Saturday, June 14, 2014

Worshipping with Calvin

Worshipping with CalvinWorshipping with Calvin by Terry L. Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a dangerous book.  Well, it was at least for me.   And if you are working through some of the same issues that I am, this is a dangerous book for you as well.

Johnson invites us to “worship with Calvin”, a term he uses to indicate a mirroring of the Reformers plea to ad fontes (return to the sources), and worship in a manner consistent with the Scriptures, the early Patristics and the Reformers.  Johnson, the author of the invaluable resource The Family Worship Book, takes time to lead the reader back to the Scriptures via Geneva’s 16th century return to the Scriptures to see what our worship should look like.  We then travel throughout Church history to see the development of worship practices, both good and not so good.  If Calvin had written a Biblical-Historical theology of worship, this is much what it would have looked like.

Johnson’s impetus for writing, along with calling his fellow confessional believers back to traditional Reformed worship, is to reach those who see value in the theology of Calvin but are ignorant of the order and practices that naturally proceed from it. “If the neo-Calvinists of the “young, restless, reformed” movement can connect with this movement to renew historic Reformed ministry and worship, a powerful engine for church renewal and revival may result.”  So the title “Worshipping With Calvin”, which can be off-putting to many who only recognize “Calvin” as a pejorative term, is simply a call for Presbyterians to return to their confessional roots and practice and for the neo-Calvinist to see the value of classical Calvinism beyond a flower in one’s soteriological garden.  

But why is that necessary?  Why is a work like this needed in the life of the Church.  Johnson contends, rightly, that, “how we worship determines what we believe, and, what we believe determines how we worship.” He encourages the reader to see how traditional reformed worship produced traditional Reformed piety and honored God most greatly in the process.

Johnson calls for an extreme response to what he identifies as a crucial error plaguing evangelical Protestantism.

We can all agree that worship, if it is to be true worship, must be God-centered. We can also regard as axiomatic the principle that worship cannot be entertainment. Worship as entertainment is idolatry. It is unlikely that anyone really disagrees with this claim. As we have argued, by definition worship must be about God, not personal amusement. Here is where we disagree: adiaphora. Contemplate for a moment contemporary worship in its typical setting of stages, theater-lighting, bands, singers, dancers, dramatists, choirs, hand-held microphones, and theater-style seating. Are these adiaphora? Normally, issues of seating, lighting, placement of musicians, and style of platform might have qualified as adiaphora, as things indifferent, just as the elevation and adoration of the host might have been considered adiaphora. But is this evaluation still possible? Or has a line been crossed in our generation? A benign view of the above trappings of entertainment in the place of worship is increasingly difficult to sustain. Much of what passes for worship today appears to be little more than lightly baptized entertainment. Should such worship not therefore be considered idolatrous? Does it not at least have a propensity to encourage idolatry, and therefore should not serious churches distance themselves from it? Our principle must be (with apologies to Luther), “Let us, therefore, repudiate everything that smacks of entertainment.”

We would suggest that the time has come for the worship places of evangelical Protestantism to be cleansed of everything that reflects the world of entertainment. Our Protestant forefathers took axes to the altars, and whitewashed the walls of medieval churches.30 Perhaps similar iconoclastic zeal should be shown, and soon, in our houses of worship, lest they become houses of mirth. Perhaps we ought to pull out the theater seats, break up the stages, banish the dancers and actors, move musicians and choirs to the rear and redefine their role as that of simply supporting and enhancing congregational singing. Has the time not come to restore the pulpit, table, and font to the visible focal point of the interior of our churches, and restore simple services of the Word read, preached, sung, prayed, and received (in the sacraments)? What was once considered indifferent ought to be reconsidered in light of the danger of idolatry posed by the trappings of entertainment that have come to dominate our places of worship.


Johnson shows how the “solas” of the Reformers led to the reform of Christian worship (which had been hijacked in the medieval period).  Johnson shows how sola Scriptura led to the reduction of the liturgy, solus Christus led to the reformation of the Eucharist, sola fide led to the reform of the reading and preaching of Scripture, sola gratia led to reform of prayer, and soli Deo Gloria “led to the revival of confidence in the ordinary means of grace.”  Beyond simply leading to the reform of these aspects of worship, these principles help guide our understanding of each of these aspects.

Soli Deo gloria effectively summarizes the Reformers’ concerns even as it elevates those concerns to the highest level. The reforms of worship were necessary, the Reformers argued, because God is glorified when his people worship “according to Scripture” and refuse to embrace human novelties and innovations. God is glorified when the church’s eucharistic practices affirm the finality and sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and in no way imply the need for its perpetual supplementation. God is glorified in Word-filled worship services which underscore that justification is by personal faith in Christ alone and not by implicit faith in the church and her sacraments. God is glorified in prayer-saturated worship services which demonstrate dependence upon the Holy Spirit, rather than rituals and ceremonies (or in our day, on marketers, demographers, and entertainers). Historic Reformed worship, by its content, form, order, furnishings and buildings, provides an unmistakable witness to the central truths of the Christian faith: Scripture alone leads us to Christ alone, whom we receive by faith alone, as initiated by God’s grace alone, all to God’s glory alone.


