Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (IX)
After a slight diversion and a vacation, we’re going to return to the crucial matter of how the Reformer, John Calvin, thought about worship in general and how the first table (commandments 1-4) applied to worship in particular. In order to accomplish my purpose, I’m going to use two primary sources: The Institutes of the Christian Religion and his commentaries on the last four books of the Pentateuch.
Since the Institutes are so foundational, we’ll begin there and then branch out in his Harmony. Calvin wrote a kind of “introduction” to his exposition of the Ten Commandments in the Institutes in 2.8. We shall skate lightly over that introduction to ferret out the most salient points. By way of reminder, he states “that the public worship that God once prescribed is still in force.” This will not be an easy pill for some modern evangelicals to swallow since they believe that the Ten Commandments and Old Testament belong to a bygone era and only apply to the Kingdom of Israel. None of the Reformers embraced that position.
Hearkening back to the opening words of the Institutes Calvin points us to two indispensable truths: “First, claiming for himself (the Lord) the lawful power to command, he calls us to reverence his divinity, and specifies wherein such reverence lies and consists. Secondly, having published the rule of his righteousness, he reproves us both for our impotence and four our unrighteousness.” The words I italicized direct us to the specifics of worship. God calls us to worship him according to his command; he specifies what right, true worship looks like; and when we go astray, he reproves us. How does he reprove us? There is no audible word from heaven or a special revelation during “prime time” on TBN. Rather, the Lord calls, specifies, and reproves us by his Word and Spirit.
He reiterates that “we have no right to follow the mind’s caprice wherever it impels us, but, dependent upon his will, ought to stand firm in that alone which is pleasing to him….” With one fell swoop, Calvin has just eviscerated much if not most of so-called evangelical worship today. Precious little time is spent, by comparison, determining from Scripture what pleases the Lord instead of trying to figure out what will please man. He continues in the same vein: “For if only when we prefer his will to our own do we render to him the reverence that is his due, it follows that the only lawful worship of him is the observance of righteousness, holiness, and purity.” There is a great deal more that could be said, but I hasten on to Calvin’s section on the sufficiency of the law.
The Sufficiency of the Law
The opening words of 2.8.5 read: “…the Lord, in giving the rule of perfect righteousness, has referred all its parts to his will, thereby showing that nothing is more acceptable to him than obedience.” In reference to Deuteronomy 4:9 (“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the tings that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.”) Calvin comments, “Surely God foresaw that the Israelites would not rest, once they had received the law, but would thereafter bring forth new precepts, unless they were severely restrained. Here, he declares, perfection of righteousness is comprehended.”
In terms of the New Testament Church in at the beginning of the 21st century, it seems plausible that they might take a fresh look both at Scripture and Calvin. The modern Church has become a factory that is constantly bringing forth new, man-centered precepts. That is bad enough, but when church leaders pass their notions as worship, that is quite another thing. Of course, in one sense this is understandable. When was the last time you heard a series preached on the Ten Commandments? When was the last time that you read through, say, the Westminster Larger Catechism or Heidelberg Catechism regarding what is taught in those documents about the Ten Commandments? I contend that one of the reasons that modern worship has gotten so far off track is due to a gross neglect of the Ten Commandments in determining what should be included and excluded in worship. Both the mega-church as well as the Emergent Church movement fall under this indictment. For Calvin, however, “There is no doubt that the perfect teaching of righteousness that the Lord claims for the law has a perpetual validity.”
The First Commandment
Calvin opens his exposition of the first commandment by giving us its purpose: “The purpose of this commandment is that the Lord wills alone to be pre-eminent among his people and to exercise complete authority over them.” This is an essential lesson that he modern Church must learn if there can ever be any talk about a “revival” in evangelicalism. In other words, until the leaders and congregants of the modern Church are willing to submit themselves to the authority of God and obey the first commandment all of our attempts at worship will be in vain. God “commands us to worship and adore him with true zealous godliness.”
In other words, Calvin is convinced that the first thing the law teaches us is to worship God and God alone. Hughes Oliphant Old writes that Calvin believed that “worship is the first business of life, the ultimate vocation of the human race. For Calvin, it is in worship that all our other activities find their meaning.” In a day and age when worship is promoted because it makes us feel good, Calvin emphasizes that worship is a sacred duty. Truly, this is one of the lost aspects of worship in the modern Church.
