“Practical Lessons from the Reformation for the Church’s Ministry Today”
October 29, 2017
It is widely understood that the Reformation was a movement of theological reform. Luther’s dramatic confrontations, from the posting of the 95 theses on Oct. 31, 1517, to his trial in 1521 at Worms, to his burning of the Papal Bull that condemned him a year later, and the countless subsequent conflicts with the religious and civil authorities, were all theologically-driven. The central Protestant doctrinal concerns have been succinctly summarized by the mottos of the Reformation, the so-called “solas”: Scripture, Christ, Faith, Grace, & God’s glory alone.1 What must I do to be saved? Turn to Scripture alone for the answer, which will direct us to Christ alone, whose benefits are received by faith alone, as enabled by grace alone, all to the glory of God alone. The whole gospel as we understand it is a gift of the Reformation to our churches today.
Less widely understood are the practical ministry reforms that flowed from the theological reforms. Already by 1520 Luther, writing in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, acknowledged that the new doctrinal insights would require of the church’s regular services “a totally different kind of ceremonies.”2 The theological reforms sparked liturgical reforms. In addition to the revival of biblical preaching that has been long recognized as revolutionary, the Reformation also saw a revolution in the administration of the sacraments, a revolution in prayer, and a revolution in congregational song.
Many churches today embrace the distinctive Protestant theology represented by the solas and rightly celebrate the 500-year-old Reformation. Should they not also embrace the reform of the ministry that accompanied the theological reforms, reforms which the Reformers themselves believed were required by the theology of the Reformation? What would doing so look like? How should the Reformers’ theological insights influence our ministry and worship practices today? We suggest the following.
The Reformers were convinced that the worship of the late medieval church had become too complicated. They looked about the church of the day and saw cluttered around the word and sacraments a host of extra-biblical anointings, exercisms, processionals, gestures, postures, and symbols, so that, says Calvin, “the very ceremonies established by God cannot lift their head in such a great crowd, but lie as if crushed.”3 The God-given means of grace were being obscured by the extra-biblical novelties that had been introduced during the Middle Ages. These medieval innovations were not only unnecessary, not only contrary to early church practice, but counter-productive because they diverted energy, time, and attention away from the authorized means that God had given to the church.
The Reformers insisted that worship and ministry be conducted “according to Scripture.” Fallen humanity is by nature idolatrous (Rom 1:18ff). Humanity is predisposed both to worship false gods and the true God in false ways. The human heart, Calvin insists, is a “factory of idols.”4 Consequently, we must be told not to worship God through images or to use God’s name as a form of magic (2nd and 3rd commandments, Ex 20:4-7). The disciples have to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray,” because left to ourselves we don’t know how (Lk 11:1). We don’t know what pleases Him. Consequently, Scripture alone, sola Sciptura, must govern all liturgical practices.
The Reformers took seriously the Old Testament prophets’ critique of ritualism and its vulnerability to formalism, a critique that Jesus cited against His opponents:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’ (Mt. 7:6; cited from Isa 29:13)5
The Old Testament people of God had grown content with correct words (“lips”) and correct forms, while their hearts were disengaged. The danger of formality or ritualism is acute whenever there is an unwarranted and unauthorized emphasis on external forms.
The Reformers observed no attempt on the part of the apostles to duplicate the rich ceremonies of the temple. Instead, their assemblies look synagogue-like rather than temple-like. Beginning with Martin Bucer’s (1491-1551) Ground and Reason (Grund und Ursach) in his 1524 defense of the worship reforms in Strasburg, Acts 2:42 was cited as the locus classicus of simplicity: 6
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. (Acts 2:42)
The gatherings of the early church were simple: they focused on the ministry of the word, the ministry of prayer, the ministry of the table, and the “fellowship.” From other texts we know that they sang praises (e.g. Acts 4:24; Eph 5:19, 20; Col 3:16; Jas 5:13; 1 Cor 14:13-19, 26). Beyond these basic spiritual exercises, no others were contemplated.
