What is Reformed Worship? (II) It is Historical

“Part of the richness of our identity as Christians is that we are saved into a historic people.” As a young, rootless, evangelical Christian, the Reformed Church attracted me with its wonder, its mystery, and its historicity in theology and worship. I came to learn that as Christians, we are saved by Christ and into Christ’s Church. We are not left as orphans, but join a new family that stretches across all times and places and stretches from heaven to earth. When we assemble, then, for worship, we join in something that is holy as well as wholly other. Worship transcends people and time and is above recent worship fads. Being saved into a historic people means that we join the “great cloud of witnesses” which have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1).

Because we believe this, our worship has historical continuity with ages of Christians past. Our worship is not only reformed according to Scripture, as we saw in our last article, but also informed according to the history of the Church.

As humans, we need history. The ancient Latin poet Cicero said, “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.” The English thinker and writer C.S. Lewis said that our modern Western philosophy has caused us to be “chronologically arrogant.” Thus, we do not and cannot worship in a vacuum. We do not start a church and decide on our own how we want to worship, or, even worse, how the community around us wants us to worship. It is important for us to know what the Church did in the past and why it did so. Reformed worship, then, is historical because it links us to the past, communicates to the present, and will lead us in praise before the throne of God in the eternal future.


As Reformed churches, we follow the wisdom and heritage of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century. Our Protestant forefathers did not “throw the baby out with the bath water” when they began reforming the liturgies in their regions. They did not get rid of the existing liturgy and radically start over. Instead, they took what existed and followed the battle cry of the Renaissance: “back to the sources.”

The sources to which they went in reforming the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church were Scripture as well as to the liturgies of the ancient church. They saw a faithful history and tradition in the ancient liturgies of the church. These liturgies served as testimonies of the truth they were finding in Scripture.



The results were service books such as that of John Calvin, entitled, The Form of Prayers According to the Custom of the Early Church. In Martin Bucer’s defense of the reformation of worship in Strasbourg, the Grund und Ursach (“foundation and reason”), he described these reforms as “restorations of that which is right, old and eternal.”

The church in the first four centuries of its existence was seen as a time in which Christians worshipped in a biblical way, since Rome’s false gospel and idolatrous worship did not infect it yet. What you experience as you worship in a faithful Reformed church is a fully biblical service in the same vein as the historic liturgies of the ancient church in the second through fourth centuries, which were revived during the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.

Examples of Ancient Christian Worship The best way to see Reformed liturgical catholicity is to do what the Reformers did and examine the earliest writings of the Church in the area of liturgy and then compare these ancient descriptions to the practices of the Reformed churches.

The Didache (ca. 50–120)

One of the earliest descriptions of worship comes from the Didache. This was a manual of how the church was to be ordered in its various activities—baptism, preaching, Lord’s Supper, fasting, prayer, etc. In speaking of the Christian assembly, the Didache says,

And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your as sembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for this sacrifice it is that was spoken of by the Lord; {In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, saith the Lord and My name is wonderful among the nations.}” (14:1–5).

What this teaches us is that the purpose of assembling for worship is celebrating the Lord’s Supper. In this statement, the Didache follows the apostle Paul, who in 1 Corinthians says the church was to gather to break bread. We also learn that the church was to confess its sins before the Eucharist because it is a sacrifice of praise, as the Didache quotes from Malachi.

Pliny to Trajan (ca. 112)

A second early description of worship is from Pliny the Younger, Governor of Asia Minor, who wrote to the Emperor Trajan about persecution of Christians, among other things. When Christians were brought before those in charge, Pliny records that

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food – but ordinary and innocent food.

In Pliny’s letter we learn that Christians gathered twice on the Lord’s Day—before dawn in order to sing to Christ and to bind themselves together in a common life of morality (a possible reference to the Ten Commandments) and “again” in order to partake of food (a possible reference to the Lord’s Supper).

