8 Marks of Reformation Worship Services
Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey, Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present. New Growth Press, 2018. 736 pages.
Reformation Worship edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey is a tour de force, compiling 16th and 17th-century liturgies for the benefit of 21st-century Christians and pastors.
The book begins with three chapters in which Gibson, Earngey, and Sinclair Ferguson define worship, explain the development of Protestant liturgies during the Reformation, and offer several key hallmarks of Reformation worship. The rest of the book is comprised of primary source liturgies from different Reformers and Puritans, each of which are helpfully introduced.
There are countless lessons a reader could glean from these liturgies. Below I will offer a few that highlight the key tenets of worship during the Reformation period.
1. THE CENTRALITY OF PREACHING
It should not come as a surprise that these liturgies consistently centralize the preaching of God’s Word (30–31, 56–57).
God’s Word shapes his people and his church. Earngey writes in the introduction, “Preaching was central to the liturgy, because the Word of God was central to the eternal life of its worshipers” (32). The Reformers’ high view of God’s Word is seen in Luther’s modest summation of his role in the Reformation: “I did nothing more than pray and preach. The Word did it all.” Not only did the Reformers make preaching central to Sunday morning worship, but sermons were offered on Sunday evening and throughout the week (Zwingli offered two daily throughout the week, 216).
Some Reformers followed a church calendar, but most preached through books of the Bible lectio continua (32). Some churches had three sermons on Sunday: one in the early morning, one in the late morning (the main service), and one in the evening (108).
There is also instruction for the art of preaching to be gleaned from these liturgies. For example, we read this in the Danish Church Order: “He should not draw out the sermon beyond an hour, nor should he indulge his own affections. But he should admonish in plain words about what is said, so that it might be understood . . . he should not reprimand anyone by name . . . he should only rebuke vices in general” (262-63).
These liturgies are a good reminder of the central place God’s Word must have in all Christian churches today.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones once commented on why he didn’t open Sunday morning worship with some version of “good morning and welcome.” His response was that if he was welcoming people into his home, he might welcome them that way, but he wasn’t welcoming them into his home. He was welcoming them into the presence of God, and he was simply a servant.
Of course, joy, warmth, forgiveness, and peace are all emotions one should feel coming into God’s presence to worship him, but one should also feel reverence and a sense of sober-mindedness (xx).
These liturgies communicate a love for God and a deep awareness of his holiness. They capture the mood of verses like Ecclesiastes 5:2: Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
And Job 40:3–5:
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.”
Often when people experience the presence of God in Scripture, they fall on their face and cover their mouth at the weight and gravity of God’s glory. We would do well to imitate them as we shape our worship services.
Any reader of these liturgies will inevitably recognize that the Reformers did not shy away from substance in worship (65). Significant time is given to prayers, Scripture reading, creeds, singing, the Lord’s Supper, and preaching. It’s clear the Reformers weren’t interested in laying out some finger food of edification but in treating congregants to a full spiritualmeal.
I had a conversation once with a man who was visiting our church. When I asked him what he thought of the service, his response was, “It was nice. It was quick and moved fast.” I wondered if he would have such delight in brevity about the game he was planning on watching later that day.
I understand people have limited attention spans. I’m not suggesting we kill people Eutychus-style. But could it be that we need to repent for a lack of hunger and thirst for God in our worship services? Paul exclaims that he’s suffered the loss of all things and counts them as rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:7–8). The psalmist yearns, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:2).
Perhaps we are too content to be conditioned for comfort rather than struggling to expand our attention spans that we might behold more of God’s glory. We must ask ourselves the honest question: would Paul or David leave our Sunday morning worship asking, “Is that it?”
An emphasis on substance shouldn’t be confused with complexity. Time and time again, the Reformers stress simplicity in their liturgies (49, 78, 217, 280).
Admittedly, some strayed from this formula, notably the Book of Common Prayer, which required a dizzying sequence of standing, kneeling, and speaking. However, the Reformers mostly wanted the service to be simple and accessible. This, of course, meant that the sermon and prayers be in the vernacular so that congregants could understand and be edified. It also meant the liturgical elements followed a clear and logical path which aided congregants in following along and comprehending.
We should learn from the Reformers to keep worship substantive and simple. As C.S. Lewis said, “The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God” (73).
5. COMPREHENSIVELY SCRIPTURAL
The Reformers desired to ground every aspect of worship in Scripture (49). This is known as the regulative principle, the conviction that we shape worship according to what God’s Word commands us to do. We worship God on his terms.
