Calvin the Liturgist: How ‘Calvinist’ is Your Church’s Liturgy?

Calvin's approach to liturgy, described in The Form of Prayers, was biblically thoughtful and consistent with early church worship.

To achieve this tone of spirituality, said Calvin, simplicity is important. Liturgical practices that call attention to themselves obscure God, kill worship, and subvert the life of faith. One must understand Calvin’s long passages against images, relics, veneration of the saints, sacramental ism, and all human ceremonies as his conscientious effort to restore direct, simple fellowship between God and his people. What was at stake was the renewal of spiritual life. For John Calvin, the true preaching of the Word, heartfelt prayer, congregational praise, and proper use of the sacraments were the liturgical means for joining the believing worshiper to the living God.

 

True worship was John Calvin’s main passion. In fact, he devoted his life to helping people genuinely honor God through simple uncluttered worship. His reforms in Strassburg and neva cleared away ” liturgical trappings’ that got in the way of communion with the Almighty. His writings —commentaries, Institutes, tracts, letters, psalm versifications, catechisms, and church regulations—all had one purpose: helping others know God that they might glorify him forever.

Calvin’s approach to liturgy, described in The Form of Prayers, was biblically thoughtful and consistent with early church worship. While the Genevan Reformer did not dwell on technique or modify his liturgy from week to week, his theological writings and his service books show that he was a sensitive, complete liturgist.

Tone of Worship

“The due worship of God” is God-directed, says Calvin in The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Believers approach God in full awareness of who he is, and together they magnify his greatness. This reverent tone pervades the service, flowing naturally into authentic prayer, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, humbling of self, and commitment to God’s will; it achieves profound expression in the Lord’s Supper. For Calvin, then, the spiritual quality of the worship service was more important than the shape of the liturgy. For him the spirituality of worship began in the sanctuary but carried over into daily life. He believed that people ought to live worshipfully.

To achieve this tone of spirituality, said Calvin, simplicity is important. Liturgical practices that call attention to themselves obscure God, kill worship, and subvert the life of faith. One must understand Calvin’s long passages against images, relics, veneration of the saints, sacramental ism, and all human ceremonies as his conscientious effort to restore direct, simple fellowship between God and his people. What was at stake was the renewal of spiritual life. For John Calvin, the true preaching of the Word, heartfelt prayer, congregational praise, and proper use of the sacraments were the liturgical means for joining the believing worshiper to the living God.

Calvin’s Service

Calvin’s service opened with the minister entering, positioning himself behind the communion table, and saying: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8).

A call to confession of sins and an appropriate prayer followed. In Strassburg he used an absolution at this point in the service (“To all those who thus repent and seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I pronounce absolution in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”); in Geneva he replaced the absolution with a statement of forgiveness. The singing of the first table of the Law, followed by a prayer and the singing of the second table, concluded the service of confession.

As the people sang the second table of the Law, the minister entered the pulpit (in later years Calvin conducted the entire service from the pulpit). The minister then led the congregation in a prayer for illumination, concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. The singing of a psalm, a Scripture reading, and the sermon followed.

Calvin’s service ended with collections for the poor, intercessions, singing the Apostles’ Creed, brief pastoral encouragements, singing another psalm, and the Aaronic benediction.

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