Until He Comes Again: A Journey Through The Reformed Liturgy

The very God who is all in all, who has revealed himself covenantally through creation and redemption, commands due worship. With human beings as God’s pinnacle creatures, worship actually tends to our greatest blessing and should be our greatest joy. We are to glorify God for his tremendous goodness and mercy and grace, and we are gifted the blessing of enjoying him forever.1 To not understand who God is and what he has done for sinful creatures and a corrupted cosmos would be an unthinkable mistake. We cannot mess this up, but we often do; and part and parcel of understanding the truth about God is also knowing and accepting how he is to be worshiped rightly.2 Not only may getting worship wrong produce a wrong understanding of who God is, but the improper worship of the one true and living triune God may also lend itself to the worship of no real god at all.

In this essay, I will attempt to lay out the importance of right worship theologically and within the context of a reformational liturgy—namely, a rightly ordered divine worship as found in the Reformation. The Reformers thought and wrote much about the importance of right worship. The sovereign Lord has revealed how we are to worship him, and we attempt to get this right each Lord’s Day. From start to finish, the people of God are called by God to worship, respond in praise and prayer, hear and see God’s Word to them, and are thereby strengthened and nourished with the blessings of the Lord. This order and structure in worship begins and ends with God—the Alpha and Omega of our joy. The Reformed churches today take worship very seriously, just as the early Reformers did, as will be shown here. There is a rich tradition to be explored alongside the Scriptures for our understanding and right practice of the worship of God.

Worship of the Triune God

The worship of God the Father in Christ Jesus the Son through the Holy Spirit must be done in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24).3 The Three-in-One shall be glorified and praised in accordance with divine command. John testifies that Jesus will no longer have worship confined to a place, a time, or a people; rather, worship will be widespread throughout all the nations (John 4:21–23). Here, Jesus has a greater, heavenly worship in view, where for God’s covenant people the spiritual takes precedent over the temporal and spatial. The “earthly” worship of the church is not dismissed but is elevated to unity with the saints who have gone before and the Lord’s host in the heavenly choir (Heb 12:1; Rev 5:13).4 This grand here-and-now and not-yet-perfected worship is to be issued forth to God in holy reverence and awe (Heb 12:28).

Just as the old covenant church, Israel, took seriously the worship of Yahweh, so too ought the new covenant church. The I Am of Moses and Abraham’s (yester)day is the same today and forever (John 8:58; Heb 13:8). Ever since the apostles and their subsequent, Spirit-spirated teachings, the assembly of God has sought to worship him rightly (Acts 2:42).

Development has occurred since those early times of the first century, but the foundations are the same. The church worships its creator, redeemer, and sanctifier through the Word of Truth, the visible Word in the sacraments, and the prayers.5 Through the apostolic teaching of the true Word of the true God and the administration of baptism and the Supper, the way of life is preached. By the praise of song in the body and the prayers of the saintly bride, worship comes before the throne of grace, traveling to the Father by the intercessory work of our High Priest through the Spirit of Truth.

Worship Based on Revelation

God has spoken, acted, and revealed. Worship must be based upon his revelation of himself. The Word is therefore central. There would be no way of knowing God or worshiping him if not for a word given to us by him. God spoke and creation was. God revealed to Adam and Eve their uprightness and their duty before him—otherwise they would not have known their high and esteemed status (WCF 4.2; 7.1–3; HC 6). God speaks to us, then acts on our behalf, and then teaches us why he has done what he has done. Knowing God and his Word is elemental to true worship. We know God through his Word. To quote Michael Horton, the first and second commandments of the Decalogue showcase this truth: “Worshiping the right God (i.e., Yahweh) is dependent on worshiping God in the right manner (i.e., giving ear to his Word).”6 God has taken steps as sovereign to ensure that his creatures know him and worship him rightly. It is in his Word to us that we discern his means of grace and the model for our prayers of supplication and song-filled thanks to him (WSC 88).

Liturgical Aim

Word, sacrament, prayers, and singing of God’s glory are vital to the Christian life and worship. The church catholic since her inception has thought long and hard about these issues of proper worship. The early church had two testaments from the Lord to inform their worship and doctrine. In the period of the Reformation, a return to such matters took precedence.7 The theology of scriptural worship was swirling about in the minds of the Reformers in the 1500s because the worship of God—the liturgy of the church—shapes the life of the church.8 The present church joins together with the heavenly host of redemptive history to praise their Savior within an eschatological cast.9 The liturgy displays the glory of God. The church is where God calls us to the Savior of the world and to learn of Jesus the Christ through the ongoing work of the life-giving Spirit (BC 28). In worship, the powers of the dark, passing age disappear in the light of the age to come. Horton describes the worship of God by the saints in this already/not-yet battle arena: “Every event where the Spirit mediates union with Christ through Word and sacrament is another violent disruption of the kingdom of evil, refusing to let death have the last word.”10 Through worship, the last enemy, death, is declared the loser, and Christ the victor is praised by his faithful, who in him have life.

