Some years ago, I sat through a worship service of a neighbouring church that wasn’t Reformed. What struck me most was where the emphasis fell in their worship. The proceeedings began with music. A band was on stage with singers. They sang several praise and worship-type songs. Eventually, the worship leader said, “Now that the worship is over, our pastor is going to come up and give his message.” The brief “message” was rather anti-climactic following the emotional “worship experience.” The focus at this church seemed clear enough.
One of the distinctives of Reformed churches is the doctrine of the means of grace. This doctrine, when conscientiously maintained, also makes Reformed worship distinctive. You can tell you’re at a Reformed church when the doctrine of the means of grace is taken seriously and applied to the church’s worship. The focus in a Reformed worship service is on the ministry of the Word and sacraments. Let’s look at how these things work as means of grace and why they need to remain our focus.
The first means of grace is the reading and preaching of the Word of God. Scripture is opened, read, and expounded. The law of God is applied to the congregation. The congregation is made aware of its sin and misery. That has the dual purpose of making us humble in the presence of a holy God and then also driving us to the cross of Jesus Christ. This application of the law takes place with the reading of the Ten Commandments, but also through the reading and preaching of other Scriptures. The gospel is also applied to comfort the congregation. God’s people are encouraged with the promises of his love and salvation in Jesus. This takes place in many Reformed churches with the Assurance of Pardon, but then of course also through the reading and proclamation of God’s Word. Finally, the will of God as expressed in his law is also brought to bear on a thankful congregation. We are taught God’s good will for our lives and shown how to demonstrate our love for this gracious God who has so deeply loved us. This too happens through the reading and preaching of Scripture.
Scripture is a means of grace because this is how God plans to bless his people when he meets with them. His intent is to bless them through his Word. Through his Word, the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard. It’s heard as he rebukes, as he comforts, and as he instructs. When done faithfully, we do not not merely hear a human voice when a minister preaches. Faithful preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God — “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as it what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess. 2:13).
The other means of grace is the administration of the sacraments. Reformed churches administer the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, following the command of Christ and his apostles. Baptism is administered as the sacrament of initiation. Through baptism, we are publicly admitted into God’s covenant and church. Through baptism, we are given the sign and seal of God’s covenant promises. God is demonstrating a gracious stance towards those who receive baptism. However, at each baptism, the entire congregation is encouraged with God’s grace. We are all visually reminded of how our gracious God first approached us and took us for his own. You see, baptism not only speaks to those directly involved in the baptism (the one being baptized, the parents), but the entire congregation!
The Lord’s Supper is administered as the sacrament of nutrition. It is common for many to view the Lord’s Supper merely as a memorial, akin to placing flowers on the grave of a departed loved one. The Reformed view includes a memorial aspect, but it is far richer. At this sacrament, Jesus Christ is truly present in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit. He is present to bless believers who partake of the bread and wine in faith. He will refresh and nourish them, strengthening their faith. Through the Lord’s Supper, we are truly fed by our Saviour himself.
The sacraments are means of grace because this too is how God wants to bless his people as they meet with him. He wants to continue giving them the opposite of what they deserve in view of their continuing sinfulness. He claims these sinful people for his own and he nurtures them with spiritual food and drink. Moreover, our gracious God knows that the Word is often received with weakness. Hearing alone is difficult for us as sinful creatures. So, in his grace, he adds these two multi-sensory sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Now why are these means of grace at the center of a Reformed worship service? Why are these things the focus and emphasis? It goes back to the covenant of grace. The covenant is a relationship between God and his people. Who stands in the center of this relationship? Not me or you. No, Jesus Christ stands in the center as the Mediator of the covenant. He is the one who “greases the wheels” of this relationship. If a worship service is reflective of this covenant relationship, shouldn’t Christ and his ministry stand central? Shouldn’t the focus be on Christ as he ministers to us with the Word and sacraments, as he “greases the wheels”? There is a distinctly Reformed logic to our focus on the means of grace and it has everything to do with the covenant of grace.
Yes, of course, there is still a place for our response in prayer and song. The covenant relationship is two-sided and God expects that his people will respond to him. By virtue of the covenant, there must be a back and forth in our worship services. That’s not an issue. No one has ever said that prayer and song should be done away with in Reformed worship. The question is: where is our focus? What is at the center? What is the main attraction in a Reformed worship service? The distinctly Reformed answer, drawn from Scripture, has always been: the means of grace, Word and sacrament ministry. With an emphasis on Word and sacrament ministry, the means of grace, your worship will be Reformed — which is to say, biblical.