Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead). But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.
Christ’s presence in worship
In Zechariah 2:4, the prophet prophesies to Israel of a time when “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein.” This prophesy is ultimately fulfilled in the New Testament age when the Jerusalem of the church is enlarged beyond the borders of any city and is gathered from every nation, tribe, and tongue. In the next verse God tells the church that, since she will have no physical walls and no physical temple at that time, her protection, and indeed her glory, will be His own presence in a greater way than she had it before. “For I, saith the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her” (v. 5).
The Lord Jesus told us this presence of God in His church as a wall and as her glory is known in the New Testament especially when that church—wherever she is on earth—is gathered for worship.“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” This is the heart of the church’s protection, glory, and joy on earth, that in worship God dwells with His church in a unique way.
Rome would not have disagreed with this then, and does not now. The question that divided the church concerning worship at the time of the Reformation, and that still divides her today, was the question “how.” How does God dwell with His people in worship?
Rome’s view of how Christ is present in worship
“Going to church before the Reformation was a sensuous experience.”1 [“Sensuous” here and throughout the article meaning “appealing to the senses.”]
Imagine it. The stained-glass windows depicting the lives of the saints and especially the life of Christ. The sculptures of the virgin Mary, other saints, and at least on the high altar, the great statue of Christ on the cross. Most likely a saint would have been buried underneath that altar, and whatever relics could be afforded would be promoted in or around the same. Paintings and frescoes on the wall and the high ceilings would call one’s attention, at least until the gilded priests and deacons brought the eucharistic elements by procession into the nave. Then there were the bells and the Latin incantations, mesmerizing in their drones, until the all-important words—the only words one would recognize—would shake a person out of a trance-like state, hoc est corpus meum: “This is my body.” There was the smell of smoke, of beeswax, and the incense from the censer. And finally, the taste of the wafer mixed with smoke as the priest put into the mouth what the worshiper believed was the very body of God’s Son.
One can feel the mystery, the wonder, the attraction. If not for grace, Calvin would be describing us when he said, “under the pretense of holy zeal, superstitious men give way to the indulgences of the flesh; and Satan baits his fictitious modes of worship with such attractions, that they are willingly and eagerly caught hold of and obstinately retained.”2
Rome’s attempt in worship was, and is, to ascend up to heaven and force Christ back down into the worship service in a way that would indulge the flesh. She is an example of those who in Romans 10:6 have said in their heart, “Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is to bring Christ down from above”). In her great cathedrals with their high ceilings depicting the life of heaven; in her hierarchical pyramid of power that climbed up and up to the pope who was the supposed vicar of Christ on earth; in her high church ritual; and chiefly in her idols set on high before the eyes of men, Rome tried to climb up to heaven to pull Christ’s presence down into the worship of the church in a way that would appeal to the sensuous nature of men.
All idolatry is an attempt to make the high and holy, invisible God come down to men in a way that they can see, handle, manipulate, and control. Rome’s idolatry was, and is, no different. She led and continues to lead men to believe they have the presence of God in images; that they have torn Christ out of heaven and have His attention under the power of their hands and in view of their eyes in the crucifix. And she teaches explicitly that her priests have torn Christ out of heaven in the mass, sacrificed Him again, and placed Him in the realm of the sensuous by transubstantiation. Calvin was thinking of Rome’s worship when he said, “When men attempt to attach God to their inventions and to make him, as it were, descend from heaven, then a pure fiction is substituted in his place…. Averse to seeking God in a spiritual manner, they therefore pull him down from his throne, and place him under inanimate things.”3
Christ’s presence in the Word
So, pretend you lived in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and you were a Reformer. You see that Rome’s idolatries are wrong and do not bring Christ’s presence to the church as they claim and as it sometimes even feels to many people to be. But what does?
Because as a Reformer your first principle for everything is sola scriptura (Scripture alone as the authority for the faith and life of the church), you would turn to Scripture to find out. What does God Himself say is the means by which His presence is known in His church in worship as her protection and glory and joy? And you would discover that His presence is known, not by dumb images, but by the Spirit working through the Word.
Romans 10 is concerned with the how of the presence of Christ in the church. And it not only tells the church in verse 7 not to say in her heart that she can ascend to heaven and bring Christ down to her sensuous desires by her own inventions. It also positively tells how Christ is present with His people in verse 8, “But what saith it?” (That is, what does the Old Testament say about how Christ is present?) “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.” The passage then goes on in verses 14 and 15 to give the well-known teaching about the importance of the faithful preaching of the Word.
