Reformed worship (1)

Today we begin a new series of posts in which we shall consider the broad subject of reformed worship and its place in our lives, particularly as Protestant Reformed young people and young adults. We hope to give special attention to way in which our churches worship and why our churches worship in such a manner. This is certainly a familiar topic to us all. It is something we emphasize and often talk about in our churches and schools, and so everything we shall consider here has already been presented better by others. However, if we know ourselves, we know that we are apt to forget. Frequent repetition and reiteration of familiar doctrines is a healthy habit for our spiritual lives. As a general introduction of sorts to the topic of worship, we shall consider in this post a few of the most fundamental principles of reformed worship and thus our worship as Protestant Reformed Churches. These principles are set forth most excellently in Calvin’s work The Necessity of Reforming the Church,[1] and so we shall consider them by way of Calvin’s treatment of them; for it must be said, Calvin has a way of articulating truth like no other.

To begin, one of the most important aspects of the Protestant Reformation was the thorough restoration of pure, biblical worship, which the reformers brought to the church of Christ. Throughout the middle ages the Roman Church continuously accrued more and more errors which disrupted every aspect of its life and worship. Particularly during the era of scholasticism Roman church men, who looked more to the Church fathers, to the papacy, and to Aristotle than to the Scriptures, invented all sorts of novel doctrines that became enshrined as official Roman Catholic teachings, and which were proclaimed to be doctrines, the belief in which was necessary for salvation. This trend of doctrinal creativity was enabled by the establishment of the papacy and the Roman magisterium, which made it possible for new doctrines to be developed and established as the infallible teachings of the church. By the time of the Reformation, the church had not only become corrupt with respect to its morals and institutional life, but even more severely it had completely buried the truth of the gospel under a mound of human inventions, and had thoroughly corrupted the worship of God with unbiblical ceremonies.

In context Calvin wrote this piece as an impassioned appeal to the Holy Roman emperor Charles V and the princes of Europe to give due consideration to the pressing need for reform in the church. The right and pure worship of God as well as its ordained mode was of immense importance to Calvin, indeed, it was so much so that he lists it, along with the question of the source of the Christian’s salvation, as one of the chief principles under which are comprehended all the facets of the Christian religion. Therefore, corrupt and polluted worship of God constitutes a destruction of the Christian faith itself, so serious is the profanation of the worship of God. Calvin first considers what he refers to as the due worship of God, that is, the worship which God commands His people to offer and the way in which Scripture enjoins Christians to perform it. It is God alone who defines what worship is, what its chief end is, and in what manner it is to be conducted. The chief foundation of worship is, Calvin writes,

to acknowledge Him to be, as He is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe to him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in Him alone, and in every want have recourse to Him alone (16.)

The chief principle of Reformed worship which Calvin sets forth is that worship must be performed solely for the glory of God. This is the controlling principle which governs all of the right worship of God, and it is out of this that all the other aspects of worship flow. From this principle arise true thanksgiving, praise, and adoration; and to this end all the external ceremonies must be helpful and subservient. In connection to this principle and following from it, Calvin presents the second chief principle of true worship, namely that it performed according to the rule of Scripture. Since God alone is entitled to prescribe how He Himself ought to be worshipped, and thus determines the way and manner in which divine worship is to be conducted, it follows that men are not free to innovate and customize their worship services as they see fit. The sinful human nature is ever predisposed to invent new and fictitious forms of worship which detract from God’s glory and serve to aggrandize man and to fulfill his own sinful lusts. Calvin writes:

For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to His own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish His authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on His sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray (17.)

Here Calvin establishes the regulative principle of reformed worship, the principle that everything that is not expressly commanded by Scripture is forbidden. This is the only sure safeguard against man’s propensity for corrupting the worship of God and turning that worship into something which glorifies himself rather than the Lord. Mere human worship is vanity, for it is not performed in spirit and in truth and in conscious obedience to God. Thus true worship of God can only be that worship which follows the explicit guidelines set forth by scripture; and conversely all forms of worship that are not overtly sanctioned by the Word of God are disapproved of God and ought to be rejected. With regard to the worship of the Roman church of his day, Calvin maintains that nothing remained but “mere corruption,” so thoroughly had the extravagancies and empty ceremonies of the Roman rites displaced the pure worship of God. No regard was paid to the way God commanded worship to be conducted, rather the Roman church assumed the most liberal license in introducing modes of worship into the church all the while divorcing them from faith and the Word of God. This was particularly the case with the sacraments. Baptism was stripped of its true significance as a sign and a seal of the washing with Christ, which the child of God receives, and was embellished with all sorts of fanciful additions. Even more so, the Lord’s Supper, which rather than a solemn commemoration of the death of Christ, was reinvented into the mass and made a theatrical ceremony of bloodless sacrifice. All of the Roman rites served to divorce the people from God and “like specious masks” to hide the inward evil of their hearts (53). In this way Calvin illustrates how ruinous it is for the worship of God to depart from Scripture’s injunctions. Reform of the church’s worship is greatly needed, and such reform must proceed in diligent observance of the Scriptural prescriptions for worship.

Our writings are witnesses, and our sermons witnesses, how frequent and sedulous we are in recommending true repentance, urging men to renounce their own reason and carnal desires, and themselves entirely, that they may be brought into obedience to God alone, and live no longer to themselves, but to Him. Nor, at the same time, do we overlook external duties and works of charity, which follow on such renovation. This, I say, is the sure and unerring form of worship, which we know that He approves because it is the form which His word prescribes, and these the only sacrifices of the Christian church which have sanction (42.)

Finally, Calvin emphasizes that the true worship of God, worship that is in accordance with the ordinances of the Word of God ought to be simple and pure. The extravagancies and inventions of men have no place in the services of the church. God is not impressed with outward show, with gestures, and ceremonies. The Roman church had progressively embellished the worship services of the church with innumerable innovations. In accordance with his regulative principle of worship, Calvin maintains that all such things must be removed. They have no ground in Scripture, and rather than directing the attention of the people to the high things of God, they instead cause them to become enamored with the pomp and splendor of the service. When the prescribed simplicity of worship is ignored, man inevitably turns the worship of God into the worship of man. The reformation’s restoration of the simplicity of worship was indeed a restoration of the pure and unpolluted worship which God desires from His people.

These three principles as articulated by Calvin are part of our inheritance from the reformation. They are among the most important principles which govern how we worship God in our own denomination of churches. We stand in a deep-seated and historic tradition, and as such, each element of our worship services is deliberate and designed for the faithful and true worship of God. There is some similarity between Calvin’s situation and our own, for today we witness an extraordinary amount of innovation in the worship of the broader church world. Today, churches feel free to add all sorts of man-made elements into their services. Is this permissible?  We in the reformed tradition emphatically answer that it is not! However these issues must wait for another time.


[1] All quotes are taken from the 1995 edition, published by Protestant Heritage Press.

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