Reformed Worship: From Babbling to Sweet Harmony

Sermon by Derek Thomas on November 19, 2006

Colossians 2:16-23

The Lord’s Day Evening
November 19, 2006

Colossians 2:16-23
“Reformed Worship: From Babbling to Sweet Harmony”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Please be seated. Now, if you arrived a little late for this evening’s service and you’ve been wondering how come I’m not preaching so early, that’s because we’re doing a Reformation Day service reflecting the liturgy of John Calvin in the 1540’s in Geneva. If you have your bulletin, keep that open. I’m going to be referring to parts of the logic of that liturgy that Calvin introduced, first of all in Strasbourg, when he was there from 1538 until the beginning of 1542, and then thereafter in Geneva.

Now before we read the Scripture together (and the Scripture is taken from Colossians 2 and a section dealing with the issue of worship…), before we have a prayer of illumination, let me interject at this point that I’m going to be reading not from the version that Calvin would have read in the pulpit. Calvin would have read a French translation, of course, in the congregation in Geneva. But one of the most influential translations of that period in 1540’s and ‘50’s and ‘60’s was of course the Geneva Bible.

Following the death of Queen Mary in England and the accession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I…and at Queen Mary’s reign, many of the English Reformers left the country for fear of their lives, and among them were some of the great scholars of the time, including Miles Coverdale, who produced an English translation of the Bible himself; and John Knox, and Thomas Sampson, and William Whittingham. The Geneva Bible was translated in Geneva by some of these exiles. Whittingham, especially, was instrumental in the production of the Geneva Bible. It was a Bible in the English language; it was far more popular in the 1640’s, a century later during the time of the Westminster Assembly; it was far more popular in English homes than the King James Bible, which of course had been printed in 1611. There was a great deal of suspicion about the King James Bible by some of the Puritans, as you might expect–although these days it’s almost the opposite. The King James Bible is regarded by some as the most conservative of Bibles, but in the 1640’s that was not so, and it was the Geneva Bible because of the beauty of its translation that became the most favored translation in English homes. And I’m going to read in a few minutes, after a prayer of illumination, from Colossians 2:16-23 from the Geneva Bible. Before we do that, let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we call upon You. We call especially upon You, Holy Spirit, to come down and enlighten our minds and hearts. We cannot understand the Scriptures unless you come and give us understanding. And we thank You especially for the gift of the Bible, and we bless you that an ordinary Christian without any particular scholarship can read the Bible and understand for himself and herself the truths of the gospel and be saved. We bless You, Holy Spirit, for superintending the entire process from beginning to end: that holy men of God wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. So come, and help us to read, and mark, and learn, and inwardly digest, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Hear now the word of God:

“Let no man therefore condemn you in meat and drink and in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon or of the Sabbath days, which are but a shadow of things to come. But the body is in Christ. Let no man at his pleasure bear rule over you by humbleness of mind and worshiping of angels, advancing himself in those things which he never saw, rashly put up with his fleshly mind and holdeth not the Head, whereof all the body furnished and knit together by joints and bands increaseth with the increasing of God. Wherefore if he be dead with Christ from the ordinances of the world, why, as though ye lived in the world, are ye burdened with traditions as “touch not, taste not, handle not” (which all perish with the using) and are after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have, indeed, a show of wisdom in voluntary religion and humbleness of mind, and in not sparing the body, which are things of no value, since they pertain to the filling of flesh.”

Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

In 1543, John Calvin was asked by some of his friends and colleagues, particularly Martin Bucer, to write a treatise justifying to the king of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, explaining why the Reformation was necessary. He had written on several occasions responses to other treatises, but this was the first time that he would, as it were, remove from discourse with someone else, sit down and write why the Reformation was necessary. It is one of Calvin’s greatest accomplishments, and it may surprise you the true reasons that Calvin gives for the necessity of the Reformation.

The first wouldn’t surprise you at all. In fact, I would be terribly disappointed if I were to do a straw poll (I won’t do it! I don’t want to be disappointed!), but I would be disappointed if you didn’t tell me that one of the reasons that the Reformation was necessary was because of the doctrine of salvation, or perhaps more particularly the doctrine of justification. And Calvin spends about half of the treatment dealing with the issue of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

Part of the whole problem of the medieval church was the introduction of a works righteousness: that men and women were being taught by the priests that in order to inherit salvation, in order to get to heaven, they had to undergo this treadmill of sacramental religion that began in infancy and ended with extreme unction at death. And so that was one thing–the doctrine of justification. On that point Calvin stood on the very same ground as Martin Luther, whose hymn we’ve just sung–A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, a bulwark never failing–it’s probably the most well-known hymn in the PCA just now, I think. We could probably all sing most of it from memory, if not all of it from memory.

