The Beauty of Reformed Worship

G. VanDooren

That we call our worship "Reformed" means that it has a specific character (and beauty) in distinction from other forms of worship. Our form of worship finds itself between two "extremes" in a specific respect.

On the one hand, there is Romanist worship, in which not only is the "accursed idolatry" of the Mass (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 30) central, but for all practical purposes the congregation or laity is passive. It is not even necessary that there be a congregation present! Where the bishop or priest is, busy at the altar, there is the church—even if he is all by himself.

On the other hand, there is independentism in its various forms. This worship all boils down to a gathering of individual believers without special office-bearers. There is only the congregation. Each member may contribute his input. It is a free-for-all. Especially with the enormous growth of the charismatic movement in our time, this kind of "meeting together" is rampant. Many people are attracted to this form of worship, even people with a Reformed background. When you ask them why they turned their back on Reformed worship, the answer usually is, "Because 'traditional worship' is too 'institutionalized.' There is too little participation by the congregation. The church service is a 'one-man business' without any room for spontaneous expression of what lives in one's heart." And thus they seek a place where there is still something of the life of the early Christian church, as they see it. We must admit that at times there is some truth to allegations of a lack of vitality in our churches, but only because we so readily forget and fall short of the genius of Reformed worship.

Thus, Reformed worship is found between those two extremes—one where only the priest is active; the other where only the congregation is active. What then is the specific essence and form of Reformed worship?

The Essence of Reformed Worship

Reformed worship is covenantal. The Form for Baptism used in continental Reformed churches says, "In all covenants there are two parts." We may also say, "In all covenants there are two parties." That is not the same thing. The "parties" in the covenant are the Lord and his people. The "parts" are, on the one hand, what the Lord contributes to worship, and, on the other hand, what his people contribute.

This statement must, of course, be further qualified. In the first place, the parties in this covenant are not equals. Therefore, their mutual contributions are not of the same kind or category. The covenant is bestowed upon us as a "testament," a free and sovereign gift. Love came from God's side while we were yet enemies. The Lord took, and still takes, the initiative. Thus, in its origin the covenant is unilateral, and it always remains that way. We are always on the receiving end. Even when we give to our God, we give only what we have first received.

Still, in the blessed covenant relationship there is two-way traffic. As a result, the various "elements" of Reformed worship can be divided into two groups: first, those elements that come from the Lord, such as his blessing and his word; second, those that come from us, his people, such as praise and prayer and offerings, but most of all the sacrifice of a repentant and thankful heart.

Conscious partaking in this worship ought to mean for us all that we are fully aware of what is going on. First, we are to be fully aware that we are in the presence of the Lord our God, who is holy. Then, we really receive his blessing; we hear him speak to us and we respond in faith. Finally, we give our sacrifices of thanksgiving to him, and we sing, not just for our own pleasure, but to the glory of his name. This, then, is Reformed worship, and it has to become our worship more and more.


We return to some common questions. Is Reformed worship, as we practice it, indeed not too much of a one-man business? What exactly is the function of the special office-bearers in worship? Cannot the participation of the congregation be enhanced and strengthened? Should we not, instead of the method of preaching to which we have become accustomed, introduce more "dialogue"? Believers are mature since Pentecost, are they not? Do we do justice to that fact? How can we get more out of a church service? Are we allowed to introduce more modern forms of expression, in the way of music, plays, and drama, especially to get the younger generation more interested and active? Are our church services not a drag for them? Should we not open the doors a bit wider, instead of having basically closed sessions "for members only"?

In order to find proper answers to such questions, we must first consider some more fundamental principles and, while doing that, keep in mind the history of redemption. We are the New Testament church. That means that we are not the first church. There was an Old Testament church. Ours is the fulfillment of that one. Biblically Reformed worship is, in fact, rooted in the worship service as the Lord revealed it, in great detail, to Moses.

The Heavenly Pattern of Worship

Figure 1: The TabernacleMoses received from the Lord a very detailed description of the tabernacle, including the vessels, the altars, the utensils and materials to be used, and the way these materials had to be adorned with various symbols. Of the tabernacle as well as of the temple, the Lord was the architect. He designed the plans. Each and every detail contained a message about the coming Savior.

Thus we hear in Exodus 25:40—"And see that you make them [the utensils, etc.] after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain." This "pattern" was, first of all, the tabernacle as a whole—how it was to be set up, how the partitions were to be made. Let's call that the ground plan. It looked approximately like the drawing in figure 1 above.

In the front court (No. 1), which was open toward the congregation, the main objects were the great altar, on which the sacrifices were burned, and the laver or wash basin.

The middle part, the Holy Place (No. 2), was accessible only to the priests. There stood the table with the bread of the presence and the lampstand. Right in front of the curtain that hid the Most Holy Place, the altar of incense found its proper place, the incense being the symbol of the prayers sent up to the mercy seat.

In this Most Holy Place (No. 3) stood the ark, covered with the lid on which, once a year, blood was sprinkled by the high priest. Only he, after many preparations, was allowed to enter there. On top of the ark was the cloud, symbolizing the presence of the Lord among his people. Therefore it was called the mercy seat.

The two arrows in the middle part indicate that the ministry of the priests was twofold. The one aspect was to represent the Lord to his people. This was done in the blessing which they laid upon Israel (Num. 6:24-26). They also represented the Lord when they proclaimed his ordinances.

