What is Reformed Worship? (II) It is Historical

“Part of the richness of our identity as Christians is that we are saved into a historic people.” As a young, rootless, evangelical Christian, the Reformed Church attracted me with its wonder, its mystery, and its historicity in theology and worship. I came to learn that as Christians, we are saved by Christ and into Christ’s Church. We are not left as orphans, but join a new family that stretches across all times and places and stretches from heaven to earth. When we assemble, then, for worship, we join in something that is holy as well as wholly other. Worship transcends people and time and is above recent worship fads. Being saved into a historic people means that we join the “great cloud of witnesses” which have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Because we believe this, our worship has historical continuity with ages of Christians past. Our worship is not only reformed according to Scripture, as we saw in our last article, but also informed according to the history of the Church.

As humans, we need history. The ancient Latin poet Cicero said, “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.” The English thinker and writer C.S. Lewis said that our modern Western philosophy has caused us to be “chronologically arrogant.” Thus, we do not and cannot worship in a vacuum. We do not start a church and decide on our own how we want to worship, or, even worse, how the community around us wants us to worship. It is important for us to know what the Church did in the past and why it did so. Reformed worship, then, is historical because it links us to the past, communicates to the present, and will lead us in praise before the throne of God in the eternal future.


As Reformed churches, we follow the wisdom and heritage of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century. Our Protestant forefathers did not “throw the baby out with the bath water” when they began reforming the liturgies in their regions. They did not get rid of the existing liturgy and radically start over. Instead, they took what existed and followed the battle cry of the Renaissance: “back to the sources.”

The sources to which they went in reforming the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church were Scripture as well as to the liturgies of the ancient church. They saw a faithful history and tradition in the ancient liturgies of the church. These liturgies served as testimonies of the truth they were finding in Scripture.

The results were service books such as that of John Calvin, entitled, The Form of Prayers According to the Custom of the Early Church. In Martin Bucer’s defense of the reformation of worship in Strasbourg, the Grund und Ursach (“foundation and reason”), he described these reforms as “restorations of that which is right, old and eternal.”

The church in the first four centuries of its existence was seen as a time in which Christians worshipped in a biblical way, since Rome’s false gospel and idolatrous worship did not infect it yet. What you experience as you worship in a faithful Reformed church is a fully biblical service in the same vein as the historic liturgies of the ancient church in the second through fourth centuries, which were revived during the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.

Examples of Ancient Christian Worship

The best way to see Reformed liturgical catholicity is to do what the Reformers did and examine the earliest writings of the Church in the area of liturgy and then compare these ancient descriptions to the practices of the Reformed churches.

The Didache (ca. 50–120)

One of the earliest descriptions of worship comes from the Didache. This was a manual of how the church was to be ordered in its various activities—baptism, preaching, Lord’s Supper, fasting, prayer, etc. In speaking of the Christian assembly, the Didache says,

And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your as sembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord; {In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, saith the Lord and My name is wonderful among the nations.}” (14:1–5).

What this teaches us is that the purpose of assembling for worship is celebrating the Lord’s Supper. In this statement, the Didache follows the apostle Paul, who in 1 Corinthians says the church was to gather to break bread. We also learn that the church was to confess its sins before the Eucharist because it is a sacrifice of praise, as the Didache quotes from Malachi.

Pliny to Trajan (ca. 112)

A second early description of worship is from Pliny the Younger, Governor of Asia Minor, who wrote to the Emperor Trajan about persecution of Christians, among other things. When Christians were brought before those in charge, Pliny records that

They asserted, however, that
the sum and substance of
their fault or error had been
that they were accustomed
to meet on a fixed day before
dawn and sing responsively
a hymn to Christ as to
a god, and to bind themselves
by oath, not to some crime,
but not to commit fraud,
theft, or adultery, not falsify
their trust, nor to refuse to
return a trust when called
upon to do so. When this
was over, it was their custom
to depart and to assemble
again to partake of
food – but ordinary and innocent

In Pliny’s letter we learn that Christians gathered twice on the Lord’s Day—before dawn in order to sing to Christ and to bind themselves together in a common life of morality (a possible reference to the Ten Commandments) and “again” in order to partake of food (a possible reference to the Lord’s Supper).

