by J.I. Packer
It is sometimes said that evangelicals are not interested in worship. If by worship one means the technicalities of liturgical study, this may be true. But I do not suppose that I am the only evangelical who finds that the actual exercise of worship, the deliberate lifting of one’s eyes from man and his mistakes to contemplate God and his glory, grows increasingly precious as the years go by, and brings solace and refreshment to the spirit in a way that nothing else can do. Certainly, this was the experience of the great Puritans; and what I want to do is to allow them to share it with us, and lead us deeper into the enjoyment of it for ourselves. Hence my choice of the word “approach” in my title. We are to follow the Puritans in the approach to worship, which was, as we shall see, itself an approach to God. My main concern is thus not with the controversies about worship which divided the Puritans both from Anglican officialdom and from each other, but rather with the view of the nature of worship, and of the principles from practising it, on which in fact they were all agreed.
But their controversies about the formal and external aspects of worship were real and sustained, religiously motivated and passionately pursued, and to establish my right to pass them by in the body of my text I must first deal briefly with them now. I shall not trace their historical details, nor take sides (for I do not want to start them all over again!), but I shall try to bring into focus the problems which occasioned them, so that we see just how much — and at some points, how little — divided the conflicting parties. The problems themselves, as we shall see, remain living issues for us today.
Three main questions lay at the root of all the arguing. They were as follows:
1. In what sense are the Scriptures authoritative for Christian worship?
It is usually said that, whereas Luther’s rule in ordering public worship was to allow traditional things that were not contrary to Scripture and seemed helpful, it was Calvin’s rule to admit nothing that the Bible did not directly prescribe; and that the Church of England officially followed Luther’s principle, whereas the Puritans within its ranks espoused that of Calvin. This way of putting it gives the impression that Luther and the Reformed Church of England did not regard Holy Scripture as constituting an authoritative rule for worship at all — which was, of course, the constant Puritan accusation right up to the Civil War. It also gives the impression that the Puritan critique of Anglican public worship represented a reversion to the principles and practice of Calvin at Geneva — which, to be sure, the Puritans themselves thought it was. But both impressions are misleading.
German, Swiss, and English Reformers held common basic principles about worship. They agreed that Christian worship must express man’s reception of, and response to, evangelical truth, and they were substantially in agreement as to what that truth was. They agreed in analyzing worship as an exercise of mind and heart in praise, thanksgiving, prayer, confession of sin, trust in God’s promises, and the hearing of God’s word, read and preached. They were in agreement also as to the nature and number of the gospel sacraments, and their place in the church’s worship. They took the same view of the office of the Christian minister in leading the worship of the congregation. They agreed too that each church, or federation of churches (“every particular or national Church,’ as Article XXXIV puts it) is responsible for settling the details of its own worship in accordance with the apostolic principle that all must be done “unto edifying” (I Cor. 14:26), and that as a means to that end everything must be done “decently and in order” (v 40). Finally, they were all agreed that each church has liberty (the presupposition of its responsibility) to arrange its worship in the way best adapted to edify its own worshippers, in the light of their state, background, and needs; so that they all took it for granted that the worship of varied churches in varying pastoral situations would vary in detail.
The idea that direct Biblical warrant, in the form of precept or precedent, is required to sanction every substantive item included in the public worship of God was in fact a Puritan innovation, which crystallized out in the course of the prolonged debates that followed the Elizabethan settlement. It is an idea distinct from the principle that tainted ceremonies, which hide the truth from worshippers and buttress superstitious error, should be dropped, as both dishonoring God and impeding edification. On this latter principle all the English Reformers were agreed from the start, as the 1549 Prayer Book Preface “Of Ceremonies” shows; though they did not succeed in agreeing as to its application, which was why in 1550 Hooper clashed with the authorities over episcopal vesture, and why in the 1560s those who were first called Puritans felt obliged to campaign against the Prayer Book requirement of surplices, wedding-rings, baptizing with the sign of the cross, and kneeling at Holy Communion. But this new principle went further, declaring that no justification of non-Biblical rites and ceremonies in worship as convenient means to Biblically prescribed ends could in the nature of the case be valid (in other words, that the line taken in the preface “Of Ceremonies” was wrong); all ceremonies must have direct Biblical warrant, or they were impious intrusions.
