Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.
Pressure. Constant pressure. That is what the faithful church always experiences as she attempts to follow the dictates of God’s Word. The same is true as far as her worship is concerned. After lying shipwrecked for centuries in the idolatry of Roman Catholic liturgy, biblical worship was again restored during the years of the great church reformation of the 1500s. But Satan did not give up his relentless attack upon the church and her worship. What John Calvin observes while exegeting John 4:24 in his commentary on the gospel according to John reveals a deep insight into the nature of man: “Since men are flesh, we ought not to wonder, if they take delight in those things that correspond to their own disposition. Therefore it arises, that they contrive many things in the worship of God which are full of display, but have no solidity.” It is of no surprise therefore that biblical, Reformed worship has again come under attack.
Wicked, unbelieving man always places the church under pressure to conform her ways to his. “If you want me as a member of your church, then you have to make your self attractive to me” is what he demands of the church. And the carnal seed within the church would quickly agree with this demand—all in the honorable name of church growth. Ignoring the dictates of God’s Word, these badger the church to concoct a new, innovative liturgy that is more relevant for the time and culture in which we live. People in our time and culture no longer desire instruction in righteousness. They do not wish to hear about sin; they do not wish to learn all kinds of doctrines about God or Jesus Christ. What they want is a liturgy that makes them feel good about themselves. They want to hear of their positive qualities as human beings, and how they can be of service to humanity. People like attention. They enjoy using their talents too, to praise God. All this ought to be reflected in the worship of the church.
Pressure, constant pressure, is placed upon the church, not only from outside but especially from inside. Eliminate instruction and replace it with talks that incite people to service. Use every device available to give people a good feeling about themselves, an emotional high, a “breakthrough experience with God.” Allow people to use their “ministries” to worship God in the church.
Pressure! And the result? Many Reformed and Presbyterian churches have given in to the pressure and have changed their liturgical practices, forgetting the very principles that saved them from the idolatrous worship of the Romish church. How the gold has grown dim!
We ought to remind ourselves of the very purpose of worship, and therefore of all our liturgical practices: to pay homage to God. Some criticize this as only the opinion of straight-laced Calvinists. Opponents of Reformed worship slanderously describe this principle as Calvinism’s “uncompromising devotion to God’s glory, its one-sided exaggeration of the creaturely sense, its total rejection of religious comfort and self- interested piety, its certitude of the priority of God’s will and inevitable character of His justice hardening into a doctrine of predestination so ruthless that it sees and adores in all things and events . . . the inscrutable action of the Divine.”¹ Critics may even falsely accuse Reformed worship of being boring and lacking life. But there is one accusation that can never be leveled against Reformed worship, and that is, that it is not biblical. That one can never say!
The very purpose of all true worship is “to pay homage to, to render honor to, to kiss the hand of” God. This is the literal meaning of the terms Scripture employs for worship. This idea is also the heart of Psalms 95 through 100. Notice Psalm 95:6, 7: “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the LORD our maker. For he is our God; and we are the sheep of his pasture…”; and Psalm 96:7-9, “Give unto the LORD, O ye kindreds of the earth, give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due his name: bring an offering and come into his courts. O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness: fear before him all the earth.” No person with any knowledge of Scripture can deny that worship must be theocentric, i.e., it must center in God. All attention must be directed to Him as the God who is all glorious in His sovereignty, beautiful in holiness and grace, and unsearchable in wisdom and might. All honor and glory must be directed toward him. That is the very purpose of worship.
This principle of Reformed worship (soli Deo gloria) was the main emphasis of the Calvinistic Reformation in Switzerland. It would be fallacious, however, to credit Calvin with the founding of such a principle. Before Calvin appeared on the scence in Geneva, Reformers such as Zwingli, Bullinger, and Bucer had already firmly established this principle of Reformed worship. For example, Zwingli, in his work, Commentary on the True and False Religion, insisted that because of the corruption of the human nature man always refuses to acknowledge the supremacy of God, and, as a result, substitutes a multitude of false religious practices in his worship. The true focus of all Christian worship therefore must be God.²
It is our knowledge of God Himself, therefore, which will decide the characteristics of proper worship. What do we believe about God’s sovereignty? “All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity. To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare to him?” (Is. 40:17, 18). What do we believe about God’s power? “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained: what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Ps. 8:3, 4). What do we believe about God’s wisdom? “O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33). What do we believe about the holiness and justice of our God? “For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). Will not this knowledge of God, then, dictate to you and me what will characterize us when we come before Him to worship? How dare we come before God and rob Him of His glory and honor? Before the face of God almighty we could not be so bold as to change our worship to satisfy the cravings of sinful, unbelieving man! We must bow before the living God!
