Previous article in this series: April 1, 2017, p. 301.
The six paragraphs of the fifth chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession are the Reformation’s trumpet blast against the false worship of the Roman Catholic Church. Rome’s false worship, particularly her veneration of the saints, is exposed and on the basis of Scripture condemned as idolatrous. But the fifth chapter is not only negative; it is also positive. In broad strokes Heinrich Bullinger, the author of the SHC, sets forth the fundamental principles of the true worship of God, the most important of which is that God is to be worshiped through the one Mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Reformation, as true reformation in every age, not only tore down that which was rotted and decayed, but on the sure foundation of the Word of God built again the house of God.
In his rejection of Rome’s false worship of the saints, Bullinger is careful not to overreact to the error of Rome. While rejecting Rome’s veneration of the saints, he defends the proper and necessary place of the memory of the saints in the lives of Reformed Christians. This is the “due honor to be rendered to the saints” that he develops in the second part of the chapter, consideration of which must wait until our next installment.
True Worship Opposed to Will Worship
God alone is to be adored and worshipped. We teach that the true God alone is to be adored and worshipped. This honor we impart to none other, according to the commandment of the Lord, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (). Indeed, all the prophets severely inveighed against the people of Israel whenever they adored and worshipped strange gods, and not the only true God. But we teach that God is to be adored and worshipped as He Himself has taught us to worship, namely, “in spirit and in truth” ( ), not with any superstition, but with sincerity, according to His Word; lest at any time He should say to us, “Who hath required this at your hands?” ( ; ). For Paul also says, “Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything,” ( ).
The first paragraph of Chapter 5 of the SHC establishes the most fundamental principle of biblical worship, that our worship is to be directed to the one true and living God and to Him alone: “the true God alone is to be adored and worshipped.” This really is THE sola behind the other five solas of the Reformation. The Reformation, as the true church in every age, damned the worship of any beside or instead of the one true God. This is the first commandment of God’s law: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The teaching of the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament, “severely inveighed against” those who “adored and worshipped strange gods, and not the only true God.” All worship, therefore, whether private worship, family worship, or public and corporate worship, which is on the foreground in the fifth chapter of the SHC, is to be the worship of God alone.
Two truths that are closely connected to this fundamental principle of worship are also established in the opening paragraph of Chapter 5. The first of these is that God is to be worshiped as He has revealed His will for worship in His Word. This is the second commandment of God’s law. Not only the object of our worship, but also the manner of our worship is revealed in sacred Scripture. It is not enough that we worship God, but we must worship Him in the proper manner. And that proper manner is set forth clearly in God’s Word: “But we teach that God is to be adored and worshiped as He Himself has taught us to worship.” From what is revealed nothing may be taken away, and to that which is revealed nothing may be added. This was the Reformation’s view of worship.
On the basis of this principle, the Reformers condemned the will worship of the Roman Catholic Church. Rome taught that the church, which in her view was above Scripture, had the right to determine how God was to be worshiped. The manner of worship was something left for the church herself to determine. And so Rome added to the simple worship of God revealed in His Word her rites and rituals, her pomp and ceremony, not found in Scripture.
But on this matter of the manner of worship, the Reformed also parted company with the Lutherans. Luther taught that whatever was not expressly forbidden by the Word of God might be included in the public worship of God. This is sometimes called the normative principle of worship. The Reformed, by contrast, insisted that only that which was expressly commanded by the Word of God belonged in public worship. This is referred to as the regulative principle of worship. Without calling it such, Bullinger clearly articulates in the fifth chapter of the SHC the regulative principle. Only that which God “has required at our hands” is to have a place in worship.
The regulative principle concerns especially the outward elements of worship. But the worship of God is not only a matter of outward form and of conforming to the elements of worship. The worship of God, the worship that pleases Him and carries away His blessing, is also a matter of the heart. This crucially important truth was something the Reformers insisted on. Read their writings and you will be impressed with how often they reiterated this biblical requirement of true worship. It is not enough that we worship God outwardly and formally; we must worship Him from and with the heart. Says Bullinger: “not with any superstition, but with sincerity.” Appropriately, he quotes, Jesus’ word to the Samaritan woman: “God is a Spirit [literally, ‘God is spirit’], and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
Rome’s worship at the time of the Reformation and Rome’s worship today is superstitious worship. Worshipers are taught simply to go through the motions, and that is supposed to be sufficient for the true worship of God and the enjoyment of the blessing of worship. Take mass, do your genuflections, cross yourself, pray by rote the prayers of the rosary, and all will be well as far as the worship of God is concerned. Away with such hypocritical worship, said the Reformers. The true worship of God is ever only worship from the heart, “not with any superstition, but with sincerity.”