It should also be noticed that when the Puritans singled out some of the ineptiae of the Prayer Book as intolerable, when they challenged the principle that each church has liberty to ordain unbiblical ceremonies in worship where these seem conducive to edification and reverence, when they repudiated all set prayers, when they rejected kneeling in public worship, the Christian year, weekly Communion, and the practice of confirmation, they were not in fact reverting to Calvin, but departing from him, though, as Horton Davies says,1 it is doubtful whether they realized this.
Even if they had realized it, however, it would not have affected their position; for their basic concern was not to secure Reformed solidarity as such (much though they made of this idea in controversy), but simply to obey God’s authoritative Word. But the question at issue was, how should the sufficiency of Scripture be understood in connection with worship? The Puritans thought the official Anglican view on the point lax and wrongheaded; Anglican spokesmen like Hooker criticized the developed Puritan view as legalistic and irrational. Which was right? The question still presses today. Do we agree with John Owen that “God’s worship hath no accidentals...all that is in it and belonging to it, and the manner of it, is false worship, if it have not a divine institution in particular”? The problem is not simple, and much can still be said on both sides.
2. What regulations are proper for Christian worship? There were, and are, three possible ways of ordering public worship: to have a set liturgy like the Book of Common Prayer, or a manual of general guidance like the Westminster Directory, or to leave it entirely to the individual minister or congregation to regulate its own worship at will. These alternatives are historically associated with Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Independents and Quakers respectively. Which now is preferable? How strong are the objections to each? Does liturgical worship necessarily breed formality and deadness? Is extempore prayer necessarily uneven in quality? Does it really make it harder for worship to be congregational than if it is a known form is being used? Does a regular order followed Sunday by Sunday quench the Spirit? Is it necessary, if a congregation would honor the Holy Spirit, for it to refuse to tie itself to an established pattern of worship, and simply at each meeting wait on the Spirit for a fresh leading? On these issues, evangelicals would differ now, as the Puritans differed in their day. Baxter, for instance, like Calvin and Knox, approved of liturgy with room for extempore prayer at the minister’s discretion, but Owen maintained that “all liturgies, as such, are...false worship...used to defeat Christ’s promise of gifts and God’s Spirit.” Which was right? Here again is an issue which is not simple, and cannot be regarded as dead.
3. What discipline is proper in connection with worship? No doubt there would be general agreement that the attempts made under Elizabeth and the Stuarts to enforce strict national uniformity to the Book of Common Prayer were regrettable, and did more harm than good. Nobody, one hopes, would wish to defend the kind of discipline administered upon nonconformists, by the Courts of High Commission and Star Chamber before the Civil War, and by the judges and JPs of England during the years of the Clarendon Code. Yet a problem remains. Granted that the discipline we have mentioned was ungodly in its rigidity and disregard for tender consciences, is there to be no discipline in connection with public worship at all? Today, in some Protestant churches where set prayers are the rule, rituals and prayers from the Roman Mass are introduced, and in others where extempore prayer is practiced, ministers are heard basing their public intercessions on the heresy that all human beings are God’s redeemed children. In both these instances worship is spoiled through the doctrinal aberration of the minister. Is there not need for discipline in such cases? But of what sort? What steps are appropriate today in face of such disfigurements as these? The problem exercised the Puritans in their day, and it will be well if it continues to exercise us in ours.
The Glory of Worship
But these problems concerned the forms and externals of worship only, and our present interest is rather in the inner reality of worship, as the Puritans understood it. Here, wherever else they differed, they were at one, and the written material they have left us is completely homogeneous, as we shall hope to show by a fairly wide range of quotations. What is worship? It is essentially doxology, a giving of glory, praise, honor, and homage to God. In the broadest sense of the word, all true piety is worship. “Godliness is a worship,” wrote Swinnock:
Usually, however , the Puritans used the word in its narrower and more common sense, to signify simply all our direct communion with God: invocation, adoration, mediation, faith, praise, prayer and the receiving of instruction from his word, both in public and in private.