If we are open to being instructed by the Reformers, we will limit the activities of the public assembly to the five basic elements found in Scripture: the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen in the “visible words,” the sacraments. We will resist introducing novelties. We will resist attempting to introduce dance, drama, pyrotechnics, and light-shows. We won’t adopt extra-biblical ceremonies, rituals, and observances. We won’t add gestures, postures, and symbols that aren’t scripturally authorized. We will administer these five basic elements with ritual simplicity, with just enough ceremony, for example, to distribute the communion elements and pour the baptismal water in the name of the Trinity. We will want to eliminate anything that might distract our attention or disburse our energies. We will want to keep our focus on what God has commanded should be done, and the ordinary means He has promised to bless.
The Reformers were convinced that the services of the late medieval church featured too little Bible. They believed that sinners are justified by faith in Christ, alone, sole fide, apart from good works, sacrificial love, or participation in church ordinances. (Rom 3:21-5:1). “What must I do to be saved?” is a biblical question that receives a biblical answer. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30, 31). Faith plus nothing saves. Moreover, they understood “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). It may have been acceptable during the Middle Ages for ordinary Christians to have no more than “implicit faith,” a faith that consists merely of trusting the church’s teaching, though nothing of that teaching might be understood. The Reformers insisted that salvation required personal trust, fiducia. The church should no longer be content for the laity to gaze forward at the mystery of the mass, delivered in a language that few understood (Latin). Rather, the comprehension of ordinary Christians must be addressed by the ministry of God’s word, that they might be “born again by the living and abiding word,” “grow by the pure milk of the word,” and be “sanctified by the truth” of God’s word (1 Pt 1:23-25; 2:1, 2; Jn 17:17).
Consequently, they translated the Bible into the language of the people and conducted the church’s services in the vernacular. As Bucer pointed out repeatedly in Ground and Reason, it was vital that each element of the service be filled with Scripture. If we are to learn from the Reformation, we will share this same concern. We will provide time for substantial Bible reading and for preaching that arises out of the readings. The Apostle instructs us:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13).
“The (public) reading” was a lectio continua reading, as was the case in the synagogue, as even Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge (cf. Acts 13:15; 15:21).7 With so little Bible reading evident in churches today, we would do well to recall that the Reformers urged the reading of whole chapters from each testament in the church’s regular services.8 The “exhortation and teaching,” mentioned in close association with the reading, indicates that the sermon was based on one of the readings. A proper sermon, the Reformers insisted, is an exposition of Scripture.
We will ensure that psalms are sung, as they have been the primary songbook for the church for most of its 2000 years, and that our hymns are full of biblical content, that they “edify” (1 Cor 14:13-19), that they “teach and admonish” (Eph 5:19, 20), that the “word of Christ dwells richly” in them (Col 3:16). We will not settle for sweet-sounding but biblically and doctrinally anemic songs that have become so popular in recent years, and are not unlike the medieval “versicles” rejected by the Reformers. We will make sure that our prayers are biblically enriched, and so also edify (1 Cor 14:13-19). We will ensure that the administration of the sacraments is accompanied by scriptural explanation. Calvin insists that “the right administering of the sacrament cannot stand apart from the word.”9 “The sacrament,” he maintains, “requires preaching.”10
It is undeniable that we have seen a sharp decline in overall Bible content in the worship of evangelical churches over the past 100, or 50, or even 30 years. Less is read, preached, sung, and prayed. The trajectory is alarming. Why? Because faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). Because we are sanctified by the truth (Jn 17:17). If we are to learn from the Reformers, we will be zealous to resist the dumbing-down of Christian worship, its ‘de-biblicizing” as Kent Hughes, long-time pastor of College Church in Wheaton, has called it.11
The Reformers were convinced that that services of the late medieval church featured too little prayer. The impact of the Reformation on the prayer life of the church is perhaps what most surprises us today. Yet an increased commitment to prayer in the ordinary services of the church was a direct result of the careful study of Scripture and a fresh appreciation of the biblical and Augustinian doctrines of grace. Salvation is sola gratia, all of grace, all at God’s initiative, even faith being “not your own doing” but “the gift of God” (Eph 2:8, 9). “By His doing you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:30 NASB).
Calvin has been called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” because he so clearly understood that the Spirit is the divine agent of application.12 What Christ accomplished the Holy Spirit applies, from regeneration to sanctification to preservation. We must be “born of the Spirit,” Jesus insists, if we are to see God’s kingdom. (Jn 3:6). He it is who convicts us of “sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn 16:8), who teaches us all things (Jn 14:26) and guides us into all truth (Jn 16:13). In Him we walk (Gal 5:16), by Him we are led (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18), and by His power sin is mortified (Rom 8:13).
