Reformed Liturgy

Question: What is the proper way to worship God with decency and order?

Answer: The way to worship with decency and order is to follow the pattern of God’s covenant of grace where He tells us that He is our God and we respond that we are His people (Genesis 17).

How much are the current disputes about worship the result of an impoverished definition of worship? If all Presbyterians and Reformed could agree about what constituted worship, wouldn’t our services all be and look the same? Consider then the following definitions of worship. “Worship,” writes one theologian, “is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant God.” According to another Reformed thinker, “Worship is the activity of the new life of a believer in which, recognizing the fulness of the Godhead as it is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and His mighty redemptive acts, he seeks by the power of the Holy Spirit to render to the living God the glory, honor, and submission which are His due.” Still a third Reformed writer states that “true worship is that obedient service to God by the creature, submitting to God’s will for how He will be thanked. praised and remembered.”

All of these are good definitions Each says something important about worship that can be supported by Scripture. But there is a dimension to worship that is omitted in all of them, and one that explains why good definitions of worship do not necessarily produce good or fitting services of worship. That dimension is the church, as the gathering of God’s people out of this world and into His presence. As we have argued previously, one cannot understand public worship apart from the doctrine of the church.

When the church gathers in God’s presence, He is among His people in a way different from His presence in our regular, daily lives. The church is the “ekklesia,” called out of this world and gathered into God’s presence. While God is always and everywhere present among His people, His presence is special and unique in public worship on the Lord’s Day. To come to worship is to meet Him in the holy of holies. The Directory for Worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church puts it this way:

A service of public worship is not merely a gathering of God’s children with each other but before all else a meeting of the triune God with his people. God is present in public worship not only by virtue of the divine omniscience but, much more intimately, as the faithful covenant savior. The Lord Jesus Christ said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Of course, this gathering between God and His people is not a meeting among equals. For this reason we must regard worship as a solemn assembly, and we must be very careful about how we conduct it. Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 warns us against coming into the presence of God in a hasty or impulsive manner. When we do so we “offer the sacrifice of fools” who “do not know that they are doing evil.”

What worshipers do during this solemn assembly is frequently called a “liturgy.” That may seem like an offensive word among Reformed Christians, suggesting the Roman Catholic mass or the Episcopalian Prayer Book, accompanied by vestments, candles and altars. Presbyterians, by contrast, are more at home in low church worship with freer and more open forms of worship that we sometimes describe as non-liturgical.

But liturgy is not a word that Reformed and Presbyterian folk need fear. Here is how the Christian Reformed Church used it, in a 1968 report on worship: “Liturgy is what people do when they worship…Every church has a liturgy, whether it worships with set forms inherited from the ages or whether it worships in the freedom of the moment. The only question is whether we have the best possible liturgy: it is never whether we have a liturgy.”


What is good liturgy? Good liturgy follows an appropriate pattern and is suitable for the occasion. In particular. it is a proper enactment of our theology. Bad liturgy, on the other hand, is shapeless or formless. More particularly, it is a failure properly to embody our theology in forms that are suitable to the doctrines that we profess.

What then is good Reformed liturgy? It is liturgy that arranges worship in a way that coherently follows Reformed theology. For this reason we should not expect to worship like charismatics or Anglicans. (Both are mistaken in their theology and worship, but at least they deserve credit for shaping their worship in ways that are appropriate to their theological convictions.) Least of all should we worship in a way that suggests that our theology doesn’t matter.

What gives Reformed worship its particular shape and direction is the same principle that forms the organizing principle of Reformed theology. No less than our theology, our worship must be arranged according to the doctrine of the covenant of grace. The heart of our covenantal relationship with God is found in Genesis 17:7 with God’s promise to Abraham: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.”



God’s promise to Abraham is restated throughout the subsequent unfolding of God’s covenant promises in redemptive history. These words are found in Jeremiah as God describes through His prophet the essence of the new covenant in Christ: “I will put my law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33). The prophecy of Ezekiel repeats this promise:

“And I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Ezek. 37:26–27).

Paul cites these prophecies to show their fulfillment in the new covenant (II Cor. 6:16) as does the author of Hebrews (Heb. 8:10). Revelation 21 describes the ultimate fulfillment of this promise in the marriage of jesus and His bride, the church in the new heaven and new earth: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and he shall dwell among them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be among them” (v. 3).

