What Does It Mean to Be Reformed? Part 1: Worship

As I sit in my study gathering a few books to do some reading and writing, I am reminded of what I have on my wall. I have pictures of each of my children scattered throughout my bookshelves. I have a picture of my dear wife on my desk. But there are some old dead men also looking down at me. As was the fashion in those days, none of them are smiling, and yet each of them lived with joy in their hearts. The six photos I am referring to are by order of birth: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Kuyper, and Bavinck. What those pictures remind me of is the fact that we are not new on the scene. We have fathers (and mothers) of the faith who have gone before us. Hebrews 12 speaks of a great cloud of witnesses. Those men are part of that cloud, and that doesn’t even include the martyrs, those who were witnesses also by their death. What did those men stand for? What did those martyrs die for? Wasn’t it for glory of God? Yes, and that is the theme of the Reformation: Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone).

A Reformed Dilemma?

We live in a time of growing tensions as churches. Professor Michael Horton describes it this way: “Here is the dilemma. There are many churches these days that instead of reaching the unchurched are unchurching the churched.”1 We seek to be God-honoring congregations and Christians who love our neighbors and welcome them into our congregations. We seek to focus on missions all the while not wanting to alienate the saints. I am convinced that an understanding of who we are in Christ and what this looks like applied to every sphere of life will help safeguard us from the pitfall of this dilemma. It isn’t a matter of either/or, either we are missional or we are doctrinal, but a both/and, we can be both missional and theologically sound. In fact, proper theology drives Christian living. The motto is fitting: orthodoxy (right worship and thought) produces orthopraxy (right living).

A Few Terms

In this series of articles, I will seek to answer the question of what it means to be Reformed. There are books upon books written on each of the subjects I plan to cover (worship, kingdom/lordship, evangelism, salvation, work, school/education, home). This is not nearly exhaustive.

The term I am using for these articles is the term “Reformed.” I am going to capitalize it to show that Reformed believers and churches flow from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. It is synonymous with Calvinism, but with less potential hagiographical baggage. The man we follow is Christ! In the days of the Reformation and the decades that followed, the Reformed churches were also synonymously called evangelical. They recovered the gospel, the good news that had been hidden in Latin Masses and under ceremonies and relics. Reformed is an old name used by Erasmus, Calvin, Beza, the Arminians (in 1611) and since.2

A final caveat is to recognize from the beginning that we are looking at distinctives. At times distinctives, when separated from the gospel, can divide Christians. But gospel-driven distinctives3 bring together those committed to the conviction that the Scriptures are truly the inspired Word of God.

Why Are We Here?

God has made us to worship. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the beautiful question, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”4 God made us as worshipping beings. Dr. James K. A. Smith has done some wonderful work by arguing that we are more than simply thinking beings or even believing beings. He argues that we are loving beings.5 God made us to be lovers. When our wills are rightly oriented, we seek to heed the two great commandments that our Saviour taught us that summarize morality: Love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:37–40).

God created heaven and earth for his own glory. He made human beings in his own image and likeness so that he might be praised by his creation. The Psalms are filled with praise to God. This is why they have become so dear to God’s children; they may pray them, sing them, meditate upon them, memorize them. They instruct us in worship. There are two focuses of worship for the Christian. The narrow aspect of worship refers to corporate worship and the broader focus of worship involves all of life.

Corporate Worship

A highlight of each week is the opportunity to worship God with his people on the Lord’s Day. Christians around the world gather on the same day to sit under the Word. However, not all worship is rightly ordered. Part of the need to break from the Roman Catholic Church in the days of the Reformation was because of corrupted worship. The Reformers, by God’s grace, restored biblical worship to its central place in the lives of believers. So, what is it that makes worship Reformed?

Regulative Principle of  Worship

However it is defined, the regulative principle of worship (RPW) is encapsulated in the Heidelberg Catechism’s treatment of the second commandment. God’s will for us in the second commandment is that we not “worship him in any other way that has been commanded in God’s Word.”6 Though the Scriptures do not give us a detailed liturgy of everything that happens in worship, it does give us the elements and essential principles so that our worship is pleasing to the Creator.

This was an obvious break with the Roman Catholics and their idolatrous worship, but even among the Calvinists and the Lutherans this was a disagreement. The examples in the Scriptures of false worship are humbling. What is learned from Nadab and Abihu, Elijah versus the prophets of Baal, the regulations for the temple and tabernacle and feasts show how seriously and central worship is to the Creator God in his covenant relationship with his people. He is a jealous God (Ex. 20:5).