Worship must be, as our Lord said, “in spirit and in truth”(Jn 4:24). The Puritans understood this as meaning that, on the one hand, worship must be inward, a matter of “heart-work,” and, on the other, worship must be a response to the revealed reality of God’s will and work, applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, they insisted that worship must be simple and Scriptural. Simplicity was to them the safeguard of inwardness, just as Scripture was the fountain-head of truth. The austere simplicity of Puritan worship has often been criticized as uncouth, but to the Puritans it was an essential part of the beauty of Christian worship. This comes out in two sermons by Owen on Ephesians 2:18, entitled “The nature and beauty of gospel worship,” in which the weightiest of all the Puritan theologians formulates to perfection the Puritan ideal of worship in scarcely veiled antithesis to the Prayer Book formalism of Laud (“the beauty of holiness” as Laud was pleased to call it.)3 It is worth quoting from this exposition at some length. Owen begins by making the point that the true “decency,” “order,” and “beauty” of Christian worship lies in its trinitarian and evangelical character, as an exercise of faith on the worshippers’ part.
It is a principle deeply fixed in the minds of men that the worship of God ought to be orderly, comely, beautiful and glorious....And indeed that worship may be well suspected not to be according to the mind of God which comes short in these properties. ...I shall add unto this, only this reasonable assertion,... viz, That what is so in his worship and service, God himself is the most proper judge. If then we evince not that spiritual gospel worship, in its own naked simplicity, without any other external, adventitious helper or countenance, is most orderly, comely, beautiful, and glorious, the Holy Ghost in the Scripture being judge, we shall be content to seek for these things where else, as it is pretended, they may be found.
...In the spiritual worship of the gospel, the whole blessed trinity, and each person therein distinctly, do in that economy and dispensation, wherein they act severally and peculiarly in the work of our redemption, afford distinct communion with themselves unto the souls of the worshippers. [Owen shows how this is set forth in his text, which speaks of access to the Father through the Son by the Spirit.] This is the general order of gospel worship, the great rubric of our service....If either we come not unto it by Jesus Christ, or perform it not in the strength of the Holy Ghost, or in it go not unto God as a Father, we transgress all the rules of this worship. This is the great canon, which if it be neglected, there is no decency in whatever else is done in this way. And this in general is the glory of it....Acting faith on Christ for admission, and on the Holy Ghost for his assistance, so going on in his strength; and on God, even the Father, for acceptance, is the work of the soul in this worship. That it hath anything more glorious to be conversant about, I am yet to learn....4
In similar terms, Owen from his text gives theological substance to the idea of uniformity in worship:
Finally, Owen scouts the idea that ornate buildings and rituals have, or can have, anything to do with the “beauty” that God seeks and finds in the worship of his faithful people. He reminds us that Christians are themselves the temple and dwelling place of God, and that true worship, though done on earth in the body, is actually “performed in heaven,” inasmuch as “those who have an access unto the immediate presence of God, and to the throne of grace, enter into heaven itself.” (Owen appeals for the proof to Hebrews 5:20; 9:24; 10:19, 21; Revelation 4.) The idea that ritual pageantry in services and decoration of church buildings is of itself an enriching of worship thus appears as a ludicrous irreverence. “What poor low thoughts have men of God and his ways, who think there lies an acceptable glory and beauty in a little paint and varnish.”
Complementary to Owen’s analysis is Charnock’s anatomizing of worship in his sermon entitled “Spiritual Worship”on John 4:24.
