What We Can Learn from Reformation Worship and Liturgies

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Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present is a resource of almost unparalleled richness in its field, representing an immense labor of love on the part of its editors and translators. It gathers together liturgies crafted by some of the leading figures in the Protestant Reformation and employed by them to aid worship in a wide variety of places and churches.

We owe an immense debt of gratitude to those who have participated in this project. They would, I feel sure, tell us that the best way we can repay that debt is to read carefully, to assess biblically, and then to reach down into the first principles of worship variously expressed in these liturgies from the past, and apply them wisely and sensitively in our worship in the present. This can only lead to a new reformation of the worship of God the Trinity.

Such access to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit can alone help the congregations of God’s people, in the place and time they occupy, to worship with renewed mind, transformed affections, and holy joy.

Importance of Worship

Reformation Worship is an important book for several reasons.

The first—so obvious that we might not underline it sufficiently—is that it gives impressive testimony to the way the reformers in various countries devoted so much attention to the subject of worship. They well understood that the rediscovery of the gospel and the reformation of worship were two sides of the same coin, because sung praise, confessions of sin and faith, prayer, and the reading and preaching of Scripture are but various aspects of the one ministry of the Word.

For that reason, the reformers regarded the liturgies that framed the church’s worship as being an important aspect of the application of Scripture. An order of service could not therefore be simply thrown together casually. It might belong to the adiaphora; but “things indifferent” are never to be treated with indifference to the general teaching of Scripture (as the Westminster Divines would later make clear, WCF 1.6).

The integration between gospel rediscovery and worship transformation was made clear by John Calvin, when, in 1544 (and still in his mid-30s), he wrote The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Penned in preparation for the Imperial Diet at Spires, he prefaced his tract with a “Humble Exhortation to the Emperor, Charles V,” in which he tellingly wrote:

If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, [namely], a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshiped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain. . . . If any one is desirous of a clearer and more familiar illustration, I would say, that rule in the church, the pastoral office, and all other matters of order, resemble the body, whereas the doctrine which regulates the due worship of God, and points out the ground on which the consciences of men must rest their hope of salvation, is the soul which animates the body, renders it lively and active, and, in short, makes it not to be a dead and useless carcass.

As to what I have yet said, there is no controversy among the pious, or among men of right and sane mind.

What is immediately striking here is not only the combination of fundamentals—worship and gospel—but the fact that the former is given pride of place, perhaps because the first fruit of rightly understanding the gospel is true worship. It is that important.

For this reason, we ought not to devalue the contents of this book by treating them as a kind of liturgical archaeological dig, the concern only of those who are interested in antiquities or aesthetics. For these liturgies were crafted out of a passion for the glory of God.

And while this compilation is not formulated as a tract for the times, it carries an important and powerful message for the contemporary church.

Active Participation in Worship

The 16th-century reformers shared a deep underlying concern that late medieval worship had become a kind of spectator event. The congregation was largely passive.

“Worshipers,” if they could be thus described, were essentially observers of the drama of the Mass, and listeners to the words of the choir. The service of divine worship was not an event in which the congregation were participants so much as spectators.

The “quality” of worship was therefore measured not by the holy joy of the worshipers but by the standard of the music, the excellence of the singing of the choir, the aesthetic impressiveness of the drama of the Mass, with its vestments, bells, incense—and, of course, its Latin. Worship was, for all practical purposes, done for you—vicariously.

All this the Reformation transformed into the active participation and understanding of the individual worshiper and the congregation, praying and singing (as well as listening to the Word and seeing and receiving the Sacraments), with both the mind and the spirit.

Asking Fundamental Questions

It’s tempting to think that such a reformation is needed again in an age when church consultants assess “the quality of morning worship” (a task one would have thought beyond the wit of anyone but its Divine Recipient). Is our gaze being set horizontally, more so than vertically, and has our desire ceased for the Isaiah-like or John-like experience of being laid prostrate and undone in hand-over-the-mouth adoration?

How different was Paul’s perspective on worship from ours:

If . . . an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted . . . he is called to account . . . the secrets of his heart are disclosed and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Cor. 14:24–25)

Whatever lacunae in the churches’ traditional liturgy that contemporary worship has rushed in to fill, the modern “worship revolution” has usually paid scant attention to this vision of worship. The kind of questions that drove the reformers do not drive us:

  • “How has God revealed to us what his pleasure is in worship?”
  • “How can we work that out in practical terms in our own congregations, so that everything is done for the glory of God and the edification of the saints?”

