In my previous blog post, I said that I am beginning a series which focuses on the elements of our worship service on Sunday morning at Emmaus Road Reformed Church. In this article, I will explain that in corporate worship, which is the gathering of God’s people each Lord’s Day, we are to do what God requires in his Word.
We cannot talk about worship apart from the church. As the church, we are those who are called out of this world to honor and worship God and receive his mercy and blessing in Christ. We gather together each Lord’s Day to hear the gospel proclaimed, which is the good news of what Christ has done to redeem us from our sins and misery (Romans 8:1-4). Hebrews 10:25 says it is important that we do not neglect to come to worship on the Lord’s Day. In fact, corporate worship is the most important thing we do as Christians each week.
Corporate worship is something different than anything we do during the rest of the week. We are pilgrims in this present evil age, longing for the promised heavenly country (Galatians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:4-5). Life is difficult in this fallen world as we go about fulfilling our vocation. God is certainly always present with us, but on the Sabbath God is present in a special and unique way with his people. God meets with us as we worship together in the visible church. In corporate worship, we enter the holy of holies through the blood and righteousness of our Mediator, the Lord Jesus (Hebrews 10:19). As we worship, our hearts are lifted to heaven by the Holy Spirit. Corporate worship is a foretaste of the promise of heaven, when we will sing the praises of God forever at the marriage supper of the Lamb with all of God’s people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9; 19:9).
Corporate worship is essential for the Christian. The primary way we grow as Christians is through Word and sacrament ministry on the Lord’s Day. God nourishes our soul and edifies us through the means of grace. You might have heard the phrase “means of grace” before, but you might be unsure of what this means. Well, very simply, the means of grace are the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, which are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The means of grace “are sufficient to provide genuine hope and comfort because God has ordained them as the ways in which he will bless and sustain his people.”
An important question to ask when talking about corporate worship is “what elements must we include when we gather for worship?” First of all, it is important to remember that when we talk about worship, we are not just speaking about our singing. Corporate worship is everything from the call to worship to the benediction. So, corporate worship includes singing as well as everything else that we do when we gather together as God’s people on the Lord’s Day.
Article 178 in the Constitution of the Reformed Church in the United States lists the elements of our service: the essential parts of public worship are a call to worship, salutation, invocation, singing, prayer, reading of the Word, preaching a sermon, giving the offerings, the benediction, and the doxology. These elements of worship make up our liturgy.
The question we ask in worship is “what must we do?” We do not ask what can we get away with in worship, but rather we ask “what does God’s Word require us to do in corporate worship?” Let me explain. Emmaus Road Reformed Church is a confessional church, which means we believe the Reformed confessions and catechisms, including the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort, summarize the teaching of Scripture and explain what we believe. One thing we confess to believe is the Reformed regulative principle of worship.
The Reformed confessions talk about the regulative principle. The regulative principle is an application of the second commandment, which says we must not make, worship, or serve any carved images (Exodus 20:4-6). Instead, we are to worship the Triune God of Scripture. The second commandment instructed Israel on how to worship. God said he did not want Israel to try to come up with any clever devices when it came to worship. Rather, God gave Israel clear instructions on how to build the tabernacle and on what pleases him in worship (Exodus 35:4-19).
Today we live in the time after the fulfillment of the new covenant. We do not bring bulls and goats to church because Christ is our perfect prophet, priest, and king who offered himself as the sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 7:26-28; 9:11-15; 10:4). However, the second commandment continues to instruct us on God’s will for our lives. According to the second commandment, God’s will for his people is not only that we are we to worship him, but also that he is jealous to be worshipped in the way he has commanded in the Bible (Heidelberg 96). In fact, as article 7 of the Belgic Confession says, the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written at length for us in Scripture. We should not try to be wiser than God, so we should be encouraged and edified by the elements of worship which please God rather than coming up with our own strategies that we think will be consoling.
Acts 2:42 is a short summary of the elements of worship. We read here that the apostles gathered together for the reading and preaching of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. Reformed churches from the early days of the Reformation worshipped with this biblical and confessional understanding of the regulative principle in places such as Geneva, Switzerland and Heidelberg, Germany.
As a Reformed church in the twenty-first century, we are also seeking to worship God in this way at Emmaus Road Reformed Church. We want to worship God in the Holy Spirit and in the truth of his Word (John 4:23-24). Jesus’ words in John 4:23-24 mean that we cannot worship God by our own power or with our own devices. Rather, we can only worship God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we must only worship God in the way he has commanded in his Word. As we continue to worship as God’s people, let us remember that “just as the Israelites needed to be content with the food that God gave them during their wilderness pilgrimage, so we need to be content with the food from on high that sustains our spiritual lives.”
For more on Reformed worship see W. Robert Godfrey, Pleasing God in our Worship (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999); Michael Horton, A Better Way (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002); Darryl G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2002).