These texts provide a covenantal pattern for worship. God is our God and we are His people. God promises, and His people respond to the promise in obedience and consecration. God acts in redemption, and we respond in gratitude and service. God speaks to us, and we respond in praise. Following this pattern, Reformed worship is inherently covenantal. Recall the words above from the OPC’s Directory for Worship: “God is present in worship not only by virtue of the divine omniscience but, much more intimately, as the faithful savior.”


Specifically, this covenantal pattern in worship takes the shape of a dialogue between God and His people. This principle of a dialogue is found throughout Biblical patterns of worship. According to Genesis 4:26, to be in covenant with God is “to call upon the name of the Lord.” To call upon God’s name and to invoke His presence is to bow down and worship Him, in reverence, humility and submission. After the flood Noah dialogued with God through a burnt offering that rose to heaven, with smoke that filled God’s nostrils with a pleasing aroma (Gen. 8:21). When Moses met God on Mount Sinai he “bowed to the ground at once and worshiped” (Exod. 34:8). Similarly, when John witnessed the risen Christ, “I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).

To be sure, these were terror-provoking encounters. Isaiah’s vision of the living and true God overwhelmed him with despair over his sinfulness (Isa. 6:5). Still, the Israelites exhibited confidence when they sought God in the way in which He prescribed, and “He let them find him” (2 Chron. 15:15). And the psalmist could rejoice that in covenantal dialogue with his God he could gain the assurance that his sins were forgiven (Psalms 32:1–5).

Reformed liturgy embodies this dialogical principle. The Directory for Worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church describes the dialogue in this way:

The parts of worship are of two kinds: those which are performed on behalf of God, and those which are performed by the congregation. In the former the worshipers are receptive, in the latter they are active. It is reasonable that these two elements be made to alternate as far as possible.

Several recent studies on worship have challenged the dialogical principle by suggesting that worship should have both “horizontal” and “vertical” aspects.

The notion here is that in the vertical aspects we do things that honor and revere God, and in the horizontal dimension we edify the people. So good worship, it is maintained, should contain both of these features, blending the vertical “godward” elements with the horizontal “edifying” elements.

But the Reformed principle of covenantal or dialogical worship, following Biblical patterns of worship, must challenge this distinction by insisting that all of worship is vertical. It is a holy transaction or conversation between God and His people. It is not a conversation among God’s people. When we greet our neighbors in the next pew or when we listen to testimonies, we are not worshiping God. As edifying as these activities may be, and as encouraging as they are in the appropriate setting, corporate worship is a time when the dialogue goes back and forth between God and His people. It is a time — and one of the rare times during our busy weeks when we need to hear that God is faithful and continues to be our God and when we need to reaffirm our vows to be His faithful people.

This is not to suggest, however that worship doesn’t bless the worshipers. It certainly does. But it is precisely in the vertical character of worship that we receive our blessing, and we need not enhance it by adding a horizontal dimension to our liturgy. In meeting us for worship, God blesses us in several ways. At the beginning, the call to worship is our assurance that God is present among us. We have His words of forgiveness following our confession of sin. He speaks His word of instruction as the Word of God is read and preached. Finally, at the close of worship God blesses us with the words of benediction.

The blessing of vertical worship is enough to edify God’s people. We do not need to hear things from each other in worship to be blessed or encouraged or convicted. The best edification God’s people can experience is to hear that the living and true God is our God and that He will have mercy on us and cause His face to shine upon us. We need not tinker with the dialogical structure to add therapeutic features that appear to give encouragement and support. The means of grace are sufficient to provide genuine hope and comfort because God has ordained them as the ways in which He will bless and sustain His people. We are not smarter than God and so we need to learn to take encouragement from those elements of worship that please Him, rather than devising strategies that we think will be consoling. Just as the Israelites needed to be content with manna, the food that God gave them during their wilderness pilgrimage so we need to be content with the food from on high that sustains our spiritual lives.