When we fail to ask these fundamental questions, and consequently do not probe Scripture to find answers, our approach to worship (that is, to God) will be in danger of becoming simply pragmatic, even a relatively thoughtless imitation of “what works,” or even seems “cool” in some other church.

To give one example, it is rarely noticed that even such an apparently well-meant and innocent change from having the words we sing printed in psalm- and hymn books to showing them on large screens can easily produce unanticipated effects. Rather than achieving the goal of “edification” the result is often to its detriment.

Thus, for instance, the young Christian sees only one verse of the hymn or song on the screen; the flow of the whole is lost; he, or she, does not know whether a psalm, a hymn, or a spiritual song is being sung. And, to boot, contemporary worshipers are unlikely to know virtually by heart—as their grandparents did—many of the 150 psalms, with both their praises and laments, plus many paraphrases of Scripture, and hundreds of other hymns written by men and women whose literary skills and theological acumen were, to say the least, impressive by comparison with ours.

And what young person today, taking a new interest in the Christian faith, in the worship he or she attends, learns by heart in a matter of weeks, almost effortlessly, a summary of the Christian faith such as the Apostles’ Creed, which enables him or her to state the fundamental truths of the gospel for the first time?

We’re all familiar with “Jeroboam the son of Nebat who caused Israel to sin.” But it is all too easy to forget that the Old Testament also introduces us to the sin of “Rehoboam, the son of Solomon” who, accepting the counsel of his peers rather than exploring the wisdom of the past, led Israel into disaster.

In such a culture the liturgies presented in this book may seem like a cold shower in the morning; but cold showers can be wonderfully reinvigorating. It is usually not the fault of the individual whose whole life has been a diet of popular music that he or she regards it as both the normal and the preferable.

But if perchance a classical music radio station is discovered, and an entry is made into the world of Bach and Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Handel, a new taste for richness and depth develops, and a world is discovered that is both more nourishing and more satisfying.

So it is with the old liturgies that give shape and flow and rhythm to our worship.

Let Us Worship God

This isn’t a plea for a wooden adopting, or a slavish imitation, of any or all older liturgies; nor is it an intimidating and metallic insistence that we should use them today “because the reformers used them.” That could—and almost certainly would—have a deadening effect on our worship. Most of us do not live on the continent of Europe, and none of us lives in the 16th century.

Our greatest need is for worship in Spirit as well as in truth today. But older liturgies should stimulate us to careful thought, and cause us to ask how we can apply their principles today in a way that echoes their Trinitarian, Christ-centered, biblically informed content, so that our worship, in our place and time, will echo the gospel content and rhythm they exhibit.

This is no easy task, and it requires wisdom, tact, sensitivity, and careful communication of principles and goals. But it’s also true that, at the end of the day, people tend to learn and to grow as much by experience as by verbal instructions. They need to sense and taste the help and the value of a better way. And since their appetite may have been blunted by a diet of modernity, it’s important to advance little by little.

Nor must we forget the Reformation keys: the centrality of Scripture and its exposition, the focus on Christ, the wonder of grace, the need for faith, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the desire for the glory of God alone. For without these realities, at the end of the day, our worship may be ordered by the finest of liturgies and yet be stone-cold dead, lacking the holy power of the presence of God.

Worship involves first and foremost God’s welcome of us, not our welcome of each other.

In my childhood, virtually every service of worship began with the same words: “Let us worship God.” One hears them rarely now. They have been ousted by various forms of words that functionally mean “Let us be comfortable” or “Let us welcome you.” Our welcome should indeed be warm and real.

But worship is drawing near to the Holy One; his presence effects a sense of solemn joy, and of densely humbling awe. It is this that creates our overwhelming sense of privilege that he welcomes us into his presence. For worship involves first and foremost God’s welcome of us, not our welcome of each other.

We need to return to this perspective of the Bible and the Reformation. This exceptional collection of liturgies points us in the right direction. In the hands of anyone who uses it well and wisely, it will surely be a benediction to the church.

Editors’ note: 

This is the adapted preface of Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey (New Growth Press, 2018).

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