Worship Matters, by Cornelis Van Dam

Allen C. Tomlinson

Worship Matters, by Cornelis Van Dam. Carman, MB: Reformed Perspective, 2021, xvii + 327 pages, $25.00, paper.

There are minor points I would have stated differently if I had been the author, and at a few places I would have used different arguments for the same teaching. However, such is almost always the case anytime one reads a book written by someone else, no matter how much we appreciate the book. I would recommend this book especially for Christians who have been reared in non-Reformed churches. It is a good introduction to the idea of biblically governed worship versus the “make it up as you go along” kind of worship, which we find in much contemporary worship. I would recommend it because it does a great job emphasizing the holiness and greatness of God, our creator and redeemer Jesus Christ, and therefore our need to approach Him in our worship with “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28), as the New Testament affirms is our duty in this New Covenant.

The main divisions of the book have the same emphases that many similar Reformed books have: “General Survey of Key Elements” (of worship), “Administering the Word,” “The Glory of Worship,” “Singing and Music in Worship,” “Some New Challenges,” and “Worship in Heaven and on Earth.” These six main divisions cover ground that many other books written from a Reformed or Presbyterian perspective cover. Sometimes Van Dam does a great job summarizing those other books on a given point, always giving due credit. Other times he does a great job taking one of the “subpoints” of Reformed worship and expanding on it: e.g., does the Bible teach us to dress up for public worship? Another example: he gives a fairly full argument on the presence of the angels in our worship and how the knowledge of that should affect our approach to worship.

The book is written from a particularly Dutch Reformed background, so “Reformed Worship” includes some of the particularities that we find in Dutch background denominations but not necessarily in Presbyterian background denominations. For example: many begin a service with Psalm 124:8. Those of us from a Presbyterian background do not always begin a service with that particular text. However, many of us Presbyterians have no problem with beginning a service that way and can gladly worship in a church that begins worship with that verse every time. While we do not begin our services with that particular verse, we do open the service with some other statement that makes the same point about approaching together the God of our salvation. At one point Van Dam mentions that there is some minor variation on a given point he makes between those of his Dutch background and Presbyterians. So he obviously is familiar with these minor differences by Christians who have the same basic interpretation and application of Scripture and the same historical influences from the Reformers and their successors. None of this was a problem for me.

One way in which Van Dam makes a point was a concern for me, but it must be kept in its context so that we appreciate the point being made. In speaking of the use of musical instruments in worship (ch. 15), and particularly of the use of the organ, he mentions that Voetius protested based on the regulative principle of worship, which is our main approach (historically and biblically) to worship as Reformed and Presbyterian believers. Van Dam writes that Voetius’s and Calvin’s arguments against musical instruments in public worship did not persuade him, because of the silence of the New Testament on the matter with the Old Testament background using instruments. Van Dam then writes, “The regulative principle of worship goes too far by insisting that Scripture is clear on not permitting musical accompaniment in worship” (212). My issue with this statement is this: the regulative principle is the biblical principle and does not go too far being the commanded approach to worship; however, how any one of us makes use of the regulative principle may be faulty. That would not nullify the biblical priority of the principle; it reminds us that not one of us is perfect in our understanding of the Scriptures. I do not believe the regulative principle is contrary to a use of musical instruments in public worship in this New Covenant stage of the church, but some Reformed Christians do believe this. It is a matter for us to lovingly discuss together, being like-minded in our Reformed faith and like-minded in our desire for worship regulated by the Scriptures. Particular applications of the principle we do not always agree upon, though we should try to help one another come to a better understanding and application of the principle when that is possible. If we “go too far,” or do not go far enough with the principle, the problem is always with us and not with the biblical or regulative principle. However, I suspect, in the context of the whole book, that is precisely what Van Dam means by his statement.

The book’s first part, “General Survey of Key Elements,” does a good job summarizing what biblical worship is, stressing God’s presence in our midst in Christian worship, stressing the Lord’s Day as a day of rest and worship, and summarizing important biblical elements in approaching God biblically as a congregation.

