The Simplicity of Reformed Worship

Historic Reformed churches worship the Lord in simplicity.  That is, Reformed churches do not include ceremonies, festivals, crucifixes, processions, incense, relics, images, vestments, altars, and so forth in their worship services.  Reformed worship simply consists of the Word (read, preached, sung, confessed, prayed) and the sacraments (the Lord’s supper and baptism).

The main reason for the simplicity of Reformed worship is the teaching of Scripture.  The Bible doesn’t command God’s New Covenant people to worship him with all the images and vestments and ceremonies.  The Reformers believed that the external ceremonies and images didn’t elevate the mind to God, but domesticated God and therefore were idolatrous.  Furthermore, they said that all these non-biblical extras in worship throw a fog over the gospel.  Simple worship, therefore, means the gospel will not be obscured.  In 1560 the Reformer Guillaume Farel explained it like this:

The Church should be decorated and adorned with Jesus Christ and the Word of his gospel and his holy sacraments.  This great Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ, and the light of his gospel, have nothing to do with our burning torches and our candles and candelabras.  God has instead ordained that by true preaching and by the holy sacraments practiced in their simplicity this light might be manifested and illumine us with all glory.

Similarly, Theodore Beza preached the following in 1585:

[God’s house is not a place] that we enter to see the beautiful shapes of vaults and pillars, or to admire the splendor of gold and silver and precious stones.  Nor is it a place that we visit in order to fill our ears with the signing of choirs and the music of organs.  Rather it is a place where the pure Word of God is clearly preached in the presence of each person, with words of exhortation, consolation, warning, and censure necessary for salvation.

In other words, the Reformers wanted worship to be ordered according to the Word and centered on the gospel.  They wanted to keep it simple so God’s word and his gospel would clearly be front and center.  In that way, he alone would receive all the glory, honor, and praise.  ‘Soli Dei Gloria’ goes hand in hand with Reformed worship!

The above discussion and quotes are found on pages 31-37 of Scott Manetsch’s book, Calvin’s Company of Pastors.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI


Applications & Implications of the RPW

Based on the 2nd commandment and other biblical texts and stories, historic Reformed and Presbyterian churches have taught and practiced the Regulative Principle of Worship: we are to worship God in no other way than he has commanded in his word (HC Q/A 96, WLC Q/A 109).  There are several different applications and implications of the RPW.  Here are a few based on Exodus 32 and some other verses.

1) True worship is not a democratic endeavor.  What is right and proper in Christian worship is not based on what a majority of people think is right and proper.  Many Israelites approved of the golden calf but it was still blatantly disobedient and offensive to Yahweh.

2) True worship does not cater to the consumer.  What people want or are looking for should not determine how Christians’ worship God.  True Christian worship isn’t based on what attracts people – such as entertainment, celebrity, comfort, and what is the most fun or relevant.  Israel no doubt enjoyed the rowdy party around the golden calf, but Yahweh still detested the calf and Israel’s worship.

3) True worship is not grounded on emotions and feelings.  Just because a person feels like a certain style of worship is good doesn’t make it so.  Feelings, emotions, and experiences can be false or sinful and should not drive our worship principles.  The Israelites felt the need to have the golden calf since Moses was taking so long, but it was still a breach of God’s command and thus a terrible sin that was punished severely.

4) True worship is not a matter of preference.  The standard for true worship is not what I like, what you prefer, what the youth want, or what unbelievers will be attracted to.  Aaron’s preference was to throw a wild party for Yahweh around the calf, but Moses still told Aaron that he had sinned against Yahweh.

5) True worship is (obviously!) a matter of truth.  Christians must worship the triune God in Spirit and truth – God’s word is truth (Jn. 4:23 & 17:17).  In other words, worship must be clearly biblical: in worship we must sing the truth, pray the truth, preach the truth, and listen to the truth.  If something is not commanded in Scripture, it cannot be part of corporate worship.  Reformed churches are reformed – and always reforming – according to the word of truth.  This also has to do with one of the solas: Sola Scriptura.  The word is our ultimate authority.  In worship, we should want to do what God wants us to do: “thy will be done” even applies to worship.

6) True worship forbids formality.  A person can worship the true God using true words, but the heart might still be far from the Lord (Is. 29:13).  Just going through the motions of corporate worship is not true worship.  So we must repent of formality, hate it, fight it with a renewed appreciation for the gospel of sovereign grace, pray that our hearts would be “in” worship, and prepare our hearts for corporate worship.

