What is Reformed Worship? (IV) It is Covenantal

Jesus changed everything. His coming turned the world upside down: the poor became rich, the blind were given sight, the lame were made to walk, the mute were restored to sing, the outcast was welcomed, the weary were given rest. Because of what He accomplished, we now have free access into the very presence of God (Eph. 2:11–22; Heb. 10:19– 22). Our worship, then, is a direct result of the Gospel.

Christians Need the Gospel Too

As a community of faith, we gather each and every week to hear the evangel, that is, the good news of the gospel. True evangelical, gospel-centered worship publicly portrays Jesus Christ in His saving work before the people of God (Gal. 3:1). Because the gospel has center stage, all worship is evangelistic. God’s covenant people build up in their faith while the Spirit of the Lord draws unbelievers into the community. The gospel is not just the part of the sermon in which the pastor seeks a decision from the audience. The entire worship service preaches Christ! This is one of the reasons for public confession and absolution. As one writer commented upon the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, “Cranmer placed confession at the beginning to remind us that we are gospel people.” This was the Reformed liturgical way of expressing justification by faith alone.

Evangelism by Being Church

The Scriptures clearly envision that the center of the local church’s evangelistic ministry is not found in “planned” activities such as passing out tracts, street-witnessing, VBS, or any other program, as helpful as these may be, but in the public worship of the Triune God of grace. I am convinced that if we as Reformed people start to view worship as the central theme of who we are, then things like evangelism will not be ominous topics, but the effects of what we already are and do. After all, even Calvin himself spoke of worship, not even the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as the most important part of the Reformation work of the sixteenth century in his 1544 treatise to Charles V, The Necessity of Reforming the Church. The voluminous material of such men as Martin Bucer and Thomas Cranmer advocates and defends the Reformed conception of worship as the distinguishing mark of the Reformed churches.

Think of public worship as the hub of a bicycle’s wheel. From the hub, all the spokes go out and receive strength to do what they are supposed to do. Worship is like that hub. From it everything else goes out – such as private and family prayer, reading of Scripture, fulfilling your calling in life, fellowship together as believers, assurance of salvation, good works, and evangelism in the world.

Israel and the Temple

Beginning with the call of Abram, the LORD brought salvation to one family and through him, one nation of the nations of the earth. Thus, the history of Israel was very exclusive. Of course, God had a purpose in working this way. It was to bring to the world the Messiah.

With the command to construct the Tabernacle, the LORD localized His gracious presence in the midst of His peculiar people (Ex. 25-31, 35-40). After entering the land of promise, the LORD commanded one central, permanent location in which to “put His name” (Deut. 12:5). The holy place of worship was not just in the midst of the people as they wandered in the wilderness, but now it had a permanent place in the midst of the holy land. Therefore, we read of this exclusivity in words such as, “In Judah God is known; His name is great in Israel. His abode has been established in Salem, His dwelling place in Zion” (Ps. 76:1-2). We also read verses that extol the LORD for His exclusive work among the nation of Israel: “He declared His word to Jacob, His statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know His rules. Praise the LORD!” (Ps. 147:19-20)

The Prophets and the Temple

With the coming of the latter prophets, the outlook of Israel and her worship is expanded to be inclusive of the nations. Their anticipation was that on the horizon a day would come in which the efficacious grace of the Holy Spirit would go out from Israel, for salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), to the entire earth (Joel 2) and people from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation would worship the LORD who had redeemed Israel, and created them.

Central to this universal outlook of worship was the fact of the centrality of the temple in the center of Zion, which was also envisioned as being in the center of the earth. This is explained in Isaiah 2:2-4, when, “In the latter days” (a prophetic phrase that tells us he is speaking of the New Covenant), the “mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains” (v. 2).
The “high places” in Scripture, of course, are where the nations built their altars and temples to their gods because the tops of mountains were closer to heaven. Yet in Isaiah 2 the vivid imagery is of Mount Zion being elevated above all other mountains. This meant to convey that a day would come when the nations, not just Israel, would see the LORD of this holy mountain and come to Him, the King of kings and Lord of lords. And so Isaiah wrote, “all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways…” (vv. 2-3). Something new would happen “in the latter days” as the unclean nations would go up to the dwelling place of the LORD, the place they formerly were not admitted; and be taught by the LORD Himself.

In Isaiah 56:6-8 the LORD says He would gather the outcasts into His holy mountain and accept their sacrifices and prayer, for “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (v. 7). A day would come in which the priests of the LORD would not be from one family line of one tribe of the nation of Israel, but from all peoples who previously were excluded.

The attraction that would draw the nations to the temple would be the LORD Himself and His Word. The nations would be drawn to Zion’s worship and through it, to Zion’s LORD. This was a revolutionary way of thinking and a radical shift of how Israel had operated. A day would come in which the enemies of the LORD, Egypt and Assyria, those who made the Israelites their captives in a foreign land, would bring sacrifices and prayer to the altar of the LORD (Isaiah 19:18-23)! A day would come when those who were far off would be brought near (Eph. 2:13) and they would all sing in the language of Zion as the one people of the LORD. As the prophet Zephaniah said, “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve Him with one accord” (Zeph. 3:9). The Church, by being Church, would be the means of the LORD’s salvation in the last days. And it would be the Church as it was inspired by the means God had provided that would be attractive. When the Church becomes like the world, adopting the world’s message and methods, its power is lost. We have to remember that the Church is in antithesis to the world, and when that dividing line is blurred, a worldly church results.