Johnson does not simply seek to lambaste modern worship innovations, he wants to present a case for traditional Protestant worship that is Bible-filled, Gospel structured, Church aware, and Spirit-dependent.  “The advocates of historic Reformed worship are simply saying that when the church assembles to worship it does so around the Word read, preached, sung, prayed and received through the ‘visible word,’ the sacraments. These are the concerns of the Reformed tradition.”

This should not be a controversial aim for Christians, specifically Protestants, more specifically those who would claim to be “people of the Book”.  But it is.  In my Christian sub-culture, we affirm in word the sufficiency and authority of the Bible.  But we do not publicly read the Scriptures at any length.  We do not sing the Scriptures.  We do not pray with the words of Scripture (although thanks to some leadership this is becoming more common place in our local body).  We do not place any emphasis on the visible word of God in the sacraments.  Our worship services, apart from a fine exposition of a passage of Scripture, are pretty much devoid of God’s word.  This is a pervasive tragedy that plagues much of Evangelicalism.

Citing corporate Scripture reading as “one of the major needs of our day,” Johnson ardently encourages the “reintroduction of this plank from the Reformers’ platform of church reform”.

“Are we not commanded to read Scripture in public worship (1 Tim. 4:13)? Should not the historic Christian practice of substantial Scripture reading be restored to the worship of evangelical Protestantism? Should not the apostolic, patristic and Reformed discipline of lectio continua readings become standard practice in the worship of our churches?”  Johnson gives the reader many reasons to answer “yes” to all of these questions.

Johnson also seeks to see worship return to the word in prayer, preaching, and singing as well.  Beyond this, he desires that Christians would “see the word” in worship through the sacraments.  Returning Baptism and Communion to its proper place in Christian worship is crucial if we will see any type of Christian reform or sustained growth in individual piety.  And, quite simply, it is proper because it is how God has designed worship.

Johnson has an interesting chapter on the “Gospel structure” of the order of reformed worship and follows with a chapter on the need of worship to be “Church aware”.  The liturgy of reformed worship services lead the believer from confession to repentance to forgiveness to praise, all before the sermon is preached.  Johnson also encourages the reader to recognize the “catholicity” of the church and the need for “catholicity” in how we worship.  “Worship wars,” he says, “are actually culture wars.” This is true as well as the fact that,
‘Contemporary worship’ is really a determination to prefer the taste preferences of a segment of contemporary culture (typically anglo-contemporary, but sometimes Latino, African-American, Hip-Hop, Cowboy, skate-boarders, etc.) over an older church culture. Have the ecclesiastical ramifications of that determination been thought through? Can the church avoid fragmentation and division according to cultural preference if ‘authenticity’ requires that ‘my culture’ be the dominant form in which Christian devotion is expressed?


While I enjoyed the entire book, Johnson saves the best for last.  Chapter 9 covers how Reformed worship is “Spirit-dependent”.

Finally, we urge the practice of Reformed worship and ministry because it is Spirit-dependent. We have argued that dependence on the Holy Spirit is the necessary implication of the principle of sola gratia (see chapter 3). Believers, according to the Reformed ordo salutis, depend on the Holy Spirit for regeneration (John 3:8), faith and justification (1 Cor. 12:3), adoption (Rom. 8:15), sanctification (1 Peter 1:2), and perseverance (1 Peter 1:5). Beyond the individual and personal, the church depends upon the Holy Spirit to make the ordinary means of grace, the Word, sacraments, and prayer, effective and fruitful means of sanctification.

Johnson takes time, good time, to dispel some common myths in regards to the Spirit’s role and presence in worship.  He shows that some phenomena typically attributed to the Spirit, and used as measuring stick of his presence, are not necessarily accurate or appropriate.  Emotional exuberance, spontaneity, individual/idiosyncratic response, so often lauded as hallmarks of “the Spirit moving” are not necessarily that and are, possibly more often than not, signs of the opposite.  Reformed worship relies on the Holy Spirit through his word, in prayer, and demonstrates this reliance through simplicity.  Reformed worship can pass the “catacombs test” because of a confidence in God ministering through his normal means of grace and not being dependent on our innovations, creativity, and pragmatic wisdom to help our sovereign Lord accomplish what he has already promised to do.

Initially during and after reading “Worshipping with Calvin” I had some reservations.  I felt it was heavy handed at points and a bit extreme.  After some reflection I feel my reservations might simply be conviction.  What I thought was heavy handed was simply sharp exposition and explanation that jabbed at me.  Like a dentist finding an exposed nerve, even delicate and precise exploration can often be painful to the one with cavities.  Couple that with the realization that I have decisions to make and repentance to enjoy, it is easy to see the many ways that this book could be quite uncomfortable.  I told you this was a dangerous book!

I praise God for Terry Johnson and the work that has gone into this volume.  I am thankful for Cross Focused Reviews and the review copy of this book without which I probably would not have read this work.  More people should read this work than probably will, but everyone who does will be encouraged and challenged.  I was blessed and burdened by the claims presented in Worshipping with Calvin and the support given from Scripture and history.  It is hard to ask more from a book than that!

***I received a review copy for my honest review.


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