The other half of their ministry was in the opposite direction: to represent the people before the Lord. This they did when they brought the sacrifices and sprinkled the blood, and also when they burned incense on the altar built for this purpose. They brought the prayers of the covenant people to their God.

This, then, was the pattern shown to Moses. From the epistle to the Hebrews, it becomes clear that this pattern did not stand on top of Mount Horeb. This pattern stood in heaven itself.

Yet, in the old dispensation it was a horizontal sanctuary. The mercy seat stood on this earth, on the ground.

Many things could be said about this heavenly pattern, but I will mention only a few. First, every object, every action—the sacrifices, the incense, etc.—spoke of Christ Jesus. Then, it was indeed a covenantal pattern. There were the two parties—the Lord and his people. There were also the two parts—what the Lord did to and for his holy nation, as well as the response of this nation to their God, in their sacrifices and prayers. Finally, it was all "shadow," provisional and preparatory.

Hebrews 8:5 quotes Exodus 25:40: "They [the Old Testament priests] serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, 'See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.'" The tent, or tabernacle, however, belongs to the past. "Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better" (vs. 6). The whole letter to the Hebrews proclaims this excellency of the "true tent" (vs. 2), which is set up, not by man, but by God.

Jesus Christ, the high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, has fulfilled all shadows and entered the real, the heavenly sanctuary. There he ministers as our high priest. Yea, now we have free access to the Most Holy Place. "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.... Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:14, 16).

To say it in the terminology I have been using, Jesus Christ, by his perfect sacrifice, with which he entered the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 8, etc.), has set the Old Testament horizontal tabernacle on its end. And not only that, but when he died, God's hand tore the curtains apart. There are now no longer three partitions, divided by heavy curtains. Now the congregation is no longer kept outside the tabernacle proper. A second, simple drawing (figure 2) can help us to see that the tabernacle is no longer horizontal, but vertical.

Figure 2: The Heavenly SanctuaryAt first sight, this vertical "pattern" seems empty in comparison with the tabernacle that Moses built. No longer are there any altars, or golden ark, or any of the other objects and utensils. But in fact it is much, much fuller. This new covenant "pattern" reaches through the clouds up to highest heaven, where Jesus Christ himself is ministering at the heavenly mercy seat (No. 1). The broken line (No. 2) only indicates that "we do not yet see everything" (Heb. 2:8), since at his ascension "a cloud took him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). But Hebrews 4 already told us that we may draw near with confidence. In the new covenant, we live under an open heaven! The curtains were torn apart! The congregation (No. 5), although still here on earth, may in fact gather in the same "room" with Jesus Christ. The exalted Christ poured out his Spirit, who came down and filled the church. While Christ is our Paraclete (Advocate) in heaven, the Spirit is our Paraclete (Advocate) here on earth.

All this is the glorious reality each Lord's Day, when we as his people may meet with him. According to his promise, Christ himself is among us. And he has made us "to sit with him in the heavenly places" (Eph. 2:6). All those glorious expressions that we heard in the previous passages are true and real in the worship service—"You have come ... to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22). On the great and final day of the Lord, God will consummate his covenant, and the heavenly Jerusalem will descend. God will dwell with men, and no temple or church building will be needed any longer on the new earth (Rev. 21:1-4). In the meantime, we may know that, each time the congregation assembles in the name of Christ, each time she calls upon the name of the Lord, the Holy Spirit draws us near and we "come to the heavenly Jerusalem."

In this vertical sanctuary, there is still—but now in fulfillment—the covenantal "two-way traffic," as the two arrows indicate. There is movement from heaven to earth, when God blesses his people, proclaims his law, speaks his word. There is also movement from earth to heaven, when the congregation prays, confesses, sings, and brings offerings of gratitude.

Although the minister, as leader of the worship service, is not a priest in the sense of a mediator, our one mediator, Jesus Christ, has ordained that in this New Testament vertical worship, he should serve (or "minister") as his representative. He—in Christ's name and with his authority—blesses God's people and brings the message of God's Word. But he also serves as the mouth of the congregation when he brings the sacrifices of our lips, our prayers, to the mercy seat. Thus, as long as the heavenly Jerusalem has not yet come down for good and forever, there is still a ministering office, just as with the priests in the tabernacle, in two directions: one down (No. 3), one up (No. 4).

It should now be very clear to all that our Reformed, or covenantal, worship consists of several elements which must be divided into two groups. Some Latin words have historically been used for this distinction. There are elements a parte Dei (from God's part or side). They are things like the salutation and benediction, the law, the public reading of the Scriptures, and the proclamation of the Word. Other elements are a parte homini (from the part or side of man, or the congregation), such as the prayers, the creed, the offering, and singing the praise of the Lord. There are, of course, also the sacraments. They, especially the Holy Supper, are simultaneously a "two-way" business.

Returning to the word Reformed in our title, "The Beauty of Reformed Worship," we remember with deep gratitude that the Reformers cleansed public worship in order that we might truly know the true God. They removed the altar, together with "priests" and all other supposedly Old Testament, sacerdotal elements. In its place, they put our true mediator, Jesus Christ, and the means by which he draws near to his people and draws his people near to himself, the ministry of Word and sacraments, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The author, now deceased, was a minister in the Canadian Reformed Churches. This article is excerpted and slightly adapted (with permission) from the author's book, The Beauty of Reformed Liturgy (Premier, 1980). He quotes the RSV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2002.