Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

John Calvin condemned the Mass of Roman Catholicism in no uncertain terms. “Of all the idols, he knew none so grotesque as that in which the priest called down Christ into his hands by ‘magical mumblings’ and offered him anew on the sacrificial altar, while the people looked on in ‘stupid amazement.'”1 Calvin proceeded to formulate his ideas on worship (liturgy) by basing them on the clear warrant of Scripture and appealing to the invariable custom of the ancient church.2 The Reformer concluded, “No assembly of the church should be held without the Word being preached, prayers being offered, the Lord’s Supper administered, and alms given.”3

Calvin’s earliest efforts at reforming the worship of the church appeared in the 1536 edition of his Institutes(Chap. IV):

Now as far as the Lord’s Supper is concerned, it could have been administered most becomingly if it were offered to the church quite often, and at least once a week. First then, it should commence with common prayers, after which a sermon should be delivered. Then, the bread and wine having been placed on the table, the minister should recite the Institution of the Supper, after which he should expound the promises which are left to us in it; at the same time he should excommunicate all those who are excluded from it by the Lord’s prohibition. Afterward, prayer should be offered that the Lord, with the kindness wherewith he has given us this sacred food, would also teach and prepare us to receive it with faith and thankfulness of heart, and in his mercy make us worthy of such a feast, inasmuch as we are not so of ourselves. At this time, either psalms should be sung or something should be read; and in becoming order the faithful should partake of the most holy banquet, the ministers breaking the bread and giving the cup. When the supper is finished, there should be an exhortation to sincere faith and the witness of the same, to love, and to a manner of life worthy of Christians. At the last, thanks should be given and praises sung to God. When these things are ended the church should be dismissed in peace.4

Calvin never deviated from these ideas, but only expanded on them in the final edition of the Institutes. Notice, Calvin insisted on the frequent celebration of the Lords Supper. He wanted it to be celebrated every Lord’s Day. During his first pastorate in Geneva the Reformers (Calvin and Farel) proposed in a document titled, “Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva,” that the church would be edified by two means especially, the frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the exercise of discipline. Because of the “frailty of the people,” the Reformers compromised on a schedule of monthly Communion. Later, in 1541, when Calvin returned to Geneva, he attempted to introduce the liturgy he used in Strassburg. Calvin again attempted to introduce weekly Communion, believing there was “nothing more useful to the church than the Lord’s Supper.” God himself, Calvin believed, added the Supper to his Word and, therefore, it was a perilous matter to separate them.5 The Council of Geneva, much to Calvin’s dismay, insisted upon a quarterly celebration of Communion. Calvin continued to express his dissatisfaction, declaring as late as 1561, “Our custom is defective.”

As is evident from his statement in the Institutes of 1536, Calvin’s Communion liturgy contained four fundamental elements. These elements, the Protestant Reformed reader will recognize, are retained intact in our own Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper. They are: 1. Rehearsal of the Lord’s institution as the warrant of the sacrament. 2. Proclamation of the Lords promises which relate to His ordinance, and supply meaning and reality to its signs. 3. Excommunication of obdurate sinners. 4. Stress upon worthy participation in the sacrament and holiness of life.

With a couple of exceptions, only Psalms were sung, and that too without instrumental accompaniment. Concerning instruments Calvin believed, “. . . that they formed part of that system of training under the law to which the church was subjected in its infancy” and, “. . . we should not foolishly imitate a practice which was intended only for God’s ancient people.”6 (Undersigned, incidentally, is grateful that Calvin’s view on this matter did not prevail in the Dutch Reformed tradition.)

Calvin’s order of worship began with the minister speaking the majestic words, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Amen.” This was followed by a prayer of confession. This was a brief form prayer read by the minister while the congregation knelt.’ This was followed by the minister reading some Scriptural promises of forgiveness, after which the absolution was pronounced by the minister, “Let each one of you acknowledge himself truly a sinner, humbling himself before God, and believe that the heavenly Father desires to be gracious to him in Jesus Christ. To all who in this manner repent and seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare absolution in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”8 The absolution was not used in Geneva. After the Confession of Sin the congregation rose to sing the Ten Commandments as a guide for the grateful obedience of the forgiven Christian.

During the singing the minister left the table for the pulpit. There he prepared for the reading of Scripture and preaching by offering a prayer for illumination. This and the prayer of application after the sermon were the only “free” prayers in Calvin’s liturgy. All the other prayers were form prayers. And, even for these two “free” prayers, Calvin offered the ministers several models. After the prayer of application, the minister offered the congregational prayer. This prayer concluded with the Lord’s Prayer, which in some congregations was sung by the congregation.

Then, the congregation rose to sing the Apostles’ Creed. At this point the congregation was dismissed with the benediction of Aaron, “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace,” and with a word about alms, “Remember Jesus Christ in his little ones.”

In Geneva, on the four Sundays when Communion was celebrated, it occurred after the sermon. When the Lord’s Supper was finished, and before the benediction as given above was pronounced, the congregation sang the Song of Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . . For mine eyes have seen thy salvation . . . .”

Calvin’s principles of liturgy and the essentials of his order of worship remain in use in the worship services of the Protestant Reformed Churches. There are some differences, viz., we do not kneel to pray, we do not sing either the Apostles’ Creed or the Ten Commandments, we do not sing the Song of Simeon after Communion, we do not have an absolution pronounced to the congregation, we have some but not nearly as many form prayers as did Calvin, and we do use instrumental accompaniment in the singing of the Psalms. And certainly our churches, with Calvin, make every effort to base our worship on the “clear warrant of Scripture,” appealing to the “invariable custom of the ancient church.”

May God grant us grace to continue in this so that we worship Him who is Spirit, in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

1 Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, p. 185. 

2 In addition to Thompson’s book and the pertinent sections of Calvin’s Institutes, the reader who wishes to pursue this subject further ought to read,Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition, by James Hastings Nichols. These books are in the Seminary Library. 

Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, xvii, 44. 

4 Quoted by Bard Thompson in Liturgies of the Western Church, pp. 185-186. 

5 Thompson, p. 190. 

6 John Calvin, Commentary on the PsalmsPsalm 144:9 and Psalm 149:3

7 For a copy of this prayer cf. Nichols, p. 42. 

8 Quoted by Nichols, p. 43.