Tag Archives: Sola Scriptura

“Plain Water” — The Reformation and Worship

The Reformation wasn’t only about theology.  It was also, and perhaps most centrally, about doxology.  It was about the right giving of glory, about worship.  That was the central thesis of Carlos Eire’s 1986 book, War Against the Idols: the Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin.  It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what really drove the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

At the heart of the Reformed drive to purify Christian worship was a principle.  That principle was sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Our worship is to be governed only according to the Word of God.  God alone has the prerogative to determine how we are to worship him and his prerogatives are expressed in the Scriptures.

That key principle found expression in the Reformed confessions.  For instance, article 7 of the Belgic Confession says that Scripture is sufficient for our faith and practice.  Then it adds, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.”  Later, in article 32, the Confession insists:

We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded.  Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the conscience in any way.

Or as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in QA 96, “We are not to worship him [God] in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.”  That is the most succinct expression of the Reformed principle of worship.  In more recent times, it’s been called the regulative principle of worship.  It’s simply the application of sola Scriptura to worship.

Naturally, there is a background to this in the pre-Reformation church.  In the medieval church, things had been added and subtracted from Christian worship.  This had been done on human authority, without any divine approbation from the Scriptures.  When the Reformation arrived, people again became attuned to the Scriptures and they realized that the church’s worship had become idolatrous.  Worship was in need of renewal according to the Bible.

A noteworthy example of this is found in article 34 of the Belgic Confession.  This article first speaks in general terms about the meaning of Christian baptism.  Baptism has replaced circumcision.  Baptism is the means by which we are “received into the church of God.”  Through baptism we are set apart from the world.  Then the Reformed churches confess this:

For that reason he has commanded all those who are his to be baptized with plain water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19).

Notice especially the mention of “plain water.”  Those two words are pregnant with meaning.

“Plain water” is directed at the ways in which Rome had added to baptism.  In his book Flesh and Spirit, Steven Ozment describes how baptism was administered by Rome around the time of the Reformation:

The traditional service of baptism began with the priest blowing gently under the eyes of the newborn and commanding the devil, “Flee from this child, unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  The child then received the mark of the cross on its forehead and chest and a pinch of consecrated salt in its mouth, this time accompanied by the words, “Take the salt of [divine] wisdom, and may it atone for you in eternity.”  Thereafter, the priest imitated Christ’s healing of a deaf-mute (Mark 7:33-34) and a blind man (John 9:6) by dabbing a mixture of his own sputum and dirt in the child’s nose and ears, while pronouncing a double command, the first for the child, the second for the devil:  “[Dear child] receive the sweetness [of God]…devil, flee, for the judgment of God is near.”  The priest then anointed the child’s chest and shoulders with olive oil and placed a consecrated mixture of olive oil and balsam — the holy chrism — on the crown of its head.  The final acts of the service belonged to the godparent, who took the naked, baptized child from the priest and clothed it in the traditional white shirt or gown (the Wester, Alba, or Westerhemd) — symbols of purity and acceptance into the body Christian– which the godparent provided for the occasion.  The godparent then named the child, often after the godparent.  The service concluded with the placement of a candle in the combined hands of the child and parent(s), who were exhorted to “receive the ardent and blameless Light [of God].”  (page 78)

That was a long, complicated description, wasn’t it?  And how much of it is commanded in Scripture?  You can see why the Belgic Confession says so much with two words about baptism:  “plain water.”  That’s how Christ commanded baptism to be done, so that’s how we do baptism.  It’s simple and biblical.

With 500 years since the Reformation, is this Reformed principle of worship still relevant?  Look around.  You’ll see Protestant churches that add and take away from Christ’s commands for worship here, there, and everywhere.  Sadly, there are churches where there is no biblical preaching to speak of.  There are churches which neglect the sacraments.  There are churches which substitute dramatic productions (on the stage or on the screen) for preaching.  In some “Presbyterian” churches, they’ve at times added liturgical dancing.   There have even  been “Reformed” churches where they decided to preach on The Simpsons rather than the Word of God.  It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened!  For this reason, we need to learn again from the Reformation about worship.  We need to go back to the faithful summary of Scripture in our Reformed confessions.  When we do that, we will worship God only as he commands in his Word — no additions or subtractions.


