True and Saving Worship

Elicia M. Hansen, “True and Saving Worship,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 87–100.

True and Saving Worship

Elicia M. Hansen

Elder Bruce R. McConkie once said, “True and perfect worship is in fact the supreme labor and purpose of man.”[1] Only when we begin to understand true and saving worship[2] can we effectively work toward gaining exaltation and receiving the fullness of the Father. True and saving worship centers on God the Father.[3] Worship in any other form or pattern does not lead to exaltation. My aim is to explain the doctrine of worship in a way that clarifies misconceptions about the doctrine and transforms it from a nebulous notion to an understanding that leads to practical and purposeful application.

This paper will first, show the difference between the common usage and scriptural definition of worship; second, clarify the role of Jesus Christ in our worship of the Father; and finally, examine scriptures and counsel that can help to guide our worship.

Definition of Worship

Worldly definitions. Worldly definitions of the word worship do not envisage true and saving worship. Most describe manifestations of worship but do not reach the heart or core of the doctrine. One definition of worship from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.”[4] In accordance with this dictionary definition, any object could be the recipient of worship. Indeed, today the word worship is used liberally. For example, people commonly speak of worshipping money, good looks, or success or utter the well-known phrase “I worship the ground you walk on.” This liberal usage creates confusion for the true meaning of the term.

Merriam-Webster also defines worship as “reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power.”[5] This definition is more satisfying because it focuses on deity as the proper object of worship. “Reverence offered” is often thought of as being shown through love, adoration, honor, thanksgiving, praise, glory, and so forth. This definition comes close to hitting the mark but still lacks the added substance and insight of the scriptures. The type of worship we need to understand is not the kind offered to any “divine being or supernatural power,” but the true and saving worship that will lead us home to our Father in Heaven. Whenever the word worship is used in this paper subsequently, it should be thought of in the sense of true and saving worship.

Scriptural definitions. In seeking a proper definition for pride, President Ezra Taft Benson once wisely reminded us that “no matter how the world uses the term, we must understand how God uses the term so we can understand the language of holy writ and profit thereby.”[6] This same principle is operative for other terms. A study of how God uses the term worship adds needed insight. The scriptures give us a pattern of worship focused on God the Father and declare that “true worshippers shall worship [him] in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23–24; see also Alma 43:10). The core of this type of worship involves obedience and emulation. Hence, worship, like faith, implies heartfelt action. Not coincidentally, worship and prayer are often used interchangeably in the scriptures.

Worship Is Reserved for God the Father

The scriptures show that true and saving worship focuses on God the Father. “We know that there is a God in heaven, . . . the framer of heaven and earth. . . . He created man, male and female, after his own image . . . and gave unto them commandments that they should love and serve him, the only living and true God, and that he should be the only being whom they should worship” (D&C 20:17–19, emphasis added; see also Luke 4:5–8). The first of the Ten Commandments reads, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). In 1912, the First Presidency stated, “The Father was represented by [Christ] and He acted and spoke for the Father, . . . being so authorized and empowered. But the sole object of worship, God the Eternal Father, stands supreme and alone.”[7] These scriptures and statements clarify the verses which say, “(As there be gods many, and lords many,) but to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him” (1 Corinthians 8:5–6). Furthermore, the scriptures and modern revelation clarify that God the Father is the proper object of worship.

True worshippers will worship God the Father both in spirit and in truth (see John 4:23–24; Alma 34:38). To worship in spirit is to worship with our whole heart. Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “Worship requires the wholehearted intent of a loving spirit.”[8] When the motivations behind our actions are rooted in something other than a love for God and his children, we are not worshipping him in spirit or in truth. To worship we must know the true nature of God and his character. Elder McConkie explained that “a knowledge of the truth is essential to true worship.”[9] Worship must include both elements, in spirit and in truth, to be true and saving worship. Therefore, worship implies action and involves diligence and obedience to the commandments of God. This leads us to emulate Christ, who gave us the perfect example of obedience. Christ’s example was an emulation of God the Father and showed us how Christ himself worshipped the Father (see John 5:19). Emulation and obedience are at the heart of worship.