The singing of songs reflects Scripture (Eph. 5:19), the preaching of sermons reflects Scripture (Acts 2:42, 6:2; 2 Tim. 4:2), praying and confessing our sins together reflects Scripture (James 5:16), praying for government rulers and world events reflects Scripture (1 Tim. 2:1–4).
A zealous commitment to Bible-shaped worship is shown in John Calvin’s pastoral prayer. Even though the Lord’s Prayer does not seem to be mandated for Christians (the rest of the New Testament doesn’t reveal a strict adherence to it), Calvin still shaped his pastoral prayer after it.
When we come to worship God, it’s vital we do so just as God, in his perfect wisdom, intends. The Reformers painstakingly, though not necessarily perfectly, sought to do this, and so should we.
Several of the Reformers mention the importance of Christian liberty in the explanations of their liturgy (36, 45–46). Martin Luther especially made a point to stress the freedom other churches should have in fleshing out the Scriptural principles embodied in his liturgy (78).
There are Scriptural principles every worship service should incorporate, but beyond that, we should be careful about binding anyone’s conscience in the number of songs we sing, the exact length of the service or sermon or prayers, what creeds are used, or what songs are sung (provided they articulate sound theology).
7. HISTORICAL ROOTEDNESS
The Reformers bent over backward to show that the doctrines recovered in the Reformation were not novel but the historic Christian faith once for all handed down from the apostles and early church fathers (33, 61–64). They also wanted to show that they stood on the shoulders of a long line of faithful believers who had gone before them.
One of the ways they taught a continuous tradition of faithful doctrine was through creeds. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed were often read aloud during worship. This taught the church solid doctrine in succinct, memorable form, while also giving them an important perspective of their place in church history.
When Paul writes, “I delivered to you what I also received” (1 Cor. 15:3), he’s setting an example for us to follow. Similarly, Paul tells the Thessalonians to hold to the traditions that they were taught by him and his companions (2 Thes. 2:15).
The culture we live in today is dominated by the relevant. What’s new is best. But I’ve had numerous conversations with people—students especially—who express a desire to be tethered to something more lasting. Corporate readings of creeds and doctrinal statements are a great way to teach sound doctrine. They give us a humbling sense of our place in history and show us that an uninterrupted line of Protestant orthodoxy flows from Christ to us in the 21st century.
Lastly, these liturgies stress congregational participation (xvii, 38). It’s clear congregants are not just passive observers, but active participants. As we’ve already stated, the service was in the vernacular and simple so people could follow along. There were also corporate readings of creeds and Scripture, corporate prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer, antiphonal readings, and congregational singing.
Paul says believers should address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19). What a far cry this is from many worship services which relegate the congregation to onlookers in the dark, gazing up at the illuminated performers on the stage or screen. Many worship services make it hard for the congregation to participate, transforming worship into something more reminiscent of a concert. This is similar to the medieval Catholic church performing the entire service in Latin and barring the laity from the Lord’s Supper. Their argument was that the laity may corrupt or misunderstand, so instead, the “professionals” will take part, and the congregation will be edified by watching.
By doing away with corporate readings, corporate prayers, and congregationally singable songs, some modern churches are espousing the same mentality, whether they realize it or not.
Gibson and Earngey write in the introduction that the purpose of this work isn’t an archeological dig to satisfy the curiosity of a niche audience interested in ancient liturgies (xvi). Neither is it to bolster traditionalism (73). Instead, it’s to glean principles from the past that we might continue the kind of biblical, Trinitarian, God-glorifying worship the Reformers sought (xix, 73–74).
The Reformers were zealous to see Christ glorified and his people edified through the Word preached, prayed, and sung, now and forever.
The above principles gleaned from Gibson’s and Earngey’s work (many of which they specifically mention in the introduction) are far from exhaustive. But as one reads through these liturgies, it’s my conclusion that if the Reformers could collectively speak to churches today, the lessons above would be their core message. To paraphrase Jaroslav Pelikan (48), let us not embrace the dead faith of the living (traditionalism), but let us embrace the living faith of the dead, as we seek to live out these principles for God’s glory and his people’s edification.
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For more on Reformation Worship, listen to Jonathan Gibson discuss “How the Reformation Changed Sunday Worship” on Pastor’s Talk.
 Nick Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power Vol. 3: Renaissance and Reformation, Revised edition (Christian Focus, 2016). 131.
 Iain Murray, The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899-1981 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2014). 302.
 David G. Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship, Later Printing edition (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2002).