The modern “pastors” have generally speaking been “disablers” in this area, depriving their congregations of biblical truth and substituting “fluff” and “softballs” for true biblical nourishment. Rather than teaching them the clear truth that worship is the first business of life, they have taught their attendees that feeling good about yourself and feeling good when you leave the “worship” is the first business of life.
So which components ought we to consider in worshipping the Lord? Calvin gives us a thumbnail sketch of some of the most important elements worship in Inst.2.8.16 when he describes the four following indispensable aspects: adoration, trust, invocation, and thanksgiving.
First, “‘Adoration’ I call the veneration and worship that each of us, in submitting to his greatness, renders to him. For this reason, I justly consider as a part of adoration the fact that we submit our consciences to his law.”
Second, trust “is the assurance of reposing in him that arises from the recognition of his attributes, when—attributing to him all wisdom, righteousness, might, truth, and goodness—we judge that we are blessed only by communion with him.”
Third, “‘Invocation’ is that habit of our mind, whenever necessity presses us, of resorting to his faithfulness and help as our only support.”
Finally, “‘Thanksgiving’ is that gratitude with which we ascribe praise to him for all good things.” Thanksgiving is, then, the public recognition of having received God’s help in time of need. True thanksgiving accepts the obligation of service to God that having received his benefits entails.
What this means concretely is that true worship is not so much an attempt to achieve communion with God as much as it presupposes communion with God. This is yet another area where the modern Church, by and large, has it all wrong. The attempt is made—futilely—to create an atmosphere—from below—where both churched and unchurched will feel comfortable. Apart from being impossible, it is foolish to even attempt this man-centered worship style. What is desperately needed in the modern Church is more of a God-centered—from above—worship style taken from Scripture.
Worship & the Character of God
Then Calvin makes this statement that ties his thoughts together regarding the first commandment and worship: “Thus, steeped in the knowledge of him, they (the congregation—RG) may aspire to contemplate, fear, and worship, his majesty; to participate in his blessings; to seek his help at all times; to recognize, and by praises to celebrate, the greatness of his works—as the only goal of all the activities of this life.” Notice how the Reformer couches his reasoning in our knowledge of the character of God. In our one-dimensional world (God is love), we know more about American Idol that we do about the character of the Lord God Almighty. Yet, if we are to worship God truly, we must be biblically conversant with his character—not who or what we want him to be, but how he reveals himself to us in Scripture.
How is the man and woman in the pew to achieve this knowledge of the character of God? The answer is quite simple actually: They will find the answers in a thoroughly acquaintance with the Bible and from hearing solid, biblical, and expositional preaching from Scripture. Calvin believed that when the Word of God is preached and heard in faith, it bears fruit. This means that sound teaching is essential to true worship. Of course, this would require a huge modification of modern preaching for some. A poor or non-existent theological education has left modern pastors without the means to put together a solid biblical sermon that will feed God’s flock. Moreover, a number of modern pastors have spent a rather large expanse of time deriding sound teaching and doctrine even though the Bible explicitly speaks about its spiritual value to the Christian (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1). These revealed truths convince Calvin that worship of God that is “from above” consists in true knowledge of his character.In his commentary on Colossians 3:16 Calvin tells us that true worship is not something aside from the singing of hymns, the saying of the creed, and the sharing of communion done in the regular worship of the Church. The outward forms are the exercises of true worship. It is in the exercising of praise, invocation, and thanksgiving that the Church is edified. True worship takes place through and by means of the outward rites and ceremonies of worship. To that end, he reminds us that we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with grace, making melody in our hearts as well as with our tongues.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, (Charles Bingham, [trans.]), Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).
 Inst.2.8.1, p. 367.
 Ibid., Emphases mine.
 Inst.2.8.2, p. 369.
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 Inst.2.8.5., p. 371.
 Inst.2.8.16, p. 382.
 Hughes Oliphant Old, “Calvin’s Theology of Worship,” in J. Ligon Duncan III, Philip G. Ryken, & Derek W.H. Thomas [eds.], Give Praise to God, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2003), p. 418.
 Inst.2.8.2, 369.
 Inst.2.8.16, 382.