Reformed Worship Part 3: Worship Must Be Historical

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Reformed Worship Series: Introduction • Part 1 • Part 2  • Part 3 • Part 4

Early Christian banquet at a catacombIn June 2007, tens of thousands of people all over the United States lined up in front of stores for a chance to be one of the lucky first Apple iPhone owners. But in February 2008, only six months after these lucky people bought their iPhones, Apple released a “new and improved,” “bigger and better” version.

We live in a “new and improved” culture. We trade our “old” cars, computers, cell phones, and all other gadgets in for the latest model. We replenish our wardrobe according to the season of the year. Even our homes get old very quickly. “Old” means obsolete, useless, and material for thrift stores. Toddlers today would probably not know what iPods and iPhones are by the time they become teens.

Our churches are not immune from this “new and improved” culture. The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church – one church throughout the ages whose foundation was laid by the apostles’ teaching – does not mean much to them. Evangelicals have no knowledge as to what the church’s worship and music was like only a few decades ago. They have no connectedness to the past, and will surely be disconnected from the future. Their worship is constantly changing so that worshipers do not know what to expect on any given Lord’s Day. Everything “new and improved” is welcomed, and everything “old-fashioned” is discarded. Their “new songs” and new “musicians” last but a few months, “famous for 15 minutes,” so that even their younger siblings do not know their songs. In my class of thirteen young students, no one knows Luther’s 500-year-old classic “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and in my daughter’s 8th Grade class of thirty, no one knows the 1949 hymn “How Great Thou Art.” Recently, I preached in a seminary chapel, and hardly anyone knew the ancient church doxology “Gloria Patri.”

From Generation to Generation

In contrast to our culture’s disconnectedness to the past and ever-changing doctrine and worship, the Holy Scriptures teach us about the constancy of the doctrine and worship of God that we are to impart to our children – to the “thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6). God’s command to the Israelite parents before they entered the Promised Land to “make [his statutes] known to your children and your children’s children” (Dt. 4:9) is the same as his command to us today to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

What are we to teach our children? Every “new and improved” doctrine, worship, insight, and innovation that is introduced in our churches? God forbid! We are to teach them the unchanging Word of God. After entering the Promised Land, Joshua renewed God’s covenant with Israel as “he read all the words of the law… before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones (Jo. 8:34-35). Israel was reminded of their duty to their children whenever they sang, “We will… tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done… that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children (Ps. 78:4-6).

We are to teach our children God’s glorious, wondrous, and mighty works that are to be found in Scriptures. And what is the consequence of neglecting to teach God’s commandments to our children? “A stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Ps. 78:8). Thus, to ensure faithful generations to come, the church must continue to be connected to the past, present, and future generations of God’s covenant people.

A Glorious Intergenerational Assembly

Hebrews 12:22-24 tell us about what happens every time Christians assemble for worship:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…

Christians should not think that when they come together for worship, the assembly is made up only of those people whom they see worshiping with them. Whenever we assemble for worship, we worship with all of God’s people from Adam and Eve all the way to the last believer on the last day of this age, whether they are in heaven or on earth, in America or in Asia. We are lifted up to heaven and the Spirit brings heaven down to us, so that we worship with the heavenly host in a joyful assembly, before a holy God, with Jesus as our merciful High Priest.

How then are we to confess one faith, one Lord, and one baptism, when we do not know what the Scriptures say because our parents neglected the apostles’ teaching and we have not kept the Apostles’ Creed in our heart? How are we to sing with God’s people from every age when we know only songs from a few years ago? How are we to pray the Scriptures with them, when we do not even know the Lord’s Prayer? How are we to live godly lives like them when we can not even name a few of the Ten Commandments? How are we to receive the means of grace together with them through the sacraments when we do not even know what they mean?

When we, as the people of God, continue with our ever-changing gimmicks and innovations in the worship of God, our own children and our children’s children will be asking the same questions above. They will have no clue as to what they believe and why, where they came from, where they are going, and how they are to worship God and live godly lives, thereby producing a stubborn, rebellious and unfaithful generation.

