Volume 11, No. 10 (October 2016)
We usually think of the Reformation of the 15th Century in terms of doctrinal renewal. The Reformers were not seeking to bring new or original truths to the Church; rather they were zealous to bring back to the Church the biblical/apostolic teaching concerning salvation, which had been largely lost to the Church. Hence their emphasis on justification by grace alone, through faith alone. We all owe these courageous leaders a great debt: standing against all the civil and religious authorities of their time, armed only with a supreme confidence in God and His Word, they succeeded in restoring the biblical gospel to the Church! And that restored gospel has led to our own salvation.
But we also owe the Reformers a debt for the renewal of worship. Here are some of the key areas:
THE SOLE PRIESTHOOD OF CHRIST
There was a renewed understanding of the role in worship of the living Christ, who as God and man is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between God and man. The neglect of the full humanity of Christ during the Middle Ages had led to serious distortions in worship practice: it was taught that one could only approach God by going through a priest; and that one needed to go through the Virgin Mary or one of the saints in order for one’s prayers to be heeded by God.
The Reformers restored the precious New Testament truth of our full and confident access to the Father through the work of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-22); they insisted (biblically) that in Christ every believer can enter directly into God’s presence in worship and in prayer, and that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
CHRIST AS THE LEADER OF OUR WORSHIP
As both God and man, His mediating work is uniquely two-way: between God and man, and between man and God. As such He mediates God’s self-revelation to us, and also represents us before God in our response. This is expressed with beautiful succinctness in the words of Jesus (speaking to the Father) found in Hebrews 2:12 (quoting Psalm 22:22):
“I will proclaim Your Name to my brethren;
and in the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.”
In his commentary on this verse, John Calvin called Jesus “the chief Conductor of our hymns.” Jesus takes our imperfect offerings of worship, perfects them and presents them to the Father in our place and on our behalf. This is God’s grace for our worship: we don’t have to worry if our worship is “good enough”: when we come through Christ, God is always pleased with our worship because He delights in His Son and His perfect offering of praise.
[For more on this transformative truth for worship leaders, please see Worship Notes 1.8 , and my book Proclamation and Praise: Hebrews 2:12 and the Christology of Worship (Wipf & Stock, 2007)
THE RESTORATION OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE SCRIPTURES AND ITS RETURN TO THE CENTER OF WORSHIP
Preaching in worship had pretty much died out; the study of doctrine and dogma (as defined by the Church) was solely in the hands of the priesthood rather than being a legitimate pursuit of every Christian.
The Reformation itself grew out of the study of the Word by Luther and others, and he and the other Reformers were preachers who restored the reading and exposition of the Scriptures in worship, in obedience to Paul’s admonitions to “let the Word of Christ dwell richly among you” (Colossians 3:16), to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2), and to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).
THE BIBLE IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE PEOPLE
As mentioned above, by the end of the Middle Ages, services were still conducted in Latin, which was understood by no one but the priests and a few scholars. The translation and wide distribution of the Bible in the vernacular (facilitated by the invention of the printing press) was a movement that put the Word of God into the hands of the common people; and they were no longer forbidden, as before, but actively encouraged to delve into its riches for themselves. And that study was amplified by preaching, which was done from the newly translated Bible.
THE WORSHIP SERVICE IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE PEOPLE
Latin was likewise replaced by the vernacular as the language in which worship services were conducted and as the language of preaching.
CONGREGATIONAL PARTICIPATION IN WORSHIP, ESPECIALLY IN SINGING
During the Middle Ages, what music there was in the worship services was normally sung by the priests or a choir. Luther had the highest regard for the place of music, and advocated its use in worship in often colorful language:
“I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.… A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” (Foreword to a 1538 collection of chorale motets)
Congregational singing became a central part of public worship, and Luther and others penned many new hymn texts.
THE SIMPLIFICATION OF THE WORSHIP SERVICE AND REMOVAL OF THE SACRIFICIAL ELEMENT
Medieval worship had become exceedingly complex and cumbersome. Some streams of the Reformation went further than others in restructuring the liturgy, but all represented a significant streamlining with a view towards better understanding and participation. And the Medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, which taught that in the Mass the bread and wine miraculously became the actual body and blood of Christ, was universally rejected.
What riches in worship, from Word to music to the recognition of Christ’s unique role, were recovered for us by the Reformers!