Justin Martyr

The most elaborate description of the worship that existed in the early church comes from the testimony of Justin Martyr. Justin was a convert to Christianity in the mid-second century. In the year A.D. 155, he wrote his First Apology, meant to show the Caesar of Rome of that time, Titus, the true nature of Christianity.

In chapters 65–67, Justin describes what happened when believers gathered for worship. In chapter 65, he first gives a general description of what happened when a newly baptized Christian came into the worship assembly, saying,

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.

Justin then gives a description of the service of the Eucharist (later he goes back and describes the service of the Word):

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the presi8 dent has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

So far, chapter 65 of Justin’s First Apology described the order of service like this:



Presentation of Bread/Wine

Prayer and corporate “Amen”

Distribution of Bread/Wine

In chapter 67, Justin fills in the rest of the service of worship with the service of the Word, which precedes the Eucharist:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things…

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers so- The Reformers stripped the worship that existed in their day, the Medieval Mass, of its idolatry and extra-Scriptural content. journing among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

Therefore, the Lord’s Day service that Justin describes to the Emperor is as follows:

Service of the Word


Old Testament Readings

New Testament Readings


Service of the Eucharist



Presentation of Bread/Wine

Prayer and corporate “Amen”

Distribution of Bread/Wine


We notice in Justin’s description of worship how simple the worship was. As well, its focus is the Word of God and sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In following this basic pattern, the Reformers stripped the worship that existed in their day, the Medieval Mass, of its idolatry and extra-Scriptural content. In doing so, they did not reinvent the wheel.

Clement of Rome (ca. 80-140)

A full description of the prayer that Justin mentions between the sermon and sacrament, what we often call the “Pastoral Prayer,” but what is also called the prayer of intercession, came from Clement of Rome’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. In it, Clement opened his prayer, saying,

And we will ask, with instancy of prayer and supplication, that the Creator of the universe may guard intact unto the end the number that hath been numbered of His elect throughout the whole world, through His beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom He called us from darkness to light, from ignorance to the full knowledge of the glory of His Name (59:2).

The prayer then interceded for the Church’s sanctification of the saints (59:3), for the afflicted (59:3, 4), for the salvation of all men (59:4), for the forgiveness of sins (60:1, 2 cf. Didache), for deliverance from enemies (60:3), for rulers (60:4, 61:1, 2) ending in a doxology (61:3), then closes with more intercessions for the sanctification of the saints and closes in a great doxology: “through our High priest and Guardian Jesus Christ, through whom unto Him be glory and majesty, might and honor, both now and for ever and ever. Amen” (64:1).

Tertullian (ca. 197)

The North African teacher, Tertullian of Carthage, also wrote a write description of Christian worship in his Apology, chapter 39. What is so instructive is how similar Tertullian, writing from Carthage in North Africa, and Justin, writing from Rome, sound in their descriptions of worship. There truly was a catholic consensus on the principles and practice of Christian worship.

Furthermore, their descriptions of Christian liturgy in the late 2nd century emphasize the four basic elements of worship mentioned in Acts 2:42: the Word, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and offering.

Tertullian begins his description with the element of prayer, mentioning that prayer is made for the authorities, the world, and for the delay of the Second Coming, saying,

We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications. This violence God delights in. We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.

He then moves to describe the element of the Word of God, both its reading and preaching:

sacred writings…with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits. In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered.

The offering of God’s people, especially for benevolence, is then explained, in contrast to the use of money in world:

There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinkingbouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession…

Finally, Tertullian gives a description of the Lord’s Supper, saying,

As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste. They say it is enough, as those who remember that even during the night they have to worship God; they talk as those who know that the Lord is one of their auditors. After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing,— a proof of the measure of our drinking. As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed.

In summary, we follow this basic pattern of the early Church’s worship in which the Word is read and preached, the Sacraments are celebrated with thanksgiving, prayers of confession, intercession, and thanks are offered, and the offerings of God’s people are gathered for the ministry of mercy. When we gather, then, we join multitudes of saints throughout all times and places in worshipping according to the Word and according to the custom of the early church.

Rev. Daniel Hyde is the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.