The Five Points of Calvinism and Your Church’s Sunday Meeting
It’s winter, which means each afternoon I make myself a cup of hot tea. I like it strong. If it doesn’t steep long enough, all you’ve got is brown water.
The best worship services are like a mug of well-steeped tea. They’re rich with the flavor of Christ-exalting biblical truth.
After all, corporate worship both reflects and reinforces our theology. On the one hand, what we do when the church gathers on Sunday morning flows out of our core doctrinal commitments. Our theology “flavors” the meeting, like my tea bag transforms water into tea. On the other hand, the congregation’s public worship forms us as believers. If the worship is unbiblical, it may deform us. But when our worship is biblical, it should continually conform us to the image of Christ. To continue my tea analogy (are you getting thirsty?), what we “drink” in a worship service will either undermine or bolster our spiritual health.
With this in mind, it’s vital for those of us who hold to a reformed or “Calvinistic” doctrine of salvation to consider if our corporate worship reflects our professed soteriology. Have the earth-shattering doctrines of grace sufficiently steeped into our services?
In their recent book, Lovin’ On Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship, Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth demonstrate that much of what goes on in evangelical services today has roots in two sources: 1960s–70s Pentecostalism and the 1980s–90s church growth movement. There are notable exceptions, of course, and it would take a whole different article to flesh out the implications of that history. But if they’re right (and I think they are), it means that there may be some Pentecostal and pragmatic assumptions built into our worship services. For sure, we have much to learn from other theological traditions. But self-consciously reformed services should reflect reformed priorities.
If we claim to hold to the doctrines of grace, do our weekly meetings confirm that claim? Let’s walk through the five points of Calvinism and explore how each one can—and should—inform our corporate worship.
Human beings are “inclined to evil, dead in their hearts, and slaves to sin . . . neither willing nor able to return to God” ( Canons of Dort, III.3; see Ps 51:5, Eph 2:1–3). If we believe this is true, we should declare it in our services. God is glorified when we help believers appreciate the depth of the depravity from which we’ve been rescued. Likewise, it serves unbelievers to tell them honestly what’s wrong with their hearts.
In other words, our main goal in corporate worship shouldn’t be to provide a generic jolt of inspiration or an injection of positive thinking. It should be to magnify the Savior who overcame our cosmic treason against him.
One helpful way to reflect the reality of depravity in worship is a prayer of confession. The Westminster Directory for Public Worship (1645) urges a pastor to use such a prayer each Sunday to “get his hearers’ hearts to be rightly affected with their sins, that they may all mourn in sense thereof before the Lord, and hunger and thirst after the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”
Recently, a brother at my church said the following in his prayer of confession: “Lord, not only could we not serve you in our sin, we wouldn’t even have wanted to if we could.” Praying along with him, I was shocked—floored—convicted— and then my heart was warmed by how God has conquered my rebellion in Christ.
To those who may object that a prayer of confession may turn away non-Christian visitors because they’ll find it overly negative and depressing, I beg to differ for two reasons. First, even if that reason is true, Scripture calls us to prioritize edifying the people of God in our services, not making visitors comfortable (see 1 Cor 14). But second, unbelievers often thank us at my church for using a weekly prayer of confession. “Finally, a church service where everyone else admits they’re as messed up as I am.”
- Read the Ten Commandments corporately. Expose people to God’s law and explain that though we fall infinitely short of his standard, there is mercy in Christ.
- Sing hymns that are honest about the problem of sin , that glory in the depths of what Christ has done to forgive us , and that invite believers and non-believers alike to repentance .
- Regularly read and sing penitential Psalms, such as Psalms 51 and 130.
God decreed to save an undeserving people “by sheer grace,” on the basis of his “good pleasure” alone ( Canons of Dort I.7; see Eph 1:3–6). This doctrine implies that God takes the initiative in all of his dealings with us—including our worship of him. Our worship is a gift we offer back to God, but God himself is its ultimate source and benefactor (Eph 2:10).
One way to acknowledge God’s gracious initiative in our services is to include a scriptural call to worship. Consider beginning the assembly with a summons from God’s Word to adore the God who speaks. This simple practice subtly signals that it is God who reveals himself to us and calls us into a reconciled relationship with him.
If we believe God has freely chosen to deliver a people by his mercy, then a substantive prayer of praise belongs in our services as well. It strikes me as strange when I attend a church that supposedly holds to reformed theology, yet only has one or two perfunctory prayers. A prayer of praise helps us marry doxology and theology. It shouldn’t be a dry, jargon-laden recitation of truth, but a stirring proclamation of God’s attributes, perfections, and deeds—as we see modeled in so many of the Psalms of praise.
- Include a moment of silence before or after a prayer or Scripture reading, which can help believers ponder God’s transcendence.
- Analyze your most-used songs and evaluate if they major in declarative praise (“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty… Immortal, invisible, God only wise”) or if they focus on our response to God (“I worship you… we sing to you… we look to you”). Both are biblical and important, but the former should be our meat and potatoes and the latter our dessert. If our songs reference us more than God, then we have no business calling our worship “God-centered.”
