In our last article we concluded our discussion of the elements of the worship service which actually precede the worship proper: prayers before the service, the prayers in the Consistory room, the organ (or piano) prelude. In this article we begin a discussion of the worship proper and the various elements which go to make it up.
Before we enter into a discussion of each element, it might be well to consider various orders of worship which have been followed in the past, L especially in the Reformed tradition of the Calvin Reformation. If one studies these various orders of worship, it is quite surprising that, while they have differed rather widely from each other, they have, with few exceptions, included the same elements.
There is a word of instruction here which we do well to consider. A great deal of experimentation goes on in our day in the area of liturgical worship. These changes, many of which are taking place even within Reformed churches, assume many different forms. Sometimes worship services themselves are discarded or replaced by special programs, special speakers, dramatic productions, liturgical dances, or films and movies. Sometimes, the outward form of the worship service is preserved, but the whole of the order of worship is changed. Various elements are added to make the worship more liturgical or to add some “sparkle” to what is considered drab and colorless. This happens, e.g., with the introduction of choirs and special musical numbers into the worship. Sometimes various elements are taken out in the interests of mere change or to shorten the worship. Sometimes such complete alterations are made that one can scarcely recognize that one is in a service where the church of Christ worships her God.
It is interesting, therefore, to consider the fact that the order of worship as practiced in our churches has a long and illustrious history, that it was formulated with a view to keeping the worship of the church as near to Scripture as possible, but that it also leaves room for that liberty which Scripture itself gives us. We are, in our worship, in good company.
That we may have an idea of some of the orders of worship set up by those in the Reformed tradition, we will include in this article a few samples. Notice how they all, while differing in details, agree in the essential elements.
The first one to practice a genuinely Calvinistic order of worship was Calvin himself. He developed an order of worship while he was in Strassburg, and believed that it was based upon Scripture. It was as follows:
Confession of sin
The reading of the Decalogue
A form prayer which closed this part of the liturgy
A prayer for the sermon ending in the Lord’s prayer
A prayer of thanks to God and for the needs of Christendom
Calvin also introduced into the worship the singing of the Psalms; and special versifications of and music for the Psalms were prepared for the use of the people of God.
A.Lasco, one of the great liturgists in the Reformed tradition, divided the order of worship into an objective part and a subjective part. That is, he divided the order of worship in such a way that the participation of the congregation in various liturgical actions was separated from the role of the minister. Generally speaking, he preferred to have the objective part first, although he allowed for some variations in the order. His order was as follows:
The reading of the law
The confession of sin
Prayer, ending with the Lord’s prayer
Dathenus, another great figure in the history of Reformed liturgy, had the following order:
The law—read or sung
Form prayer for:
Confession of sin
Prayer for the minister and the preaching
Prayer for the needs of Christendom
Dr. A. Kuyper also divided the order of worship into an objective and subjective part.
Confession of sin
Announcement of text
Of thanks and for the needs of Christendom
There are one or two remarks about these various orders of worship which are worth making. In the first place, it is interesting to note that each one contains a “confession of sin” and three of them have an “absolution.” The idea here is not that of the Roman Catholic Church, with its “confessional” and absolution by the priest, who has claimed for himself the right to forgive sins. The idea is rather that the people of God are required to come before God in worship in true humility. And ,this humility does not only arise from the fact that God’s people are mere creatures before the face of the Creator of heaven and earth—all nations are before Him as the dust of the balance and less than a drop of a bucket—but it arises also from the consciousness of great sin and unworthiness. We have, in ourselves, no right to come before God, for we are sinful and guilt-burdened. Our only right is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is in this consciousness that the child of God comes before God, and it is this which makes his coming an act of humility.
Scripture often emphasizes this truth also. How often did not the prophets castigate Israel for mere outward worship, lip-service, while their hearts were far from God. Again and again God reminded His people that a broken spirit and a contrite heart was what was pleasing to Him. If they were to appear before Him properly, they had to come with deep and profound sorrow of heart that they had offended God with their sins.
But following upon this confession of sin comes the blessedness of forgiveness and the assurance of mercy and pardon in the blood of Jesus Christ. When God’s people experience that pardon of sin by faith in Christ and receive the assurance that they are, in their blessed Savior, worthy to stand before God, then also they can worship in the confidence that God will receive them and their worship and come to dwell with them.
These ideas were emphasized by our fathers when they included these elements in the order of worship. In the order of worship in our churches we do not have such a separate element, and this is perhaps a mistake. Nevertheless, this consciousness ought to be present in God’s people when they appear before God, and it certainly ought to be a part of the congregational prayers if it is not made a separate element. It would, I think, be well to consider seriously including some such separate element in our order of worship.
Secondly, it is interesting to note that all the orders of worship referred to above included a “prayer for the needs of Christendom.” This also is important. Perhaps in our order of worship this is best included in the congregational prayer. But at any rate, it is crucial that this be not forgotten. So often it is true that the minister, when he leads in prayer, limits his prayers to the congregation of which he is pastor. He prays for that congregation, brings the needs of that congregation before the throne of grace, prays for those in the congregation who are sick or dying, who are in special need because of the heavy hand of the Lord upon them—and all this is good; but he forgets to include in his prayers the needs of any of the saints outside his own flock. This is an intolerable omission. He ought to pray for all the sister congregations with which his congregation dwells in fellowship within the communion of the churches of the denomination; but he ought also to pray for the whole of the church of Christ throughout the world.
This is so important because of the fact that one congregation is not alone in the world and is not, by itself, the body of Christ. The saints worship in the communion of all the church, in living fellowship with all the church of all ages, but also living on the earth at any given time. We are one in the body of Christ, united with all the saints from every nation and tribe and tongue. We are a part of a church which is truly catholic—as we confess: “I believe in an holy, catholic Church.” To fail to pray for the needs of the whole church of Christ is a narrow parochialism, a spiritual self-centeredness which is inexcusable.
For the rest, while the order is somewhat different, the main elements are all there.
Within the freedom of the Scriptures themselves, therefore, and the variations which are possible within that freedom, we have the assurance that our worship and its order stand in the solid tradition of the Reformed faith. The liturgical experimentation which goes on today ought to be abhorred.