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Seven Ways the Reformation Renewed Worship

Editor's Note: Today is the last day to sign up for the Doxology & Theology Conference, where you can join Ron Man and many others as we look at Worship Reformed!

We usually think of the Reformation of the 15th Century in terms of doctrinal renewal. The Reformers were not seeking to bring new or original truths to the Church; rather, they were zealous to bring back to the Church the biblical/apostolic teaching concerning salvation, which had been largely lost to the Church. Hence their emphasis on justification by grace alone, through faith alone. We all owe these courageous leaders a great debt: standing against all the civil and religious authorities of their time, armed only with a supreme confidence in God and His Word, they succeeded in restoring the biblical gospel to the Church! And that restored gospel has led to our own salvation.

But we also owe the Reformers a debt for the renewal of worship. Here are some of the key areas:

1. The sole priesthood of Christ.

There was a renewed understanding of the role in worship of the living Christ, who as God and man is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between God and man. The neglect of the full humanity of Christ during the Middle Ages had led to serious distortions in worship practice: it was taught that one could only approach God by going through a priest; and that one needed to go through the Virgin Mary or one of the saints in order for one’s prayers to be heeded by God.

The Reformers restored the precious New Testament truth of our full and confident access to the Father through the work of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-22); they insisted (biblically) that in Christ every believer can enter directly into God’s presence in worship and in prayer, and that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

2. Christ as the Leader of our worship.

As both God and man, His mediating work is uniquely two-way: between God and man, and between man and God. As such He mediates God’s self-revelation to us, and also represents us before God in our response. This is expressed with beautiful succinctness in the words of Jesus (speaking to the Father) found in Hebrews 2:12 (quoting Psalm 22:22):

“I will proclaim Your Name to my brethren;
and in the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.”

[More on this transformative truth for worship leaders in my breakout at D&T, “Proclamation and Praise: Jesus Our Worship Leader.”]

3. The restoration of the authority of the Scriptures and its return to the center of worship.

Preaching in worship had pretty much died out; the study of doctrine and dogma (as defined by the Church) was solely in the hands of the priesthood rather than being a legitimate pursuit of every Christian.

The Reformation itself grew out of the study of the Word by Luther and others, and he and the other Reformers were preachers who restored the reading and exposition of the Scriptures in worship, in obedience to Paul’s admonitions to “let the Word of Christ dwell richly among you” (Colossians 3:16), to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2), and to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).

4. The Bible in the language of the people.

As mentioned above, by the end of the Middle Ages, services were still conducted in Latin, which was understood by no one but the priests and a few scholars. The translation and wide distribution of the Bible in the vernacular (facilitated by the invention of the printing press) was a movement that put the Word of God into the hands of the common people; and they were no longer forbidden, as before, but actively encouraged to delve into its riches for themselves. And that study was amplified by preaching, which was done from the newly translated Bible.

5. The worship service in the language of the people.

Latin was likewise replaced by the vernacular as the language in which worship services were conducted and as the language of preaching.

6. Congregational participation in worship, especially in singing.

During the Middle Ages, what music there was in the worship services was normally sung by the priests or a choir. Luther had the highest regard for the place of music, and advocated its use in worship in often colorful language:

“I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.… A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” (Foreword to a 1538 collection of chorale motets)

Congregational singing became a central part of public worship, and Luther and others penned many new hymn texts.

7. The simplification of the worship service.

Medieval worship had become exceedingly complex and cumbersome. Some streams of the Reformation went further than others in restructuring the liturgy, but all represented a significant streamlining with a view towards better understanding and participation. And the Medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, which taught that in the Mass the bread and wine miraculously became the actual body and blood of Christ, was universally rejected.

What riches in worship, from Word to music to the recognition of Christ’s unique role, were recovered for us by the Reformers!

Rev. Dr. Ron Man (M.M., Th.M., D.Min.) serves as Pastor of Worship/Missionary in Residence at First Evangelical Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and also Director of Worship Resources International. He wrote Proclamation and Praise: Hebrews 2:12 and the Christology of Worship (Wipf & Stock, 2007), and has taught on worship in 35 countries, Visit his website of free worship resources at www.worr.org.

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