Pillars of the Reformation

The Reformation started 500 years ago with a protest against indulgences.  Rome had adopted the idea that there is a place called purgatory where believers must spend time before they can expect to arrive in heaven.  Purgatory is a place of torment where the believer  is “purged” (cleansed) from his or her remaining sins.  But one’s time in purgatory could be shortened through the purchase of an indulgence from the church.  Buying this certificate, one allegedly received access to the treasury of merit achieved by Christ and the saints.  It was a win-win for everyone — the church made extra money for the building of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and the believer could reduce purge time for himself or loved ones.  But a German monk named Martin Luther would have none of it — he published the 95 Theses in 1517, a protest against indulgences.  That was just the start of the Reformation in the early 1500s.

As the Reformation progressed, it became evident that there were five main issues in debate.  We sometimes call these the five pillars of the Reformation — they’re also known as the five ‘solas.’  Let’s review them.

Sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Rome taught that the Bible is authoritative for believers.  But Rome also taught that tradition and the Church are also authoritative.  The Reformation maintained that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live.

Sola Gratia — by grace alone.  Rome taught that believers need God’s grace to be saved.  But Rome also taught that believers need to cooperate with God’s grace in order to be saved.  Salvation is by grace plus good works.  The Reformation maintained that salvation comes by God’s grace alone.  When it comes to the basis of our salvation, we do not merit anything, indeed, we cannot merit anything before God.

Sola Fide — by faith alone.  This has to do with justification.  Rome taught that justification is a life-long process.  At the end of your life, God will make his judgment about you based on what you did, particularly your good works.  The Reformation maintained that justification is an event whereby God declares that the sinner is righteous through Jesus Christ.  Justification is received through faith alone.  In justification, faith is simply receiving Jesus Christ as your righteousness.  Good works are not part of the equation (though they certainly flow forth in the justified person’s life as a fruit).

Solus Christus — Christ alone.   Rome taught that every believer needs Jesus Christ.  However, the papacy also taught that one needs the Virgin Mary and the saints.  Christ is not enough.  Against that, the Reformation maintained that everything we need for our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.

Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be the glory.  Rome taught that God ought to be praised for salvation.  However, they included good works in the basis of salvation.  They gave a place to Mary and the saints alongside Christ as the Redeemer.  Human beings had to cooperate with God’s grace for justification and salvation.  The inevitable conclusion is that God gets praise, but so do human beings.  The Reformation objected.  The Reformation upheld the biblical teaching of Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory..”  All the credit, all the glory, all the praise, goes to God for our salvation.

These five pillars continue to be vitally important for the church today.  Rome still teaches what it always has.  But perhaps of more relevance is the fact that our natural human tendency is to drift away from each of these teachings.  The natural human inclination is not to give God his exclusive due.  We’re bent towards taking credit for ourselves and not acknowledging God’s exclusive authority in our lives.  Pride is our default mode.  The five pillars put us in a proper posture of humility before God.  Therefore, Christians today neglect the five pillars to their own detriment and, more tragically, to a degradation of God’s glory.  As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s be thankful for these teachings and continue to maintain them.


Christ’s Rules for Worship — Excerpt from The Beautiful Bride of Christ

The Beautiful Bride of Christ

The following is from chapter 6 of The Beautiful Bride of Christ: The Doctrine of the Church in the Belgic Confession — you can order it here as a paperback and here as an e-book.  All proceeds go to the John Calvin Institute, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.  The book has just been updated with a new cover designed by Márcio Santana Doria.

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Imagine a church where the Bible is seldom opened on Sundays. Imagine a church where there’s usually no sermon, and if there is, it’s not about the gospel, but about how to be better, or about how to do your part for salvation. Imagine a church where the congregation doesn’t sing together. Instead, if there is any singing at all, it’s done by one person or maybe by a group standing at the front of the church. Imagine a church where the order of worship in no way reflects the covenant relationship between God and his people. There’s no back and forth, no dialogue, there’s no evidence of God speaking and his people responding. Instead, it all tends to be a one way street.

