Why A Liturgical Way of Worshipping God?
by Michael S. Horton (© 1996 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals – Used with permission.)
From the Greek word for public service, the English word “liturgy” is frightening to many of us who were raised in evangelical churches that had left traditional Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. However, it simply refers to the divine service.
Scriptural worship centers on God’s service to us rather than on our service to God. This is why we understand the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be “means of grace.” We come to church first of all in order to receive his gift of eternal life. Of course, we are given eternal life the moment we believe, but our faith is imperfect and weak; we are still prone to doubt and despair. Therefore, God meets with his people and through his Word and Sacraments he gives them what he promises: salvation full and free in Christ.
But we also come to church in order to give. It is a grateful response of thanksgiving. The Heidelberg Catechism is divided into three sections: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude–and with good reason. This is, after all, how the Bible explains our problem and God’s solution. First we must understand the greatness of our problem before God, then the greatness of redemption, which leads us finally to faith and repentance, praise and grateful obedience. Like the Catechism, the liturgy follows these three divisions. This means that every time we worship, we receive the Word throughout the service, not only during the sermon (although that is the chief place for it). There is a goal, a movement, and every week it is the same even though the text of the sermon may be different. Every week we come to terms again with our sinfulness and particular sins, confess them, hear the assurance of the Word that we are forgiven, and praise our merciful Redeemer.
In more “free-style” liturgies (yes, even they are “liturgical,” for everyone has a style of worship), the form depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the pastor or the music director. Often there is no rhyme or reason to the service and it is the sermon alone that sets the theme. In other settings, emotions are allowed the place of Scripture in defining the character of the service, while still other churches determine the service by their aesthetic sense and preference for one style over another. It is not uncommon for churches to divide over these preferences and since it is difficult to find Scriptural authority for one’s own personal tastes, there is little chance of the Bible being able to settle such disputes.
The Protestant Reformers did not want to “throw the baby out with the bath-water” when they sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Instead of abolishing all set forms of worship, they reformed the Roman Mass and removed the idolatry, superstition, and merit-theology. Just as they had evangelized the masses with the good news of God’s grace in Christ, they insisted on making worship conform to that biblical message so that the service itself would be a means of evangelizing Christians in their weakness and doubt as well as unbelievers.
Martin Luther and his associates reformed the liturgy in Germany, while Martin Bucer and John Calvin led the way in Strasbourg and Geneva. It was through Bucer’s direct supervision that the Church of England produced the famous and majestic Book of Common Prayer. Bucer was Calvin’s mentor and the liturgies of Strasbourg were incorporated into the services of the Reformed Churches throughout Europe.
One important link in the development of the Reformed liturgy was Petrus Dathenus (1531-1588), a Dutch Reformed minister, and at the Convent of Wesel in 1568 (four years after Calvin’s death), this became the official liturgy of the Dutch Reformed churches.
Since these forms are based on liturgies that go all the way back to the early church, worshippers sense a continuity–a link–with other worshippers in other ages who confessed the same faith and were united by the same hope. Many see the difference simplistically, in terms of formal versus informal worship. American Christianity, heavily influenced by Romanticism, champions informal worship at least in part because of its individualism and subjectivism. But we come to church not merely as individuals who happen to be doing our own thing together; we come together as the Body of Christ and one immediately notices that this liturgical approach knits us together and causes us to enjoy fellowship around a common faith.
Many of us were raised to think of the early church as “house churches,” much like a modern Bible study –informal, unstructured, with no particular organization or hierarchy. However, this was not the case. In fact, it was just this sort of individualism and rejection of authority that caused division in Corinth and merited Paul’s stern rebukes. While these believers met in houses quietly in order to avoid persecution, they followed a set form of worship. In fact, in the famous Acts 2 passage, we learn that early worship consisted of preaching, “the fellowship,” “the breaking of bread” and “the prayers.” It is not merely to prayer in general, but to the prayers that the passage refers, and Communion (“the breaking of bread”) was regularly celebrated along with the preaching rather than being an infrequent addendum. One can read liturgies from the earliest days of the post-apostolic era and discover many of the same prayers and forms that we find in our own Reformed liturgies.
But there is a balance between form and freedom. In every age there is a need to reconsider the liturgical forms–not in order to do away with them, but in order to make sure that they are doing their job: uniting us in this time and place with Christians in other times and places as we join the departed saints in heaven in singing praises to our God and Savior. To that end, we have taken the liberty to do what the Reformers themselves did when they revised the medieval liturgy.