John Calvin’s Worship Planning

The newest issue of Reformed Worship has a great article by Larry Sibley entitled Ten Worship Planning ideas from John Calvin.  His first two points are worth revisiting, as most churches since the reformation have not taken seriously these foundational issues related to corporate worship.  I am quoting directly from  Mr. Sibley:

  1. “Remember the necessary practices and include them every week: the Word, prayer, the meal, and sharing. Calvin wrote in his Institutes,
    Luke relates in the Acts that this was the practice of the apostolic church, when he says that believers “. . . continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Lord’s Supper and almsgiving.

    Calvin treated this passage in Acts as a central norm for Sunday worship. There were to be four elements present: the reading and preaching of the Word; prayers in the language of the people; the Lord’s Supper; and a sharing of goods, principally through almsgiving in the service.

  2. Keep the traditional ordo: gathering, Word, sacraments, sending. Calvin did this, reforming without disrupting the traditional outline of worship. See the green box for the order of worship. Of particular importance is to gather first around the Word read and preached. This sets the agenda for the intercessory prayer that follows and allows the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to seal the message of the Word. Calvin pointed out that we are created with the need to see, touch, smell, and taste as well as hear; hence the sacraments.”

Why are we so quick to dismiss the Sacraments from our weekly worship?  What are we afraid of?  The sacraments are God’s ordained way of reassuring us of salvation and strengthening our faith.  We must revisit our core doctrinal documents and reclaim the centrality of the full order of worship given to us in the Scriptures.  Following I will review the pertinent questions from the Three forms of Unity of the CRCNA:

Heidelberg Q/A66 says, “Sacraments are holy signs and seals for us to see.  They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise.  And this is God’s gospel promise: to forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross.” 

Ursinus who wrote the Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism said, “The sacraments contribute to the preservation and propagation of the doctrine of the gospel, in as much as God always accompanies the use of the sacraments with the word and its application.” (Ursinus, 344)
Heidelberg Q & A 75

Q. How does the Lord’s Supper remind you and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his gifts?

A. In this way:

Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup. With this command he gave this promise:1

First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.

 Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul with his crucified body and poured-out blood.

1 Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25

In the Belgic Confession we find a great description of the Purpose of the Sacraments:

Article 33

The Sacraments
We believe that our good God,
mindful of our crudeness and weakness,
has ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith.

He has added these to the Word of the gospel
to represent better to our external senses
both what he enables us to understand by his Word
and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.

For they are visible signs and seals
of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So they are not empty and hollow signs
to fool and deceive us, for their truth is Jesus Christ, without whom they would be nothing.

Article 35

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
We believe and confess
that our Savior Jesus Christ
has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper
to nourish and sustain those
who are already born again and ingrafted

into his family:
his church…

This banquet is a spiritual table
at which Christ communicates himself to us
with all his benefits.

At that table he makes us enjoy himself

as much as the merits of his suffering and death,
as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts

our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh,

and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood

John Calvin expands on these understandings when he writes “let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.” (Inst. IV:14.17 – p1292)  Furthermore, Calvin says, “the sacraments bring the clearest promises; and they have this characteristic over and above the word because they represent them for us as painted in a picture from life” (Institutes, 4.14.5); and “It is indeed true that this same grace is offered us by the gospel, yet as in the Supper we have more ample certainty, and fuller enjoyment of it” (Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ, paragraph 10).
 Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology comments on the disuse and neglect of the sacraments.  He writes, “Willful neglect of their use [the sacraments] results in spiritual impoverishment and has a destructive tendency, just as all willful and persistent disobedience to God has.” (p. 618)

So why, when John Calvin too great pains to write in 1561 –  “I have taken care to record publicly that our custom [of serving Communion 4 times per year] is defective, so that those who come after me may be able to correct it the more freely and easily.”  (Bretschneider, Corpus Reformatorum, XXXVIII, i, p. 213) do so many churches continue to neglect the practice of the the Supper?

Maybe we should recall Calvin’s words one last time as an inducement to change our practices,  “we shall perceive that the use should be more frequent than many make it: for the more infirmity presses, the more necessary is it frequently to have recourse to what may and will serve to confirm our faith, and advance us in purity of life” (A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, section 29).


About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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