidence in the flesh.

(Rom. 8:15) For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

You see, the Spirit gives us a relationship with God that’s a personal relationship, that lets us see him truly as our Father.

Now, one of the major themes of the Gospel of John is the coming of the Spirit. It’s mentioned in chapter 1 and repeatedly throughout the Gospel. It’s not at all surprising that John records Jesus speaking of the Spirit as being essential to our worship.

AC: You’re not about to tell me to speak in tongues, are you? Because I went to one of those services, and I really just don’t …

IM: No. I’m not a tongue speaker myself. I think Jesus wasn’t urging his followers to use any particular gift. Rather, he was speaking of the relationship between God and his worshipper formed by the indwelling Spirit.

There’s a little bit of God in all his children. The Spirit prompts us to be more Christ-like, to bear fruit, to have spiritual gifts, and grow more and more holy. The Spirit “sanctifies” us so that we’re God’s children and able to enter his presence in a way that others cannot.

AC: This is all too metaphysical for me. I mean, I’m barely getting used to this idea of a personal indwelling, and now you’re talking poetry. It just doesn’t fit my understanding.

IM: Well, then, let’s talk about “truth.” John uses “truth” several times in his Gospel and his epistles, and it means “the truth about Jesus” or “the gospel.” Paul and other writers do the same.

I’ll not bore you with all the proof texts. We’ve covered back when we had this conversation. [JFG: And much more thoroughly here.]

AC: I remember the lesson. You’ve taught it more than once, and I’m glad not to have to hear it again!

IM: You’re right, but it’s an important lesson. And it helps us understand the passage. Jesus’ words become something like–

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in [the Holy] [S]pirit and in [the] truth [about Jesus, the gospel]

Now, I’ll admit, this is not altogether transparent, but we ought to be able to sort it out.

The first clue is the introductory phrase “God is spirit.” Jesus knew the Samaritan woman already knew that. The Samaritans did not worship a flesh and blood God!

His point has to be that to worship a spirit one must first take on the nature of spirit, which the Living Water lets us do.

Immediately preceding the story of the Samaritan woman is Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Jesus declares to him,

(John 3:6) Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

The idea is that those who’ve been born again are reborn as spiritual beings. See also,

(2 Pet. 1:4) Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

So, “Spirit” makes us worthy to enter God’s presence to worship. It puts us in God’s realm, in a sense. After all, the clear implication of Jesus’ words is that we cannot properly worship a spirit except as spirit. We must have some of the same “stuff” that makes God spirit – and that’s the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit in us prompts us to worship, and worship prompted by God’s own Spirit is surely acceptable worship!

AC: This is still a bit too metaphysical for my taste. Maybe if you could get back to the “truth” part it would make better sense.

IM: “Truth” is such a big topic, we’ll never get finished during our lunch break! But very quickly–

(John 15:26-27) “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”

Jesus again ties “truth” and “Spirit.” The Spirit testifies about Jesus, which makes the Spirit the Spirit of truth.

Just so, our worship must testify about Jesus. We have to worship to celebrate Jesus’ work in us and to declare his name. That’s worshiping in truth.

(2 Thes. 2:13) But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.

Again, the two are tied together. The are two aspects of our salvation. And worship is for the saved. Our salvation makes us worshipers.

In other words, John 4:23 is not a passage that gives a magic formula for correct worship. Rather, it gives the formula for correct worshippers!

And it tells us the content of our worship. You can teach a 13-part lesson on 5 acts of worship and not once mention Jesus! Or grace! Or the Spirit! But Jesus is telling us that it’s all about Jesus – the truth – and the Spirit, who testifies about Jesus.

True worship is Jesus-centered and Spirit-prompted.

AC: Ok. I’m getting closer to following you, but this is still hard on my poor brain.

I mean, what does “Spirit prompted” even mean? Does God put words in your mouth? Are we supposed to get new commands each Sunday from a prophet? These ideas are just so foreign …

IM: Consider this passage, and then I’ll pick up the check, as I promised.

(Phil. 2:12-13) Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

V. 12 plainly tells us to work out our own salvation. There’s no loss of free will. We can either do it or not. It’s our choice.

But v. 13 tells us that, if we’ll try, God will work within us to “will” and to “act” the way he wants us to.

The “will” means God himself influences our hearts to want to obey God. The “act” means that our influenced heart will change our behavior.

But this change is in the direction we wanted to go. We chose. God (through his Spirit) helped.

Just so, if we choose to be worshipers, God, through his Spirit, will help mold our hearts and actions to worship all the better.

Now, this says nothing about what forms of worship God wants. Rather, it tells us something far more important – what worship is about and how we mysteriously work in step with the Spirit and God himself to worship Jesus. And it tells us who a worshiper is.

And, finally, it tells us what’s of first importance in true worship. It’s not specific acts of worship. It’s relationship with Jesus. It’s openness to God and his Spirit prompting us to will and act as God wishes. It’s proclaiming Jesus. It’s truly feeling and understanding what it means to be God’s child. It’s being in an “Abba” relationship with God.


Jesus makes a distinction between an old rules-based worship system and a heart-based system. The people had to worship in Jerusalem at the temple. Nothing else would do. But in the new age, that would not longer be true. The new test would be: is your worship in Spirit and in Truth?

It changes everything.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to The Fork in the Road: Moral vs. Positive Law: Worship in Spirit and in Truth

  1. Royce says:

    Very well done. Amen!