God alone is to be invoked through the mediation of Christ alone. In all crises and trials of our life we call upon Him alone, and that by the mediation of our only mediator and intercessor, Jesus Christ. For we have been explicitly commanded, “Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me” (). Moreover, we have a most generous promise from the Lord Who said, “Whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he will give it you” ( ), and, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” ( ). And since it is written, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?” ( ), and since we do believe in God alone, we assuredly call upon Him alone, and we do so through Christ. For as the apostle says, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” ( ), “And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” ( ).
God alone is to be worshiped. But God is to be worshiped through the only Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ alone is the Mediator: solus Christus. Only in the name of and through the Lord Jesus Christ may men approach God in worship. All worship of God apart from Jesus Christ, all worship of God while invoking other mediators, be they saints, angels, or the virgin Mary, is damnable worship. God alone through Christ alone—that was the gospel of the Reformation. And that is the gospel for all time and in every age and among all peoples. This is the distinctiveness of the Christian faith. This is the reason on account of which Christianity that is true to Christ cannot accommodate the false religions. The gospel is never Christ and, but is always Christ alone. Christ is the Way to the Father, and there is no other way to the Father. Christ is the Way to the Father because He alone is the Truth and the Life (). Jesus Christ is “our only mediator and intercessor” with the triune God. He alone is our “advocate with the Father.”
The SHC makes this very practical: “In all crises and trials of our life we call upon Him alone.” Indeed, the nature of the Christian life is that it is a life of “crises and trials.” The Reformers and Reformed believers in the age in which the SHC was written knew that all too well. They knew the sorrows, troubles, disappointments, and losses that are a part of life in a sin-cursed world. More than that, they knew persecution for Christ and the truth’s sake. These are particularly the “crises and trials” to which the SHC refers. They were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned at the stake for the sake of the gospel recovered by the Reformation. In all those “crises and trials” of faith, they experienced the truth of this fifth chapter of the SHC, that Jesus Christ is “our only mediator and intercessor.” They turned to Him and cried out to Him, and found in Him their strength and comfort.
The Saints are not to be Venerated
The saints are not to be adored, worshipped, or invoked. For this reason we do not adore, worship, or pray to the saints in heaven, or to other gods, and we do not acknowledge them as our intercessors or mediators before the Father in heaven. For God and Christ the Mediator are sufficient for us; neither do we give to others the honor that is due to God alone and to His Son, because He has expressly said, “My glory will I not give to another” (), and because Peter has said, “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved,” except the name of Christ ( ). In Him, those who give their assent by faith do not seek anything outside Christ.
Having set forth the truth positively that Christ is the only Mediator, the SHC becomes negative and polemical. The remaining paragraphs of the fifth chapter treat an issue that was very practical at the time of the Reformation: the veneration of the saints and their relics. For Reformed Christians living in the twenty-first century, this is not a burning issue. None of us have likely ever prayed to or sought the intercession of the saints. We have not made pilgrimages in order to observe and pay for the benefit of seeing the relics of the saints. But the whole cult of the saints was alive and well at the time of the Reformation, as indeed it is today in the Roman Catholic Church. I remind you that when Martin Luther was struck to the ground in that thunderstorm and vowed to become a monk, he cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of his copper-mining father. One the most significant treatises that John Calvin wrote was entitled, “An Admonition, Showing the Advantages which Christendom might Derive from an Inventory of Relics.” In it he blasts the great evil as well as the many deceptions connected to the veneration of the relics of the saints.
The SHC is emphatic: “The saints are not to be adored, worshipped, or invoked.” The Reformation condemned the evil of the veneration of the saints, which had become a crass, money-making scheme in the Roman Catholic Church. It did so on the ground that “Christ the Mediator [is] sufficient for us.” Because He is our sufficient and only Mediator, we do not “give to others the honor that is due to God alone and to His Son.” Thus, “in Him, those who give their assent by faith do not seek anything outside of Christ.”