Is All of Life Worship?

[AP auxiliary writer Earl Edwards holds a B.A. from David Lipscomb University, an M.Th. from Harding School of Theology, and a D.Miss. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dr. Edwards was a missionary in Italy for 16 years and also served as director of the Florence Bible School. For 20 years he served as the Director of Biblical Graduate Studies at Freed-Hardeman University, where he continues to work as an adjunct faculty member.]

When the Bible uses the term “worship,” what is included? Does it include all of life as some theologians affirm? For example, one commentator says that Paul, in Romans 12:1, teaches that “all Christian living is worship offered up to God.”1 Is that correct?

Let’s take some typical passages from both testaments to see how inspired writers generally use the word “worship.” In the Old Testament, it is first used in Genesis 22:5 with reference to Abraham and Isaac when Abraham says to his servant, “I and the lad will go over there and worship (shāhāh) and return.”2 It is clear that Abraham is saying we will, “over there,” do an act of “worship” (i.e., offer Isaac as a sacrifice, do an act of obedience to God) which we are not doing over here at present. All of life is not worship as the term is used here.

Let’s move on to 2 Samuel 12:20 which speaks of David, who, after the loss of his child by Bathsheba, ceased grieving and “washed” and “anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he came into the house of the Lord and worshiped (shāhāh).” Obviously while grieving and washing himself he was not worshiping; he did that later in “the house of the Lord.” That is, he performed some literal act in the Temple (probably praying or singing praises or sacrificing to God). So, here, too, all of life is not worship. In fact, one lexicon defines the Hebrew term used in both these passages (shāhāh) as “to bow down” before “a monarch” or “before God in worship.”3 But, as we will see later, for it to be acceptable worship to God, the outward “bowing” must be accompanied by an inward literal decision of the heart/mind to be submissive to God. Now this word shāhāh is the word which is translated by the English word “worship” in roughly 90% of the appearances of “worship” in any major version of our English Old Testament. It must be noted that even when God’s people bowed down and “multipl[ied] prayers,” God did “not listen” (Isaiah 1:15) when there was no corresponding inward decision of the heart/mind to be submissive, God required more than “lip service;” He desired “their hearts” (Isaiah 29:13). No wonder David was a man after God’s own heart, for he wrote (of God), “I will give You thanks with all my heart; I will sing praises to You before the gods. I will bow down toward Your holy temple and give thanks to Your name” (Psalm 138:1-2, emp. added).  David did “bow” his head, but the real worship was in submitting “all” of his “heart.” As P.W. Crannell says of worship, “the OT idea is therefore the reverential attitude of mind or body or both”4 But, as seen from passages like Isaiah 1:15, and others, it is clear that acceptable worship for God must include that “reverential attitude” which will necessarily provoke a literal decision of the heart/mind to be submissive.

Thus, these usages of the term “worship” militate against accepting the idea that all of life is worship because acceptable worship necessarily includes the heart/mind. It must be intentional. One does not have to bow his head to present acceptable worship, but he must of necessity make a decision in his heart/mind to be submissive to his Creator. Acceptable worship must be done with heart/mind engaged, and no man can live with his heart/mind concentrating on his relationship to God 24/7. You can’t concentrate on God when you are studying how to get “your ox out of the ditch”!

Now let’s move to some typical usages of the term “worship” in the New Testament. John 12:20 speaks of certain “Greeks among those who were going up to worship (proskuneo) at the feast.” Acts 8:27 speaks of an Ethiopian who “had come to Jerusalem to worship (proskuneo).” Acts 24:11 quotes Paul as saying, “I went up to Jerusalem to worship (proskuneo).” In all three of these passages it is clear that the persons referenced were not worshiping while traveling; rather, they intended to worship in Jerusalem after arriving. This probably involved one or more of the following: prayers, songs of praise, and/or sacrifices. The term “worship” does not include all of life here. In fact, the original Greek word proskuneo means, according to Bauer’s lexicon, “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority.”5 Thayer’s lexicon explains further that proskuneo came originally from two Greek words which meant “kiss” and “towards,” a gesture being done “in token of reverence.”6 Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says proskuneo “remains limited to a single act.”7 Now, proskuneo is the Greek word behind roughly 90% of the appearances of the word “worship” in any major version of our English New Testament. When this gesture is done towards our God, we learn from Jesus that it must be done “in spirit and in truth” in order to be acceptable worship (John 4:24). As Leon Morris says, “in spirit” means “a man must worship, not simply outwardly…but in his spirit.”8 In bowing to men just the outward gesture may suffice, but in worship to God the outward gesture (bowing, kissing, sacrificing, mouthing words of praise) is not sufficient; it must include the literal act of submission of the inner person (the heart/mind). This can’t be done while one is concentrating on “figuring one’s income taxes”! All of life is not worship. It is clear in both testaments and in all major translations that acceptable worship to our God requires the concentration of the worshiper’s inner person on submission to his Creator. That does not happen 24/7 in any life. Therefore, all of life is not worship.