Prayer or Worship

The doctrine of prayer enlightens our understanding of worship because it is often a part of and further defines our worship. Prayer and worship are often spoken of interchangeably in scripture. For example, Alma teaches the people on the hill Onidah that it was erroneous for them to suppose they could not worship their God because they had been cast out of the synagogues (see Alma 33:2), for they could pray to God anywhere (see vv. 4–11). He refers to a previous prophet, Zenos, who taught “concerning prayer or worship” (v. 3; emphasis added). Amulek also equates prayer and worship. He confirms Alma’s words by likewise listing the myriad places where prayer is appropriate (see Alma 34:20–26), exhorting the people to “continue in prayer unto [God]” (v. 19), and “when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually” (v. 27). Then Amulek concludes by telling the people, “Take upon you the name of Christ . . . and worship God, in whatsoever place ye may be in, in spirit and in truth” (v. 38; emphasis added). Similarly, in Doctrine and Covenants 18:40 we read, “And you shall fall down, and worship the Father in my name.” Psalm 95:6 invites, “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” These verses reflect the often synonymous nature of prayer and worship, which makes sense when we consider the instructions to both pray to and worship only the Father.[10] Prayer is one of the most basic and essential forms of worship.

The Role of Jesus Christ in Our Worship of the Father

Although we do not worship Jesus Christ the same way we worship the Father, our Savior plays an essential role in showing us how to worship the Father. As I began to understand that our worship should be focused on God the Father only and that Christ also taught this, I wondered if and how my relationship with Jesus Christ should be different from my relationship with the Father. After all, I have many of the same feelings towards Christ that I have toward God the Father. I love, honor, adore, praise, and appreciate the Savior. Is there a point at which these feelings and attitudes become improper worship if directed toward the Savior instead of the Father? And when the Son is so much like the Father as to be our instructive example of him, how are we to separate the feelings we have for one from those we have for the other? Do we need to? Similarly, how is one to understand scripture and modern-day prophets who talk of worshipping Christ?[11] For example, 2 Nephi 25:29 reads in part, “Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul.” Was Nephi confused about the principle of worship? These questions prompt serious reflection and study regarding the proper role of Jesus Christ in our worship of the Father.

An understanding of the important principles surrounding the essential role Jesus Christ plays in our worship of the Father is necessary for appropriate worship. First, Christ modeled the proper pattern of worship so that we could worship the Father by following Christ’s example. Second, we reverence God’s Son because of his role in the plan of salvation, but our reverence for the Savior becomes inappropriate when it begins to eclipse the Father. Third, we show appropriate reverence for our Savior by worshipping the Father in the name of the Son.

Christ modeled the proper pattern of worship. In his mortal life, Jesus Christ showed us who our Father is and how to worship him. Christ did this by emulating perfectly what the Father would do if he were among us. In giving us this perfect example, Christ worshipped his Father and was always careful to give due credit to the Father in all things. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Christ tells us that the record of John is given to us “that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness” (D&C 93:19; compare John 1:6–20).[12] The record of John, as cited by Christ himself, explains that Christ “received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness” (D&C 93:13). After quoting this portion of the record of John, the Savior tells us that we too are to progress from grace to grace. “For if you keep my commandments, you shall receive of [the Father’s] fulness; . . . therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace” (D&C 93:20). Commenting on these same verses, Elder McConkie taught that “Christ gained his salvation by worshipping the Father.”[13] The proper pattern of worship, as taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ, is to continue from grace to grace by keeping the commandments until we receive of the Father’s fullness.

Because Jesus Christ was perfect in following this pattern of worship, his mortal life shows us who our Father is and what he does. Indeed, everything Christ did was because of his experiences with God the Father. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise. For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth” (John 5:19–20). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland called Christ’s example “the perfect mortal manifestation of [God’s] grandeur.”[14] Later, Elder Holland movingly stated, “So feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rebuking hypocrisy, pleading for faith—this was Christ showing us the way of the Father. . . . In his life and especially in his death, Christ was declaring, ‘This is God’s compassion I am showing you, as well as that of my own.’”[15] Showing mankind the “character, perfections, and attributes”[16] of our God was essential for our salvation, for to inherit eternal life we must know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [he] has sent” (John 17:3). Christ’s perfect emulation of the Father opened the way for us to know our Father and was the ultimate expression of how to worship him (see John 14:6).

In giving us the perfect example of worship, Christ was always careful to give due credit to the Father in all things. Perhaps worried that we might misinterpret the purpose of his perfect example and mistakenly worship him, the Savior repeatedly emphasized that he was acting under the direction of the Father. “I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things” (John 8:28). “Whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me” (Mark 9:37). “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me” (John 7:16). “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38). Commenting on these words of the Savior, Elder Holland said, “When the praise and honor began to come, He humbly directed all adulation to the Father.”[17] Christ knew perfectly his role in his Father’s plan of salvation, he took care that we would not misunderstand the proper context of that role, and he always gave glory to the Father (see D&C 19:19).

