The church is assembled in worship. Her members have convened in the House of God in an attitude of spiritual reverence in the awareness of the presence of the Holy One. Into the sanctuary they have come; and suppressing, inasfar as possible, the thoughts and cares of the present life, they, in the seclusion of God’s House, are to be led to contemplate the things “eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, and which have never arisen in the heart of man, but which God has prepared for them that love him.” Through quiet meditation, prayers, music, and song the souls of the saints have been conditioned for worship. The benediction of grace has been spoken, filling them with a hidden power that lifts them out of this world into the presence of God to see the beauty of His holiness.
The minister announces the passage of the Holy Word that is to be read. He then pauses momentarily to permit the worshippers to reach out to the rack before them and open the Bible provided, so that they may follow the reading of the Word. Some do, and some don’t. We can remember the time when it was still common to see worshippers on the Lord’s Day carrying their Bibles with them to the House of (God. They obviously desired to have that Word with them, so that in their worship they could see it as well ashear it. Today it is not necessary to carry it since it is provided; but some seem to think that the purpose of these Bibles is solely to provide a toy wherewith the youngsters can be amused during the service. Why they are not used to follow the reading of the Word can only be conjectured; and the suggestion that failure to do so might indicate a lack of interest in the Word would reflect a sad commentary upon the spiritual condition of the church today, Do we have to be forcibly deprived of de Word once more before a consciousness of spiritual appreciation is evoked in us? And if we do not read the Word with the minister in the Divine Worship, how much reading of it do we engage in privately and outside of the church?
In both the Old and New Testament the reading of Scripture has always had an important place in the worship of the church. Many examples may be found in the Old Testament where the law was read to Israel; and in Luke 4:16 we read that Jesus went up to Nazareth, and “as His custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read; and there was delivered unto Him the book of the prophet Esaias.” This reading of the Scripture forms the basis for the service; and, therefore, a passage is selected that is appropriate and most directly related to the particular text that is to be expounded in the sermon. And since “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” it must not be read mechanically and thoughtlessly; but with careful consideration of each verse we must be led to the particular text for meditation with a clear understanding of its context before our minds. Worship demands activity and this must be expressed by the worshippers in all of the service. We must actively “Seek out the Word of the Lord and read . . .” (Isaiah 34:16)
Following the Scripture reading in our worship is the reading of the Law and/or the Confession. The former is generally done in the first service, and the latter in the second. The purpose of the reading of the law must be clearly understood. This is one of the characteristic features of our Reformed worship, and this feature too distinguishes our worship from that of other churches. It is a practice that has been handed down from the time of Calvin and a Lasco, who fashioned our Reformed liturgy. Only when we understand the place and purpose of the reading of the law in our worship will we be fortified to refute the contention of some who desire to exclude this as being inappropriate for the New Testament Church.
What purpose then should the law serve liturgically?
Not only are we concerned with this question, but it has also occupied the attention of Reformed people in the Netherlands. There, as well as here, the Reformed Churches are becoming more interested in liturgical matters. People are not satisfied with following the forms of worship simply because they have been traditionally established and accepted. They want to and should know why. This is wholesome, for mere tradition sounds the death-knell for vital Reformed religion. There is altogether too much dead formalism in the churches and this is not salutary. Empty formalism can easily and subtly supplant vital spiritual worship. If then the reading of the law is to be more than a formal tradition and is to inject spiritual vitality into our worship, we must do this intelligently and with purpose.
We are told that some years ago the consistories of Leiden, The Hague West, and Beverwyk in the Netherlands introduced a new liturgy there that was patterned very closely after the Reformed liturgy outlined by Prof. K. Dyk of Kampen. Concerning the place of the law in this liturgy we quote the following:
“Particularly the order of worship referred to makes mention of the place of the law in the morning service. For a long time it was customary in Beverwyk to sing a psalm of penitence immediately after the reading. Thus the Ten Commandments were used purely as a teacher of sin. However, the consistory was of the conviction that this could not be the primary use of the law in the New Testament Church. It should rather be held up to, the believers as a rule of gratitude. This is also in harmony with the position taken by our Reformed confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day II makes mention of the summary of the Law in connection with the knowledge of sin. The Ten Commandments are used by the Catechism to teach us how to express our thankfulness to God for the deliverance received.
