Previous article in this series: October 1, 2015, p. 5.

As a Reformed Christian, I love the church of Jesus Christ. And love for the church commits me, as it does all Reformed Christians, to devotion to the church. So much is devotion to God’s church a part of being Reformed that, if I did not love the church, my profession of being Reformed would be empty. We saw last time that this is the teaching of the Reformed creeds.

The True Church

A Reformed believer’s love for the church, however, is not a love for any church. His love is for the true church of Jesus Christ. Many years ago when my father declined what was probably a generous promotion that would have required him to move four hundred miles north to the state capital, it was not because there were no churches there. There would have been hundreds. Dad declined the promotion because he was devoted to our church, which he firmly believed manifested most clearly the marks of the true church. There was not one like it in Sacramento.

The advice of the Billy Graham Crusade to new converts that they “join the church of their choice” is not Reformed advice. Had Graham been Reformed, he would have given the advice of the Reformed creed: “[You] ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the church” (Art. 29). Just a year or two after the Belgic Confession professed that, the lesser-known but important Second Helvetic Confession expressed similar thoughts: “We do not acknowledge every church to be the true church which vaunts herself to be such.”1 Then, so the pattern of these creeds was, they taught what are the distinguishing marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the righteous exercise of church discipline. “Especially,” the Second Helvetic said, “the lawful and sincere preaching of the Word of God.”

The Reformed fathers wanted Reformed Christians not only to be devoted to the church, but to the true church. And they were convinced that this true church could be found by looking at these distinguishing marks.

The Pure Preaching of the Word of God

“Especially,” said the Second Helvetic. This mark is first. This mark controls the other marks. Under this mark are subordinated any other marks. If the Word is not preached purely, the sacraments cannot be administered properly nor church discipline exercised righteously. This mark is first, especially, because it indicates the presence of Jesus Christ in the church, and nothing indicates the genuineness of a church like the presence of Jesus there. So the Second Helvetic reasoned: the preaching leads to Christ, “who said in the Gospel: ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give unto them eternal life. A stranger they do not follow, but they flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers’ (John 10:5, 27, 28).”

Pure preaching marks a true church, the Reformed faith says. Not just any preaching, because almost every church has preaching. But pure preaching, preaching faithful to Scripture. To hear the truth is to hear Christ. When Christ speaks, He does not speak the lie. “My sheep hear my voice.”

A believer who desires to be a member of a Reformed church, then, will examine the preaching of the church he considers joining. And he will not just listen to a few or even many sermons, but will look into the church’s official view of preaching, her attitude toward preaching, and her oversight of the preaching. He will also want carefully to scrutinize the preaching that takes place in the catechism room, examining the curriculum in all its dimensions. And he will want to know where and how future preachers are trained to preach. A church true to the Reformed tradition will be known by its pure preaching.

Proper Administration of the Sacraments

Second on the traditional (Reformed) list of the marks of a true church is proper administration of the sacraments. The Belgic Confession has “pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ.” The Second Helvetic refers to “the sacraments instituted by Christ, and delivered unto us by his apostles, using them in no other way than as they received them from the Lord.” The Westminster Confession has: “…ordinances administered…purely….” And: “only two sacraments ordained by Christ…neither of which may be dispensed by any but by a minister of the word, lawfully ordained.”

Reformed Christians consider it very important that the church they join not multiply sacraments, but limit them to the two the Lord instituted: Baptism and the Holy Supper. Nor may they embellish these two with man-made nonsense, so that the sign is obscured by the entertainment or unbiblical ritual. Simple, straightforward, as-instituted-by-Christ sacraments mark the true church. That is, sacraments that point to Jesus Christ and His gracious, sovereign salvation.

The Broader Perspective

But looking at these marks—and especially the second mark—more broadly, proper worship in its entirety may be viewed as a mark of the true church. Sacraments—a fundamental aspect of worship—are a part of the larger reality of worship. And preaching is the chief element—but an element—in worship. Jesus’ presence in any church is determined and known by the entire worship of the church, not only by whether the bare sacraments are administered properly or sermons speak truth, fundamental as these are. The totality of a church’s worship shows whether it is true to the Reformed faith.

Viewing these marks of the true church in connection with worship, broadly, fits with the Reformers’ major concern during the Reformation: pure doctrine must be preached in order that there be proper worship. Rome’s heretical doctrine also explains why Rome improperly administered the sacraments. But Rome’s heresy manifested itself in worship more extensively than we might imagine.

The Westminster Confession takes this perspective of the marks. These Presbyterian fathers said that a particular church is more or less pure (we would say, “manifests the marks of the true church”) “according as the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (emphasis added).