There are more implications and applications of the RPW (I encourage you to think of some).  These are some evident ones based on the following resources I’ve read over the years: Give Praise to God, A Better Way, With Reverence and Awe, Dining with the Devil, and The Necessity of Reforming the Church, among others.

shane lems

The (In)Sufficiency of the Word

  In chapter three of Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace James M. Boice discussed the sufficiency of God’s Word.  Listen to these thought-provoking insights.

“…Inerrancy is not the most critical issue facing the church today.  The most serious issue, I believe, is the Bible’s sufficiency.  Do we believe that God has given us what we need in this book?  Or do we suppose that we have to supplement the Bible with human things?  Do we need sociological techniques to do evangelism, pop psychology and pop psychiatry for Christian growth, extra-biblical signs or miracles for guidance…?”

“It is possible to believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and yet to neglect it and effectually repudiate it just because we think that it is not sufficient for today’s tasks and that other things need to be brought in to accomplish what is needed.  This is exactly what many evangelicals and evangelical churches are doing” (p. 72).

Boice is right on.  There are many ways churches today act as if the Word is not sufficient.  I’ve seen churches advertise holy humor Sunday with Christian clowns making the service “fun” (implying that expositional sermons are boring).  Some churches supplement or replace preaching and public Bible reading with skits, shows, or movies.  A recent trend in American seminaries is to add drama classes to the M.Div. track, so preachers can learn how to act and participate in worship skits.  One emergent church even had a silent worship service where everyone simply watched an artist sculpt a statue.  The list goes on.

In Reformation terms the sufficiency of Scripture means the Word by itself is sufficient to guide us in matters of faith and piety (which also has to do with sola scriptura and the means of grace – preaching and the sacraments).  The Heidelberg Catechism ties this in with the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), that we should only worship God in ways he has commanded in his Word – God wants his people instructed by the preaching of the Word (see Lord’s Day 35).

Thomas Murphy summarizes this theme well.

“The things of God and the soul and eternity are too solemn to be trifled with.  The preacher who is really earnest in his work will not turn aside from the eternal interests on hand to amuse the people, to startle them, or to gain their applause with his ingenuity and flights of fancy.  His heart will be so set upon delivering the message of God that he will have no eye, no ear, no taste for anything else.  One thing – the glory of God in the conversion of souls – will he ever keep before him, and that will cut off all that is sensational or selfish or unbecoming in his discourses.  He will have no heart but to preach the gospel in the most direct and emphatic matter” (Pastoral Theology, 207).

The ultimate and pressing question is this: Is the Word alone – preached, prayed, sung, and confessed – enough for us when it comes to our worship, faith, and spiritual growth?

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Worship and the Technology Bandwagon

I’m amazed and enthralled by modern technological advances.  I used to read Popular Mechanics with audible sounds of astonishment.  The first time I played around on my Ipod 4th Gen my wife rolled her eyes because I was practically prancing around the room in awe.  However, I’m also in full agreement (as I noted here before) with Quentin Schultze’s counsel to take a wise perspective on technology: use it with moderation and be skeptical of its claims.  Here’s a paragraph from Habits of the High Tech Heart that I like. 

“Faddish technological endeavors nearly always interfere with genuine progress.  When we define progress in purely technological terms, we compel ourselves to use the latest technology even when it might not be wise or appropriate.  For instance, many college teachers feel compelled to use online student discussion software to transform their teaching notes into classroom presentations in darkened classrooms, to require students to visit a class Web site every day, or even to encourage students to take lecture and discussion notes on computers rather than in paper notebooks.”

It is amazing how much has already changed since Schultz wrote this in 2002.  It is no longer simply college teachers using Powerpoint and websites; it is elementary school teachers using Ipods, earbuds, and texting, among other things.  I just read a piece in the paper how some 2nd grade class is doing math lessons on the Ipod because (they argued) kids learn more from it than from a monotone teacher lecturing on numbers.  They learn more quickly with games: if you kill 4 aliens in level one and 5 aliens in level two, how many aliens did you kill in all?  Schultze continues this thought.

“Similarly, churches install video projectors in order to get the ‘full benefit’ of computer-presentation technology, sometimes resulting in entertainment-style worship services laced with slick slide shows, video clips, multimedia bulletin announcements, and dynamic sermon outlines.  These kind of technological practices often distract a congregation from the spoken message, fragment the liturgical flow, and destroy the solemnity of worship – all in the name of progress.  Our knowledge of the existence of technology, coupled with our desire to be progressive and effective, compels us to use it.  When the promises of technique seduce us, however, responsibility usually eludes us” (p. 97).

