In most evangelical Protestant circles “liturgy” is a four-letter word, at worst; and a “Catholic” word, at best. If you want to silence a crowd fellowshipping over coffee after a service, just say, “I really wish we had some liturgy here at the church.”
In reality, this word is neither Roman Catholic nor a bad one. It is a biblical word. Our English word “liturgy” comes from the ancient and biblical Greek words leitourgia (n.) and leitourgein (v.). These words speak generally of any kind of “service” (Phil. 2:17, 30; 2 Cor. 9:12), but when used in a religious sense they carry the idea of the official religious “service” of the priests and of Christ as our great High Priest (Num. 8:22, 16:9, 18:4; Luke 1:23; Heb. 9:21).
Biblically speaking, liturgy is religious service. What is most amazing is that liturgy is primarily Christ’s “service” to us as He summons us before His presence to bestow upon us His gifts and graces in Word and Sacrament. In response to His service to us, liturgy is also our service of thanksgiving to Him when we come together to serve the Lord in His house. It is this covenantal activity of Christ serving us and our serving Him that we normally think of as a “liturgy,” or, “order of service.”
What this means is that every church that has ever existed engages in liturgy in the service of worship. Whether a church has a structured or a loose service, or whether a liturgy is printed in the bulletin or not, all churches follow some sort of liturgy every time they meet to worship. Even the free-style “Spirit-led” services and the “revival” services follow a predictable pattern.
The question before us, then, is not whether we have a liturgy, but whether we are faithful to the pattern exemplified in the Scriptures as we seek to worship the Father in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Let us seek the best possible liturgy, biblically, that will bring glory to God and comfort to the believer.
Is Liturgy Lazy?
This is particularly important since one of the idols of our culture and churches is that in order for something to be sincere it must be informal and spontaneous. Yet, the heavenly scene of worship in Revelation 4 explodes this as idolatry. We follow a set form and pattern in our weekly worship because the Church in heaven worships in a liturgical way with set responses and songs to the One upon the throne and to the Lamb:
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Rev 4:9–11)
Revelation is filled with liturgical songs and material from the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, the Psalms themselves are formal prayers and songs. In describing the worship of the Jewish synagogue and its liturgy, one writer said, “The prayers were set in such a form that all could take part in their recitation.” Biblical and Reformed worship is not lazy, but it is common worship in which we all actively join together with one voice.
What about the repetitiveness of liturgy, which leads to heartless recitation? In the words of Anglican minister Peter Toon, Familiarity with them [set prayers] increases their usefulness as the content of the human response to God’s gracious invitation to draw near to Him and behold His glory. If they are learned of by heart then each day as they are prayed the mind is able both to see and pour into them ever deeper meaning, the affections are able to be raised in delight, peace and love towards God, while the will is moved in resolve to obey God at all times.
What is the Purpose of a Biblically Reformed Liturgy?
By placing an abundance of Scripture before us in an orderly, meaningful, and intelligible way, a liturgy focuses our minds and hearts upon the glory of God in Jesus Christ, while taking our minds and hearts off our selfish selves. Reformed liturgy gets our focus not just off ourselves but also off this sin-torn world and onto the hope of the life to come. In worship, we get a foretaste of heaven, as we gather around the throne of grace and cast ourselves before our Triune God that He might raise us up. As pilgrims awaiting our heavenly homeland, we come to worship acknowledging with Augustine, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in Thee.”
The Basic Flow
The heart of the liturgy is the Word and Sacraments, which have been the two defining marks of Christian worship since the earliest of days. The service of the Word was derived from the synagogue, with Scripture readings, singing, prayers, confession of faith, alms, and the sermon. The service of the Lord’s Supper was derived from the Upper Room commandment of our Lord, which included prayer and singing. This pattern is expressed in Exodus 24:1–11: God calls Moses and the people to the foot of the mountain; the book of the covenant is read; a sacrificial act ratifying the covenant was performed and a meal was eaten before the LORD; and the people were sent forth. This pattern of entering, hearing, eating, and sending is laid out in Scripture, testified to by the ancient Church, and was followed in the Reformation.