Worship Is a Gift

Just as God’s salvific act comes to a person by a personal call giving them life, God also calls his people together on a sacred day of worship.11 Though the Christian life in its fullness is one of worship, there is one day set apart for the people of God to do this specially and in a manner God has commanded: the Lord’s Day Sabbath. On the Lord’s Day, the assembled people are gathered together by God’s call to worship—“Enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Ps 100)—and receive his gracious greeting. The Votum welcomes them into his house not built with hands. Horton gives an example from the churches of his association (URCNA): “Beloved people of God, receive God’s greeting: Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”12 Appropriately, God’s people invoke his name for continued mercy and grace, replying in dialogical communication to the descriptions of God’s glory and majesty, his love and forgiveness (the Psalms are more than fitting for invocation). In John Calvin’s famed liturgies, he would use Psalm 124:8, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”13

A scriptural exhortation then a song of praise shall follow our invoking cry to the Lord, alerting the people of God to ready their hearts and minds to receive from the Lord’s mouth. Calvin again is helpful here: “My brothers, let each of you present himself before the face of the Lord with confession of his faults and sins, following my words in his heart.”14 We are exhorted to be ready to hear God speak from his Word with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matt 22:37). This text from Matthew sums up the law, which ought to make up the first reading of Scripture following the exhortation and song, as a reminder that we are on holy ground (HC 4). For the reading of the law, the most common place to go in holy writ is the Decalogue, but other portions of Scripture regarding the perfect law of God are also appropriate (e.g., Lev 18:5; Mark 10:21). The law is good, holy, and righteous (Rom 7:12); but to wretched sinners, it is a terror. This reading of the law reminds us in the Reformed tradition of its third use, the rule of the Christian life for the believer.15

Nevertheless, we all fail, and so must confess our failure. Confession of sin follows the reading of the law in the worship of God. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Thank God for his faithfulness! So now we rejoice in the reading of the gospel found in both Old and New Testaments.16 God’s manifold promises resound upon the saint and sinner in Christ, especially in the absolution, or the pardon of sin. God’s Word declares it upon the adopted in Christ, and so the minister of the Word voices the same assurance upon God’s people in the worship service.17 “The absolution is a public declaration that God has forgiven our sins.”18

Having confessed our sins and received pardon from our God who has revealed his gospel favor towards us, an exhale of “Hallelujah” promptly follows—a praise to God, a doxological utterance of adoration for his goodness. Paired with our song of rejoicing, we confess our united faith in him. The historical, ecumenical creeds stand in perfect order here along with the confessions and catechisms of the Reformed tradition. These comprise our attempt to display the faith once for all delivered: we confess God as our Savior in Christ Jesus by the perfecting Spirit. We confess along with the one, holy, apostolic church catholic.

Up to this point in our worship liturgy, we have addressed God through his Word, confessed our faith in his promises, recited his truth for us to him and with one another. After our confession of faith comes prayer. (Rightly, the whole service should be engulfed in prayer.) The pastoral prayer, or congregational prayer (also known as the “Great Prayer”) follows suit.19 Here the minister intercedes for his flock and its needs, the community where the church resides, the nation, and the world beyond. The Lord’s Prayer is aptly recited to close this time of prayer in the assembly.

The Word Heard, Prayed, Preached, and Seen

Most Protestant churches of a twentieth-century flavor think that what comes after prayer in the liturgy is the main event: the Scripture reading before the sermon, together with the exposition of the text. But as we have seen, God’s Word to his people has already been on full display in the divine service of his worship up to this point. Nevertheless, this is God’s very Word; so after the Scripture is read—those verses which will be expounded upon by the minister—a prayer for the Spirit’s illumination in the hearts and minds of the hearers is offered, for the truth comes through hearing the Word of truth by the Spirit of truth (John 14:15–17; 16:13).