Worship is an act of the understanding, applying itself to the knowledge of the excellency of God, and actual thoughts of his majesty....It is also an act of the will, whereby the soul adores and reverenceth his majesty, is ravished with his amiableness, embraceth his goodness, enters itself into an intimate communion with this most lovely object, and pitcheth all his affections upon him.7
Only the regenerate can worship God acceptably, says Charnock, for only they have hearts that truly go out to him in adoration and self-subjection. Therefore “we must find healing in Christ’s wings, before God can find spirituality in our services. All worship issuing from a dead nature, is but a dead service.8
Charnock goes on to show that spiritual worship is performed only by the Spirit’s active help, since it requires sincerity and singleness of heart (“unitedness,” Charnock calls it; “concentration” would express his meaning). It involves acts of faith, love, humbling, and self-distrust, and must be an expression of the heart’s desire for God. “A spiritual worshipper actually aspires in every duty to know God....To desire worship as an end, is carnal; to desire it as a means, and act desires in it for communion with God in it, is spiritual, and the fruit of a spiritual life....”9 Also, spiritual worship will be joyful:
In worship we must seek to reflect back to God by our response the knowledge that we have received of him through his revelation.
God is a Spirit infinitely happy, therefore we must approach him with cheerfulness; he is a Spirit of infinite majesty, therefore we must come before him with reverence; he is a Spirit infinitely high, therefore we must offer up our sacrifices with deepest humility; he is a Spirit infinitely holy, therefore we must address him with purity; he is a Spirit glorious, we therefore must acknowledge his excellency...he is a Spirit infinitely provoked by us, therefore we must offer up our worship in the name of a pacifying mediator and intercessor.11
“That all true believers whose minds are spiritually renewed have a singular delight in all the institutions and ordinances of divine worship is fully evident,” writes Owen, and quotes Psalms 42:1-4, 63:1-5, 84:1-4 to prove his point.12 That the saints love public worship is a constant Puritan theme. Why their delight in it? Because in worship the saints do not merely seek God; they also find him. Worship is not only an expression of gratitude, but also a means of grace, whereby the hungry are fed, so that the empty are sent away rich. For “there is in worship an approach of God to man.”13 God’s presence in his ordinances is a reality; God is essentially present in the world, graciously present in his church. “God delights to approach to men, and converse with them in the worship instituted in the gospel.”14 And men honor God most when they come to worship hungry and expectant, conscious of need and looking to God to meet them and supply it.
The ordinances of Christian worship, declares Owen, are “means of the communication of a sense of divine love, and supplies of divine grace unto the souls of them that do believe.” They are “ways of our approaching unto God,” and “we are always to come unto God, as unto an eternal spring of goodness, grace and mercy, of all that our souls do stand in need of.” “To make a pretence of coming unto God, and not with expectation of receiving good and great things from him, is to despise God.” An aimless, careless, casual, routine habit of church-going is neither rational nor reverent. Asks Owen, with piercing rhetoric:
Owen’s application of this is uncomfortably searching:
This, surely, is a word for our times.
The Elements of Worship
The Puritan lists of the parts and constituent activities of worship normally include the following: praise (especially the singing of psalms), prayer (confession, adoration, intercession), preaching, the sacraments (“ordinances”), and also catechizing and the exercise of church discipline. In all these activities, the Puritans maintained, God comes to meet his people met together in his Son’s name, but most of all in preaching. Preaching is the most solemn and exalted action, and therefore the supreme test, of a man’s ministry: “they [Puritans] hold that the highest and supreme office and authority of the Pastor is to preach the gospel solemnly and publicly to the Congregation by interpreting the written Word of God, and applying the same by exhortation and reproof unto them.”17 For preaching in the church is supremely the ministration of the Spirit, in a way that (pace Richard Hooker) the mere reading of the Word to the Puritans’ minds never could be; therefore it is the supreme means of grace. So Thomas Goodwin writes:
For congregations, therefore, the hearing of sermons is the most momentous event of their lives, and the Puritans pleaded with worshippers to appreciate this fact, and listen to the word preached with awe, attention, and expectancy. Baxter put the point thus, in the course of his “Directions for Profitably Hearing the Word Preached” in the Christian Directory:
We complain today that ministers do not know how to preach; but is it not equally true that our congregations do not know how to hear? An instruction to remedy the first deficiency will surely be labor lost unless the second is remedied too.
Not, however, that the hearing of sermons is an end in itself, or that ardent sermon-tasting and preacher-hunting is the height of Christian devotion. Thomas Adams speaks sternly against the assumption that listening to sermons is all that matters, reminding us that preaching must lead on to prayer and praise:
Here, too, surely is a word for Christian people today.