Given that our dependence on divine power is absolute, that apart from the True Vine we can do nothing (Jn 15:1-5), that we can plant and water the seed of God’s word but God must give the growth (1 Cor 3:8), is it not necessary that we “devote (our)selves to prayer” (Col 4:2 NASB)? The Reformers expanded the prayer life of the church by adding to the prayers of thanksgiving and confession in its ordinary worship the prayers of praise, intercession, illumination, and benediction. Six basic prayer genres are found in the Reformers’ orders of service.
In addition, their model prayers from Calvin to Westminster to Baxter’s Savoy Liturgy included the five-fold intercessions, on behalf of the sanctification of the saints, the church and its ministry, the sick, the civil authorities, and Christian mission around the world. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul urge that all kinds of prayers (“supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings”) be offered for all kinds of people (“all people, for kings and all…” 1 Tim 2:1, 2)?
Prayer is a vanishing discipline in the public services of the churches today. A quick prayer here and another there, and that’s about all. If we are open to their instruction, the Reformers would have us devote substantial time and forethought to what Hughes Old called “a full-diet” of biblically enriched public prayer.13
The Reformers were convinced that the services of the late-medieval church featured too little congregational singing. The singing of praise in the Medieval church was largely the work of monastic and cathedral choirs. Congregational singing had all but disappeared. Luther rightly has been called the father of both congregational psalmody and congregational hymnody. “Next after theology I give to music the highest place and greatest honor,” said Luther. “Music,” he said, “is to be praised as second only to the Word of God.”14 Calvin is similarly effusive in his praise of music’s virtues.15 In 1523 he explained his plans for the development of vernacular psalmody “so that the word of God may be among the people in the form of music.”16 Through congregational singing, the priesthood of all believers, a corollary of solus Christus (more on this in a moment), would be expressed. All of God’s people would join in the singing of God’s praises. The Lutheran tradition came to emphasize hymnody and psalm paraphrases, such as Luther’s own ein feste burg, “A Mighty Fortress.” Reformed Protestants embraced metrical psalmody. It was Calvin’s vision and persistence that culminated in the Genevan Psalter of 1562, with all 150 Psalms rhymed, metered and set to music. It was followed in the English-speaking world in 1650 by the definitive edition of the Scottish Psalter. For all the Reformers, congregations, not specialized choirs are to sing the praises of God. A recent publication explains the thinking:
If we are open to being taught by the Reformers, we will be careful not to allow the music of the church to become dominated by “professionals,” by trained choirs, praise bands, and soloists. Our musical genre will be one which facilitates singing by congregations. Musicians, choirs and vocalists will understand that their primary task is to assist (and not overwhelm!) the congregation in singing its praises. Music that is too difficult (often the case with classical music), and music with irregular rhythms (often the case with contemporary music) will be bypassed in favor of music that can be learned by congregations. We will give priority to music that can carry the content of whole psalms and songs modeled upon the psalms, and that congregations can sing with vigor, qualities which we associate with traditional hymnody and psalmody.
The sacred music tradition, so ably presented by T. David Gordon in his Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, deserves our attention.18 Over the centuries the church has developed its own musical culture for the distinctive activity of divine worship. It is not the music of a generation or an ethnic group. It is the music of the church, which it has developed over the centuries, and to which multiple races and peoples have contributed. Calvin in particular urges that our songs should be characterized by gravitas and sobriety. The songs we sing in in our homes and at our tables, he insists, should not be those which we sing “in the church in the presence of God and His angels.”19
The Reformers were convinced that the services of the church featured too little communion. Here the implications of solus Christus proved most radical. The laity during the Middle Ages received the eucharistic annually, in one kind (bread only), administered as the substance of Christ’s physical body. Communion was administered as a sacrifice, the elements transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, offered on an altar, by a priest, clothed in priestly attire, to communicants kneeling in reverent adoration of the re-carnated Christ. The Reformers’ rebuttal was both exegetical and theological.
