Reformed worship (I): the sacraments and preaching...

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(NOTE: This is the first post in a series on Reformed worship. Here are the secondthirdfourthfifth, and sixth.)

Calvin and the Genevan reformers worked to reform every aspect of Rome's doctrine and practice, and this was especially true of worship.

Leaving behind the priorities of the New Testament church, the worship of medieval Rome was deformed beyond recognition. Whereas the Jerusalem church's first devotion had been the teaching of the Apostles,1 Rome displaced preaching with the idolatry of the Mass. Read Calvin on many passages of Scripture and his opposition to Rome’s sacramentalism is front and center. Here is an excerpt from a sermon on Galatians 2:14-16:

But the good works which they (Rome) set afore us are, that we must go devoutly to Mass ...and do this and that. So then, all these hypocrites which will needs become righteous by their own works, have nothing but gewgaws [trinkets, showy trifles] and dotages: and yet for all that, they think themselves so holy and perfect, that nothing is amiss in them. They think that God ought to content himself with the great number of murlimews and countenances which they make. But that is not the coin wherewith he must be paid, for his law is spiritual. He looketh not upon the outward gesture, nor upon the things that carry a fair gloss before men, insomuch that if men set their minds too much upon his own Ceremonies, he rejecteth it utterly: And that is a thing well worthy the marking. For men seek still some startinghole, that they might not yield themselves to the obeying of God: and they bear themselves in hand, that when they have once dispatched their fond devotions, then they are well discharged and all the rest of their sins must be forgotten, because they ransom them by that means.

His text is the Holy Spirit's declaration that man is “not justified by the works of the law" and this is the occasion for Calvin to condemn “hypocrites" for their habit of “set(ting) their minds too much upon (God's) own ceremonies." Yes, Calvin recognizes the Lord's Supper is a ceremony commanded by our Lord that gives grace to those who discern the Lord's Body rightly, yet he warns those "setting their minds too much upon" it that God does not accept their ceremony, but "rejecteth it utterly." Heart religion is dependent upon the grace of the Holy Spirit and Calvin points out how men turn from it to ceremonies, thinking their ceremonies are God's Own currency. Didn't He Himself institute them?

In the time of Christ, the church's priests and Bible scholars made a show of obeying God by circumcising foreskins, yet they disdained the work that is dependent...

upon the Holy Spirit—the circumcision of men's hearts. This is the meaning of Jesus' condemnation: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte (convert); and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves" (Matthew 23:15).

The theme is prominent across Scripture:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Or else My wrath will go forth like fire And burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds. (Jeremiah 4:4)

Egypt and Judah, and Edom and the sons of Ammon, and Moab and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart. (Jeremiah 9:26)

So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)

The Apostle Paul puts it directly:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (Romans 2:28, 29)

Despite this warning by the Apostle Paul, in the priorities of worship, Reformed scribes today are busy displacing the inward circumcision of the heart that is "by the Spirit" with sacramentalism, liturgism, and ceremonialism. As they speak and write, one searches in vain for their use of any of the Biblical warnings listed above. Rather, all their pastoral exhortations are in the direction of the formalist's ceremonialism. While promoting this and that order of worship with this and that sacrament at the liturgy's apex, dispensing grace to this and that age group with this and that frequency, they demote the very heart religion without which these liturgies and sacraments are devoid of grace. Condemning pietism and subjectivism, they turn their adherents away from the new birth of Jesus, without which these liturgies and ceremonies are utterly rejected by God.

"But it was our Lord Himself Who commanded baptism and the Lord's Supper," they protest.

Indeed. And prior to the incarnation of our Lord, God's people turned Moses' bronze serpent into an idol.2 As this serpent was made and used at God's Own command and yet was turned into an idol, so this meal our Lord commanded "do this in remembrance of me" was turned into idolatry by medieval Roman Catholicism.

Yet was not the second devotion of the Jerusalem church "the breaking of bread?"

A reasonable man might conclude Rome had simply reversed the order of the worship of the first church there in Jerusalem, placing the Lord’s Supper in the primary position and relegating preaching to a secondary place, but this was not the case.

At the time of the Reformation, Roman Catholicism had no place in their worship for preaching. Thus as part of his reform of worship, in his foreword to the Psalter Calvin spoke of the necessity of preaching in the proper administration of the sacraments, defending this preaching against those who claimed it was a novelty:

Now there are in sum three things which our Lord has commanded us to observe in our spiritual assemblies, namely, the preaching of His word, the public and solemn prayers, and the administration of His sacraments (cf. Acts 2:47). ...As for the sacraments, if we look truly at their nature, we recognize that it is a perverse custom to celebrate them in such a way that the people have nothing but the spectacle, without explanation of the mysteries which are contained in them. For if these are visible words, as Saint Augustine calls them, they must not be merely an exterior spectacle, but doctrine must be joined to them to give them understanding. Now the true consecration is that which is declared by the word of faith when it is declared and received, as Saint Augustine says. ...If we wish, then, rightly to celebrate the sacrament, it is necessary for us to have the doctrine by which what is signified in it, is declared to us. I know perfectly well that that seems like an outrageous opinion to those who are unaccustomed to it, as is the case with all new things. But it is certainly right, if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, that we prefer his institution to our practice. And what He instituted from the beginning ought not to appear to us like novel opinion.

Calvin grounds the elements and order of Christian worship in the devotions of the first church in Jerusalem, seeking the return of preaching to the first priority of worship it had from the beginning. And note he is concerned this will cause offense among the souls of his time. Mass had displaced preaching to such an extent that the people considered its return an “outrageous opinion” to which they were “unaccustomed… as is the case with all new things.”

Did you get that? Preaching was something the people were "unaccustomed" to, a "new thing."

But the reformers persevered in their reform of worship, returning the reading and preaching of God's Word to front and center as it had been in the church of Jerusalem. And thus it is that historians sum up the work of the Reformers concerning worship as "a great preaching revival.”

This revival was not simply the promotion of preaching, but also the relegation, the demotion, of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper from the pride of position and emphasis it had under Rome.

Following the Reformation, the Lord's Supper was neither the one thing necessary nor the pinnacle of Lord's Day worship.

Note this carefully: in the services of Reformation Geneva presided over by John Calvin and his fellow reformers, there was never a service without preaching, whereas the administration of the Lord’s Supper was rare.

  • 1. Acts 2:40-42.
  • 2. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan. (2 Kings 18:4)
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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