Reformation Worship: Revival of Simple Ancient Worship

Justin Martyr (100-165)

This is why the 16th century Reformers diligently sought out what the ancient church believed and how they worshiped. They wanted to tie together what the Scriptures and the early church fathers wrote about public worship by connecting to the “great cloud of witnesses” who were only a few generations removed from the apostles. They realized that medieval worship has to return to Word- and Sacrament-centered and Scripture-regulated worship to be acceptable to God. They saw the simplicity of worship in the Scriptures and in the early church, devoid of man-made pompous gimmicks and innovations – a delight to the senses, but unintelligible and meaningless to the great majority of worshipers. Worship must be meaningful, understandable, and edifying not just to the uneducated, but also to the many generations to come.

What did ancient worship look like? To get a good idea of what Christian assemblies were like starting from the late first century to the fifth century, one has to read early patristic writings such as the Didache (ca. 80-160), Justin Martyr’s Apology (ca. 155), Tertullian’s Apology (ca. 197), Hippolytus’ The Apostolic Tradition (ca. 215), and various treatises and sermons of Augustine (354-430). The Didache, or “Teaching,” is a guide for Christian rituals such as preaching, sacraments, and prayer. As well, the pagan governor Pliny has a short description of an early church assembly in a letter to Emperor Trajan (ca. 112):

[T]hey were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit, fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food — but ordinary and innocent food…

Tertullian describes the assembly of his congregation as follows:

We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications… We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation. We assemble to read our sacred writings… and with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast…

In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered… The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase but by established character.

There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are… to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house…

Among the above writings, Justin Martyr’s Apology has the most detailed description of early church worship. I will include his liturgy, along with other historical liturgies, in the chapter on Covenantal Worship.

In the above examples, as well as in all the other writings mentioned, there are some things to be observed in early church worship:

  • The service was divided into two main parts: (1) the Service of the Word, which included singing, reading of the Scripture and the sermon, which was open to everyone; and (2) the Service of the Lord’s Supper, which included prayers, and which was open only to baptized believers.
  • While we do know from the New Testament that singing was a part of the services, it was clearly not as important to them as to evangelical worship services today, which typically assign 15-60 minutes to continuous “Praise and Worship.”
  • The administration of the Holy Communion was a much more solemn and vital part of the service than in most of today’s Protestant churches; it was celebrated as often as the Word is preached, and it was “fenced.”
  • The elements of worship – reading and preaching of the Word, thank offering, Holy Communion, and the prayers – generally conform to the elements in Acts 2:42, since “fellowship” is the sharing of material wealth in the thank offering.

Reformed worship then can not and should not be categorized as “traditional” or “contemporary.” But it is “traditional” not because it wants to cling to what is old-fashioned, but solely because it wants to be faithful to the apostolic tradition of worship. Thus, when you come to a Reformed worship service, do not think that it is obsolete and old-fashioned.

On the contrary, you are actually worshiping in the same manner as Christians from the early post-apostolic and 16th century Reformation churches worshiped the unchanging God. You are, in reality, worshiping together with all the saints of all ages and places and all the angelic host in the heavenly Mount Zion in a reverent and joyful worship of the Triune God.

And as the worshiping covenant people of God, the church renews its covenant vows to the God of the Covenant everytime it assembles for worship. Together, they hear God speak and they respond to God’s word in song, prayer and vows of consecration in a heavenly dialogue expressed in the form of a liturgy. This is subject of the next installment, “Worship Must Be Covenantal.”