That means, first, that the chief characteristic of proper worship will be its solemnity. Solemnity means “characterized by quietness and earnest sobriety.” Contrary to all the clamor that worship is dead unless the church fills it with all kinds of showy and loud devices which claim to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit, the true believer clothes himself in sobriety and quietness when he comes into the presence of God in worship. “But the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20). We come into the presence of the holy, sovereign, omnipotent God of heaven and earth! We come before Him with fear and trembling and we kiss His hand! We come to pay homage to the King of kings and Lord of lords. And we do this only in the way that He prescribes—nothing more and nothing less! Commenting on the second commandment in his Institutes, Calvin writes, “Wherefore, in general, he (God) calls us entirely away from the carnal frivolous observances which our stupid minds are wont to devise after forming some gross idea of the divine nature, while at the same time, he instructs us in the worship which is legitimate, namely, spiritual worship of his own appointment.”
Many argue that these extra observances are not carnal or frivolous but indeed given praise and honor to God. When a famed soloist or vocal group leads the worship in song, they sing praise to God. They and those listening honor God! When the congregation involves itself in liturgical dance, when the service becomes open forum for panel discussion, when one stands before the congregation to speak in tongues, when God’s people have opportunity to witness of their own religious experiences, they do all this to bring glory to God. These modern liturgical practices, it is contended, allow more congregational participation, making the worship much more lively, and simultaneously bring praise, honor, and glory to God whom we serve.
But analyze this once. Is this really true? If we use these means, is our worship God-centered or man-centered? Who receives more attention: God or man? We ought to understand well the rule of worship: nothing is allowed into the worship except that which is appointed by God in Scripture, lest we fall into the same empty and vain idol worship as the Roman Catholic Church.
We ought also to remember who it is that we serve. Only then will we heed the injunction of Scripture inEcclesiastes 5:1, 2, “Keep they foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not reach with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let they words be few.” The solemnity required of us in worship cannot be stated more clearly or sharply. Neither does this rob the worship service of its joy and life. Indeed, this is the very joy and life of worship, that we have opportunity to give glory and honor to God in the way He has prescribed.
In this regard it becomes clear as well that our worship must be characterized by simplicity and orderliness. Again, such a view of worship was re-established by the Swiss Reformation. The Lutheran Church as well as the Romish Church failed to worship in this way. The liturgy of these churches was detailed and bulky, with emphasis on liturgical ceremony and rites. The Swiss Reformers, however, stripped the liturgy of everything that the Word of God did not dictate. This must be the standing rule today as well, especially in light of a chapter such as I Corinthians 14. One receives the impression from this chapter that if there were any early New Testament church that enjoyed the innovations of worship free from the dictates of God’s Word free from the dictates of God’s Word it was this one. So filled with different observances was this congregation that if one were to pass by on the outside they would think the congregation was mad (v. 23). Because of this, Paul enjoined this congregation in verse 40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.”
Is that not natural too, in light of whom we worship? If we bow before the living God we will not be quick to do anything in worship unless He Himself tells us we ought to do it. We wait to hear what God will say. And what God commands us to do in our worship of Him is very simple and orderly. What brings glory to God? Congregational singing? Do it. Prayer? Use it. Confession? Speak it. Christian giving? Give freely in worship to God. Reading and instruction in God’s Word? Never neglect it! These are the dictates of God’s Word. Simple and orderly. Why do we need anything more? By these God-ordained means we give our solemn praise to God. We honor and adore Him.
Such worship makes those in whose hearts God works by His Spirit and grace happy and joyful. When they hear the call to prayer, they respond by going up to God’s own house and bowing before Him. To the believer there is nothing more important than that the God whom he loves receives praise and thanksgiving. After all, it was for this purpose that he was chosen, created, and saved. To God be the glory in our worship!
¹ Worship, Evelyn Underhill, p. 288.
² War Against the Idols, Carlos M.N. Eire, pp. 83, 84.