We reverence God’s Son. We do not worship the Son of God as we worship God the Father, but we do reverence him and his name. It is inappropriate for our reverence of God’s Son to go beyond the mark in such a way that the Son begins to eclipse the Father. The moment this occurs, our reverence is misplaced. Our worship of the Father is enhanced as we reverence his Son, but any reverence or honor bestowed upon the Savior should be given in the spirit of worshipping the Father. Two principles help us to understand why we reverence but do not worship the Son. First, the Father and the Son have different roles in the plan of salvation. Second, the Son was sent by our Father and grew to become like him; the goal of the Son was to become like the Father.

We should study to understand the differing roles the Father and the Son play in the plan of salvation to better understand our relationship to each. The Father and the Son are similar, so similar that the Son is an appropriate and perfect example to teach us of the Father. We can love, honor, adore, praise, and appreciate both the Father and the Son. But to put it simply, the Son is not the Father. The Father is the creator of our spirits, our bodies, and the author of the plan of salvation.[18] The Son, by taking upon him the role of Redeemer, effectuates the Father’s plan of salvation.[19] A proper understanding of these roles does not diminish the Savior in our eyes, but leads to a deeper appreciation for the humility and love with which our Savior made it possible for us to follow in his footsteps and worship to become like our Father in Heaven.

The Son was sent by our Father and grew to become like him. Scriptures that speak of the relationship of the Son to the Father help us understand our proper relationship with each and why the word worship is sometimes used to describe our relationship to Jesus Christ. “All men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him” (John 5:23). The parable of the wicked husbandmen uses the word “reverence” to articulate a proper relationship with the Son. “But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son” (Matthew 21:37). The Son of God should be reverenced and honored as if he were the Father because the Father sent him. Because no word exists that properly differentiates worship of the Father from worship of (or reverence for) the Son, the word worship is sometimes used to refer to this honor and reverence given to the Savior as the Father’s representative. Elder McConkie addressed the seeming inconsistency between scriptural and prophetic uses of the word worship that speak of Christ as the object of worship and those that declare the Father as the only being to worship. He said, “I know perfectly well what the scriptures say about worshipping Christ and Jehovah, but they are speaking in an entirely different sense—the sense of standing in awe and being reverentially grateful to him who has redeemed us. Worship in the true and saving sense is reserved for God the first.”[20] We do not worship Christ, but we honor and reverence him.

The following example helps illustrate appropriate reverence and honor. Suppose a king sent a representative to administer relief and protection to a village within his kingdom. The representative is able to provide this relief only by using the king’s resources. The representative, who was taught and directed by the king, follows the king’s plan in administering to the needs of the villagers. The people are grateful to and honor the king’s representative for his help and the compassion he has shown in administering to their needs, but they understand that he is carrying out the directions of the king. It would be improper for the villagers to credit the representative wholly for their relief without acknowledging the role the king had in organizing, funding, and sending that relief. The representative could have done nothing without the king. Likewise, it would be improper for the representative to accept praise for deeds accomplished without acknowledging the king’s role.

This example, although imperfect, is instructive. It is fine for the people to reverence and honor the king’s representative so long as the people understand whom he represents and the role both the king and his representative played in providing relief. Similarly, it is appropriate for us to honor and reverence the Savior so long as we acknowledge whom he ultimately represents. We have deep gratitude for Christ’s role as Redeemer in the Father’s plan, but it would be improper for us to seek a special, personal relationship with him. That is to say, we should not seek a relationship with the Savior that supersedes our relationship with the Father.[21] Christ would not want this. In the words of Elder Holland, “Even as He acknowledged His own singular role in the divine plan, the Savior nevertheless insisted on this prayerful preamble: ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God.’”[22]

The role humbly and willingly assumed by our Savior helps us see who our Father is, what he is like, and how to carry out his plan. Our worship of the Father is enhanced as we reverence his Son, but any honor or reverence bestowed upon the Savior should be given in the spirit of worshipping the Father. In other words, when we emulate and worship the Savior, it should be because we are ultimately emulating and worshipping the Father who sent him.

We pray to God in the name of the Son. We worship God the Father in the name of the Savior. Christ taught us to pray to the Father in his name (see 3 Nephi 18:19; see also 2 Nephi 32:9; Moses 1:17) and to worship the Father in his name (see Jacob 4:5; 2 Nephi 25:16; D&C 20:29). We pray or worship in the name of Christ for the same reason that we call the Father’s gospel after the name of Christ: it is “to show that all of [the] terms and conditions [of the gospel] are put into operation because of his atoning sacrifice.”[23] Using Christ’s name is reverential and reminds us of his role in the plan of salvation. We pray directly to our Father and are invited to “come boldly unto the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) in the holy name of his Son who redeemed us.