It is against this background of the meaning of “worship” in both Testaments that we must approach the problem of how to translate logikēn latreian in Romans 12:1. The NASB renders that passage as follows: “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your (logikēn latreian) spiritual service of worship.” The two options for translating latreian are “service” and “worship.” In fact, Bauer’s lexicon defines it as “service/worship (to God).”9 The NASB seems to try to straddle the fence and take in both concepts, but most major translations use either “worship” (RSV, NASB, ESV, NIV, etc.) or “service” (KJV, ASV, NKJV, etc.). To be candid, one must admit that the majority of current scholars (translators and commentators) favor using “worship” in this passage, but that does not guarantee that this is correct. (The major number of current scholars also oppose “baptism for the remission of sins.”)

No one doubts that latreia can sometimes mean “worship.” In fact, I think Paul uses it to mean “the temple worship” (NIV) in Romans 9:4. However, the same Paul uses it, I believe, with a more general meaning in Acts 26:7 where Luke quotes him as saying that Christians “hope to attain” the promise as “they earnestly serve” (latreuo—the verb cognate to latreia) God “night and day.” Now what such Christians did in this “night and day” lapse might include public worship and daily prayers, but it certainly would not be limited to such. It would also include sleep when the heart/mind could not be engaged in submitting itself to God. That’s probably why the NIV, and other translations also, render latreuo as “serve” instead of “worship” here in Acts 26:7. Marvin Vincent likewise says that here latreuo is “better [rendered] as serve.”10 So sometimes latreia is a more general term. K. Hess writes,

It was originally used predominantly of physical work, but was then used generally and could include cultic service…in the OT…it is not the meticulously performed cultus which is the true worship of God, but of [general] obedience to the voice of the Lord.11

Notice that latreia, according to Hess, can include worship, but it is not limited to such. It is sometimes a broader, more general, term. As Gary Workman wrote: “It is a fact that latreuo and latreia refer to service in general, and not worship in particular…. Service is broader than worship. All worship is service, but not all service is worship.”12

Now we come to Romans 12:1 and logikēn latreian. Probably the best translation of logikēn is “reasonable” (as in the NKJV). That is, it makes sense to an intelligent, human being. Then we deal with latreian.

As noticed, the examples of acceptable “worship” from both Testaments treated earlier in this study were literal acts of the person’s heart/mind submitting itself to God, possibly also accompanied by a physical act or gesture—like bowing, kissing toward, or sacrificing or praising with one’s lips.

Now, in interpreting latreian in Romans 12:1, Everett F. Harrison aptly notes that in this passage Paul uses latreian in a different sense. He says Paul “gives it a metaphorical turn.”13 That is, though Paul uses worship language—note terms like “present” (parastesai), “sacrifice” (thusian), “holy” (agian), and “acceptable” (euareston)—he is not speaking of literal worship. He is using “metaphorical” or figurative language. William Sanday and Arthur Headlam agree. They say Paul is “metaphorical” in his use of “sacrificial language.”14 Harrison continues his discussion of Romans 12:1 saying,

The problem to be faced is whether “worship” may not be too restricted a rendering, for worship, in the strict sense, is adoration of God, which does not fit well with the concept of bodies [mentioned earlier in the verse—bodies are not where the required submission takes place]. It is just at this point that the term “service” (KJV) has an advantage since it covers the entire range of the Christian’s life and activity…. Service is the proper sequel to worship.15

Harrison is saying that the interpretation of “metaphorical language” is controlled by a different set of rules. E.W. Bullinger has written an 1,100-page book on the use of figures of speech in the Bible and in its preface he says that we should decide we are dealing with a figure when it

seems to be at variance with the general teaching of the Scriptures, then we may reasonably expect that some figure is employed…. Commentators and interpreters, from inattention to the figures, have been led astray from the real meaning of many important passages of God’s Word; while ignorance of them has been the fruitful parent of error and false doctrine.16