Justin Martyr

The most elaborate description of the worship that existed in the early church comes from the testimony of Justin Martyr. Justin was a convert to Christianity in the mid-second century. In the year A.D. 155, he wrote his First Apology, meant to show the Caesar of Rome of that time, Titus, the true nature of Christianity.

In chapters 65–67, Justin describes what happened when believers gathered for worship. In chapter 65, he first gives a general description of what happened when a newly baptized Christian came into the worship assembly, saying,

But we, after we have thus
washed him who has been
convinced and has assented
to our teaching, bring him to
the place where those who
are called brethren are assembled,
in order that we
may offer hearty prayers in
common for ourselves and
for the baptized [illuminated]
person, and for all others in
every place, that we may be
counted worthy, now that
we have learned the truth,
by our works also to be
found good citizens and
keepers of the commandments,
so that we may be
saved with an everlasting

Justin then gives a description of the service of the Eucharist (later he goes back and describes the service of the Word):

Having ended the prayers,
we salute one another with a
kiss. There is then brought to
the president of the brethren
bread and a cup of wine
mixed with water; and he
taking them, gives praise and
glory to the Father of the
universe, through the name
of the Son and of the Holy
Ghost, and offers thanks at
considerable length for our
being counted worthy to receive
these things at His
hands. And when he has
concluded the prayers and
thanksgivings, all the people
present express their assent
by saying Amen. This word
Amen answers in the Hebrew
language to genoito [so
be it]. And when the presi8
dent has given thanks, and all
the people have expressed
their assent, those who are
called by us deacons give to
each of those present to partake
of the bread and wine
mixed with water over
which the thanksgiving was
pronounced, and to those
who are absent they carry
away a portion.

So far, chapter 65 of Justin’s First Apology described the order of service like this:

Presentation of Bread/Wine
Prayer and corporate “Amen”
Distribution of Bread/Wine

In chapter 67, Justin fills in the rest of the service of worship with the service of the Word, which precedes the Eucharist:

And on the day called Sunday,
all who live in cities or in
the country gather together
to one place, and the memoirs
of the apostles or the
writings of the prophets are
read, as long as time permits;
then, when the reader has
ceased, the president verbally
instructs, and exhorts to
the imitation of these good

And they who are well to
do, and willing, give what
each thinks fit; and what is
collected is deposited with
the president, who succours
the orphans and widows and
those who, through sickness
or any other cause, are in
want, and those who are in
bonds, and the strangers so-
The Reformers stripped the
worship that existed
in their day, the Medieval Mass,
of its idolatry
and extra-Scriptural content.
journing among us, and in a
word takes care of all who
are in need.

Therefore, the Lord’s Day service that Justin describes to the Emperor is as follows:

Service of the Word
Old Testament Readings
New Testament Readings

Service of the Eucharist
Presentation of Bread/Wine
Prayer and corporate “Amen”
Distribution of Bread/Wine

We notice in Justin’s description of worship how simple the worship was. As well, its focus is the Word of God and sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In following this basic pattern, the Reformers stripped the worship that existed in their day, the Medieval Mass, of its idolatry and extra-Scriptural content. In doing so, they did not reinvent the wheel.

Clement of Rome (ca. 80-140)

A full description of the prayer that Justin mentions between the sermon and sacrament, what we often call the “Pastoral Prayer,” but what is also called the prayer of intercession, came from Clement of Rome’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. In it, Clement opened his prayer, saying,

And we will ask, with instancy
of prayer and supplication,
that the Creator of the universe
may guard intact unto
the end the number that hath
been numbered of His elect
throughout the whole world,
through His beloved Son Jesus
Christ, through whom He
called us from darkness to
light, from ignorance to the full
knowledge of the glory of His
Name (59:2).