The Center of Our Worship

Now that we know God the Father is the object of our worship and have explored our Savior’s role in that worship, how exactly should we worship? We have already answered this question generally: like the Savior, we worship the Father by emulation, progressing from grace to grace through obedience to his commandments. Diligence and obedience to the commandments of God changes our nature to become like God’s, so each commandment God has given us is an opportunity to worship and progress. That is why there are so many manifestations of worship. Forms of worship include, but are not limited to, prayer, service, sacrifice, music, and joining in fellowship with others. “Although there are actions that we associate with worship, no act constitutes worship unless it is accompanied by a particular state of mind, the attitude of worship.”[24] Our worship of the Father should center on our love for him and his children. We should also seek to cultivate an ever-present attitude of worship.

Furthermore, since worship is rooted in obedience to the commandments, Christ’s answer to the Pharisees, who asked him which commandment was the greatest in the law, is instructive. Jesus responded, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37–39). Because “all the law and the prophets” hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:40), our worship starts here. The best way we can follow Christ’s example and begin to worship the Father is by loving and serving him and our fellowmen. As we pray, wherever we may be, the enticings of the Holy Ghost will continue to lead us in our lifelong quest to put off the natural man (see Mosiah 3:19), change our nature, and become like God, our Father.


Proper worship is essential for God’s children to receive salvation. While we reverence both the Son and the Holy Ghost, the proper object of true and saving worship is God the Father. In exploring worship, we must differentiate between the common and scriptural usages of the term. The scriptures invite true worshippers to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” which, in its purest form, involves heartfelt emulation. Prayer is also an integral part of our worship. Jesus Christ plays a crucial role in our worship of the Father. We emulate God the Father best when we emulate his Son, because his Son provides the perfect example of who God the Father is and what he does. We appreciate and reverence the Son for the gift of this perfect example. Christ’s example of obedience to the commandments of God provides a guide for emulation, but we do not worship Christ the same way we worship the Father. Our ultimate goal is to receive the fullness of the Father. As we progress in our worship, our appreciation and reverence for our Savior will deepen. We will better comprehend God the Father, draw closer to him, and eventually be able to inherit eternal life, “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7). May we all increase the fervor and strength of our worship, for “true and perfect worship is in fact the supreme labor and purpose of man.”[25]


[1] Bruce R. McConkie, “How to Worship,” Ensign, December 1971, 129.

[2] The phrase “true and saving worship” is borrowed from Bruce R. McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord,” BYU 1981–1982 Speeches, 1. The entire devotional address gives great clarity to the concept of worship and is recommended for reading and study to anyone seeking a greater understanding of the subject. It was the springboard for many concepts put forth in this paper.

[3] McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord,” 2.

[4] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., “worship.”

[5] Merriam-Webster’s, “worship.”

[6] Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 4.

[7] Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, and Charles W. Penrose, “Only One God to Worship,” Improvement Era, April 1912, 483–85; emphasis added.

[8] Dallin H. Oaks, Pure in Heart (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 129.

[9] McConkie, “How to Worship,” 129.

[10] At first glance, the instance where the Nephites are found praying to Christ seems at odds with other divine instruction. However, the Savior distinguishes this event from usual practice by explaining, “They pray unto me because I am with them” (3 Nephi 19:22) and he had instructed them previously to “always pray unto the Father in my name” (3 Nephi 18:19; emphasis added).

[11] See 3 Nephi 11:17. Prophetic statements include the following: “I worship Him as I worship the Father, in spirit and in truth” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “In These Three I Believe,” Liahona, July 2006, 2); “They must know that the central figure in all of our worship is the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Welcome to Conference,” Ensign, November 1999, 4). “We worship God our Eternal Father and the risen Lord Jesus Christ” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “First Presidency Message: Joseph Smith Jr.—Prophet of God, Mighty Servant” Ensign, December 2005, 2).

[12] Note that the fullness of the Father and the presence of the Son are different. Compare the fullness of the Father (see D&C 76:50–70) to the presence of the Son (see D&C 76:71–79), and note especially verse 71 (“the terrestrial world . . . whose glory differs from that of the church of the Firstborn who have received the fulness of the Father”) and verses 76–77 (“These are they who receive of his glory, but not of his fulness. These are they who receive of the presence of the Son, but not of the fulness of the Father”), which clearly differentiate the two.

[13] McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord,” 4.

[14] Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Grandeur of God,” Ensign, November 2003, 70.

[15] Holland, “Grandeur of God,” 70.

[16] See Joseph Smith, comp., Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 38.

[17] Holland, “Grandeur of God,” 70.

[18] Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 63.

[19] McConkie, New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 65.

[20] McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord,” 2.

[21] McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord,” 8.

[22] Holland, “The Grandeur of God,” 70.

[23] McConkie, New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 65.

[24] Oaks, Pure in Heart, 128.

[25] McConkie, “How to Worship,” 129.