The Protestant Reformation was a liturgical revolution. That is, it was primarily a worship movement. Magisterial Reformers such as John Calvin were chiefly concerned with justifying the practices of the divine service. The justification of depraved sinners was a lesser issue on the list of priorities.
This may seem surprising to those of us who have been taught to think of the Reformation as being primarily about matters of salvation. In an ironic turn, we have come to believe that the Reformation was all about us. We have read Luther, Calvin, and the rest so anachronistically that we place our words in their mouths like transubstantiated wafers; their original concerns have been strangely manipulated by Latin chants—Sola this and Solus that—like a consecrated host. Now we have come to venerate these recently manufactured relics as our medieval brethren once did the 343rd toe-joint of St. John the Divine.
The liturgy of the Medieval Church was ladened heavy under the oppressive strain of pagan superstition and Aristotelian philosophy gone to seed. The Mass, occupying too much space and exhibiting too much weight, was in dire need of reform. The Church, fast bound in the chains of encrusted tradition, was crying out for the liberating yoke of Christ. A liturgy in which the saving work of Christ is never finished can never produce saints who have ceased from their own rigorous labors. Thus, they were in desperate need of that which can only be found in the easy bonds of true Christian worship—rest.
The reforms which the reformers proposed and imposed were nothing short of revolutionary for the Church. Revolutionary in both senses of the word: returning to the original point of reference and (unintentionally) launching a new movement. Theirs was a burden of glory more than a burden of guilt. They were jealous for the name and fame of God. The theology of grace which is championed by the progeny of the Reformation was born from a zeal for God’s glory through a biblically formed and informed worship.
The idolatry of images and icons was replaced by the realization that God had set his own image in his holy temple when he filled that image with his Holy Spirit. Icons are redundant since it is the icons who gather to mirror their Maker.
The congregation became active participants in worship; royal priests in conversation with their Covenant Lord. The service was not left to the “professionals.” The service was taken up by all of those who professed the common faith. Congregational singing was heard again in Zion as it was when David was on his throne. The people were no longer the audience, they were now the performers enacting the drama for an Audience of One.
The verbum absconditum now became the revealed Word. The Scriptures, once the playthings of priests, were heard in the native tongues of the congregants. They were then taken onto their own lips and lifted up to God in psalms of praise.
Confession of sin and the assurance of God’s pardon became a regular feature in the worship service. The people heard the announcements of God’s peace in Christ as often as they heard the thunders of Sinai.
For the first time in centuries, regular worshipers were able to literally “taste and see” that the Lord was good as the bread and the wine were extended to them. The sanctifying cup, formerly withheld, was now extended to the whole body. They drank in the sweetness of full redemption. They held edible promises upon their tongues and savored the hope of once and future glory.
Reformation began with worship because worship is the foundation of life. When the Church gathers, they come to the center of the world—all distance is measured from the throne above the cherubs. The question as to how one can “find a gracious God,” is not nearly as important as is “how is the True God to be worshiped,” if he is found. A reformation that doesn’t concern itself with the worship of God as its chief end simply isn’t worthy of the name.
Those who think that worship is something incidental, or something that is merely a matter of personal preference should repent of their popish ways and journey toward Geneva. Rome was the party that argued for an unregulated worship. Those who want to limit the frequency of the Eucharist, and unduly restrict those who are permitted to partake are heirs of Rome, not the Reformers. Those who oppose structured liturgies on the grounds that they seem “too Catholic” are actually the ones standing in the Tiber—rather than form them, they want worship to conform to them.
We stand in need of yet another Protestant Revolution; a return to the first principles of that great work of liturgical recovery and reform; a movement in which a justified people enact a justified program of biblical worship. “Reformed” must truly come to describe Word-regulated, Word-saturated, and Word-celebrated services. When the world sees a congregation of Jesus Christ sharing bread and wine, or gathered around the baptismal font, or standing with psalters in their hands and hymns upon their lips, may they be able to say of us as they did of our Lord, “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory…”