But that wasn’t the first reason that Calvin gave. That was actually the second reason. The first reason that Calvin gave for the necessity of the Reformation was worship: that the mode by which God is to be duly worshiped had been corrupted

Now, coming out of the Reformation are three principle tracks. One is of course the Roman Catholic track–that worship is to be governed by the church; that worship is to be governed by tradition; that worship is to be governed by the dictates of priests and bishops, and eventually of course the Pope in the See of Rome. That was one tract.

Luther, and with him the Anglican church — the Episcopal church, both in Europe and in England — took another point of view. Their branch, as it were, of the Reformation, in reacting against the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church…the Lutherans and the Anglicans worshipped God according to a principle that so long as they did not violate what God had forbidden, then it was acceptable in worship. So long as God hadn’t specifically forbidden it in Scripture, then it was allowable. And of course that gave rise to a certain amount of innovation in worship — innovation which Calvin, especially, and the Puritans after him in Europe and in Holland and in England, and in New England eventually, would see differently.

And so, a third track. It would be the track that the Presbyterian church would follow, the track of The Westminster Confession and the 1689 Baptist Confession (and the Savoie Declaration of the Congregational Union would follow), and that is that the worship of God, the public worship of God, the worship of God on the Lord’s Day, the worship of the gathered people of God must be governed by the specific warrants of Scripture; that it wasn’t enough simply to say that so long as God hasn’t specifically forbidden it…God must specifically request it. And that is the line of Reformed worship that Calvin in Geneva adopted. When John Knox went to Geneva (he was there for a number of years in exile, of course, from Scotland), John Knox said of the worship that he saw and heard — (the singing of that tune that we did a fairly good job of, I thought…we were just getting the hang of it, I think, towards the end — and those Genevan tunes are fairly lively tunes) — and John Knox describes in detail…and the gusto with which they sang these Genevan tunes to the Psalms…and he said of the worship in Geneva that it was “the most perfect school of Christ under heaven.” It was the next best thing to heaven that he had ever witnessed.

Well, Paul is addressing worship here in Colossians 2. He’s addressing a number of problems. He’s addressing areas of sanctification, but he’s also addressing areas of worship, and there are four principle issues that emerge in this section of Scripture that we’ve just read together.

There is something in verse 20 called the elementary principles, or the elemental spirits of the world: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world….” It’s capable of more than one possible understanding, but I think that what Paul is referring to here are the ABC’s of worship. It’s under the Old Testament, especially. God dealt with the people of God as you deal with children. They were like children in kindergarten, and God gave them lots of rules and regulations — ABC’s — that now, as we have come into the new covenant and grown up, as it were [we’ve matured, we’ve left home, we’ve graduated from college] — we’re no longer under those strict rules that you find under the Old Testament. That’s one of the issues that’s befuddling worship in the church at Colossae.

Then in verse 22 (and he’s already referred to it back in verse 8) something called human precepts…human precepts in teachings, or human tradition. The Colossians were being confused not by teachings of the apostle, and not teachings that come from Scripture, but human traditions with human authority — very similar things to what Calvin is largely addressing in the middle of the sixteenth century.

And then in verse 16, passing judgment about food and drink and with regard to festivals and new moons, and Sabbaths — not so much the Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, I think, but all the other Sabbath paraphernalia of the Old Testament. So, a mistaken appeal to the Old Testament.

And then in verse 16 he refers to the worship of angels. Calvin thought that what Paul was referring to was that the Colossians were actually worshiping angels. I don’t think that that’s right, but that’s what Calvin thought. Rather, I think what Paul is addressing is not that they were worshiping angels — that would be very wrong; it’s the fact that they were claiming to have been taught by angels how to worship — that they were claiming, as it were, supernatural authority for the way in which they were worshiping. Well, we needn’t go in now to all of the in’s and out’s of that…just enough for us to see that Paul is certainly addressing confusion in the church here about worship, about the mode of worship.

And he reaches a conclusion in verse 23: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Now a couple of things about that verse.

One is that Paul is drawing a very direct line from worship to sanctification; that when you get your worship wrong, your holiness will go wrong with it. In other words, if I can turn that around, Paul is saying that one of the distinguishing features of holiness and godliness and Christ-likeness is our attitude to worship: our attitude to corporate worship; our attitude to what we do when we gather together for the worship of God.