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14 thoughts on “Reformed Worship Part 3: Worship Must Be Historical”

  1. Thanks David. I agree with most of your points, but would take exception to a few things:

    Firstly, Psalm 150 certainly says that we should praise the Lord, of course. But everything in Psalm 150, like Psalm 149, is not all about congregational worship. Tambourine and dance was not part of Temple worship. And certainly, not strings and pipe. Only four kinds of instruments were authorized in Temple worship: the harp, the psaltery (or lyre), the cymbals and the horn (or trumpet) (1 Chronicles 16.4-6; 1 Chronicles 25). Psalm 150, contra common practice, is not a license to use any or all kinds of instruments to one’s liking. See also Dr. Godfrey’s paper, “What Does It Mean to Praise: A Look at Psalm 150”

    Secondly, God is greatly concerned about what we do in worship. Why did Cain, Nadab and Abihu, the Israelites in the wilderness, Uzzah, and Ananias and Sapphira, to name a few, die? They were all sincere in worshiping God, weren’t they? Because they were all sincerely mistaken in taking the commandments of God for granted. Why did God tell Moses all the tedious details of the Tabernacle and the corporate worship of Israel if he didn’t care about the details, but only about their sincerity? Did he give them all these details so they would exercise their creative minds? Why is it written in many places that the people did “according to all that Lord commanded Moses”?

    Thirdly, to say that teaching “Western” music to non-Western people because it is not their culture is an old worn-out excuse for introducing all kinds of human creativity to the worship of God. Why do you think they would not appreciate Western music when they’re all singing rock, hiphop, and rap? Why does the whole Christian world love “Western” Christmas carols? It’s because the world has adopted Christian music and made it part of its ungodly culture. I’m not saying we should teach them only “Western” music, but to say that they don’t appreciate “Western” music is very inconsistent.

    No, when we Reformed advocate the Regulative Principle of Worship, it’s not “legalism.” Nor is it an advocacy of “Western” worship or “traditional” worship. It’s the application of what you rightly called “Sola Scriptura” in the worship of God. We only do what is prescribed in Scripture. Today’s creative worship is the exact opposite: we can do whatever is not prohibited in Scripture. Is drama prohibited? No, then do it. How about dancing and swaying to the music? How about ear-splitting drums and acoustic guitars? This “Non-Regulative” Principle has led to all kinds of abominable, “creative” worship today. When we glorify human “creativity,” we create idolatry, a phenomenon which Calvin points to the human mind, “a factory of idols.” God knew that human depravity always produces idolatry, as we see today in our churches.

    This is why our songs are principally Psalms and we use instruments very sparingly, only to aid the congregation in singing (if such a thing is possible). Criticising others for their use of unscriptural music and instruments is not legalism, but Scriptural. This was how the Reformers reformed the church and its worship: they critiqued, condemned and threw away all things that were unscriptural in the medieval worship.

    This is what I discussed in the first three parts of this worship series: “Introduction: ‘On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,’ Today!”; “Part 1: The Church and Its Business”; Part 2: Worship Must Be Biblical.

  2. Fortunately, the Scriptures (Sola Scriptura!) give us the answer to this beleaguering and hotly debated issue. Ultimately, it is not Reformed tradition or current opinions that is our basis, but the Word of God. What does the Word teach us?
    1. Our worship must glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31). In Psalm 150, we are told that everything should praise our God. Note that it includes all kinds of instruments familiar to the one who wrote it.
    2. Our worship must be according to Sound Doctrine (Titus 2:1). It must follow the truth (Jn.4:24). If it contradicts the Scriptures, then it is not according to truth and it doesn’t glorify God.
    3. Our worship must be intelligible (1 Cor. 14:7-9). How can we worship God if we don’t understand what we are saying?
    4. Our worship must move us to a greater appreciation of Who God is (Rev. 4:9-11). We must worship with our hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:19). Do the songs we sing move us to WORSHIP our Heavenly Father or are we just repeating words that we have sang over and over again?
    I am sure that many worshipers (true believers) from whatever Bible believing church do not worship God when they “go to church”. They may not even be thinking about the words or even what they are doing. They may attend a Bible believing church every Sunday. The most important thing when we sing is that we WORSHIP. God is not concerned whether we use an overhead projector, DLP projector, hymnal, song sheet, memorized song, or chart, as long as we are worshiping Him.
    This brings me to a final point. 5) Our worship because should be from the heart and should use instruments and words familiar to the worshipers and their culture (Ps. 150; Eph. 5:19). Who would take a piano or organ to the Ifugao tribesmen of Luzon or the Manobo tribal people in Mindanao in order to teach them “correct worship”? Or teach them English praise songs when they can’t understand English? Whenever we institutionalize a form of worship when God has not done so, we are in danger of legalism. God has given us many principles in His Word on worship and how to worship. Let’s not criticize people for what kind of music they use, as long as it edifies other believers, exalts God, and moves the worshiper to heartfelt worship. Let’s encourage them and make sure that our hearts are right before God and that we are not judging the motives of others or condemning them because they are different from us. This is why God allowed all the cultures of the world with their own uniqueness (I am not saying that everything in a culture is from God).
    May we all WORSHIP HIM every day with our hearts and with our lives (Rom 12:1-2)!

