What is Reformed Theology?
– Part Four
Remember when we said the Reformation was a historical event with far-reaching consequences on all areas of life? This was especially true in worship. The Reformers taught that a person did not have to become a pastor to properly glorify God. They taught that people could bring God glory by working hard in their professions, loving their families well, and living their everyday lives. The Reformation brought meaning to the ordinary Christian, as all areas of life became areas where we could love and worship God.
While Reformed Theology rightly recognizes that all of life is worship, it also correctly teaches that God has instituted a special time where He meets with His people. This is when Christians gather together to specially worship God by declaring His worth to Him (worth-ship). It is all about Him and His majesty, not about us or our preferences. In this last part of our series, we will be discussing four foundational Reformed teachings about this unique time of worship: 1) the Lord’s Day; 2) the Regulative Principle of Worship; 3) the centrality of the Word; 4) the place of the sacraments.
The Lord’s Day
The foundation for Reformed teaching on worship is the keeping of the one-day-in-seven pattern God instituted at the creation of the world. This is commonly referred to as the Sabbath Day or the Lord’s Day. After God created the world, the Scriptures tell us that He rested on the seventh day and set it apart from the other days of the week as a day to be kept holy (Exodus 20:8-10). The Reformers taught that Jesus’s resurrection on the first day of the week moved the seventh day Sabbath to the first day. The resurrection ushered in a new creation and with it a new day set apart for the worship of God.
There is much to be said about the Sabbath, its basis in Scripture, its benefits for Christians today, and how it can properly be observed, but what you should keep in mind for now is that God instituted in His word a special day when His people should gather to worship Him. The Scriptures tell us that we are not to neglect this important gathering (Hebrews 10:25). It is an essential aspect of the Christian life. The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck noted:
“Whoever isolates himself from the church … loses the truth of the Christian faith. That person becomes a branch that is torn from the tree and shrivels, an organ that is separated from the body and therefore doomed to die. Only within the communion of the saints can the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended,” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 1: Prolegomena).
God has created us to be in relationship with Him and with the rest of His people, and He has commanded us to keep a day set apart. This is the bedrock of true Reformed worship.
The Regulative Principle of Worship
The Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), simply put, just means that we are not to do anything in the special worship of God that He has not prescribed in His word. The Reformers taught that worship was to be first and foremost pleasing to God and not about individual human preferences. The Westminster Confession put it nicely, noting:
“The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (Westminster Confession 21.1).
At the time of the Reformation, this meant that churches would no longer keep up Roman Catholic practices of using images of God in any form or other man-made inventions. No longer would churches add things to the worship service that were not found in Scripture. Today, this means when you enter a church all parts of its service must be defended by something found in Scripture.
The Centrality of the Word
Speaking of Scripture, the Reformers revolutionized the church services of their day by making Scripture central. Reformed worship requires that the Scripture be elevated to its proper place.
Where the Roman Church exclusively read the Scriptures in the elitist language of Latin, the Reformers taught that the Word of God was to be read in a language that could be understood by the common man. Where the Roman Church diminished the importance of preaching, focusing instead on a mystic observance of religious rituals, the Reformers taught that the Scriptures were to be carefully explained from the pulpit. Where the Roman Church used music as a ceremonial display with little engagement from the congregation, the Reformers taught that Psalms were to be vigorously sung by the men, women, and children of the church.
Because the Word of Christ is to dwell richly in the church (Colossians 3:16), Reformed worship emphasizes a high view of Scripture in church services. The Scripture itself teaches us that God chose the “foolishness of preaching” as a means of making people trust in Him (1 Corinthians 1:21). Worship must be thoroughly informed by Scripture and church services should be bathed from beginning to end in the Word of God.
The Place of the Sacraments
What is a sacrament? The word sacrament literally means ‘mystery.’ In the church, a sacrament is a practice commanded by God and given to Christians as a sign and gift of grace to help them grow and strengthen their faith. It is mysterious as it is hard to understand exactly how a sacrament can bring about such growth in faith. While the Roman Catholic church taught that there were seven sacraments and that these sacraments had mystical power within themselves, the Reformers correctly taught that the Bible only prescribed two sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—and that these two have no power within themselves. Instead, the sacraments help Christians grow through the power of God.
Baptism is commonly referred to as the sacrament of initiation. It is when a Christian is washed with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a sign and seal of his or her union to Christ. It is a sacrament of initiation because it only takes place once and usually at the beginning of the Christian life. The Lord’s Supper is commonly known as a continual sacrament. It is where the church gathers together to eat bread and wine as a memorial of Christ’s death. It is a continual sacrament because it is to be administered in churches frequently and because it is a means that God uses to continually nourish Christians.
Reformed theology teaches that the sacraments are never to be administered without the explanation of the Word of God, and that when Christians engage in the Word and Sacrament in church services they are being taken up into the very presence of God in Heaven. Indeed, when we hear the word preached and eat and drink the bread and wine, we are joined Christ in worship. Calvin notes that “this mystery is heavenly, there is no need to draw Christ to earth that he may be joined to us,” (Calvin, Institutes4.31). Thus, Reformed worship teaches that the sacraments are to be regarded highly as they help Christians grow closer to God.
Reformed worship is a time when God directly meets with His people. He calls us into his presence. We respond by confessing our sins to Him and hearing His Word. Reformed worship is saturated in the Word. In a Reformed service, the scripture should be read, preached, and sung.
Reformed worship is a time when God cleans us and welcomes us as His children in the sacrament of Baptism and then continually feeds us through the bread and wine of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. He then commissions us to leave His presence and begin the new week with His blessing.
The Lord’s Day, then, is the most important day of the week. On it, we rest and worship the one, true, and living God. Reformed worship places God’s glory above all things and helps shape us into people who long after Him.