This basic pattern is illustrated in Isaiah 6. In this familiar story, Isaiah first draws near to the LORD (vv. 1–7). He sees the LORD on a throne, high and lifted up in transcendent glory, and is filled with awe because the LORD is “holy, holy, holy.” This moves him to recognize his own unholiness. He is not even worthy to stand in the LORD’s presence as he says, “Woe is me!” He confesses his sins in expectation of receiving forgiveness, and the LORD responds in grace by sending an angel to purge his guilt and sin. After entering and being cleansed he hears the voice of the LORD (vv. 8– 13). The LORD himself preaches his Word to Isaiah and gives him the message he is to speak to the nations.
Since we participate in this liturgy weekly, it is imperative for us to understand and believe what we are doing, as the following summary of the basic flow of our liturgy hopes to do.
The liturgy begins as we enter the presence of our Triune God (Cf. Lev. 10:1–3; Ps. 73:25–28; Eph. 2:13–21; Heb. 4:14–16, 7:11–28, 10:19–25). We who have already been “brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13) now “have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18) to “draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16).
As we stand in the presence of this Triune God, He speaks and invites us into His heavenly, royal presence with the call to worship. The call to worship is God’s summoning of His church, His “called out ones” (Greek, ekklesia), from the world and into His presence to participate in the worship of heaven. The call to worship expresses the other-worldliness of worship, and that worship is like a foreign language we must learn.
In God’s greeting, the Lord welcomes us into His presence through the voice of the minister (Rev. 1:4–5; 1 Tim. 1:2; Jude 1–2). The greeting is God’s promise of grace. As our Triune God invites us into heaven in the liturgy, what have we to offer in response? Surely not our good works, for they are filthy rags; surely not our treasures, for he owns the cattle on a thousand hills. What then? The Lord wants us; he wants our bodies “as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). He wants a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Ps. 50:14; Heb. 13:15).
To do this we sing the ancient Psalms of the Old Testament since we are “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), and we praise God with the great hymns of the Faith, whether old or new, in order to express ourselves in heartfelt song to the Lord. The issue of what to sing in worship has, in recent years, been falsely distinguished as contemporary versus traditional songs.
As we come before our great God and praise Him , we are also struck with His holy majesty. As God speaks in the reading of the Law, we recognize that He is holy and that we are sinful. The law exposes us for who we truly are, “Wretched man that I am” (Rom. 7:24).
After reading the Law, the minister exhorts us to turn in heartfelt repentance towards the God who “does not despise the humble sacrifices of a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17). We are command by God to confess our sins all throughout Scripture (e.g., Ps. 51; 1 John 1:9). As well, the examples of the saints, such as Isaiah 6, teach us that when we draw near to God we must confess ourselves to be unworthy. When we make confession, whether the minister prays, the congregation prays in unison, or we sing a Psalm of penitence, it is our confession.”
While the Law shows “the greatness of my sin and misery” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 2), the Gospel declares to us that God, in His Son, Jesus Christ, has satisfied for our sins. The minister then pronounces the good news, that “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). He then applies that promise, saying in effect, “To all of you who have repented of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ, I declare to you, in the name of Christ and by the authority of His Word, that all your sins are forgiven, and that you are no longer under the condemnation of God.”
The minister’s authority to declare us forgiven comes from such texts as Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23, in which Jesus gives his representatives “the keys of the kingdom” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 8385). This declaration is an application of the ministry of the Word; therefore, as a key, it opens the doors of the kingdom of heaven to those who believe and closes them to those who continue to live in rebellion and unbelief.
The entire liturgy is a “service of the Word,” but it is in this particular part of the liturgy that we pause and reflect upon what the Word is teaching us as God’s people.
We often begin with a prayer for illumination, asking for the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to illumine our blind eyes, dark hearts, and stubborn will, that we might understand the Lord’s Word (Ps. 119:18; Eph. 1:17–18; Col. 1:9). Why do we need the illumination of our spiritual eyes? The answer is that even as Christians, sin blurs our understanding.