  3. The Bible have shown different style in worshiping God. Worshiping is not confined on music. Furthermore, I think it is wrong to be dogmatic in our views in music.

    In 1800’s, hymn tunes were further developed and those music has become our music hymns today. In those times, those types of music were the “modern” type, thus, many churches also did not welcome it.

    Today, the Christian music again evolved to Praise and Worship style. And many churches are outrageous in this evolution, because for many, hymnal is still far better. And how much more the current evolution of music to contemporary music?

    My main point is this, I think there is nothing wrong with the type of music that we use to praise God. In praising God however, means praising God in spirit and in truth. Not just by our lips, nor by our emotions (were many pentecostal fails).

    I am not dogmatic on the type of worship. I am not for a Christian “Rock n Roll” style of music, nor I am confined with the “All Hymn” worship. Again, the heart always comes first.

    1. Vince, thanks for the reply.

      No, the Bible tells us that there is only one way of worshipping God: only that which he commands. He has shown how important that all his commands regarding worshipping him be followed to the letter by the ultimate penalties he exacted on Cain, the Israelites at Mount Sinai, Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah and Uzziah, among other people.

      All other kinds of worship not commanded in Scripture are abominations to him. To be “dogmatic” is wrong, if the view is based on human traditions and innovations. If being “dogmatic” is based on what Scripture says, then it is pleasing to God.

      And this is why it is much better to sing Psalms, since we cannot err when we sing God’s Word instead of man-made songs, including so-called “traditional” hymns. True worship is patterned after Biblical worship, which is seen all throughout Scripture. The pattern of worship in the Bible remains the same from Genesis to Revelation. It does not evolve according to human “felt needs” and innovations.

      The foundational error of today’s churches is that the purpose of worship in so-called “Praise and Worship” has become “entertaining the goats, but not feeding the sheep” (Spurgeon). “Praise and Worship” today has resulted in so much Biblical illiteracy that many evangelicals think that “praise and worship” is singing, while the rest of the worship service – prayers, Scripture readings, sermon, etc. – are not part of worship. And this is why you would see people leave the church after the P&W, thinking that the “worship” part of the service is already done.

    2. The other day, my wife talked to a student at the mission school here in the Philippines. The students were planning to do a “Worship Concert,” so when she asked her who was preaching, the student answered, “Oh no, we won’t have preaching. We’ll just have worship.” Again, the false idea that “worship” is singing and the rest of the service—prayers, Scripture readings, sermon, sacraments—are not part of “worship.”

      This is just another confirmation of Biblical illiteracy among evangelicals in the churches today concerning worship, doctrine, and most everything about God and his church. The question is, “What have we been teaching our children in our homes, ‘Christian’ schools, and churches?”

  4. Hi Alexa: Welcome back and good to hear from you. It’s very hard for me to think that David would dance stark naked. Most commentators believe that he took off his kingly garments, and this is why his wife despised him.

    My seminary professor’s post about instruments in public worship, “Could Instruments Be Idols,” generated a whole lot of back-and-forth discussion. I know this is a long read, but you would get probably all the pros and cons regarding the use of instruments in worship services in the church:

  5. Did David dance “naked” or was it without his kingly robes?  

    Is there room in the reform model for use of such instruments as the piano if
    used with reverence?