The elements that God prescribes for worship are the reading and preaching of the Word, the prayers of God’s people, the sacraments, singing God’s praises, and offerings. Though there is some liberty in the place and length of each of these, we must not add to God’s commandments.7

The Dialogical Principle

How should we fill in our worship? Using the elements that God prescribes, we also see in the Scriptures a pattern in worship which reflects a dialogue between God and his people. In Joshua 24, Joshua calls the people together and reminds them who God is and what he has done. God gave them grace upon grace. Then comes the call to respond, and we see those famous words of verse 15, “choose this day whom you will serve.” The people responded that they would worship God. Then God responded through Joshua and asked them in so many words, “Do you know what you are saying?” They said in verse 21, “We will serve the Lord.” God responded once again. It was a conversation between God, through his servant Joshua, and the Old Testament church.

This is why our services move from God’s call, to the people’s response (votum), to God’s blessing, to the people’s response (song), to God’s law, to the people’s response (confession), to God’s assurance. It is a dialogue.

I spent two weeks in Kenya in April 2019 teaching pastors through ITEM. I had the privilege to lead worship. Though the church was relatively new, their worship lacked this principle. Instead, it was one hour of singing, seventy-five minutes of a sermon, an offering, and then twenty minutes of singing. Though expressions of worship are somewhat uniquely cultural, I couldn’t help but notice that dialogical worship could help them by focusing their worship.

Centrality of the Word

Prior to the Reformation, the Word was muted by a service in Latin. Only the educated knew what was being said. In fact, there is evidence that some of the priests weren’t very well versed in Latin. It was a sad spiritual situation. That which was hidden should have been central. Instead, the central part of worship was the altar or the Mass, and that is why you will still find the altar in the center of a Roman Catholic church.

In “Foundations for Reformed Worship,” Rev. Ray Lanning says, “Calvin introduced a liturgy of the Word.”8 The pulpit became the fuel for Reformation. Reformation preachers began preaching through whole books of the Bible expositionally: verse by verse. They preached in the language of the common people. The Bible was translated into the language of commoners, and though very expensive, it could begin to be memorized by the faithful.

We are taught in Romans 10:14–15 that it is through the preaching that God works faith. It is in preaching that sinners are confronted with the Savior. It is in preaching that the wicked are warned and the weary are comforted. To be Reformed means that one is committed to the Word as part of the ordinary means of grace. The Word is central in worship, in home, and in school.

One of the most humbling aspects of being called to be a preacher of the Word is that we know it is through the means of preaching that people primarily grow. The minister must be convinced that what he brings into the pulpit is not only faithful to the Word of God but also so essential for the salvation of sinners and the sanctification of saints that he cannot keep his mouth shut. He must preach. He does so as a clay jar or a broken vessel. The congregation comes to worship to hear from the Lord through the ministry of the Word. The Word can be read, preached, prayed, and sung, all for God’s glory in worship.

Coram Deo

We worship God twice on the Lord’s Day between the call to worship and the benediction or doxology, but our whole lives are worship to the Lord. The application of this truth is going to be what makes up the content of the remaining articles. However, let me introduce it here.

After the apostle Paul beautifully and systematically lays out our sin in Adam and salvation in Christ in the book of Romans, he comes to the application of that in the third part of Romans, in chapters 12–16. That section begins in Romans 12:1–2 (English Standard Version) : “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Those verses mention that the Christian life is holistically God-oriented. There are not parts of our lives that are to be devoted to God and others that are not. All of life is worship, and all worship is to be theocentric (God-centered).

The term coram Deo can be translated at “before the face of God” or “in the presence of God.” What this means is that we live each moment of our lives in the presence of God, under the authority of God, and for the praise and glory of God. Our minds, our hearts, our wills are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ to be used in the service of the kingdom of God. God is the potter and we are the clay, and though his creation was polluted because of sin, God has redeemed a people unto himself so that until Christ returns, his name and praise might fill the earth. This is the creation, fall, redemption, and consummation paradigm of understanding world history.

So, I encourage you as you read these articles to do so from a gospel-centered perspective. Being Reformed must not stop at believing the doctrines that God led John Calvin to expound. It also must involve your heart. After all, the great encyclopedic and systematic mind of Calvin held out as his own motto, “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”

1. Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 211.
2. For a history and defense of this terminology consult the essay by Jelle Faber in The Challenge of Being Reformed Today (Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 1999), 58–60.
3.  A Reformed distinctive is the application of a biblical principle. Part of this gets into Reformed casuistry in the realm of ethics.
4. Trinity Psalter Hymnal (Willow Grove, PA: Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Venture, 2018), 968.
5. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009). Smith’s series of books on the cultural liturgies detail from a philosophical point of view how we should understand our place in the world.
6. Liturgical Forms and Prayers of the United Reformed Church in North America (Wellandport, ON: URCNA Canada, 2018), 243.
7. For a helpful introduction to the elements and content of corporate worship see Horton, A Better Way, 141–62.
8. Ray Lanning, “Foundations for Reformed Worship,” in Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism, ed. Joel Beeke (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2008), 232.

Rev. Steve Swets is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON, and the co-editor of Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons (Reformed Fellowship, forthcoming)..

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