A capstone project during my final semester in seminary was on Christian liturgy. This occurred in the final systematic theology class on Ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church. Instead of a term paper the students were given a research project to work on. We were to discover the biblical and historic precedence for liturgy in the church with an emphasis on Reformed liturgy, comparing and contrasting the various traditions of the church throughout time and place. Students were also charged with creating their own desired liturgy. Below are the meager fruits of this exercise.
Worship of the Triune God
The worship of God the Father in Christ Jesus the Son through the Holy Spirit must be done in (S)pirit and in (T)ruth (Jn 4:24). The Three-in-One shall be glorified and praised in accordance with divine command. John testifies that Jesus will no longer have worship be confined to a place or a time or a people, but worship will be widespread throughout all the nations (vv 21-23). A greater, heavenly worship is in view where the spiritual takes precedent over the temporal and spatial for God’s covenant people. The “earthly” worship of the church is not dismissed, however, but is united with the saints gone before and the Lord’s host in the heavenly choir (Heb 12:1; Rev 5:13). This grand here-and-now and not-yet-perfected worship is to be issued forth to God in truth.
Just as the Old Covenant Church Israel took seriously the worship of Yahweh, so too the New Covenant Church. The “I Am” of Moses and Abraham’s (yester)day is the same today and forever (Jn 8:58; Heb 13:8). Ever since the Apostles and their subsequent, Spirit-spirated teaching, the assembly of God has sought to worship him rightly (Acts 2:42).
Development has occurred since those early times of the first century but the foundations are the same. The Church worships their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier through the Word of truth, the visible word in the sacraments, and the prayers. Through the apostolic teaching of the true word of the true God and the administration of baptism and the Supper, the way of life is preached. Through the praise of song in the Body and the prayers of the saints, worship comes before the throne of grace, traveling to the Father by the intercessory work of our High Priest through the Spirit of truth.
Worship Based on Revelation
The Word is central. There would be no way of knowing God or worshiping him if not for a word given to us by him. God spoke and creation was. God revealed to Adam and Eve their uprightness and their duty before him, otherwise they would not have known their high and esteemed status (WCF 4.2; 7.1-3; HC 6). God speaks to us, then acts on our behalf, and then teaches us what he has done. Knowing God and his word is elemental to true worship. We know God through his word. To quote Michael Horton, the first and second commandments of the Decalogue showcase this truth: “Worshiping the right God (i.e., Yahweh) is dependent on worshiping God in the right manner (i.e., giving ear to his word)” (Michael Horton, People & Place 60). God has taken steps as Sovereign to ensure that his creatures know him and worship him rightly. It is in his word to us that we discern his means of grace and the model for our prayers of supplication and song-filled thanks to him.
The church catholic since her inception has thought long and hard about these issues of proper worship. The early church had two testaments from the Lord to consider and then to inform their worship and doctrine. In the period of Reformation, a return to such matters took precedence. The theology described above is swirling about in the minds of the Reformers in the 1500’s. The worship of God––the liturgy of the church––was to shape the life of the church. The present church joins together with the heavenly host of redemptive history to praise their Savior within an eschatological cast. The liturgy displays the glory of God. The church is where God calls us into the Savior of the world and to learn of Jesus the Christ through the ongoing work of the life-giving Spirit. The powers of the dark passing age disappear in the light of the age to come. Horton describes the worship of God by the saints in this already/not yet battle arena: “Every event where the Spirit mediates union with Christ through Word and sacrament is another violent disruption of the kingdom of evil, refusing to let death have the last word” (Horton, PP 285). The last enemy death is declared the loser and Christ the Victor is praised by his faithful, who in him have life.
Worship is a Gift
God’s call goes forth and his people gather on his sacred day of worship. The Christian life in its fullness is one of worship, but there is one day set apart for the people of God to do this specially and in a manner as God has commanded: the Lord’s Day Sabbath. The assembled people come to gather by God’s call – “Enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Ps 100) – and receive his gracious greeting. The Votum welcomes them into his house not built with hands. Horton gives an example from the churches of his association (URCNA): “Beloved people of God, receive God’s greeting: Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Michael Horton, Better Way 149). Appropriately, his people invoke his name for continued mercy and grace, responding back in dialogical communication, with descriptions of God’s glory and majesty, his love and forgiveness (the psalms are more than fitting here). In John Calvin‘s famed liturgies, he would use Psalm 124:8, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Gibson & Earngey 307-8).
A scriptural exhortation and song of praise shall follow to alert the people of God to ready their hearts and minds to receive from the Lord’s mouth. Calvin again is helpful here: “My brothers, let each of you present himself before the face of the Lord with confession of his faults and sins, following my words in his heart” (Gibson & Earngey 308). We are exhorted to be ready to hear God speak from his word with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Mt 22:37). As the Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 4 states, this text from Matthew sums up the law, which shall make up the first reading of Scripture to follow the exhortation––to be ready, for we are on holy ground. The most common place to go in holy writ is the Decalogue, but other portions of Scripture regarding the perfect law of God will work too (Lev 18:5, for example). The law is good and holy and righteous (Rom 7:12), but to wretched sinners, it is a terror. This reading of the law also reminds us in the Reformed tradition of its third use, the rule of the Christian life for the believer.
Nevertheless, we all fail and so must confess our failure. Confession of sin follows the reading of the law in the worship of God. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). Thank God for his faithfulness! So now we rejoice in the reading of the gospel found in both Old and New Testaments. God’s manifold promises resound upon the saint and sinner in Christ and especially in the Absolution, or the pardon of sin. God’s word declares it upon the adopted in Christ, and so the minister of the Word voices the same upon God’s people in the worship service. “The absolution is a public declaration that God has forgiven our sins” (Horton, BW 151). An exhale of “Hallelujah” promptly follows.