Your reform of worship then would be, first of all, to have the Word be the heart and, therefore, the power of every aspect of worship. You would have Christ speak in His Word to the church. You would want to have the word sung, prayed, read, and especially expound ed faithfully according to the original intention of the Spirit. You would ensure that the Word come out of the mouths and hearts of the ministers and the people. You would remember that Christ said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst,” and you would know that Christ’s name is all the truth about Him in His Word.
When it came time in your reforming work to ask the question, “What kinds of elements of worship should there be and should there not be in worship?” you would already be a long way, because you know the elements have to be means by which the Word is brought into worship. And then, because your first principle is sola scriptura, you would go to the Word itself and see that God Himself tells us concerning what elements are to be there, and that those elements do bring the Word. You would see that, though there is no book of Leviticus for the New Testament, yet there is something similar in, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” And you would see that God ordains there the basic elements of worship for His New Testament church.
This process of reforming worship would all be common spiritual sense to you, for you are convinced that God governs the entire life of His church by His Word. And, therefore, you would agree with and promote the truth that Christ is present in worship as walls and glory of the church the way your fellow Reformer John Calvin wrote He is: “Let us know and be fully persuaded, that wherever the faithful, who worship him purely and in due form, according to the appointment of his word, are assembled together to engage in the solemn acts of religious worship, he is graciously present, and presides in the midst of them.”4
The practical effect of your reforming of worship with Calvin and the rest, so that the Word is the heart and soul of worship, would be to bring worship back to “the grave and godly face of the primitive church” (John Knox). That is, to strip away all the man-made additions to biblical worship, bringing it back to the way it was at the time of the apostles. The Reformers were not, as they were often accused, interested in destroying the pure tradition of the church. They were interested in going back to the legitimate and biblical tradition of the church. They wanted to ask for the old paths that were older than those from the time that Rome began to leave the Word of God. They believed that Reformed worship was God’s idea, not theirs, and that God’s idea for worship was recorded in the inspired tradition, the New Testament Scriptures.
Evangelicalism’s view of how Christ is present in worship
I asked us earlier to pretend we were Reformers. Now I ask us not to pretend but rather to be them in whatever way we can. The Reformation must be carried on today in so many areas in the churches, also in worship. Rome continues her attempt to bring Christ down from above to the sensuous nature of men. But not only that, Evangelicalism is prone today to attempt to bring Christ’s presence to the church the other way condemned in Romans 10:7. “Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)” If Rome attempts to bring Christ down from above in man-made ways, a good portion of evangelical worship attempts to descend into the grave of our dead culture to bring Christ up from below.
Going to church in many Protestant churches today is a sensuous experience. If you would enter into a good portion of evangelical worship services, the goal would be to make you feel Christ’s presence, not so much through the Word, but through sensuous appeal. From the dead culture below is brought up entertainment styles and hype. From the dead culture is borrowed a love for the emotional above anything of substance. From the dead culture is borrowed a rejection of word, and a love for visual and sensuous. And the attempt is made to raise Christ up out of this spiritually dead culture and bring His presence into the worship of the church. Again, to make Him submissive to the sensuous, to be present the way sensual man wants Him to be present. But the attempt fails. To whatever extent the Word is absent, to that extent He is not present in worship. For, “what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach” ().
There is a power in the Word to bring Christ’s presence to His people. And when it does, there is an experience that takes place. A powerful experience. An experience that is deep and rich, and that even can be, yes, emotional. Where the Word is not the heart of worship the experience is counterfeit, shallow, and leaves the church lagging behind its forefathers in spiritual growth and experience.5 By being (and appreciat ing being) spiritual heirs of the Reformation in worship, may God enable us in whatever small way to witness for Him for the strengthening of His church and for the glory of His name.
1 Susan Karant-Nunn, The Reformation of Ritual (London: Routledge, 1997), accessed September 5, 2017.
2 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 346.
3 Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 350-51 (emphasis added).
4 Psalms, Vol. 1, 122.
5 What Owen said is true in our age as well as his own, “The principle that the church hath power to institute any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God, either as to matter or manner, beyond the observance of such circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ Himself instituted, lies at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry and confusion…that have for so long a season spread themselves over the face of the Christian world.” John Owen, quoted in William Cunningham’s, “The Reformers and the Regulative Principle,” in The Reformation of the Church, ed. Ian H. Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 40-41.