Part two, “Administering the Word,” reminds us that in the Bible and in historical Reformed and Presbyterian worship the Bible is the main emphasis—worshipping as the Bible commands, preaching and hearing the Scriptures expounded, going forth to live in light of what we have heard as those trusting in Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Van Dam, true to the historical Dutch Reformed practice, emphasizes our need to read the Ten Commandments, the moral law, to enable us to fully preach the Gospel of salvation by grace. In my forty-four years of full-time pastoral ministry, I did not read the Ten Commandments every service; however, I did preach both the law (as background to the gospel) and the gospel (as the only true fulfillment of the law in our Savior Jesus Christ). There are other texts that emphasis the moral law of God and other ways to keep bringing the congregation back to the moral law as the absolute standard of right and wrong to show us our sin and what a godly life is and ought to be, and so to “drive” us to the Savior and his gospel of grace. I had no problems with this part of the book, even if I try to do the same thing with a little more variation. Most of us in our circles are in perfect agreement with the heart of the point Van Dam makes.

I loved part three: “The Glory of Worship.” Van Dam deals with the privilege of worship, a biblical basis for a second service on the Lord’s Day, the glory of the gospel of Christ crucified, as well as the glory of the resurrection and the ascension. There is a chapter for each of those points. Very wonderful. This section gave a summary of what other biblical teachers have shown from the Scriptures over the centuries, the presence of the holy angels in our midst and how this should add to our sense of solemnity (seriousness not somberness) and reverence before a holy God. The emphasis on Christ and the glory of Christian worship because of the Savior is superb.

Part four is “Singing and Music in Worship.” Here are four chapters that are all very useful and of immediate concern: “Singing to the Lord,” “Can we Sing all the Psalms?” “Musical Instruments in Public Worship,” and “Dancing for Joy.” Apart from our “in house” debate regarding the use of musical instruments, much of this would be agreed upon by those of us who minister in churches subscribing to the historical Reformed creeds. For the most part, there is some very good argumentation.  

The fifth part of the book, “Some New Challenges,” deals with the immature nature of most contemporary worship approaches, reminding us that we need to grow up!  Hopefully we come to a more mature understanding of the Scriptures and of biblical worship as we grow age-wise and as we study God’s Word. Many years ago I briefly connected with an old college chum online; we both had been part of the milder section of the Jesus Movement back in the 1960s and 70s. We both were very thankful we had “grown up” and matured and had soon left behind some of the less thoughtful aspects of that movement. Many of my friends who were in that movement to some degree, have also like me ended up in conservative Lutheran or Reformed or Presbyterian churches, with the “grown up” worship the movement had mocked.  Other “challenges” he deals with are “Holy Attire,” a contrast between evangelical and historically reformed worship, the de-emphasis on the sacraments (especially baptism with a lopsided view of Scripture that falls short of seeing the place of our children in the covenant), and the desire to make the church “attractive” to unbelievers or to immature Christians. That last chapter in this section about making the church attractive is very much worth reading, as is the entire section of the book.

Van Dam’s concern about “dressing down” for worship comes in throughout the book. I might not use some of his argument from certain texts, believing that in the New Covenant those texts would be best understood and applied to us being “dressed” spiritually in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and in those robes that are the “righteous deeds of the saints” in Revelation 19:8 (which both Van Dam and I believe to be the changing lives of believers in progressive sanctification through the power of Christ’s redemptive work). However, his arguments based on the holy character of God and the awesomeness of what we are doing and whom we are approaching in worship and what it cost Christ for us to be able to worship, were extremely well-argued and deserve full consideration. Once I read or heard a statement by Dr. Gregory Reynolds comparing a casual approach to worship as “everything written in small case letters,” so that nothing is seen as really important.[1] Van Dam argues that few of us would not try to look our best for an earthly dignitary of great importance; how much more so as we come before the glorious Triune God!

The last section of the book is comprised of one chapter, “Our Worship and Heaven.”  We are worshipping this glorious God in the presence of our contemporaries here on earth, in the presence of the holy angels, and of the church triumphant. We are not in heaven physically as we worship in our church assemblies, but we are spiritually in heaven, and heaven is with us! Again, this speaks of Van Dam’s constant emphasis:  the glory of public worship as the gathered people of Jesus Christ!

One last remark I have is on the title: “Worship Matters.”  I love puns and double meanings when carefully used. Worship has many elements and circumstances that need to be thought through. These “matters” are important, though some are more critical than others. Worship is very important; worship really “matters.” I highly recommend this book.


[1] Gregory E. Reynolds, “Living in a Lowercase World,” Ordained Servant 17 (2008): 15–18.

Allen C. Tomlinson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and pastor emeritus of the First Church of Merrimack (OPC) in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, April, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: April 2024

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