The Spheres of Worship
There are, said the Puritans, three spheres of Christian worship: public, in the local church; domestic, in the family circle; private, in the closet. Of these three, public worship is the most important. David Clarkson was entirely typical when, preaching on Psalm 87:2 under the title “Public worship to be preferred before private,” he argued from Scripture that “the Lord is more glorified by public worship,” “there is more of the Lord’s presence in public worship,” “here are the clearest manifestations of God,” “there is more spiritual advantage to be got in the use of public ordinances,” and “public worship is more edifying.”21 Strikingly, yet characteristically (for many others made the same point), he reminds us that public worship is “the nearest resemblance of heaven that earth knows: for in heaven, so far as the Scripture describes it to us...all the worship of that glorious company is public....They make one glorious congregation and so jointly together sing the praises of him that sits on the throne, and the praises of the Lamb, and continue employed in this public worship to eternity.”22 Similarly, Swinnock insists that on the Lord’s Day church must come first, and everything else be built round it. “Esteem the public ordinances the chief work of the day, and let thy secret and private duties be so managed that thy soul may be prepared for them, and profited by them.”23
But family worship was also, to the Puritans, vitally important. Every home should be a church, with the head of the house as its minister. Daily and indeed twice daily, the Puritans recommended, the family as a family should hear the Word read, and pray to God. Sunday by Sunday, the family should seek to pool the profiting of its members from the public ordinances; day by day, its members should seek to encourage each other in the way of God. Parents must teach their children the Scriptures; all members of the household must be given time and a place to pray. Thus, informally, but conscientiously, the worship and service of God in the home must be carried on.
Reproducing the Beauty of Puritan Worship
Incomplete though this survey has necessarily been (we have said nothing, for instance, of the sacraments), it has at least sketched in the main outline of Puritan ideals for worshippers — reverence, faith, boldness, eagerness, expectancy, delight, whole-heartedness, concentration, self-abasement, and above all a passion to meet and know God himself as a loving Father through the mediation of his Son. This ideal was common to them all — to those like Sibbes and Archbishop Usher, who conformed to the Prayer Book liturgy; to those like Owen, who thought all liturgies unlawful; and to those like Baxter, who were happy to alternate between “free” and “set” prayers, and were equally at home in either. Here, in their conception of what the worshipper’s spirit and goal should be, the Puritans were at one; and perhaps we may venture the judgment that their agreements here were more significant than their differences, and that it is within the area of their agreements that their teaching can help us most today.
But still one question remains. How do we begin to get from where we are to where the Puritans show us that we ought to be in our own practice of worship? How can we, cold-hearted and formal as we so often are — to our shame — in church services, advance closer to the Puritan ideals? The Puritans would have met our question by asking us another. How do we prepare for worship?
Here, perhaps, is our own chief weakness. The Puritans inculcated specific preparation for worship — not merely for the Lord’s Supper, but for all services — as a regular part of the Christian’s inner discipline of prayer and communion with God. Says the Westminster Directory: “When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having before prepared their hearts thereunto) ought all to come....” But we neglect to prepare our hearts; for, as the Puritans would have been the first to tell us, thirty seconds of private prayer upon taking our seat in the church building is not time enough in which to do it. It is here that we need to take ourselves in hand. What we need at the present time to deepen our worship is not new liturgical forms or formulae, nor new hymns and tunes, but more preparatory “heart-work” before we use the old ones. There is nothing wrong with new hymns, tunes, and worship styles — there may be very good reasons for them — but without “heart-work” they will not make our worship more fruitful and God-honoring; they will only strengthen the syndrome that C.S. Lewis called “the liturgical fidgets.” “Heart-works” must have priority or spiritually our worship will get nowhere. So I close with an admonition from George Swinnock on preparation for the service of the Lord’s Day, which for all its seeming quaintedness is, I think, a word in season for very many of us:
Dr. J.I. Packer, educated at Oxford University, is currently Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. His most recent book is A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. A longer version of the foregoing article is included in A Quest for Godliness copyrighted (c) 1990, used by permission of Good News/Crossway Books, Westchester, Illinois 60154.
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