The prayer then interceded for the Church’s sanctification of the saints (59:3), for the afflicted (59:3, 4), for the salvation of all men (59:4), for the forgiveness of sins (60:1, 2 cf. Didache), for deliverance from enemies (60:3), for rulers (60:4, 61:1, 2) ending in a doxology (61:3), then closes with more intercessions for the sanctification of the saints and closes in a great doxology: “through our High priest and Guardian Jesus Christ, through whom unto Him be glory and majesty, might and honor, both now and for ever and ever. Amen” (64:1).

Tertullian (ca. 197)

The North African teacher, Tertullian of Carthage, also wrote a write description of Christian worship in his Apology, chapter 39. What is so instructive is how similar Tertullian, writing from Carthage in North Africa, and Justin, writing from Rome, sound in their descriptions of worship. There truly was a catholic consensus on the principles and practice of Christian worship.

Furthermore, their descriptions of Christian liturgy in the late 2nd century emphasize the four basic elements of worship mentioned in Acts 2:42: the Word, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and offering.

Tertullian begins his description with the element of prayer, mentioning that prayer is made for the authorities, the world, and for the delay of the Second Coming, saying,

We meet together as an assembly
and congregation,
that, offering up prayer to
God as with united force, we
may wrestle with Him in our
supplications. This violence
God delights in. We pray,
too, for the emperors, for
their ministers and for all in
authority, for the welfare of
the world, for the prevalence
of peace, for the delay
of the final consummation.

He then moves to describe the element of the Word of God, both its reading and preaching:

sacred writings…with the
sacred words we nourish
our faith, we animate our
hope, we make our confidence
more steadfast; and
no less by inculcations of
God’s precepts we confirm
good habits. In the same
place also exhortations are
made, rebukes and sacred
censures are administered.

The offering of God’s people, especially for benevolence, is then explained, in contrast to the use of money in world:

There is no buying and selling
of any sort in the things of
God. Though we have our
treasure-chest, it is not made
up of purchase-money, as of
a religion that has its price.
On the monthly day, if he
likes, each puts in a small
donation; but only if it be his
pleasure, and only if he be
able: for there is no compulsion;
all is voluntary. These
gifts are, as it were, piety’s
deposit fund. For they are
not taken thence and spent
on feasts, and drinkingbouts,
and eating-houses, but
to support and bury poor
people, to supply the wants
of boys and girls destitute of
means and parents, and of
old persons confined now to
the house; such, too, as have
suffered shipwreck; and if
there happen to be any in the
mines, or banished to the islands,
or shut up in the prisons,
for nothing but their fidelity
to the cause of God’s
Church, they become the
nurslings of their confession…

Finally, Tertullian gives a description of the Lord’s Supper, saying,

As it is an act of religious
service, it permits no
vileness or immodesty. The
participants, before reclining,
taste first of prayer to God.
As much is eaten as satisfies
the cravings of hunger;
as much is drunk as befits
the chaste. They say it is
enough, as those who remember
that even during the
night they have to worship
God; they talk as those who
know that the Lord is one of
their auditors. After manual
ablution, and the bringing in
of lights, each is asked to
stand forth and sing, as he
can, a hymn to God, either
one from the holy Scriptures
or one of his own composing,—
a proof of the measure
of our drinking. As the
feast commenced with
prayer, so with prayer it is

In summary, we follow this basic pattern of the early Church’s worship in which the Word is read and preached, the Sacraments are celebrated with thanksgiving, prayers of confession, intercession, and thanks are offered, and the offerings of God’s people are gathered for the ministry of mercy. When we gather, then, we join multitudes of saints throughout all times and places in worshipping according to the Word and according to the custom of the early church.

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

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