And not only that, you see that word there: self-made religion. The vain traditions of men, and self-made religion and asceticism. It’s a very technical Greek word. It’s one of those words that Calvin loves to quote in Greek, and he’ll refer to it very often. It’s a word that conjures up for Calvin what was wrong with the worship in Colossae that Paul is addressing, but also what was wrong with medieval worship, in that it was worship governed by the decisions and traditions and dictates of men rather than God.

I. Public worship is to be governed by what God has revealed.
Now let me elaborate along three or four lines of thought. For Calvin, the form of public worship is to be governed by what God has revealed.
It’s what Paul is saying here, that they were not to be brought — their conscience was not to be brought — under the dictates of men, but our conscience can only be subject to that which God has revealed. God is the ultimate authority, and our worship must conform to what God has revealed. God has shown us in the Bible how we must worship Him. It would be unthinkable to think that God calls a people out of darkness in order that they might worship Him. That’s why we’re here; that’s why we’re Christians. That’s why there’s a covenant of grace. That’s why Moses brings the people out of Egypt and into the promised land: “…in order that they might worship Me on this mountain.” Why, it’s inconceivable that God would do that without telling us how we are to worship Him when we gather together on the Lord’s Day. And for Calvin this self-made religion…will-worship the King James renders it — will-worship…it’s not worship according to the divine will, it’s worship according to human will, and it brings the conscience into subjection in a wrong way.

Well, you’re about to give Thanksgiving for being released from the tyranny of British rule and a mad king, and much of it was to do with conscience, of course. The entire establishment of this country has to do with the issue of conscience and freedom of conscience, and the right to live and work and worship according to the dictates of our conscience, and it was of hugely significant importance for the Reformers and for the Puritans that followed. And for Calvin this is what the issue of worship is about: that no man, and no priest, and no presbytery, and no bishop (and certainly no pope) has the right to dictate to our conscience how we may worship God. God alone can do that.

In our own Westminster Confession of Faith there’s that marvelous chapter — it’s an extraordinary chapter of immense significance: “God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men….” and it goes on to refer to how our consciences are made free in worship; not free to do as we please, but free to obey God as He has laid down in His word how we may worship Him. So along with Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Bucer, Calvin on that score dropped images and candles and priestly robes, as well as those aspects, of course, of the Latin mass for which there was no scriptural support.

There were aspects of the Latin mass, we’ve said a couple of them here tonight in terms of The Apostles’ Creed, for example; and we’ll be saying The Lord’s Prayer at the end of the service tonight, these were parts of the liturgy of the Latin mass, and they were kept. There were other parts of the liturgy that were kept in Calvin’s liturgy in Strasbourg, and again in Geneva. But he sought, Calvin went all the way back to the early church fathers as close as he could get to the New Testament, to model and pattern the worship in Geneva after the pattern of the early church fathers.

And for Calvin, Acts 2:42 was particularly important, when Luke describes the early church as “…continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and breaking of bread and of prayers.” The apostles’ teaching…so there must be preaching; and the fellowship, which for Calvin part of that meant giving of alms and taking care of one another (and although that didn’t become part of the liturgy, the giving of alms was indeed an act of worship); and the breaking of bread, in terms of the Lord’s Supper; and prayers. And so for Calvin, then, the form of public worship is to be governed by what God has revealed.

II. The content of public worship was dominated by Scripture.
The second thing, the content of public worship was dominated by Scripture.
I suppose that’s the greatest thing about the Reformation, the way in which the Scriptures come to the surface…the printing press, the translation of Scripture into German by Luther, into French by Calvin’s friends, and so on; and then Miles Coverdale and others, and Hugh Latimer and others in England producing English Bibles, and I’ve just told you about the Geneva Bible…how all of a sudden the Bible, the Scriptures, the word of God which had been a closed book for a thousand years…for Calvin that meant the dominance of preaching and teaching.

There were about 15,000 souls in Geneva. It grew and expanded immensely in the 1550’s as French refugees came in tens of thousands from France into Geneva. But in a course of two weeks or so you could hear at least fifteen sermons. Two, of course, every Lord’s Day, but then during the week at lunchtime there was an hour-long service where apparently the cathedrals — some here in Geneva — would be filled with men and women who had come together from work, and they’d come from their homes to hear sermons. There was a zeal, a thirst for the Scriptures. Gone now was the treadmill of sacramental religion with the seven sacraments of baptism and penance and confirmation and communion, and ordination, and marriage, and extreme unction. They were gone.