For example, since literal baptism is in water (Acts 8:36), when Jesus speaks of a “baptism” He will undergo, which is the same as the “cup” He must drink (Mark 10:38-39; cf. Matthew 26:39)—His suffering on the cross, we know that has to be a figurative baptism. Here there is little chance of mistaking this for a literal baptism but, just to avoid all such possibility, one translator renders it, “Can you be overwhelmed in the immersion that submerges me?”17 In figurative language the rules are less restrictive. In literal language one is either born into a given family or he is adopted. He cannot be both.  Instead, in God’s figurative family from one standpoint we become Christians by being “born of the water and the Spirit” (John 3:5); from another standpoint we have come into the family by “adoption as sons” (Romans 8:15). Likewise, when one thinks of the figurative foundation of the church, from one standpoint Christ is the entire foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11) whereas, from another standpoint, the apostles and prophets are a part of the foundation and Christ is the “cornerstone” (Ephesians 3:20). Figurative language is less restrictive. It is controlled by different rules.

Now Harrison is saying that Romans 12:1 should tip us off to the fact that, though worship words are used, we should understand that language to be figurative since “bodies” are mentioned in the same verse and real worship does not take place there, but in the inner person—the heart. Bullinger would probably add (if he were to comment on Romans 12:1) that thinking of the “sacrifice” here as literal “worship” leads one to a definition of “worship” which is “at variance with the general teaching of Scripture.”

In other words, since acceptable worship is a heart/mind activity, such “bodies” cannot do acceptable “worship” by themselves without the participation of the inner person. When the mocking soldiers at the crucifixion “worshiped” (proskuneo) Jesus (Mark 15:19), it certainly was not acceptable worship! Acceptable worship necessarily involves the submission of the heart/mind.

Now, since lexicons agree that “service” is sometimes a legitimate translation of latreia, why should one use “worship” here in Romans 12:1 when such a translation forces a definition of “worship” which goes against the normal usage of the term in both Testaments in all major translations?

Harrison’s argument in favor of “service” in Romans 12:1 is, in reality, the same, but in different words, as the one made by Hugo McCord when he wrote (of latreian),

Sometimes the word refers to a lifetime of service to God (Acts 24:14; Heb. 12:28), and the context of Romans 12:1 shows one’s offering his body as a living sacrifice is a lifetime of service not of meditation (which is what worship is).18

Gordon Fee seems to be making basically the same argument in his discussion of latreuo as it appears in Philippians 3:3. He says,

The verb, therefore, is not the one for “worship” in the sense of what the congregation does together as a gathered people, but represents the “service” of God’s people in terms of their devotion to him as evidenced in the way they live before him… [A]ll of life in the present is service and devotion to God.19

Now, the fact that it has that meaning in Philippians 3:3 does not necessarily signify it has the same meaning in Romans 12:1, but at least it shows that Fee believes that sometimes latreia is used by Paul to mean “service” (and we have already made the case that it is also so used in Romans 12:1).


All of life is not worship, but all of life is service. But let no one accuse this student of believing that as long as one goes to a church building on Sunday (and says he “worships”) that he can, therefore, live as he pleases during the week. The true worshiper will always remember that “Whatever you do in word or deed” you should “do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).


1 Jack Cottrell (1998), The College Press NIV Commentary: Romans (Joplin, MO: College Press), 2:312.

2 All Biblical quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (Anaheim, CA: Foundation Publishers), unless otherwise indicated.

3 Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles Briggs (1962), A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (London: Clarendon Press), p. 1005.

4 P.W. Crannell (1939), “Worship,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 5:3110.

5 Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), p. 882.

6 Joseph Thayer (1956), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark), p. 548.

7 Gerhard Kittel, ed. (1971), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 7:172.

8 Leon Morris (1971), The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), pp. 270-271, emp. added.

9 Bauer, p. 587.

10 Marvin Vincent (1969), Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:581.

11 K. Hess (1981), latreia in Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 3:549-552, emp. added.

12 Gary Workman (1993), “What is Worship?” Spiritual Sword, June, p. 7.

13 Everett Harrison (1976), Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 10:128.

14 William Sanday and Arthur Headlam (1900), International Critical Commentary: Romans. (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark), p. 353.

15 Harrison, p. 128.

16 E.W. Bullinger (1984), Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), pp. xv-xvi, emp. added.

17 Hugo McCord (1988), McCord’s New Testament Translation of the Everlasting Gospel (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman College), p. 87.

18 Hugo McCord (1982), “Worship,” Firm Foundation, June 1, p. 6.

19 Gordon Fee (1995), New International Commentary on the New Testament: Philippians (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans), p. 300, emp. added.


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