They insisted that Jesus’ eucharistic words, “This is my body” (1 Cor 11:24; Mt 26:26; Mk 14:23; Lk 22:14) and “This is my blood” (Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24) must be understood metaphorically, as when Jesus says “I am the door” and “I am the bread of life.” Taken in their simple and natural sense, Jesus’ words mean that the bread and fruit of the vine symbolize or represent His broken body and shed blood. To say that Jesus meant that the substance of the bread and cup becomes the substance of Christ’s body while the accidents (appearances) remain the same (utilizing Aristotle’s categories to do so) is to take language in anything but its literal or natural sense.
The Reformers also insisted that Christ’s atonement on the cross was final, sufficient, and complete. He died “once for all” (1 Pt 3:18). He offered “one sacrifice for sin for all time” (Heb 10:12). Jesus Himself declared from the cross, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). Whatever else we must think, we cannot understand the eucharist to be a sacrifice offered on an altar. To so understand the eucharist is to deny the adequacy of Christ’s once-for-all atonement.
Furthermore, the Reformers brought the fresh insight that the eucharist is a covenantal meal. Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25; cf Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:21). He invoked the covenant in the context of a meal utilizing bread and the fruit of the vine. The eucharist is a meal, a covenantal meal, a symbolic meal, a spiritual meal. Like Passover (Ex 12) and the meal at the foot of Mount Sinai (Ex 24), it confirms and ratifies covenantal obligations. God affirms His promises to save us through the blood of Christ, and we in turn agree to honor, serve, and obey, all in the context of koinonia, fellowship with Christ, who is spiritually present, not locally, carnally, or physically (1 Cor 10:16). It is a symbolic meal in that it consists of small morsels of food and drink, not designed to satisfy physical hunger, but to represent Christ’s body and blood, that is Christ’s death. It is a spiritual meal, consisting of “spiritual food and spiritual drink” (I Cor 10:3).
If we would learn from the Reformers, particularly those of Reformed Protestantism, we will administer the Lord’s Supper as a meal not a mass, as a supper not a sacrifice, on a table not an altar, by a pastor/preacher not a priest, to those assuming the posture of eating, seated or standing, not kneeling. It will be administered simply, without embellishment. The whole job description of the clergy will change. “The chief and greatest of any service,” says Luther, “is to preach and teach God’s word.”20 We will not elevate the elements, as though inviting acts of adoration to allegedly transubstantiated bread and wine. We will not turn our back on the congregation, shielding them from the alleged “miracle of the mass.”
We will administer the Lord’s Supper “frequently,” as Westminster’s Directory (1645) counsels. Protestants everywhere established at least a four-fold increase in lay communing by instituting quarterly communions, which became commonplace among Presbyterians, Baptists, and others. Some (e.g. New England Congregationalism for a time) instituted monthly communion.
We also will be careful not to underestimate the importance of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin said,
“There is nothing in heaven or earth of greater value and dignity than the body and blood of our Lord.”21 Indeed, “nothing (is) more beneficial to the church than this holy sacrament.”22 We have but three primary means of grace. The sacraments (together) are one of them. They ought not be neglected.
Finally, we will conduct our ministry and worship sola Deo Gloria. This was the motto of mottos, the motive of motives, the sum of all their work. This is what drove the theological reforms as well as the liturgical reforms that flowed from them. The Reformers were convinced that only when these reforms were enacted would God get the glory that He deserves. Glorifying God means limiting our services to those elements that God Himself authorizes and filling those services with Scripture, prayer, congregational singing, and the frequent administration of the Lord’s Supper. Thankfully, even post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism has embraced many of the Reformers’ critiques of the late-Medieval church. Since the mid-1960’s, the bishops have encouraged vernacular services, vernacular Bible translations and Bible readings, congregational singing, and expanded prayer genres.23
God is honored when we worship and minister sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia. God is honored when we recognize that by definition worship is about God and only secondary about us. This being the case, we will take care that our houses of worship not create the impression that our leaders are performers and our congregations are audiences. As Luther urged the removal of everything that “smacks of sacrifice,” so we also should remove everything that “smacks of entertainment.”24 What would the Reformers have us learn from them? That worship is essentially simple: the word read, preached, prayed, sung, and seen in the sacraments, all in a context of God-centered reverence and awe (Heb 12:28).