The Latin mass was an aesthetic experience. If you’d gone to your average Latin mass in Geneva, say, in 1510, ten years before the Reformation began in Germany, you would go into the Cathedral of St. Pierre, the walls would be highly decorated with Byzantine art, pictures and paintings and ornate colors everywhere. (They’re still there, but Calvin plastered them over!) You’d have gone in, and there might be several masses taking place in different parts of the building. And the priest would have his back turned to you. You couldn’t hear what he was saying; and even if you could hear what he was saying, sometimes the priest was behind the partition…and even if you could hear what he was saying, it was in Latin, and very few people understood more than a few phrases in Latin. Some would know the Ave Maria, and some would know the Pater Nostreprone during the Latin mass, but medieval priests couldn’t preach their way out of a paper bag, and so the prone just became an occasion when they would give announcements, and maybe a little moral exhortation, and that was about it. But it wasn’t preaching as you and I know it.

And Calvin transforms all of that. He introduces consecutive expository preaching, as had been the case in the early church with the likes of John Chrysostom and others: beginning in the first verse of the Book of Genesis and working his way through to the final verse of chapter 50; going through book after book after book, because he saw the Scriptures as a book that has one meaning, given by one Lord, and we’re meant to understand it and use our rational faculties in understanding it and studying it. And so when Calvin walked into the pulpit, he read from his Greek New Testament or his Hebrew Old Testament and translated there in the pulpit.

There’s this wonderful story…when Calvin was kicked out of Geneva in 1538…he’d only been there barely two years, and the civil authorities for reasons we needn’t go into now threw him out of Geneva, he went to Strasbourg. Calvin was delighted; he didn’t want to go to Geneva in the first place — and went to French exiles in Strasbourg. When he went back to Geneva, when the city fathers realized the error of their ways and came hat in hand to ask him to come back to Geneva three and a half years later, on that first Sunday morning in the Cathedral of St. Pierre in Geneva, he began to preach at the very place where he had left off three and a half years before, and began according, at least to Bucer, with the words, “As I was saying….”

So the Genevan church was an entirely different experience for these people. Gone now were the tabernacles (you know, where you kept the consecrated host); gone was the ornate statues and paintings and stained glass windows, and even the organ. It was locked up. And a pulpit was installed. You know, if you’d have gone to Geneva in the 1550’s, you’d have heard people every now and then mumbling during the preaching. It was a constant problem in Geneva.

You see, if you had grown up in medieval Catholicism, what are you supposed to do when the priest is going through the ritual of the mass, which would last for about an hour? You didn’t understand any of it, so what do you do? You took your rosary beads and you went through the Pater Nostre, and you’d start mumbling and muttering to yourself the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed. And very often in Calvin’s Geneva, recent converts from Catholicism would be in the service, and in the middle of the sermon they would start mumbling. They would be brought before the elders. They were treated very gently at first, and then a little more harshly, and eventually even more harshly, and eventually they’d be fined for doing it. But that’s the context in which Calvin is ministering.

Prayer was so important for Calvin, and particularly the way prayer is a call to God for help. Calvin always began with that ascent Psalm of Psalm 124:8 — “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth.” It’s a calling upon God, the Creator of the world, to come to our aid and to come to our help. It’s why before the reading of Scripture he introduced a prayer of illumination. It was an acknowledgement that we need the Holy Spirit to come down and help us.

The service began with this Confession of Sin, not standing as we did, but actually kneeling. And the great prayer, the pastoral prayer, came after the sermon, not before the sermon, because the great prayer, the great pastoral prayer, was to be based on the contents of Scripture and the things that we’ve just learned from the Scriptures, and they must be now turned into prayer, so that before we leave the building [this was Calvin’s logic] we call upon God to bring those truths now to bear upon our hearts and upon our minds.

And for Calvin music and singing was fundamentally important. For Calvin, singing was praying. It was calling upon God with musical notes. Calvin was well aware of how powerful music is, and that’s why he asked some important composers of the time, especially…we’ve just sung tonight The Old Hundredth, written by Louis Bourgeois, and The Ten Commandments tune that we’ve just sung, by Claude Goudimel, were two of the composers that Calvin asked specifically to write Genevan tunes for the Psalms. And the Psalms, as well as other portions of Scripture — not exclusively the Psalms, there were other portions of Scripture — the Ten Commandments were sung, and so on.

