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Blog #5 Reformed Worship

Reformed Worship


The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther amid his protests against abuses within the church. Being fundamentally conservative, he felt the need for the church to revisit and refurbish genuine Christian beginnings. He was unwilling to and disputed any notion to disturb the faithful with new radical innovations.[1] Luther himself composed a liturgy, German Mass and Order of Divine Service, that broke with the practice of using Latin. He altered the canon to exclude any suggestion of sacrifice and encouraged the education of the Scripture and God’s Word for all.[2] Although conservative in nature, the Lutheran liturgy is rich in the use of symbolic action and vestments. Regarding worship, Luther believed that anything is permitted if Scripture does not condemn it, a stance which became known as the Normative Principle. Luther asserted “that God had given man five senses with which to worship Him and that it would be sheer ingratitude to use less.”[3]

While Luther will allow what is not condemned by the Scriptures, John Calvin will allow only what is ordained by God in the Scriptures, a fundamental difference. Calvin regarded the Bible as authoritative in doctrine, government, and worship. He believed that if the Bible was indeed the revealed will of God, then only Biblical ordinances could be acceptable; therefore, rendering extra-biblical additions contemptible. Calvin’s objections to human additions were rooted in the idea that man was essentially corrupt and, therefore, “his own ideas of what constituted correct worship were vitiated by his sinfulness.”[4]

 Like Luther, John Calvin also prepared a service of worship. He provided liturgy for the Reformed churches in Geneva. Calvin’s liturgy included a public confession of sin, pastoral absolution, a reading of the Ten Commandments to remind the participants of the moral will of God, a congregation song, a prayer for the grace of the Spirit of God as he preached the Word of God, a reading of the biblical text and an exposition of the text, the Lord’s Prayer, an additional paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, and the congregational recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. The liturgy focused on the Word of God. The Lord’s Supper was only celebrated once a quarter in Geneva. 

Calvin forged what is generally referred to as the Regulative Principle for worship, which should be viewed against the backdrop of the Roman Catholic church and its elaborate ceremonies and rites. “The rule that distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application, in order that we may not adopt any device that seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunction of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have Him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. 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.” [5] Calvin proposed the regulative principle in order (1) to establish the sovereign God’s authority and (2) to help the church avoid presumptuous and superstitious worship.[6]

In terms of application, Calvin prohibited the use of choirs, musical presentations, and musical instruments in public worship, which put him at odds with the Old Testament pattern of worship. However, the Regulative Principle would continue to be highlighted and developed over the next several centuries.[7]

 In 1647, the Westminster Confession of Faith confirmed the fundamental components of the Regulative Principle and how it should govern the church’s worship of God. The Confession addresses two main points: First, all worship is either based directly on Scripture or is logically deducible from Scripture. Second, there are circumstances common to any human society that are not subject to explicit commands but rather to general conformity to the Word and reasonableness.[8] Generally speaking, the only acceptable way of worshiping the true God is by what He, Himself has instituted and what is limited by His revealed will. Man is not to worship according to his imaginations or any way that is not prescribed by the holy Scripture.[9]

The Confession provides specifics, such as “prayer with thanksgiving…the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word…singing psalms with grace in the heart…the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God.”[10] According to Chapter 21, Section 1 of the Confession, it is an offense and a sin to neglect to worship or to attempt to serve Him in any manner not prescribed. “We have in no case any right, upon the ground of taste, fashion, or expediency, to go beyond the clear warrant of Scripture.”[11]


Footnotes: [1] White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 107. [2] Allison, A History of Worship, 30. [3] Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (New York: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 17. [4] Pinson, Perspectives on Christian Worship, 19. [5] John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Audubon, N.J.: Old Paths, 1994), 6. [6] Ibid. [7] Allison, A History of Worship, 53. [8] R.J. Gore, Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 26. [9] Terry Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That is According to Scripture (Darlington, CO: Evangelical Press, 2015), 34. [10] Ibid., 44. [11] Reisinger and Allen, Worship: The Regulative Principle and the Biblical Practice of Accommodation, 25.

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