Application of this point is vital. Even as not just any preaching allows a church to identify as Reformed, even so not just any worship will allow that either. Worship only of a certain kind is Reformed worship. With songs of a certain kind. And activity limited to what God commands. What I want or what makes you feel good does not determine the kind of worship we offer God. Some kinds of worship are simply out of bounds if a church will have the identity Reformed.

To be blunt, it is as inappropriate for a Reformed church to advertise “9 a.m.: Traditional Worship, 11 a.m.: Contemporary Worship” as it would be to advertise “9 a.m.: Calvinism; 11 a.m.: Arminianism.” Worship is that important. Reformation history will not allow us to see it any other way. Five hundred years ago the danger was vestments, incense, candles, altars, images, kneeling, and homilies that were not sermons. Today, although some want to return to the errors of Rome’s worship, the more common danger is praise bands and loud music, pulsing lights, a hip speaker sitting on a stool to go with the hiphop music—in the service of what someone once called the “liturgy of scruff.”

God calls His people to “serve” Him “acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28). Some worship is unacceptable to God. Worship’s acceptability by God has everything to do with “reverence and godly fear.” Why? “For our God is a consuming fire.” That reason is not to be criticized as “Old Testamentish,” because it is New, from Hebrews 12. Faith cannot be separated from the form in which it expresses itself in public worship. Every theology will have its corresponding (that is, matching) doxology.

This explains why Westminster has a Directory for Public Worship, the Church of Scotland her Book of Common Order, and why our Dutch Reformed fathers carried to church their ecclesiastically adopted kerkboekjes (little worship/ prayer books), which included what to sing and how to worship. Their good sense told them that worship is too important to be left to the whim of the (perhaps creative) minister, or even to the regular brainstorming of a worship committee. There is a “decency and order” (I Cor. 14:40) required in worship—a phrase to be applied not first of all to church government, as we often apply it (not improperly), but to public worship, as the context of I Corinthians 14 indicates.

Calvin’s Principles

Of course, cautions are in order. Such as: this is not to say that only one specific order of worship can be called Reformed and any other order must be labelled “un-Reformed.” But principles governed the worship of churches that used the name Reformed, and these principles made their worship look very similar from one church to another across Europe and in America. Even if Reformed churches were not always able to require “strict liturgical uniformity,” they were always convinced of the importance of a “common form and content” in their worship.2

Those who know Calvin will recognize the lead he has given to Reformed churches in their worship. Generally speaking, these are Calvin’s principles:

  • The sermon—the Word of God—is central. Nothing may squeeze out the sermon from having pride of place. For, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17; I Cor. 1:21).
  • Second, theological soundness is paramount. Feelings and emotion, aesthetics and beauty, must always be subordinate to sound doctrine. Know the truth. Be sanctified by the truth. Beware the lie. God’s name (His reputation, revealed in His works) must be protected above all (John 8:32, 44; 17:17; II Thess. 2:11).
  • Third, worship must serve unto edification. Not only must sermons be central, and theologically sound, they must be understood. Preachers must read the Word, give the sense, and cause the hearers to understand the reading (see Neh. 8:8). There can be no edification without understanding (I Cor. 14!).
  • Fourth, worship must be simple, uncomplicated, free from pomp and embellishments. “Omit,” Calvin said, “all theatrical pomp which dazzles the eyes of the simple and deadens their mind.” When the Reformed fathers in the creeds explained the second commandment, they said, “This means: do not include in the worship of God what God has not called to be there!” The command does not refer to furniture or wall-hangings (although pictures that are intended to teach are kept out), but to the assembled congregation’s activity. This determination to restrict worship to what God commands has led to worship that is beautiful for its simplicity, understandable even by children.
  • Full congregational participation is high on the list of governing principles. A Reformed church does not ask others to worship God for the people. Special numbers and choral presentations in public worship violate the principle the Reformers fought for when the Romish priests were worshipping and the layman only watching: the priesthood of every believer (I Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6). The church members will sing, Calvin said, contrary to the advice of Zwingli who thought music had too much power to move emotions. But she will sing wisely, which leads to the final principle.
  • Calvin’s central theme was Soli Deo Gloria—in worship as well as theology (which, remember, always are reflections of each other). To God alone be the glory. Among other things, this principle led Reformed churches to sing the Psalms in worship. It moved Calvin repeatedly to advise that church music never be “light or frivolous,” but always have “weight and majesty.”

Sound principles, all of them, in the quest for a true church. The principles are Reformed.

Next time: A Reformed church is identified by its church discipline.

1 For an exposition of this important but lesser-known creed, we encourage you to follow Prof. R. Cammenga’s series of articles in the rubric “Believing and Confessing” beginning January 1, 2015.

2 These are the expressions Robin A. Leaver uses in his preface to Daniel Meeter’s fine treatment of the Dutch liturgy, Bless the Lord, O My Soul: The New-York Liturgy of the Dutch Reformed Church, 1767, Lanham, Md., & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1998, viii.