  6. Kuya Nollie,

    I used to be a musician in a modern evangelical church. But because of the RPW, I am no longer in favor of modern evangelical worship. My problem was that I did not how to understand the Bible’s references to “joyful noise.” I needed strong Biblical foundations to defend the RPW. I even have this feeling that I will be asked about my views in the coming months by the pastors in my church. (NOTE: I am in the process of transferring to a confessional and Reformed Baptist church.) Now I know how to respond. I’ll be waiting for your next posts on the Reformed Worship, and perhaps use them in sharing the Reformed faith to my parents, and evangelical and Roman Catholic friends. Thanks a lot. 🙂

  7. Hi Albert,

    Glad to see you again.

    Music is just one issue in public worship, of which I’ll discuss more in the chapter on reverential and joyful worship. But here are my initial thoughts:

    First, as I noted in ancient worship, almost nothing is said about singing in their worship. The modern church I think has placed undue emphasis on music in public worship.

    Second, most of the Biblical support for evangelical worship are texts taken out of context. In 2 Samuel 6:5 and 1 Chronicles 13:8, the music and dancing mentioned there are not during Israel’s public worship, but during the triumphal procession of the Ark of the Covenant from the hands of the Philistines back to Jerusalem. In Psalm 149, the psalmist is clearly not just talking about worship in the public assemblies (vv. 1, 2), but worship in all of life: in celebrations (v. 3), when we lie down on our beds (v. 5), and even when we go to war (vv. 6-9).

    Granted that some of these texts are in the context of Israel’s public worship (e.g., Psalm 95; Psalm 100). But Israel did not come to God’s presence in irreverence and disorder. For example, in Psalm 95, they came not only to “make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise” (v. 2), but also to “worship and bow down… [and] kneel before the Lord, our Maker” (v. 6).

    Third, today’s evangelical practice of “shout” and “joyful noise” is not what the psalmists have in mind. It is not the deafening disorder that we see in evangelical worship. Rather, it was “acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,” offered to a God who is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28, 29; Deuteronomy 4:24). In today’s language, we might as well say that the Bible allows us to yell at God, because we are commanded to “shout to the Lord.”

    Notice also that out of all of Israel’s musical instruments, only four were authorized by David for public worship: the lyre, harp, cymbal, and trumpet (1 Chronicles 16:4-6). Out of these four, only the lyre and harp really accompanied congregational singing. The trumpets and cymbals were only used to call the people to assemble (Numbers 10:2, 10) and to accompany the offering of sacrifices (2 Chronicles 29:25-30). This is very different from the frenzied cacophony of today’s evangelical worship!

    Fourth, Old Testament worship music was strictly regulated. Only Levites were authorized to sing and play the instruments. Music was only sung and played during the sacrifices. Who are the Levites today? The worship team, the choir, or invited musical celebrities, who generally do not know anything about the God we worship?

    Fifth and last, Scripture texts usually cited to support contemporary worship can not be fully regarded as prescriptions for how we should worship today. For example, if we say that dancing in the public worship is Biblical because David “danced” before the Lord, dancing naked in the church should also be allowed! How about buying harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets for the worship team? Of course, as I mentioned earlier, this event was not during public worship, so the dancing and the playing of all kinds of instruments, especially women with tambourines, in public worship today can not be justified by this text.

    I’ll be writing more about this later.

  8. Kuya Nollie,

    Those who do not believe in the RPW argue that there are references in the Bible that support their use of loud music (“joyful noise”) inside the church. These verses would include 2 Samuel 6:5, 1 Chronicles 13:8, Psalms 95, 98, 100, etc. How should a Reformed Christian answer this? Thanks.

  9. I read your sermon on Worship 3 and although our church is not a reformed church we practice what you wrote about worship. We have Lord’s Supper every Sunday. We still sing the traditional hymns but also include some contemporary songs which are meaningful.

    I agree with you about the trend in evangelical churches which stress more on Praise and Worship than on teaching.

  10. Thanks for reminding me the importance of what it is to worship with the True Apostolic Universal Church from the beginning of times, along with every believer, and forever.

  11. Pingback: Worship Must Be Historical « Heidelblog

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