From the time of the Jewish synagogue and through the days of the apostles, the reading of the Scriptures as an act of public worship has always been a central concern. In the Scripture reading, whether we read both an Old and New Testament text, or just one text, we are doing what Paul instructed Timothy to do in publicly reading the Word in the assembled congregation (1 Tim. 4:13). The Old Testament promises Jesus Christ in types and shadows. The New Testament reveals to us Jesus Christ and His work on our behalf. “Thanks be to God!”
The sermon is the preaching of the Word and is the primary “means of grace” for God’s children. This means that God’s Word explained and applied to us is the very Word that creates and confirms faith in our hearts. Here we are like the Old Covenant people of God at the foot of the mountain hearing God’s voice. But instead of an earthly mountain, Hebrews 12 states that we are at the foot of the heavenly Mount Zion, hearing the very words of Christ himself. Listening intently, then, is of the utmost importance.
What is preaching supposed to be about? Biblical preaching, which was rediscovered by the Protestant Reformers, is Christ-centered. Paul confirms this in 1 Corinthians 1:172:5 when he states: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1:23 cf. Col. 1:28).
Having fed us with His precious promises audibly, Christ feeds us with the same promises visibly in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as often as we celebrate it. As the Table is spread in the wilderness, all are warned that it is not for everyone, but is a sacred meal intended only for the covenant community. To partake of the bread and wine in unbelief is to bring judgment down upon oneself. For this reason, the minister issues a warning, sometimes called the “fencing of the table.” After this warning he invites the people to God to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).
Paul’s “Words of Institution” from 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 are then read. These words relate the tradition of communion that our Lord instituted before His crucifixion. They focus our hearts on what the Lord’s Supper is all about: God feeding us with His grace in Christ. In applying these words the minister briefly explains to the congregation what communion is. The language of “remembrance” has to do not with mere intellectual memory, but with experiencing what God has done and continues to do.
The prayer that follows has been called the “prayer of consecration,” not because we expect the bread and wine to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ, but that the Holy Spirit would come upon us and lift us up to feed upon Christ in heaven by faith.
We then recite the Word in a corporate declaration of our common faith. We do this because we are a body united. Just as there is one loaf, so too there is one Church (1 Cor. 10:17). As well, we confess our common faith because Jesus said, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32). In confession of faith we “offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15). We use one of the ancient ecumenical creeds of the Church, the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed. These have been confessed and used as summaries of the Faith by all branches of the Church in every century, in every place. In the Apostles’ Creed we make a personal affirmation of our faith as we say, “I believe.” In the Nicene Creed the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is expressed in the corporate, “We believe.”
The Scriptures give no detailed description of the manner in which the Lord’s Supper was practiced. Even so, we are commanded to celebrate it. The way in which we receive the bread and wine (coming forward, sitting at tables, remaining in the pews) is indifferent.
God has not only given us His Word but He has given us the sacraments. In the preached Word the Gospel comes from the mouth of the minister, but in the visible Word it comes from His hand. In the preached Word we are called to believe in Jesus Christ, but in the visible Word we are called to receive him. In preaching we hear the Word, but in the sacraments we experience with all our senses the grace of Christ: “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8). In the preached Word Christ promises us that our souls are in His hand, but how much more so in the visible Word, with this minister actually standing before us!
We conclude our worship as we are sent back into the world to be its salt and light. Again, we lift our voices in a brief, triumphant song of praise to our Triune God, who has called us, met with us, and fed us in worship. Then, God gets the final word as He pronounces His benediction upon us (Num. 6:24–26; 2 Cor. 13:14).
In understand the liturgy as a covenantal activity, a greeting at the beginning of the service and a benediction at the end signifies that it is God who has brought us out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 20:2) and who will be with us unto the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).
Why do we respond “Amen” so many times in worship? Simply, because it is the most fitting biblical response we can give. The word means, “This is true.” We find it on the lips of God’s people throughout the Bible. Psalm 106 commands, “Let all the people say, ‘Amen’” (v. 48). In 1 Corinthians 14, when Paul speaks about “tongues,” asks, “How can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (v. 16) “This is true” is an apt response to the Word we have heard and tasted during the service.
Rev. Daniel Hyde is the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.