“On the basis of this use of the law the consistory of Beverwyk decided to incorporate the following elements in the morning worship. First of all, after the opening song and salutation, the summary is to be read as the teacher of sin. Thereupon the congregation is to sing the appointed psalm of penitence, after which the Assurance of Pardon is read. Then the congregation is to listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments as the Church’s rule of gratitude.
“Surely, there is much in the decision of the consistory of Beverwyk which commends itself to sound Reformed reasoning. We have likewise contended that the mere reading of the Law without anything else isolates this part of the worship, which then degenerates easily into pure formality.
“Just what will such reading mean to the average worshipper? To what conscious use will it be put by him, as he seeks to worship the Lord? Surely if the Law is above all our rule for faith and practice, this must somehow come to expression in our services.”
It is doubtful that we would favor the proposed liturgical revision suggested here, but with the last statement above we agree. The reading of the law must somehow impress the, worshippers with the fact that the law of God is the only proper norm for faith and life. The church must live constantly in the consciousness of the revealed will of God as expressed in the law, so that by the grace of God she may walk according to that will, and thus the law may be the means unto increased sanctification. In that light we must explain to the satisfaction of ourselves, our children, and others who may worship with us why we insist on reading the Law in the church and what place it occupies in our lives from day to day. If liturgical revision is necessary to attain this objective, we should have it. Let us suppress all anti-nomian tendencies; and let us not slight the law of God in any way, but give prominent place to His precepts in our worship, so that they may be applied unto our lives. And then men will see that we are children of our Heavenly Father in the living expression of our thankfulness for His redemption.
In one of the services each Lord’s Day the church expresses her faith in God and her unity with the church of all ages through the well known Apostolic Creed, which is most fitting for this purpose. This formulation contains the sum of doctrine which the apostles as teachers of the universal church have laid down by divine inspiration. They did not pen these words, but all the ideas expressed were embodied in their teaching. This creed has been universally accepted and lauded as the briefest and clearest presentation of our common faith. Countless times has it been put to good use not only to teach catechumens but also to serve as a basis for larger treatises on doctrine. Its beauty is greatly enhanced by its simplicity.
The question may be asked whether this creed should be read by the minister or whether the entire congregation should recite it. The former is proper, with the congregation silently expressing consent from the heart. No doubt this is the more orderly practice; and when this is done, there is never the difficulty of having the recitation of the creed sound like a confused mass of voices. Should there be strangers in the service, who have never heard these majestic and meaningful statements before, they will be able to follow them to the end. Only make sure that de congregation’s participation is not passive listening, but is active confession from the heart.
Others there are, however, that strongly favor the recitation method. Their reasoning is as follows:
“There is another method, however, and this is much more ideal. It is that of having the entire congregation rise and repeat together its profession. We esteem this method as preferable, because the very idea of profession implies the use of words. Witnessing signifies audible speech first of all, especially when taken in reference to our duty to the world.
“However, if this method is followed, the congregation must learn to do so with reverence and clarity. Never should she grow accustomed to the act. When properly done, such recitation is both instructive and impressive. For what we confess on Sunday, we must also live by throughout the week. Then what is said of Christ in Psalm 40 will by His grace be true of each of us, ‘I have proclaimed glad tidings of. righteousness in the great assembly; lo, I will not refrain my lips, O Jehovah, thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation; I have not concealed thy loving kindness and thy truth from the great assembly.'” (Author is Dr. P. DeJong, minister of the Chr. Ref. Church)
We fail to see where the believer’s confession is negated by the former method if it be remembered that confession is not by words, but is the living witness of the truth expressed in this creed in the lives of believers day by day.