PARTICULAR REDEMPTION / DEFINITE ATONEMENT
The glory of the doctrine of particular redemption is that Christ died for his chosen people, the church (Eph 5:25). Those the Father elects are those for whom the Son atones, and those to whom the Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s work. They’re all one and the same.
Since this is the case, reformed pastors must work to counteract the trend in evangelical worship toward individualism. A worship service isn’t a concert, where music fans share their experience in a darkened hall with a group of anonymous others who all have the same tastes. Instead, it’s a covenantal family meeting, with a group of known others who differ from each other in a thousand ways but all love the same Savior.
In other words, a reformed service is one where the church—the bride for whom Jesus died—is visible, as it were, to itself.
One way we can highlight this reality is by emphasizing the corporate nature of the ordinances. Baptism mainly isn’t a notch on one’s individual discipleship belt, and the Lord’s Supper isn’t a private “me and Jesus” moment. Baptism is where a believer takes on the family name. The Supper is where believers sit down to the family meal. If your church has a covenant and/or statement of faith, consider having the members recite some or all of it when preparing for the Lord’s Table as a way of reaffirming their commitment to one another.
Likewise, reformed churches would do well to heed Ephesians 5:19, where Paul instructs us to address “one another” in song even as we make melody to the Lord. Praising God is one way we edify the body. We should select songs that provide a vehicle for Christians to encourage one another . We should teach that although God is the primary audience of our praise, singing is in another sense part of each believer’s personal ministry to the whole church.
- Keep the lights on during church services to fight against a production/entertainment mindset and to allow church members to see one another.
- When singing, regularly drop out the instruments so that the voices of the redeemed are the main auditory focus.
When God gives us new life, the Holy Spirit “penetrates into the inmost being, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised” ( Canons of Dort, III/IV.11). How? By his Word. When God speaks, his Word doesn’t return to him empty (Isa 55:11).
Simply put, this means that a reformed church service should be saturated with Scripture. Our job is to devote ourselves to the public reading of the Word (1 Tim 4:13) and to preach the good news faithfully. God alone changes hearts.
In light of this, I find it ironic that, at least it seems to me, one trademark of seeker-sensitive or “attractional” services is less time spent explaining the Bible and more time for supposedly relevant features such as skits and special music. There’s a stark difference between making our services intelligible for unbelievers (a worthy goal: see 1 Cor 14:23–25) and withholding from them the very thing that God normally uses to draw people to salvation: his Word. We have something better to offer unbelievers than a warm feeling of inspiration. We have the gospel by which God calls the dead to life.
In the Westminster Directory of Public Worship, a large group of 17th century Calvinists (many of whom we regard as our theological heroes) instructed churches to read a whole chapter from both the Old and New Testaments each Lord’s Day. That may seem a tall order today, and my church doesn’t follow that guideline exactly. But I would submit that hearing long portions of Scripture read, especially when done with excellence, is an easily acquired taste. Ligon Duncan has said, “make the public reading of the Word an event.” Read with the expectation that God will use his Word to transform people—and you might be surprised to find that folks listen up.
- Prioritize expositional preaching. Always show how the text points to Christ.
- Sing Psalms regularly, since the gift of music can help us memorize God’s effectual Word.
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
My friend Matthew Westerholm has argued that it’s shortsighted for pastors and song leaders to see a church service primarily as helping Christians “get through the next week.” We’ve got to zoom out the camera lens: we are preparing pilgrims for eternity.
The doctrine of perseverance safeguards the biblical assurance that no one will snatch us out of Christ’s hand (John 10:28). Those he has called, he will keep until the end (Jude 1, 24). And yet, our Calvinistic forebears also understood that God uses means to hold us fast: “God preserves, continues, and completes this work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments” ( Canons of Dort V.14).
Therefore, we should plan our Lord’s Day services to help Christians endure to the end. Worship is discipleship: through the elements of a church meeting, we are equipping one another with the God-centered view of life necessary to survive as sojourners doing battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Practically speaking, this means our services should address the reality of suffering. Sing in a minor key from time to time. Use a pastoral prayer of lament: not only is it appropriate to pray for all sorts of needs (1 Tim 2:1, 1 Pet 5:7), a prayer like this shows that it’s OK for real, faithful Christians to experience pain.
Our people need far more than 75 minutes of hype. They need to encounter the sovereign God who is strong enough to guide them through the valley of the shadow of death.
- Sing hymns and read Scriptures that help believers look forward to the new heavens and new earth.
- Use the Lord’s Supper not only as a time of remembrance, but of anticipation for the wedding supper of the Lamb that is to come.
- Include prayers, scriptures, and songs that express lament over the brokenness of the world and longing for Christ’s reign of justice.
Finally, pastor, take heart. The very truths we’ve been discussing remind us that God doesn’t finally approve of our efforts or make them fruitful because our worship services are perfectly steeped with the rich aroma of reformed theology. He will bring glory to his name despite our errors, imperfections, and frailties. That’s why we can plan Sunday’s service with confidence. We should strive for faithfulness, yes—but with certainty that his good purposes will prevail.