Calvin’s treatise on The Necessity of Reforming the Church is a plea to Emperor Charles V to hear the cause of the Reformation. Calvin pleads that their cause is right and just, because it is based on the word of God. Their cause is necessary, because Rome has become thoroughly corrupt in her doctrine, worship, and institutional life. The reformers are fighting on behalf of God so that “religion might be purged from these defilements, the doctrine of godliness restored to its integrity, and the church raised out of its calamitous” condition (39).
Reformation in the church is absolutely necessary because it relates to the pure worship of God. Reformation returns the doctrine, preaching, sacraments, and government of the church back to the biblical pattern, so that God may be worshipped aright. Calvin points out that the “whole form of divine worship in general use in the present day is nothing but mere corruption” (23). Rome has thoroughly corrupted the true worship of God by her false doctrines, wicked human traditions, and vain superstitious. Calvin therefore justifies the reformation and insists that the “uniform characteristics of a well-ordered church are the preaching of sound doctrine, and the pure administration of the sacraments” (127).
In setting forth the principles of worship, Calvin is a polemicist. Very logically, he sets forth the errors of the Romish church, his rejection of them on the basis of scripture and the ancient church, and then proceeds to establish the positive principles. Reformation in the church of Jesus Christ is not only a rejection of false doctrines and corruptions, but also a positive development and increased understanding in the truth.
First, Calvin rejects all kinds of things that are not approved by the word of God. God “disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word” (18). Calvin remarks that when the word of God is absent, “divine truth lay buried under this vast and dense cloud of darkness; when religion was sullied by so many impious superstitions; when by horrid blasphemies the worship of God was corrupted, and his glory laid prostrate” (38). Heresies and schisms “arise when a return is not made to the origin of truth, when neither the Head is regarded, nor the doctrine of the heavenly Master preserved” (132).
Second, true worship must never be based on our own opinions or emotions. Calvin wisely recognizes the foolishness of the depraved sinner, even though he may be a child of God. He writes that “such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray” (16). So we must “reject all human devices which are at variance with his command” (17). God “rejects and even abominates everything relating to his worship that is devised by human reason” (49). He is displeased when men, “overleaping the boundaries of his word, run riot in their own inventions” (96). God’s authority is established in worship when “we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty” (17).
Third, Calvin rejects worship that is not sincere, or one that does not flow out of true faith. God condemns and prohibits “all fictitious worship” (17). Rome is guilty of grave hypocrisy in her worship of God, especially in her many ceremonies. She has invented “an immense number of ceremonies”, whereby “men are vainly occupied with numbers of them that are both frivolous and useless” (22). These ceremonies mock God by causing men to think that “they have fulfilled their duty as admirably as if these ceremonies included in them the whole essence of piety and divine worship” (22). By “means of external ceremonies, like specious masks, we hide the inward malice of the heart” (51). God therefore “rejects, condemns, abominates all fictitious worship, and employs his word as a bridle to keep us in unqualified obedience” (23).
Fourth, human tradition must pale in comparison to the word of God in worship. Calvin rebukes the traditions of Rome for enslaving the Christian’s conscience. These traditions “had either been tyrannically imposed to hold consciences in bondage, or were more subservient to superstition than to bondage” (77). Although Calvin does not reject traditions which keep the church functioning decently and in good order, he recommends that we must “look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe” (17).
So important is the glory of God in worship that Calvin grounds true worship in the being of God. First, he writes that the chief foundation of worship is “to acknowledge him to be, as he is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation” (16). Those who worship him must desire to “ascribe and render to him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in him alone, and in every want have recourse to him alone” (16). In our worship, “we manifest for him the reverence due to his greatness and excellency” (16).
Second, because God’s will alone determines His worship, His word prescribes what may be allowed in worship. The word of God is the only authoritative rule for worship. The word alone “discriminates between his true worship and that which is false and vitiated” (23), since God “must be worshipped in spirit and in truth” (17). True doctrine “regulates the due worship of God, and points out the ground on which the consciences of men must rest their hope of salvation” (15). True doctrine maintains proper worship in the church, since “the word of God furnishes a standard…for every thing” (35). When reforming the worship of the church, the reformers sought “to read the scriptures, in laboring diligently to make them better understood, and in happily throwing light on certain points of doctrine of the highest practical importance” (40).
Third, the administration of the sacraments is an important part of worship. Calvin contends that in the Romish church, “seven sacraments were received without any distinction, though Christ appointed two only, the others resting merely on human authority” (29). The “two which Christ instituted were fearfully corrupted” (29). That is because the Romish church “fasten[s] upon the sign instead of the thing signified by it” (31). God’s people must come by faith to participate in these two sacraments. Only by faith “they may inwardly discern the thing which is visibly represented: that is, the spiritual food by which alone their souls are nourished unto life eternal” (70). Furthermore, the preaching of the word must always be accompanied with the sacraments, because “there is no use in the sacraments unless the thing which the sign visibly represents is explained in accordance with the word of God” (31).
Fourth, proper church government must be exercised because the office-bearers watch over the worship of the church. It must be a “spiritual government which Christ recommended” (33). Calvin writes that in condemning the papacy and the hierarchical form of church government, they have restored the pastoral office, “both according to the apostolic rule, and the practice of the primitive church, by insisting that everyone who rules in the church shall also teach” (71). Those who are elected must be “in the presence of the people, before the eyes of all, that he may be approved as fit and worthy by the testimony of all” (73). None “are to be continued in the office but those who are diligent in performing its duties” (71). No man “is a true pastor of the church who does not perform the office of teaching” (33). Teaching is so important in the worship of the Reformed church that Calvin is able to say: “none of our churches is seen without the ordinary preaching of the word” (71).
Fifth, true worship must be simple. It must be devoid of all kinds of “frivolous performances altogether alien from the command of Christ” (33). We must in no respect detract “from the spiritual worship of God” (46). Worship is simple because “God requires us to worship him in a spiritual manner” (41).
True prayer is an important part of worship. Calvin writes that “by discarding the intercession of the saints, we have brought men back to Christ, that they might learn both to invoke the Father in his name, and trust in him as Mediator” (51). The child of God must pray first “with firm and solid confidence”, and then secondly, “with understanding also” (51). He must not be muttering “over confused prayer in an unknown tongue” (51). Prayers “proceeding from true faith obtains favor with God” (55). The design of true prayer is to “make God the conscious witness of our necessities, and as it were to pour out our hearts before him” (56).
The worshipper himself must be a regenerated child of God, offering sincere praise and worship to God. God “looks to the faith and truth of the heart” (47). Men must worship God “neither in a frigid nor a careless manner” (41). “True and sincere worship”, Calvin asserts, is “taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the scriptures” (16). Only a believing child of God will humble himself before God in worship, and “by this self-abasement we are trained to obedience and devotedness to his will, so that his fear reign in our hearts, and regulates all the actions of our lives” (16).
When true worship is restored, the child of God receives the blessed fruit of assurance. He is able to rest in Christ “with firm and solid confidence, feeling assured that Christ is so completely his own, that he possesses in him righteousness and life” (25). Calvin’s treatise is powerfully polemical in establishing not only the cause of the reformation, but also the biblical principles of worship. The regulative principle, held fast by Calvin and the reformers, is a legacy left to us, the children of the reformation. We will be faithful to maintain it, so that “the pure and legitimate worship of God” (13) is upheld in our churches.
Written by: Aaron Lim | Issue 48