This leads directly into the praise of God, a doxological utterance to his goodness. We have confessed our sins and God has revealed in his gospel his favor towards us. We praise him accordingly. We also confess our faith in him. The historical, ecumenical creeds stand in perfect order here along with the confessions and catechisms of the Reformed tradition, our attempt to display the faith once for all delivered: we confess God as our Savior in Christ Jesus by the perfecting Spirit. We confess along with the one, holy, apostolic church catholic.
To this point we have addressed God through his word, confessing our faith in his promises, reciting his truth for us to him and among one another. Following our confession of faith comes prayer. The pastoral prayer, or congregational prayer (also known as the “Great Prayer”) follows suit (Horton, BW 155-6). Here the minister intercedes for his flock and its needs, and the community where the church resides, the nation, and the world beyond. The Lord’s Prayer is thus recited to close this time of prayer in the assembly.
The Word Heard, Prayed, Preached, and Seen
Now most Protestant churches think that what comes next is the main event: the Scripture reading before the sermon together with the exposition of the text, but as we have seen, God’s word to his people has been on full display in the service of his worship up to this point already. Nevertheless, this is God’s very word, so after the Scripture is read – those verses which will be expounded upon by the minister – a prayer for the Spirit’s illumination in the hearts and minds of the hearers is offered, for the truth comes through hearing, hearing the word of truth by the Spirit of truth (Jn 14:15-17; 16:13).
What more can be said about the sermon? Faith does come by hearing, and hearing of the truth of Christ, so this word is central. But as already stated, God’s word has permeated the whole of the service thus far (at least it should have!). Following the sermon, the next proper step in the worship of God is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper of grace. This is the penultimate foretaste of that blessed life we long for when faith becomes sight. This already/not-yet communion of the saints together with their Lord previews the feast of the Lamb unto everlasting. Christ instituted this sacrament and the words of institution are proclaimed. The penitent receive the distributed bread and wine, and with hearts of faith and thanksgiving they feed on Christ’s body and blood through the Spirit.
Prayer is offered to God for he has confirmed his promises to us in the sacrament. A psalm of thanksgiving and alms to God’s goodness is the gathered saints proper response. We can only give in love because God first gave of himself in pure love. Horton describes this liturgical crescendo aptly: “Notice how this liturgical structure constitutes a play within a play, its own dramatic unity. It moves from invocation to confession, then to absolution and intercession; then the Word is preached and made visible in the Supper. God has been acting upon us, working repentance and faith in our hearts. What other response could we give than heartfelt gratitude and service to our neighbor in his name?” (Horton, BW 160).
Our grateful response to God’s gracious deliverance in Christ is not the last word, however (Horton, BW 160). God has the final say, and it is his word of blessing. Most often, the Aaronic Benediction is a given here, but many other portions of Scripture satisfy. The Middleburg Liturgy provides Paul’s praise at the end of 2 Corinthians, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all. So be it” (Gibson & Earngey 661). The summary word from God to us is, “Go in peace.”
One note of absence in this liturgy just communicated is the initiatory sacrament of baptism. Though it is my conviction, as well as among others, who believe that the Lord’s Supper should be a normal part of Lord’s Day worship (i.e., weekly), baptism does not serve the body in the same way. There simply are not babies being born in any given church on a weekly basis. (Though, would that not be a blessing!) Likewise, there are not weekly incidents of non-believing visitors coming into our churches and the Holy Spirit applying Christ to them in new birth then and there. (Though what a blessing that would be to see!) There would be, however, a strong desire to see baptism frequent the worship service as often as required to the glory of God.
Worship is commanded, but also our greatest blessing. Narrowly, the Supper is the foretaste of the eschaton, but broadly speaking, the whole of Lord’s Day worship is eschatologically freighted. God calls and gathers his people. We come with joyful hearts, seeking him, pleading for his forgiveness, desiring to be an obedient people reborn by the gospel – to live out who we truly are in Christ. We hear his word proclaimed to us and see his action on our behalf. Our only answer in Christ can be yes and amen! Martin Luther, along with the other Reformers, would often conclude services with the Lord’s blessing utilizing Numbers 6 or Psalm 66, saying, “I believe that Christ used a blessing of this sort when he blessed his disciples as he ascended into heaven” (Gibson & Earngey 90-1). Indeed, he is with us always, even to the end of the age.
Votum (Greeting – “Call to Worship”)
Invocation with Psalm
Scripture Exhortation & Song of Praise
Reading of God’s Law
Confession of Sin (song)
Reading of the Gospel
Doxology, Praise (song)
Creed/Confession of Faith
Pastoral Prayer (Great Prayer)
Prayer for Illumination
Sermon (ends in prayer)
Thanksgiving (Alms/Offering, with Psalm)
*There are multiple segments to the Lord’s Supper: Words of Institution, Prayer, Distribution, Partaking.
– Total service time estimated, 90 mins.
Cabaniss, Allen. Pattern in Early Christian Worship. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989.
Clark, R. Scott. Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.
Gibson, Jonathan and Mark Earngey. Eds. Reformation Worship: Liturgies From the Past For the Present. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018.
Horton, Michael S. People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
–––––. A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003.
Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Cultural Liturgies, Vol. I. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
The United Reformed Churches of North America. Liturgical Forms and Prayers of the URCNA together with The Doctrinal Standards of the URCNA. Wellandport, Ontario: URCNA, 2018.
Thompson, Bard. Ed. Liturgies of the Western Church. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1980.
White, James F. Documents of Christian Worship: Descriptive and Interpretive Sources. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.