Previous article in this series: January 15, 2011, p. 188.
In mission work, Reformed churches seek to establish churches that are Reformed. This involves (as we noted last time) striving to establish churches that are Reformed both in history and doctrine. These are foundational. Churches need to be established that are solidly grounded in the historic Reformed faith, as summarized and set forth in the Reformed creeds.
But while history and doctrine are essential, they are, contrary to the opinion of many, not enough.
Some, when being taught the Reformed faith, have the idea that they stand as it were before a buffet table from which they may select just those foods they like. They may choose the chicken and rice, but skip the potatoes and fruit. When it comes to the Reformed faith, they think they are free to select simply what they please. And often they choose only the doctrines (at least certain, more palatable ones), and leave the rest. They imagine that being Reformed in doctrine is enough.
The truth is that the Reformed faith is all encompassing. When it takes hold of a believer and a church, the changes are radical and sweeping. Every area of a person’s or a church’s life is affected and altered. For that reason, a truly Reformed church is Reformed, not only in history and doctrine, but also in at least three other respects.
That brings us to the third characteristic of a church that is Reformed. In addition to being so in history and doctrine, she is also Reformed in worship. She follows in the footsteps of the reformers, who rejected the false worship of Rome and returned to true, biblical worship.
To be Reformed in worship means especially three things.
First of all, in Reformed worship God, and not man, is central. The people of God do not gather in worship to acknowledge and praise a man (whether a great preacher, an outstanding singer, or a sports hero). Nor do God’s people assemble in order to bow before and pray to a mere human (whether a pope, a priest, or a saint). Nor do believers come together to hear what a certain man is going to say to them (whether a missionary, a politician, or an ex-alcoholic). But God is the focus. The worship honors and glorifies Him. The Reformed church confesses: “Not unto us, O Lord of heav’n, But unto Thee be glory giv’n” (Ps. 115:1, Psalter #308).
God is the focus throughout the worship service: in the prayers, the preaching, the singing, and every element of worship. God’s Word is read; not the writings of men. God’s Word is preached; not the ideas of philosophy or science or politics. And God’s Word is sung. Reformed churches sing the Psalms in worship, and not the hymns and praise-songs of men.
Secondly, the church that is Reformed in worship abides by the Regulative Principle of worship. God is worshiped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
God is sovereign, not only in salvation, but also in the matter of worship. He commands, in His Word, how He is to be worshiped. Thus the Regulative Principle: only those things may be included in worship that are commanded in the Bible. What is not commanded is forbidden.
Reformed believers do not worship God according to their personal preferences. They do not decide what to include in or exclude from worship on the basis of what they consider to be more interesting, more exciting, or more effective. The Reformed church includes in worship only what the Bible says it should. Not choirs. Not dancing. Not films. Not movies. Not special numbers. Not testimonials. But prayer, Scripture reading, confession of faith, offerings, congregational singing (of the Psalms), the invocation and blessing, and preaching.
Thirdly, Reformed worship is characterized by the primacy and centrality of preaching. This is evident in Reformed churches in especially two ways.
It is reflected first of all in the church’s architecture. The pulpit in Reformed churches is not off to the side. It is not supplanted by an altar (as in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches). It is not replaced by choirs, or drums, or bands (as in Pentecostal, and now increasingly also in many nominal Reformed churches with their progressive worship). Rather, the pulpit is placed and kept in the front and center. For the central element of worship is the sounding forth of the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16).
That preaching is central is also evident in the fact that the sermon takes up the major part of the worship service. The sermon is not a minor element. The minister is not told, on account of everything else that has to take place (special music, testimonials, children’s activities), that he has only ten to fifteen minutes for his message. Rather, the sermon is lengthy. And it consists of a thorough exposition and biblical application of the Word of God. The focal point is always the preaching of the gospel.
In order to be a truly Reformed church, a congregation must embrace, not only sound doctrine, but also biblical, Reformed worship.
The fourth characteristic of a truly Reformed church is that she and her members are Reformed in life. Again, the Reformation is significant. For under the direction of the Spirit, the Reformation restored godly living over against the terrible immorality of Rome.
A church that confesses Reformed truth is not truly Reformed if the truth is not lived. Doctrine and life go together. God’s Word is not just for our heads, but also for our hearts. And if it is for our hearts, it is also for our lives. For a good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, brings forth that which is good (Luke 6:45). Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth (and life) speaks (Matt. 12:34).
It is possible for someone to know the truth very well, intellectually. But if Reformed doctrine is merely an intellectual enterprise, it will have no effect. So, what if one knows the truth, but it makes no difference in his life? It will do him no good—not in this life, and not with regard to eternity.
When, however, the truths of God’s Word are truly loved and believed, they work their way through into the lives of God’s people. Godly living “becomes (fits, matches, harmonizes with) sound doctrine” (Tit. 2:1). The life of the Christian is one that is consistent with the truths and doctrines he believes and confesses.
The Reformed church therefore upholds the law of God. She confesses that our sovereign God has the right to put demands on our lives. The fact that the Reformed faith denies salvation by obedience to the law does not mean the law is done away with. The ten commandments still stand. They reveal sin. They point us to Christ. They are the guide for a thankful, Christian life.
A Reformed church, therefore, is not antinomian. She does not say: “You are saved by grace, so it doesn’t matter how you live.” Nor does she say (cf. Rom. 6:1): “Let us continue in sin, that grace may abound!” To such ideas she says: “God forbid!” She requires obedience and godliness of her members. For she confesses that we are saved by grace “unto good works” (Eph. 2:10). And these are done out of thankfulness for what God has done. The law and all the demands of God’s Word are preached.
The Reformed church preaches, for example, the keeping of the Sabbath day. Some today claim that this was simply an Old Testament ordinance. Others, knowing that is not the case, nevertheless seek to justify being involved in activities that are inappropriate for the Lord’s Day (such as work, buying and selling, vacation travel). But the Reformed church is bold to require that God’s people keep the Sabbath day holy. The members are admonished not to go their own ways, not to find their own pleasures, and not to speak their own words on God’s day (Is. 58:13). They are directed, according to the Scriptures, to call and view the Sabbath a delight— not a burden.
This is just one example of the fact that Reformed churches teach and require obedience to God’s law. They know that God wills to have the ten commandments “strictly preached” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 44).
In close connection with this, the Reformed church upholds one of the important marks of the true church of Christ: Christian discipline (Belgic Confession, Article 29). Through Christ-appointed officebearers, she exercises biblical discipline over any who err either in doctrine or life. She does this lovingly, with the prayer that Christ would be pleased to work repentance and salvation.
In light of all we have said, we may add that the members of a Reformed church should be easily recognizable as those who strive to live antithetical lives in this world. Theirs is a life of spiritual separation from the ungodly world (II Cor. 6:14-17). They, as the covenant friends of God, are not friends of the ungodly (II Chron. 19:2). They do not love the world and the things of the world (I John 2:15), but they love the Lord their God and the things of His eternal kingdom.
Reformed living—that too is a fundamental characteristic of a Reformed church.
One more characteristic of a truly Reformed church remains. We will consider this, Lord willing, next time.