Faith comes by hearing the truth of Christ. Thus, this word is central. As already stated, however, God’s Word has permeated the whole of the service thus far (at least, it should have). Following the sermon, the next proper step in the worship of God is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper of grace. This is the penultimate foretaste of that blessed life we long for—when faith becomes sight. This already/not-yet communion of the saints together with their Lord previews the feast of the Lamb unto everlasting. Since Christ instituted this sacrament, it is his words of institution that are proclaimed. The penitent receive the distributed bread and wine, and with hearts of faith and thanksgiving, they feed on Christ’s body and blood through the Spirit.20

Prayer is offered to God for he has confirmed his promises to us in the sacrament. We have not only heard, but we have seen, touched, and tasted the gospel—the Lord is good! A psalm of thanksgiving and alms to God’s goodness is the gathered saints’ proper response. We can only give in love because God first gave of himself in pure love. Horton describes this liturgical crescendo ably:

Notice how this liturgical structure constitutes a play within a play, its own dramatic unity. It moves from invocation to confession, then to absolution and intercession; then the Word is preached and made visible in the Supper. God has been acting upon us, working repentance and faith in our hearts. What other response could we give than heartfelt gratitude and service to our neighbor in his name?21

Our grateful response to God’s gracious deliverance in Christ is not the last word, however.22 God has the final say, and it is his word of blessing. Most often, the Aaronic Benediction is a given here, but many other portions of Scripture are fitting. The Middleburg Liturgy provides Paul’s praise at the end of 2 Corinthians, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all. So be it.”23 The summary word from God to us is, “Go in peace.” Amen.

One note of absence in this liturgy communicated above is the initiatory sacrament of baptism.24 Though it is the conviction of many in the Reformed churches that the Lord’s Supper should be a normal part of Lord’s Day worship (i.e., regularly, such as weekly or monthly), baptism does not serve the body in the same way.25 There simply are not babies being born in any given church on a weekly basis. (Though, would that not be a blessing!) Likewise, there are not weekly incidents of non-believing visitors coming into our churches and the Holy Spirit applying Christ to them in new birth then and there. (Though, what a blessing that would be to see!) There would be, however, a strong desire to see baptism frequent the worship service as often as required to the glory of God. Christ is offered to all within God’s church, the household of faith.

Conclusion

Worship is commanded, but it is also our greatest blessing. Narrowly, the Supper is the foretaste of the eschaton; but broadly speaking, the whole of Lord’s Day worship is eschatologically freighted. God calls and gathers his people, much like that coming great day at the resurrection, where the church triumphant and militant meet as one forevermore. Until that day, we come with joyful hearts, seeking him, pleading for his forgiveness, desiring to be an obedient people reborn by the gospel—to live out who we truly are in Christ.

We hear his Word proclaimed to us and see his action vividly presented on our behalf. It is the Lord of Hosts that hosts his people in worship, calling us to himself on the day that he has made. We respond with thankful hearts and minds fixed upon him. His Word goes forth and does its work, never returning void. We receive with all our senses and are equipped to go about the rest of our week loving him and our neighbor until we gather again by his call. Our only response is to answer, Yes and amen, in Christ!”

From call to blessing, the Father in the Son through the Spirit has the first word and the last word. For worship’s concluding word, the benediction, Martin Luther would often finish the service with the Lord’s blessing utilizing Numbers 6:24–26 or Psalm 67:6b–7, saying afterward, “I believe that Christ used a blessing of this sort when he blessed his disciples as he ascended into heaven.”26 Though a fitting final word for the Christian Sabbath, we still anticipate the Word’s return at the everlasting Sabbath. Even so, he is with us always, even to the end of the age.