  2. Bob Harry says:


    I taught a lesson thirty years ago about the simplicity of the Christian faith and used the same reasoning.

    It was so profound that the congregation was dumbfounded.

    I'm not sure we still "get it". Your explanation is too simple. Are there any rules to follow for decorum and order that are not legalistic?

    Thank you for the encouragement..


  3. Jerry Starling says:


    I believe you are right about worship in Spirit. However, have you considered how "love in… truth" in 1 John 3:18 might inform our understanding of John 4:24, "worship… in truth"?

    I do not mean that you are wrong, but I wonder if this does not add another dimension to worship in truth.

    I blogged on this here<a>.

    Thanks for a good article!

  4. paul says:

    Right on Brother!

  5. Thanks Jay, well done.

  6. Guy says:


    first, you're interlocuter points out that the OT was not external-based, but that God desired their hearts every bit as much as now. Yet you conclude that Jesus contrasted rule-based with heart-based. i'm quite confused. Sounds like you drew AC's original conclusion, not IM's.

    Second, i won't lie, i read a lot of the "Spirit" passages and am just dumbfounded. i have no idea what most of them are talking about. i've read and heard work on them by the various conservative camps and a couple progressivists. And the majority of it sounds like bologna to me. i've read guys who say "Spirit" amounts to nothing more than words on a page. i can't make much sense of first-century history if i buy that. i've heard sermons from guys who more or less said that the "Spirit" was about warm fuzzy feelings which make you feel positive or negative about something. Sounds like i'm well on my way to being a Mormon if i buy that.

    And yet you're hinging quite a great deal of your ideology on these obscure passages. Seems like a gambler's hermeneutic.


  7. Jay Guin says:


    My view of the Spirit has developed over decades of study. I distinctly remember a moment when I concluded it was all just metaphor of no real substance (bologna) or warm and fuzzy vagueness.

    I knew that couldn't be right, but it was the best I could come up with. But only seconds later, after a prayer for God's help, I realized I'd been reading all the passages with some false assumptions — especially about what God really expects from us.

    That same day, Rom 8 and Heb 8 began to make sense to me — and became key parts of my understanding of how it all fits together. And obviously the men who wrote those chapters intended exactly that result. If Rom 8 doesn't tie up chapters 1 – 7 with a ribbon, bringing it all together for you, then you've misunderstood – because as a matter of literary structure, Rom 8 is the climax of all that goes before.

    God willing, in the next few weeks I'll put up a series on the Spirit. It occurs to me that while I've written a lot on the subject, the posts are scattered across countless different series. It'd likely be helpful to consolidate the thoughts in one place and try to tie it all together.

    But I doubt I can get to it before March.

  8. Guy says:


    i definitely don't think Paul's reference to the "spirit" is bologna or just good feelings. Rather the various interpretations i've encountered thus far anyway do seem that way.

    My dad is rather fond of Franklin Camp's defense of the "word only" view. However 'rational' Camp makes his explanation sound, it seems as forced an interpretation as is Calvinistic election or dispensationalism or what not. It also seems to fabricate tightly distinct categories between miraculous and non-miraculous and all the lovely-decades of debating over definitions that have followed. It certainly creates an intellectual milieu quite susceptible to deism.

    i remember taking kids to a few youth rallies back when i did youth ministry and heard progressive guys equate the "spirit" with feeling good about this or that. The spirit communicating with us meant little more than whatever your gut/intuition/emotions pointed you to at the time. No offense to any of those guys, but i have no doubt that on occasions i've felt very negative about some decision on account of eating too many jalapenos the night before or having practiced very poor sleeping habits the entire week prior as opposed to any "spirit-compass" experience. Further, like i said before, if these guys are right, i'm half-way toward being a Mormon. i'll just pray and ask God for a "burning in my bosom" about anything at all (including the reliability of mormon-documents) and my good feelings will be the answer. i don't buy it. The heart is deceitful above all things, says the prophet. Mine certainly is. Self-deception is a skill at which all men gain near-instantaneous expertise. i'm very hesitant to lick my heart, hold it up to the wind, wait for the breeze and call it "The Spirit." i have no idea how i'd tell the difference between "the spirit" and a variety of other influential forces working on my intuitions and emotions.

    And in Calvinism, the "spirit" seems like little more than the strings attached to the marionettes they call "the elect." Once there were motionless blocks of wood, then God put some special strings on some of them, He pulled those strings, and now some of them move. i definitely don't buy that.

    Growing up in the CoC, my experience has been that you use the term "holy spirit" any time you don't really know what happened or how it happened or how to explain something. If something is mysterious or our explanation has a gap or we don't know exactly how something works, we say "oh, the spirit did that," or "it'll all work out through the holy spirit" or "i learned it from the indwelling Holy Spirit" etc. etc. So i guess this means some people decide that Paul is just vague, so we can be vague too. That seems like a cop-out in a way to me.

    The majority of things i read just don't sound even near plausible to me. i only feel semi-confident in my understands of a couple passages regarding the Spirit. But not most. But like i said, i certainly don't conclude that Paul wrote bologna or warm fuzzy vagueness. i realize something critical is going on there. i'm just not sure what it is. the only thing i have is a suspicion that the administration of gifts (tongues, prophecy, healings, etc.) was far more integral and critical to the function and make up of the early church than we may have traditionally thought. Other than that, i'm largely puzzled.


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