Calvin on Worship

Name and Place for Tuesday, December 30 (’14)


PuritanWorshipThe Christian reform movement of the Western Church in the 16th and 17th centuries is often thought of as a struggle over the proper understanding of justification. That was indeed a great source of controversy, and it was certainly primary for Martin Luther. But Reformation sentiments had been brewing for centuries, and it’s all but certain that a Reformation would still have happened even if Martin Luther had never been born.¹ In any case, the issues were broader and deeper than just that one doctrine. In fact, when John Calvin wrote his seminal treatise on The Necessity of Reforming the Church, the first and central issue he highlighted was the issue of worship: Worship is the first duty that the creature owes to the Creator, and corruption here is corruption of everything. Here are some words that were relevant then, and are relevant now (emphasis mine):

Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge him to be, as he is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in him alone, and in every want have recourse to him alone. Hence arises prayer, hence praise and thanksgiving – these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to him. This is that genuine sanctification of his name which he requires of us above all things. To this is united adoration, by which we manifest for him the reverence due to his greatness and excellency; and to this ceremonies are subservient, as helps or instruments, in order that, in the performance of divine worship, the body may be exercised at the same time with the soul. Next after these comes self-abasement, when, renouncing the world and the flesh, we are transformed in the renewing of our mind and living no longer to ourselves, submit to be ruled and actuated by him. By this self-abasement we are trained to obedience and devotedness to his will, so that his fear reigns in our hearts, and regulates all the actions of our lives.

That in these things consists the true and sincere worship which alone God approves, and in which alone he delights, is both taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the scriptures, and is also, antecedent to discussion, the obvious dictate of piety. Nor from the beginning was there any other method of worshipping God, the only difference being, that this spiritual truth, which with us is naked and simple, was under the former dispensation wrapped up in figures. And this is the meaning of our Savior’s words, “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). For by these words he meant not to declare that God was not worshipped by the fathers in this spiritual manner, but only to point out a distinction in the external form: that is, that while they had the Spirit shadowed forth by many figures, we have [Him] in simplicity. But it has always been an acknowledged point, that God, who is a Spirit, must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.

Moreover, the rule which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application, in order that we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us.

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if at variance with his command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9). Every addition to his word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” [Col. 2:20-23] is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.

What Calvin articulates here is what has come to be called the Regulative Principle of worship, which, stated simply, is the principle that when it comes to the public and corporate worship of God, the things to be done with regard to the glory of God and the edification of the people should have explicit warrant (or be necessarily implied) by God’s own word. It’s true that people may disagree on what is and is not given scriptural warrant, and specific applications may differ (though churches consciously adhering to this principle have come to remarkably similar conclusions on the whole). But only on this principle, constantly seeking after what God has revealed to be his will for his worship, can God’s authority be honored, superstition be held in check, and Christian freedom and liberty of conscience be maintained.

You can read the whole treatise here.


¹[W]hat is important historically is the form [Luther’s] protest took, and this had to do with old and deep social grievances concerned with the worldliness of the church, the sale of indulgences, corruption of the clergy, and so on. If it had not been Luther who protested, it would have been someone else; Protestantism would have come with or without him.” – Barbara Tuchman

(Is History a Guide to the Future? in the collection, “Practicing History.”)

Tuchman’s essay is not actually concerned with the Reformation. The quote here is part of an incidental remark meant to illustrate a larger point about the complexity of people and how historical causation is not quantifiable.

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