Having said that Reformed theology involves a certain way of ordering the service, we must a so recognize, as the Reformed tradition has historically, that Scripture does not provide a fixed order of worship. Why don’t we begin worship with the benediction or the offering? Why don’t we place the sermon at the very end of worship, as the last thing we hear before we leave? Yet, good reasons exist for avoiding such novelties. The covenantal structure not only establishes the dialogue between God and His people in the sacred and solemn assembly of worship, but it also gives us direction for the order of Reformed worship. As Terry Johnson has argued in the latest issue of the Westminster Theological Journal (Spring, 1998), covenant theology provides the “gospel logic” that undergirds public worship. In Johnson’s words, this logic consists of four “cycles” of worship: praise, confession, the means of grace and blessing.

For instance, Psalm 100:4 instructs us to “enter his courts with praise.” Praise, according to Hughs Oliphant Old, is the “gateway into God’s presence.” And so Reformed liturgy generally begins by focusing the hearts of worshipers on praise, with elements such as:

Call to Worship

Invocation and Prayer of Praise

Psalm or Hymn of Praise

Confession of Faith

Gloria Patri or Doxology

Having begun worship with this vision of God and His glory, it is fitting that worshipers should be struck with fear, a sense both of their finiteness and their unworthiness because of sin to come into the presence of such a great God. This sense of seriousness and contrition leads into the “cycle of confession,” and we find such features of the liturgy as:

Reading of the Law

Confession of Sin

Assurance of Pardon

Psalm or Hymn of Thanksgiving

This cycle having contemplated God in His glory, seen ourselves in our own unworthiness, and prompted us to repent of our sins and trust in Christ for forgiveness, we then need to grow in our faith. As so we move into a cycle of worship that employs the means of grace:

Prayer of Illumination

Reading of Scripture


Prayer of Intercession

Lord’s Supper

Finally, having built up our faith we respond with thanksgiving to God for His grace and mercy. In this final cycle of worship, the congregation engages in thanksgiving and blessing:

Prayer for Offering


Concluding Hymn


With some variation, this is the structure of the liturgy that has characterized Reformed worship since John Calvin. Its guilt-grace-gratitude structure is patterned after the gospel that we profess. As Terry Johnson concludes, worship in this way “is consistent with Scriptural example, with Christian experience, and the Reformed tradition.”


Much of the debate in worship today seems less to do with what comprises right worship than who should be participating in worship. Who may pray in worship? Who should sing? Who should and should not preach? When are we active and when are we receptive?

In addressing these and similar questions, we are off to a good start if we begin with the dialogical principle of worship. Which part of the liturgical dialogue is represented in these acts of worship? Who is addressing whom? When is God speaking and who speaks for God? When are the people responding, and who speaks for the people of God? The dialogical principle forbids us from making distinctions in worship merely according to sex (only men can do certain things), or age (with sermons for the children or dismissing them to children’s church), or musical gifts (with choirs and soloists who “minister” to the people in song). Instead, the dialogical principle instructs us to see worship as a meeting of two parties: God and His people.

Thus we are to divide the duties of worship into two. The special office of the minister of the Word speaks for God and for the congregation in pastoral prayer. The general office of believers respond to God in song, confession and praise. In these corporate responses to God, the people speak and sing with one voice, whether through the prayers of the pastor, songs sung from the hymnal, or the recitation of creeds or prayers.

Lest we be misunderstood, the distinction we are drawing here is not an argument for women’s ordination. We believe that the Bible restricts the special offices of the church to men. But the key distinction in worship is not gender but ordination. And so the limitations on worship that Scripture extends to  women apply equally to unordained men.


It is helpful for Reformed Christians to recover the term, “liturgy,” and to restore it to our worship vocabulary. To low-church Reformed and Presbyterians, the word may connote formalism and vain repetition. But as we have argued, another way to understand it is simply as a way of conducting the solemn assembly between God and His people. It establishes the dialogue between God: God speaks, and then we respond. God speaks again, and then we respond. And so on.

Reformed liturgy, then, is a blessed thing. Embodying the doctrine of the covenant of grace. it provides the order and coherence in our worship through its dialogical structure. Just as we have seen in the doctrine of the regulative principle, we must not try to be wiser than God. If we disregard the dialogical principle, if we become too lopsided with what we say instead of coming into His presence to hear Him speak to us, we will not only rob God of the adoration that is His due, but also deprive ourselves of the blessing He would have for us as He condescends to meet us.

D.G. Hart is librarian and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA). He serves as an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, PA. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).