Notes

  1. Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms 1.
  2. Helpful here is the Heidelberg Catechism on the first four commandments of the Decalogue (HC 94–103). See also Westminster Confession of Faith 21.
  3. See R. Scott Clark for the compelling argument that “spirit and truth” should be capitalized as “Spirit and Truth,” invoking the idea that the worship of God can only be done rightly in the Holy Spirit and in Christ who is the Truth. Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 272–277.
  4. See Jonathan Gibson’s terrific essay, “Worship on Earth as It Is in Heaven,” in Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey, eds., Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 14–22.
  5. See again Acts 2:42. Within the Reformed Regulative Principle of Worship, these are considered the “elements” of worship, required in the service of God’s people. See also James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 588–602; Ed Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 126–136; Michael Horton, A Better Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 141–148; Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011), 49–53; Mark Earngey, “Soli Deo Gloria: The Reformation of Worship,” in Gibson and Earngey, eds., Reformation Worship, 28–45; Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, 229–230.
  6. Michael Horton, People and Place (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 60.
  7. For New Testament considerations for liturgy, see Allen Cabaniss, Pattern in Early Christian Worship (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989), 43–53.
  8. See the discussion in James Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 151–154.
  9. See Horton, People and Place, 290–307.
  10. Horton, People and Place, 285. There are helpful aspects of the eschatological import for worship in Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology, although, one must be privy to his abundant use of Roman Catholic categories, (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2011). Also, Horton, A Better Way, 125–140.
  11. Surely, the Christian life in its fullness is one of worship, but I assume that there is one day set apart for the people of God to do this specially and in a manner as God has commanded. On the Sabbath/Lord’s Day, see W. Robert Godfrey, “A New Translation of the Doctrinal Statement by the Synod of Dort on the Sabbath,” in Saving the Reformation (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2019), 239–240. See also the discussions in Jochem Douma, The Ten Commandments (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996), 138–146; Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 93–101.
  12. Horton, A Better Way, 149.
  13. From Calvin’s 1542 Geneva and 1545 Strasbourg liturgies. Bard Thompson, ed., Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1980), 197–198; Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, 281–284; Gibson and Earngey, eds., Reformation Worship, 307–308.
  14. Gibson and Earngey, eds., Reformation Worship, 308. Calvin referred to this as the “Confession” in his 1542 and 1545 liturgies, but it is the “Exhortation” from 1566 onward (306).
  15. For a concise description of the threefold use of the Law, see Philip S. Ross, From the Finger of God, (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2018).
  16. Indeed, turning to the New Testament will be often the “go-to” in this part of the service, but venturing into the Old Testament occasionally will benefit the congregation to see the unity of the Bible and the covenant of grace. Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession g, 200-201.
  17. See Martin Bucer’s absolution, or “word of comfort,” in Thompson, Liturgies, 170, and Calvin’s Strasbourg liturgy in Gibson and Earngey, eds., Reformation Worship, 309.
  18. Horton, A Better Way, 151.
  19. Horton, A Better Way, 155–156. See Calvin’s “Form of Ecclesiastical Prayers” in Gibson and Earngey, Reformation Worship, 311–316. Also see the Middleburg Liturgy in Thompson, Liturgies, 323–330.
  20. For an interesting look through some quotations on the Eucharist spanning the history of the church, see James F. White, Documents of Christian Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 180–213.
  21. Horton, A Better Way, 160.
  22. Horton, A Better Way, 160.
  23. Gibson and Earngey, eds., Reformation Worship, 661.
  24. Cabaniss, Early Christian Worship, 55–57; White, Documents of Christian Worship, 145–178.
  25. There are good Reformed arguments for various views on the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, weekly to once a month. The liturgy presented here has in view a weekly Lord’s Day observance. John Calvin favored weekly observance. Institutes, 4.17.46.
  26. Gibson and Earngey, eds., Reformation Worship, 90–91.

©Charles Vaughn. All Rights Reserved.


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  • Charles Vaughn
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    Charles lives in San Diego county with his wife and four covenant children. He has a B.A. in Biblical & Theological Studies from Regent University and an M.A. in both Biblical and Theological Studies from Westminster Seminary California. Charles works as a Junior High history teacher at a Christian school in Escondido, CA.

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2 comments

  1. Good Morning Mr. Vaughn,
    I appreciate the detailed study and presentation of the Reformed Liturgy which guides and provides our worship of our God whose Grace and Mercy we treasure. I also love the Reformed Liturgy, even though it is assailed by ‘renegade idols’ that have a hold on our hearts.

    As I read your essay, though, I was saddened not to hear the voice of one theologian and philologist missing from your study. The name this voice is Dr. Steve Baugh whose ‘little book’, ‘Majesty on High’, has helped me look at these last days with an Orthodox, Historical, Scriptural perspective – Christ’s completed work and His place at the right hand of God. Jesus Christ’s completed work inaugurated the Kingdom of God. John announced it. Jesus proclaimed it, was crucified, buried, resurrected and ascended. And after pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, the Kingdom of God was inaugurated. We now live in the Inaugurated Kingdom, preparing daily and rejoicing together through the liturgy on the 1st day of the week, His return to consummate His Kingdom.

    The reason I respond: Dr Baugh’s ‘little book’ helped me see Dispensational thinking (now/not yet) and replace this ‘flat reading of Scripture’ with the Truth of Scripture. In these Last Days it is clear Christ established His rule of the Kingdom of God over all His Creation in such a way that He allows his enemies to rebel until He puts each one under His feet. My worship of God is not in a ‘holding pattern’ any longer. I worship our true God all the more for His Son’s Perfect Obedience of Faith – His Righteousness imputed to us who believe.

    Because He rules the Inaugurated Kingdom of God I worship the Triune God. I am secure in The Power of the Promise of God to Abraham, who is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. I celebrate the Triune God’s Inaugurated Kingdom; now He has joined me to all believers, the ones whom He chose in Christ before the foundation of the world.

    I praise God for you, your work, your family, and your devotion to Him.

    • Hello Catherine,

      Thank you for your kind words. I too immensely enjoy Dr. Baugh’s book, “The Majesty on High.” It is indeed a great “little” book, packed with worshipful detail. In fact, while reading your comments, my mind went immediately to a favorite quote of mine, “We will not become heirs in the future––we are that now” (p. 140). Amen to that!

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