And it was fundamentally important that the peoplesang, because in the medieval mass they never sang. It was only a choir that sang, and then only in the large cathedrals. In the smaller cathedrals it would just be the priest that would perhaps chant something, but not the congregation. And so there’s this thrill that emerges in Geneva about singing the praises of God, and that’s why I think John Knox, when he heard them singing these Genevan tunes with such enthusiasm and such gusto, that he said what he said about it being the most perfect school under heaven.

III. The order of worship reveals gospel logic.
Well, the third thing, and briefly, let me say two quick things as I bring this to a close.
The rhythm of public worship reveals a gospel logic for Calvin. Look at the bulletin again. It begins with The Confession of Sin, and then an absolution. It’s not the priest’s absolution, it’s not the minister giving absolution; it’s God’s word that gives absolution.

Now, the Genevans were a little antsy about the absolution. The folk in Strasbourg loved it, but the folk in Geneva were a little antsy about a minister pronouncing a word of absolution, and I think in the PCA we’re probably equally divided on what function an absolution actually has, and it’s a word of Scripture: I John 2:1.

“If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

Now notice what comes next. The ten commandments. Now, if this was Luther’s liturgy, the Ten Commandments would function in an entirely different way than they function here in this liturgy. The Ten Commandments are not here to convict us of sin and drive us to Jesus Christ, which is what Luther would use the Ten Commandments for. Now, the Ten Commandments certainly do that, but that’s not its role and function here in the liturgy. We’ve already confessed our sin. We’ve already received God’s assurance of pardon in Jesus Christ. Now the Law is recited not as a means to bring us to Christ; it’s not the Law as regards justification. It’s the law as regards sanctification, how we are to live our lives as Christians, and for Calvin, we live our lives according to the standards and dictates of God’s Law. This is the so-called “third use of the Law” that is so familiar to those who read Calvin’s Institutes. The Law functions as a pattern, as a guide, as a template to tell us how we are to live our lives.

IV. Worship was essentially simple.
And the fourth thing…I need to say a couple of sentences. For Calvin, worship was essentially simple.
The singing of the Psalms, the reading of God’s word, the preaching of His word, the prayers in a language that people understood. Calvin’s language was a relatively simple language. He was a pastor at heart, and just as Paul here in Colossians is dealing with the issue of worship in the Colossian church, and saying fundamentally what Paul is saying to the Colossians is that you must not allow your conscience to be dictated to by anyone other than God. God alone is Lord of the conscience. And for the Reformation, that, too, was part of the reason why this Reformation of worship takes place: because only as we are servants to God’s Law are we truly free. Only as we do what we were intended to be, can we find true liberty. And that’s why when we worship according to the pattern that we worship here on a regular basis from week to week, therein is perfect freedom.

Let us come before God in prayer. Let’s bow our hearts.

Great and Almighty God, since You have not only created us out of nothing, but have deigned to create us again in Your only begotten Son, and You have taken us from the lowest depths and raised us up in Christ to sit with Him in heavenly places, grant, we pray, that we might find our greatest joy and our greatest delight in serving You and in walking in Your ways, and in hiding Your word within our hearts, that we might not sin against You.

Grant, O Lord, since You have deigned to enter into a perpetual and inviolable covenant with us, an everlasting covenant that is ordered in all things and sure, that we might tonight take refuge beneath the everlasting arms; that we might take sweet comfort from the knowledge that having begun a good work You will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.

We thank You this evening for the Reformation. We thank You for the principles that came to the surface as a result of reading the Scriptures. We thank You, O Lord, for those guiding lights that influence us even to this very evening. We pray, Lord, that our worship might be in spirit and in truth. Pour out Your Spirit upon us; give us joy in our worship. May our hearts catch fire, and be aflame. May we see, O Lord, as we worship, the angels and archangels, the cherubim and seraphim, the mighty hosts of God, and the church triumphant. May we see them and hear them, and realize that we mingle our voices with theirs as we worship You on the Lord’s Day. We thank You that the Lord’s Day is a little foretaste, a little glimpse of heaven…that there yet remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

We ask, O Lord, that You would come now and quieten our hearts from the ills and trials that so often mar the peace that we long to know. We pray for the work of the Spirit that might fill us tonight; fill us with the fullness of God as we contemplate the sweetness of what it is to be in union with Jesus Christ. So hear us, O Lord, and teach us. Teach us to pray as our Lord taught His disciples to pray, saying:

‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.’

Now let’s sing together in closing the hymn 168. It’s a hymn that’s always thought to have been written by Calvin, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art.

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