In the last days, the days our Lord ushered in, the Gentiles would not only be converted but they would join the people of God in worship, drawing near to the temple and offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. And the means by which they would come to the LORD was through the worship of the LORD. Evangelism would be firmly fixed to corporate worship.

The Songs of the Temple

Far from being just a far off theory or prophecy, that had no immediate relevance for the common worshipper in the pew, this outlook of the Gentiles joining the Jews in worship was a part of the piety, prayers, and corporate songs of the people in worship. Israelites not only heard this truth, they sang it and longed for it.

Throughout the Psalter this hope is expressed in song. The sons of Korah sang of this day when they harmonized that the LORD, the Most High, who is to be feared above all because he is the King of all the earth, would sit upon his throne and be approached in worship by “the princes of the peoples” who would be “as the people of the God of Abraham” (Ps. 47:9).

The shortest of the Psalms, Psalm 117, opens by saying, “Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol Him, all peoples!” (v. 1) It is amazing that this is one of the Hallel Psalms, which are those Psalms traditionally sung at the Passover feast. It is as if the Israelites were singing, “The LORD has brought us out and now it is your turn!” Even more telling is verse 2. After calling the nations to worship the LORD, verse 2 gives the reason why: “For great is His steadfast love toward us.” The Lord keeps His covenant with His people, and we are to sing to Him for that; as well. That is a reason to call the nations to experience this same covenant love.

Psalm 96 addresses the covenant people; yet notice how its focus moves from Israel (“Oh sing to the LORD a new song,” v. 1) to the nations (“sing to the LORD, all the earth,” v. 1), from the covenant community to the communities of the earth. This is a call to worship that extends to all mankind, for the chief end of man, not just our cozy congregations, is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 1).

The Psalmist calls all people to sing this new song of the new age unto LORD because of who the LORD is. He is glorious (v. 3), He has done marvelous deeds (v. 3), He is great (v. 4), He made all things (v. 5), He is known for His splendor, majesty, strength, and beauty (v. 6). Notice how verses 2-3 link this worship of this all-glorious and majestic LORD with evangelism. Synonymous with singing this new song is “tell[ing] of His salvation from day to day” and “declar[ing] His glory among the nations, His marvelous works among all peoples.” As we sing to the LORD in heaven for all He has done we are imploring the nations to join us and ascend the heavenly mountain in worship.

We see this in all the imperative verbs in this Psalm: sing (v. 1), bless (v. 2), tell (v. 2), declare (v. 3), ascribe (vv. 7, 8), bring (v. 8), come (v. 8), worship (v. 9), tremble (v. 9), say (v. 10), be glad
(v. 11), roar (v. 11), exult (v. 12). It is as if the Psalmist were saying, “In every way you know bring the nations before the LORD with you in worship.”

What we are talking about here is what has been called “doxological evangelism,” that is, worship that is so focused upon the beauty and worthiness of God that it inevitably is also evangelistic.

New Testament Fulfillment

We see this nexus between worship and evangelism clearly illustrated in the New Testament. In Acts 2:5 we see those who had gathered to worship according to the Old Covenant feast of Harvest, but who did not yet believe in Jesus Christ, hearing the mighty works of God in the praises and proclamations of the disciples in the Upper Room. As the church extols and lifts up the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the nations are drawn to the Lord through We may not be so affected by this Russell St. John
their praise and adoration.

Even more, the apostle Paul speaks in this way in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, where he is correcting error in the Corinthian church. What is important to recognize for our thesis of worship being evangelistic is that Paul assumes the unbeliever, the outsider, would be in the midst of the covenant people in worship. What he points out so clearly is that the worship of the church must be intelligible. The gift of prophetic preaching in the language of the people was more to be desired than that of speaking in foreign languages. In this way the unbeliever who comes into our midst will clearly understand what is going on, who God is, and where he stands before Him. The result would be that he would be without excuse and fall down and confess the Lord’s presence among His people (cf. Zech. 8:23).

Two Extremes

This is the biblical picture of evangelistic worship, which steers us clear of two problematic views of worship in our day. On the one hand, there is the seeker-sensitive approach in which worship is seen as evangelism. Thus, everything is calculated to make the unbeliever feel comfortable. Services sing modern rock songs or praise songs set to rock tunes, because they are familiar, the “preaching” is focused on how to live successful lives, and all types of activities abound to get children into the church. Yet this view of worship does not build up the saints, who are simply there to bring unbelievers.

We may not be so affected by this view, but with the second we are. In Reformed churches, we tend to treat worship as edification and instruction of the saints. We think it is only for the covenant community and so we view our worship service as if only believers were there. What happens in this understanding is that the lost in our midst are bored and do not understand what is going on.

What are we to do to both instruct the believer and lead the unbeliever to Christ in our worship at the same time? As Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, says,

If the Sunday service aims primarily at evangelism, it will bore the saints. If it aims primarily at education, it will confuse unbelievers. But if it aims at praising the God who saves by grace, it will both instruct insiders and challenge outsiders. Good corporate worship will naturally be evangelistic.

Rev. Daniel Hyde is the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.

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