That was the story of most of the medieval church before the Reformation. Sadly, it’s still the case for many Protestant churches today. It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that American Christianity is basically Protestantism without the Reformation.[1]  Looking at American churches in the 1930s, he could barely discern any evidence at all that these churches traced their lineage back to the churches of Luther and Calvin. This was true also with regard to worship.

Let’s reflect for a moment on what the Reformation did. The Reformation was first and foremost a rediscovery of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ was recovered. Men began preaching that salvation comes through grace alone. They began preaching that we can only be saved from our sins through what Christ has done for us. We receive the benefits of Christ, not by doing good works, not by doing our part on this earth or in purgatory, but only through faith in Christ. Furthermore, as we put our trust in Christ alone, as we love this Good Shepherd, we, as his sheep, want to follow him alone. His Word becomes central and all important for our lives. We recognize his authority and we submit to it. He is our Lord, our master, and we will do what he says because we love him, want to thank him, and please him. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone necessarily leads us back to the doctrine of Scripture alone — sola Scriptura.

Sola Scriptura gets applied to our individual lives as Christians. As individual believers, God’s Word holds the ultimate authority for everything we believe and do, for doctrine and ethics. However, this principle needs to be applied to the church as well. It was in the days of the Reformation. A big part of the Reformation involved reforming the worship of the church to bring it into line with what the Bible teaches. Sola Scriptura was applied to worship.[2]  The Bible alone could determine the way in which the church would worship God. This is the Reformed principle of worship, or the regulative principle as it’s sometimes been called.

It’s found in Lord’s Day 35 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Part of what God requires in the second commandment is that we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” God alone can determine the manner of his worship. The connection with sola Scriptura becomes even more apparent in article 7 of the Belgic Confession. Article 7 is about the sufficiency of Scripture. The second sentence of that article says, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.” No one can add or take away from what God requires of us in worship. We aim to follow his Word only.[3]  Article 32 is in the same vein. We must not deviate from what Christ has commanded in his Word. As a consequence, we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel our consciences in any way.

Colossians 2 contrasts human commands and teachings with the way of living in Christ. In the days of the apostles, there were those who tried to introduce all kinds of extra regulations into the worship of God. Paul calls this “self-imposed worship” (NIV), or “self-made religion” (ESV); others have translated that as “will-worship.” You worship the way you want to. You follow your human commands and teachings, rather than following Christ’s Word. Such an approach to worship is condemned by Scripture. Repeatedly, Scripture rebukes those who would put man-made rules and laws either in the place of or in addition to what Scripture teaches. Think of how Jesus rebukes the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 15. He quotes Isaiah, “They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.” It’s true that Jesus was not speaking directly about corporate worship in that passage. He was speaking about the making of all kinds of vows and all sorts of additional rules the Jews had devised for the life of an obedient Jew. Now if he would rebuke that, what makes you think that he would be pleased with all kinds of extra rules and regulations for corporate worship? The same can be said for what we read in Colossians 2. If will-worship or self-made religion is condemned for the everyday life of a believer, what do you think would be God’s position on what we do on Sunday as we gather in his holy presence?


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without the Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, ed. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (London: Collins, 1965), 92-118. Cited by Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, 237-238.

[2] For an excellent book-length study of this, see Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986).

[3] Wes Bredenhof, The Whole Manner of Worship: the Sufficiency of Scripture and Worship in Article 7 of the Belgic Confession (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1997).


The Belgic Confession: Not “Sola Scriptura”?

In 1990, Dr. N.H. Gootjes wrote two articles entitled, “Does the Belgic Confession teach ‘Not the Bible Alone’?”  In these articles, he interacted with a CRC author who was arguing that such matters as creation/evolution, homosexuality and women in the church cannot be decisively settled on the basis of Scripture alone.  Spindleworks has it all available here.