In the last few articles we have been discussing those parts of the worship service in which the minister functions both as the ambassador of God, speaking in God’s name to the congregation, and as the mouthpiece of the people, speaking to God in the people’s name. Specifically, to the former belong the salutation, the benedictions, the reading of the law, the preaching. To the latter belong the votum—”Our help is in the name of Jehovah. . . ,” the reading of the Apostolic Confession (when the congregation does not speak it with the minister), the prayers.
With the exception of the prayers and the sermon, we have discussed all these elements, and we now turn to these last two.
In the course of our articles on worship we have always first examined the question, whether the elements of the worship service which we were discussing have Scriptural warrant. We must face this question now also as we discuss the prayers which are offered in the worship service.
That Scripture binds us to the use of prayers in the worship service can hardly be questioned. It is simply incredible that anyone would ever want to eliminate prayers from the worship service. After all, an important part of worship in any sense is prayer, and the Sabbath services are preeminently worship.
Nevertheless, Scripture speaks often of this. When Solomon was dedicating the temple he prayed a long and beautiful prayer—a prayer, by the way, which was really an intercessory prayer in his role as type of Christ. He made prayer an important part of the dedication of the temple of God. But in the course of his prayer he also speaks of the children of Israel using the temple for a house of prayer. In I Kings 8:38, 39 we have these words of Solomon: “What prayer and supplication soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house: then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place . . . .”
Isaiah calls the temple a house of prayer in Isaiah 56:7: “Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”
To these words of Isaiah the Lord referred more than once in his earthly ministry. In Mark 11:17, after the cleansing of the temple, the Lord said, “Is it not .written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.” This is repeated in Luke 19:46.
Regular prayers were also made in the temple at given hours. E.g., we read in Acts 3:1: “Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour.”
From these passages it is clear that prayer was, and is, an important part of worship. Without such prayers worship is not complete. It is through prayer that God’s people speak to God in covenant fellowship.
There are several points concerning prayers in public worship to which we must call attention.
In the first place, the question arises, how many prayers ought to be made, and when in the worship order is it best to make them. In our churches there are usually individual prayers by the members of the congregation, either when they first sit in their pews or when the worship service is about to begin. We have discussed this in an earlier article. There is also the so-called congregational prayer, usually around ten minutes long, which is made after the singing of a couple of Psalter numbers and the reading of the law or the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. Finally, a brief prayer is offered immediately after the sermon and before the final Psalternumber, doxology, and benediction. On this point there has been a great deal of variation in Reformed Churches and freedom must be allowed to each congregation in this matter. Surely, no set rules can be made.
In the second place, the question has sometimes been asked, whether free prayers or form prayers are to be used. Free prayers differ from form prayers in this respect that the latter are written prayers while the former are extemporaneous. Especially in Anglican circles after the Reformation, form prayers were almost exclusively used, and when, with the Puritan reaction, free prayers were introduced into some worship services, this was vehemently protested. In churches with high liturgy, form prayers are customary, while in churches which do not put much emphasis on liturgical activities, free prayers are usually used. In fact, in many churches form prayers are considered to be entirely out of place. Free prayers are considered the only legitimate kind.
Here too there must be freedom. In our own churches both are used. In the Liturgical Forms used at the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, form prayers are used because they are a part of the forms. And it is well to remind ourselves that these form prayers must be used as they appear in the Forms. It is not proper to change these prayers, introduce into them extemporaneous elements, or depart from the wording which appears in them. These Forms have been adopted by the churches and they must be used as adopted, unless changed by the churches in common. One of the issues at the time of theAfscheiding in 1834 was precisely this. There were ministers in the State Church who were altering the Forms, dropping them entirely in favor of their own Forms, using the adopted Forms only in part, or tampering with them in other ways. The fathers of the Afscheiding objected to all this and returned to the old Forms which had been adopted by the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19.
But, while in our Forms form prayers are used, the other prayers in the worship service are free prayers. It would not in itself be wrong in the worship services to use form prayers, but free prayers are to be preferred. They give the minister opportunity to bring before the Lord the specific needs of the congregation as these needs vary with the circumstances in which the congregation finds itself. And with the use of free prayers, the congregation can much more easily involve itself in the prayers which the minister makes.
In the third place, the question has been raised in the history of the Reformed churches whether confession of sin and absolution ought to be a part of the congregational prayers. Some, including Calvin, have devoted a separate part of the worship service to this. In various ways the congregation is brought to confess her sins before God and seek forgiveness at God’s hand through the blood of Jesus Christ. In some instances, the minister himself pronounced absolution upon the people, not in the sense of the Roman Catholics who have wrongly and very evilly claimed the power of forgiveness for priests so that priests have the judicial power to forgive sins in themselves; but in the sense of the minister, speaking authoritatively in the name of Christ, assuring the congregation of God’s forgiveness.
Here again no specific rules can be laid down. There is, however, a principle involved here which ought not to be ignored. God’s people are called to come before the face of God in humility, with a broken spirit and a contrite heart, which the Lord will not despise. In fact the broken spirit and contrite heart which Scripture requires of all those who come to God is exactly contrasted with lip service and outward formalism. This humility arises out of the consciousness of sin and is essential in the worship service. In other words, there must be opportunity in the worship service somewhere for God’s people to confess their sins and so enter God’s presence in humility of heart and mind. If no separate part of the worship service is devoted to this, it ought to be present in the congregational prayers. But it is exactly because God’s people must come before the Lord in such humility that I have long favored a short prayer very near the beginning of the worship service which includes such a prayer for forgiveness and plea for the assurance that our sins are pardoned in the blood of Christ.
In the fourth place, the matter of posture in prayer has often been discussed. Usually in our churches the congregation remains seated during prayer. But this has not always been so. I recall when I was a youth that the Consistory stood during congregational prayers, though the congregation remained seated. In other circles, e.g., among the German Reformed, it was customary for the entire congregation to stand. It is also possible to kneel during congregational prayers, although this would require some alterations in our seats or pews: kneeling benches would have to be built in. Yet we might be surprised to learn that this was the posture which Calvin favored. In discussing proper spiritual decorum in the house of God, Calvin writes that part of such decorum is “that we pray with bended knees” (Institutes, IV, x, 29). This is discussed a bit more in detail in the following paragraph where he discusses the fundamental truth that all elements included in the worship services must have the authority of God.
Let us take, as an example, the kneeling practiced during solemn prayers. The question is, whether it be a human tradition, which every one is at liberty to reject or neglect. I answer that it is at once both human and Divine. It is of God, as it forms a branch of that decorum which is recommended to our attention and observance by the apostle; it is of men, as it particularly designates that which had in general been rather hinted than clearly expressed.
From this it is clear that here too we have a matter in which the church must exercise her God-given liberty to do all things in such a way that they are to God’s glory and to the edification of the church.
We must still talk about the contents of congregational prayers, but this shall have to wait until our next article.