The Reformation of Worship


By. Aaron Denlinger 

We go to church to worship God, and that’s done by giving, not getting.”

Statements to this effect, made regarding the corporate worship of God’s people, abound in Christian literature and Christian conversations. They sound rather convincing. Scripture, after all, assures us that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” And the etymology of our English word “worship”—apparently from an Old English term meaning “to ascribe worth”—lends itself, perhaps, to a view of worship as an act of giving something to God.

In reality such statements—contrary, I’m sure, to the intentions of those who make them—reveal misunderstandings about why we as Christians gather for corporate worship and who is actually present when we do so. Indeed, such statements—taken at face value—could be argued to constitute a wholesale reversal of gains made at the time of the Reformation in our understanding of what worship actually is.

In the pre-Reformation church, worship was broadly conceived as a meeting between God and His people. It was, however, a meeting where God had very little to say—at least in words the people could understand. The liturgy of worship included selections from the Latin Bible, but exposition of Scripture—that is, preaching—was not considered essential to worship, and very rarely occurred on occasions where God’s people were gathered in their parish church. The people were not, then, receiving any intelligible word from God in their meetings, not by his fault or theirs, but that of their leaders.

The centerpiece of medieval worship was not a sermon, but the celebration of the Eucharist. Bread and wine were placed upon a table (the “altar”) set against the far eastern wall of the worship space, and a priest would stand at that table with his back to the people—symbolically representing them before God—and consecrate those elements, thus effecting (in medieval understanding) the miraculous transformation of them into the body and blood of Christ. The priest would then raise the elements above his head, offering them up to God the Father as a propitiation for the sins of the people.

The core of medieval worship, then, consisted in the people giving something to God; something which they believed would appease God in light of their misdeeds. The people were content to view the Eucharistic ritual from a considerable distance in their churches, or sometimes simply to know (by the ringing of a bell) that it had occurred from their location behind a screen which hampered their view of the event, but supposedly preserved its mystique. The people rarely felt any pressing necessity—despite Christ’s command to “take and eat” in the institution of the Eucharist—to consume the elements (or at least that singular element, the bread/body, which was available to them). The whole point, after all, was to giveto God, not to get something from Him, and that was accomplished already through the mediation of the officiating priest.

The Reformation entailed a major rehaul of worship, in keeping with the recovery of biblical teaching on a number of matters, especially justification. Like their medieval counterparts, the Reformers conceived of worship as a meeting between God and his people. “Wherever the faithful… are assembled together to engage in the solemn acts of religious worship, [God] is graciously present, and presides in the midst of them” (John Calvin). But the Reformers ascribed a much more active and generous role to God in such meetings, a reality anticipated in Calvin’s reference to God presiding in worship.

So, for instance, the Reformers acknowledged the importance of letting—or rather, hearing—God speak in worship, in words the people could understand. The faith by which sinners are justified leans upon God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ. Thus the Reformers realized that central to worship must be God’s proclamation, through the mouthpiece of His ministers, of His promise (the gospel) to His people. This realization entailed some significant shuffling of church furniture; the pulpit—both a useful pedestal for Sacred Scripture and a symbol of the minister’s commission to speak on God’s behalf—replaced the altar as the principal point of focus in the sanctuary.

Celebration of the Eucharist was not abandoned in Reformation worship, but it was significantly reconfigured. The Reformers denied that proper observance of the Supper entailed the priest, representing the people, offering up Christ’s body and blood to God the Father as a (re)propitiation for sins; such a concept stands in stark opposition to Scripture’s clear teaching on the sufficiency and finality of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of his people upon the cross (Heb. 10:14). The Reformers didn’t entirely reject the notion that Jesus Christ is present in the Supper, but they did reverse the direction of the transaction that takes place in that event. They recognized the Supper as an event in which God offers his Son to the people, to the increase of their faith and their union and communion with him. The Reformers never achieved consensus on how exactly Christ is present and offered to his people in the Supper, but they were agreed in seeing the Supper as an occasion for God to give an extraordinary gift—indeed, his very Son—to those prepared by a God-given faith to receive it.

This understanding of the Eucharist likewise entailed some significant shuffling of church furniture. The altar, rechristened the communion table, was pulled from the wall. The priest, rechristened a minister, walked around the table and now stood facing the people, prepared to offer God’s extraordinary gift to God’s people. The people, accustomed to coming to church to give something to God through their priestly mediator, suddenly found themselves confronted (as it were) by an active, almighty, and generous God, who through His ministers, both in the pulpit and at the table, had every intention of giving them something.

The Reformers, it should be noted, refused to reduce God’s gifts to His people in worship to mere information about Himself or symbols of His Son’s person and work, disconnected from those realities. What God gives His people, they insisted, is properly His Son Jesus Christ, as the basis of their hope. Through proclamation of God’s promises received in Spirit-wrought faith, Calvin writes, “Christ… engrafts us into his body, that we may become partakers of all [his] blessings.” Calvin’s comment regarding the Supper applies equally to preaching: “I have no doubt that he will truly give, and I receive.” What God will “truly give” through both Word and Sacrament is Christ himself.

We should, then, be cautious about describing worship as primarily an act “of giving, not getting.” When we depict worship in such terms, we run the risk of returning to pre-Reformation patterns of thought which present God as entirely passive, possibly even waiting to be appeased, in our corporate meeting with Him. Scripture’s affirmation that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) applies to Christian relationships with one another, it cannot meaningfully be applied to a meeting between poverty-stricken sinners such as ourselves and almighty God, the giver of “every good and perfect gift” (Jam. 1:17). We do, to be sure, give to God in worship when we respond to His gifts to us in grateful song, supplication, and tithes. And our eagerness for His gifts to us is itself a kind of giving to Him: “I give my soul to him to be fed by such food” (Calvin). But our meeting with God in worship remains primarily a matter of getting on our part, not of giving. How could it be otherwise? As Luther famously put it only hours before he died: Wir sind pettler! Hoc est verum. “We are beggers! This is true.”