Well said.  Just like there are limits to science, so there are limits to technology.  Is it possible that some technology, when it comes to learning, is more harmful than helpful?  Is teaching a 10-year-old how to divide using hours of video games beneficial in the long run?  Will he cultivate the virtue of careful listening (along with other virtues) using earbuds and a video game? 

Even more seriously, what happens when you mix trivial entertainment with the deepest realities of life?  What are the long-term effects of discussing Scripture  (serious, deep, and spiritual things) using movie clips (entertaining, trivial, superficial things) to make it more meaningful on Sunday morning?  Will we harm Christian spirituality by making church entertaining?  What about kids who grow up with movie-laced “sermons?”  How will it affect their Christian life in the long run? 

I’d argue – based on the Regulative Principle of Worship (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 and Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 96) – that we should not use movies and such in worship.  But based on Schultze’s helpful notes, I’d also argue against movies and such in worship from a practical point of view: this type of technology is more harmful than helpful when it comes to Christian worship and spirituality. 

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Entertaining Ourselves To Death

 In the United States, our culture is largely based upon and driven by entertainment.  From TV News, to political talk shows, to the job site, to Christian worship, to the school room, to your drive home, everyone is always being entertained.  And like good Americans, we typically run to the newest and most entertaining thing.  Many Christian churches cater to this desire for entertainment by having movies, bands, skits, sculpting, mime, ceramics, clowns, Harleys, and other such things during worship.  I have a Roman Catholic friend who recently went to a mega church for the first time.  His one response was, “It was waaaay too commercialized!”

There are several ways to confront this error of mixing entertainment and worship.  One way is to consider the Reformation teaching of the ordinary means of grace.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains this well in Q/A 88: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” 

I also love Thomas Vincent’s commentary on this Q/A.

“We ought not to make use of any ordinances which are of men’s appointment only, in order unto salvation, because this is will-worship, which is both vain and offensive; and we cannot groundedly expect the blessing of the Lord upon, or to receive any true benefit of any ordinances, but by those alone which are of his own appointment only (Col 2.20-23; Matt 15.9).”

“The ordinances [of Christ] are called the ordinary means by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, because the Lord hath not wholly limited and bound up himself unto his ordinances; for he can in an extraordinary way bring some out of a state of nature into a state of grace; as Paul, who was converted by a light and a voice from heaven: but the ordinances are the most usual way and means of conversion and salvation, without the use of which we cannot, upon good ground, expect that any benefit of redemption should be communicated to us.”

Well stated.  God has promised to work through the ordinary means of preaching, sacraments, and prayer.  We do well to stick to those and trust in God’s wisdom, Word, and Spirit.  It does require patience and faith, but it gives us the confidence that because he has promised to do so, God will work through these things in his timing, for his glory, and the church’s good.

[Side note: I really appreciate Vincent’s commentary on the WSC.  FYI, it was published first in 1674 and quickly given public approval (“it is very worthy of acceptation”) by men such as John Owen, Joseph Caryl, Thomas Manton, Thomas Brooks, Thomas Watson, and other eminent Presbyterian preachers/teachers of the day.]

shane lems

The Main Points of the Reformation

In preparation for our Reformation conference on worship Friday night, I’ve been reading some Calvin.  Here’s how he summarized the main points of the Protestant Reformation:

“All our controversies concerning doctrine relate either to the legitimate worship of God, or to the ground of salvation.”

The quote is taken from Calvin’s treatise called The Necessity of Reforming the Church. We’ll be talking about that phrase “the legitimate worship of God” here in Sunnyside on Friday night (see link above), so stop by if you’re in the area!

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Reformation Conference 2010

If you live anywhere near South Central Washington State (specifically the Yakima Valley) you’re invited to an evening Reformation Conference hosted by the church I pastor.  Rev. Matt Barker (of Emmanuel OPC in Kent, WA) and I will be speaking on this topic: Worship According to the Word: The Reformation Recovery of Biblical Worship

In a day where Christian worship includes clowns, pottery wheels, movie clips, mimes, and TV-giveaways, churches have got to get back to the biblical basics.   This conference is aimed to be a catalyst for that.  Hope to see you there!

DATE: October 29, 2010
TIME: 7-8PM (followed by snacks/coffee/friendly discussion)
LOCATION: 1750 Sheller Road in Sunnyside, WA
OTHER: we will also spend time in prayer and song.

You can visit the website here:

Let me know if you have questions/comments.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa