A Brief Walk-Through Our Worship Liturgy
Because of Christ’s work in offering himself as a sacrifice to cleanse us of our sin, we are fit to enter the heavenly Holy of Holies to worship the Triune God.
“Your worship service looks and feels like Roman Catholic.” This is a typical comment heard from first-time visitors to our church. Our worship service is rooted, not in Roman Catholicism, but in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed) whose head is Jesus Christ. This church “has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end” and “spread and dispersed throughout the entire world” (Belgic Confession of Faith Article 29).
So our worship service is not human invention, but based on the “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” by the apostles (Jude 3). Since it is a worship service based on Scriptures, we follow the “liturgy” of Scriptures. “Liturgy? You must really be Roman Catholic!”
Do evangelical churches have liturgy? Certainly! God hardwired the human mind with liturgy. All of our activities follow certain “routines” or “ceremonies.” Even pagans have liturgy, the only difference between us and them is that God gave us true liturgy, while pagan liturgy is from Satan. Those who follow the “leading of the Spirit” have a set form: sing a lot of ditties, pray short ditties, here comes the preacher of ditties, and sing a few more ditties. As Rev. Daniel Hyde says,
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.
But liturgy is a biblical word. It comes from the Greek word leitourgia which can mean “service of a personal nature” (e.g., Phil 2:17, 30; |2 Cor 9:12). Or it is also used of “service of a formal or public type” such as those performed by priests in the Temple (Num 8:22, 16:9, 18:4; Luke 1:23; Heb 9:21). Sometimes it is also translated as “worship” or “ministry” (Heb 9:21), so a servant or minister is also a liturgist, Christ being the preeminent leitourgos (Heb 8:2).
Reformed liturgy was not merely an invention of the 16th century Protestant Reformers. It follows the Biblical pattern of worship, both in the Old and the New Testaments. Our worship service consists of elements that are as ancient as the Old Testament. The pattern of our worship follows from the worship of God throughout redemptive history: from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to Israel at Mount Sinai, to King Solomon at the First Temple, to the apostolic church, and to the heavenly worship service in the book of Revelation.
From the Old Testament, we see a pattern of worship. God first calls his people to worship. Bloody sacrifices are then offered to God for the removal of sins before they can enter into his presence. God then speaks to his people through his Word, calling them to faith and obedience. The people then respond with vows of faith and obedience. Finally, the worship service concludes with a covenant meal€”God’s people partake of the sacrifice€”before they go forth in joy and peace.
Does this pattern sound familiar? Indeed, for this is the pattern of our worship service every Lord’s Day! Indeed, this is also the pattern in New Testament worship, with elements listed very simply in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [God speaks] and the fellowship [sacrifices and offerings], to the breaking of bread [sacraments] and the prayers [sacrifices and offerings].” We also see this pattern in Paul’s epistles, for example, to the Romans. He indicts all of us as sinners in Chapters 1-3. He points us to Christ’s sacrificial work to save us from our sin in Chapters 4-11. Finally, he exhorts us to holy and righteous lives as our response of thanksgiving to Christ’s redemptive work in Chapters 12-16.
We gather together because God calls us to worship him. But notice that the first part of our worship is the Confession of Sin. Instead of offering bloody animal sacrifices for forgiveness of sins, we confess our sins to God. Why this change? Because Christ has already offered his broken body and shed blood for all his people “once for all” as a complete, perfect sacrifice for all our sins.
So here is a brief walk-through our worship liturgy, why we do what we do in worship. Scripture texts are given as bases or examples.
Entering into Worship
We now have access to God (Eph. 2:18) and can draw near to God (Heb. 4:16).
Helps us focus on God’s holiness and grandeur and our sinfulness (Hab. 2:20; Exod. 3:; Psa. 46:10; Psa. 62:1-2; Zeph. 1:7; Zech. 2:13); and on the worship service, and not on our worries, families, jobs, etc. (1 Pet. 5:6-7; Rom. 12:1-2).
*Call to Worship
It is the King who rightly summons us to assemble before his throne. Teaches us about God whom we worship and what worship is (Psa. 95:1-7; 111:1; Heb. 10:19-22; 12:22-24).
*Invocation (Psalm 124:8)
We call upon the name of God our Creator and Redeemer.
Confession of Sin
Reading of the Law
Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan implies that the Decalogue was regularly read in the early church’s liturgy. Reminds us of God’s holiness and our sinfulness, points us to Christ’s obedience for us, and guides us in our obedience to God’s commandments. Helps unbelievers see their sinfulness and condemnation (Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:6-21; Matt. 5-7; Gal. 3:1-5, 10-12; Matt. 22:34-40). Ten Commandments are read often.
Confession of Sin
Because the Law exposes our sins, we confess them and repent before we can come near to God. In the Old Testament, the congregation has to first offer sacrifices before entering God’s presence. The Didache, on the early church’s practice: “first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” May be sung or prayed or recited corporately at first, then followed by silent, personal confession (Heb. 10:22; Psa. 51:17)
Assurance of Pardon
After confession, God declares us pardoned through Christ who made satisfaction for our sins. The minister has authority in Christ to declare forgiveness (Matt. 18:18; John 20:23). He may also read 1 John 1:8-9.
Response of Gratitude
After we are cleansed of our sin, we may now approach God’s throne of grace.
*God’s Greeting or Salutation
The Lord now welcomes us into His presence (Rom. 1:7; Rev. 1:4-5; I Tim. 1:2; Jude 1-2).
*Song of Praise
After the Lord welcomes us into His presence, we burst into a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” through song (Psa. 50:14; Heb. 13:15).
*Confession of Faith (may be recited together during the Lord’s Supper liturgy). We read together one of the ancient creeds€”Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed€”or parts of our Confessions.
A tangible token of our thanksgiving to God (1 Cor. 16:2).
*Song of Thanksgiving
We continue to thank God for his spiritual blessings through song (Psa. 103:1-5).
Service of the Word
Prayer for Illumination
We ask the Holy Spirit to illumine our blind eyes, dark hearts, and stubborn will, that we might understand the Lord’s Word (Psa. 119:18; Eph. 1:17-18; Col. 1:9).
Old and New Testament readings commanded by Paul (1 Tim. 4:13). Old Testament types and promises fulfilled in New Testament by Christ (Luke 24:25-27, 44-46; John 5:39; I Pet. 1:10-12).
*Gloria Patri (“Glory Be to the Father”)
We sing a song of praise to the Triune God for revealing himself to us through his Word.
*Song of Preparation
We sing a song related to the Word just read to prepare us for the exposition of God’s Word.
We hear God’s Word preached to us for our edification and nourishment, the primary means of receiving salvation and grace (Rom. 10:17; Matt. 28:16-20; II Tim. 4:1-2). Must be Christ-centered (Col. 1:28) and redemptive-historical like the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts.
Service of the Lord’s Supper (administered weekly or monthly)
Words of Institution
What the Lord’s Supper is all about in Christ’s own words (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
Prayer of Consecration
Prayer imploring the Holy Spirit to lift us up to heaven by faith to feed upon Christ.
*Confession of Faith
We recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed corporately because we are a body united. Just as there is one loaf, so too there is one Church (1 Cor. 10:17) and one faith (Eph. 4:3-6). If Lord’s Supper is not administered, this may be recited after the Song of Praise.
Sursum Corda (Psalm 25:1; 86:4)
A declaration of our desire to lift us up to heaven, to deliver us from this sinful world. Used by the church since ca. 200 A.D.
Minister: “Lift up your hearts!”
People: “We lift them up to the Lord!”
Distribution of Elements
The elements are distributed by the elders to the congregation. Only professing believers, members in good standing, who live obedient lives, are allowed to partake.
*Song of Thanksgiving
We give thanks to God for salvation in Christ, and for spiritual nourishment received from the Word and Sacrament.
The minister offers a prayer of thanksgiving and intercession for the needs of body and soul, the Church and the world.
Leaving to Serve
A brief, triumphant song of praise and thanksgiving to the Triune God. “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” or other doxologies.
God sends us away with a blessing (Num. 6:24-25; Rom. 16:25-27, I Cor. 16:23, II Cor. 13:14, Gal. 6:18, Eph. 6:23-24, Php. 4:23, I Thess. 5:28, II Thess. 3:18, I Tim. 6:13-16, II Tim. 4:22, Tit. 3:15, Phm. 25, Heb. 13:20-21, I Pet. 5:10-11, II Pet. 3:17-18, Jude 24-25, Rev. 22:20-21). God has the first word in His call to worship, and the last word in His benediction.
We declare our agreement with everything we heard and saw in the “Three-Fold Amen.”
*Passing of Peace
“Greet every saint in Christ Jesus” (Php. 4:21).
Our typical liturgy on the Lord’s Day is found here.