The Reformation of Worship

The Reformation of Worship

With the NT, God no longer has to condescend and enter the fabric of the physical universe to manifest Himself to his people; he can now allow his people to ascend into Heaven itself to worship him, which the author argues is superior to the former worship. This is possible because of Jesus’s mediation on the behalf of his people (12:24), and thus Christians can now approach God with full confidence in worship. 

The immediate causes for Reformation in various regions, as well as what caused divisions among various Reformation figures, are diverse. However, much of what lay at the core of what both unified Reformers in their reaction against the Roman Catholic Church and what ended up dividing them in the end, involved theology and practice of worship.

Yet what is remarkable is that some of the very same problems with worship that the Reformers criticized with medieval worship have appeared again in contemporary worship. No, the contemporary church has not denied the five Solas or submitted once again to Rome; rather, the practices of contemporary worship suffer from some of the same fundamental problems that Rome’s worship did at the start of the sixteenth century.

Core Problems with Medieval Worship

Although much of the development of worship during the Middle Ages was originally rooted in biblical prescription, example, and theology, heresy did grow, and several aspects of how many Christians worshiped by the end of the fifteenth century made significant reformation necessary.

Problems specifically with worship can be summarized with the following categories:


One of the first significant errors in late medieval worship was sacramentalism, attributing the efficacy of an act of worship—especially the eucharistic elements—to the outward sign rather than to the inner working of the Holy Spirit. Christians during this period came to believe that just by performing the acts of worship, they received grace from God, whether or not they were spiritually engaged in the act. Along with this belief came the idea of ex opera operato (“from the work worked”), the belief that the acts of worship work automatically and independently of the faith of the recipient.

Necessity of Faith

Martin Luther stressed the need for personal faith in those who wished to participate in worship. The mass is not, Luther insisted, “a work which may be communicated to others, but the object of faith, . . . for the strengthening and nourishing of each one’s own faith.”[4] Martin Bucer’s most significant work on the subject, Grund und Ursach (“Ground and Reason”), called the Roman view of the Table “superstition.” He insisted that worship that is “proper and pleasing to God” must always be based upon “the sole, clear Word of God.”

These Reformers insisted that the sacraments were limited only to the two Christ himself commanded and were considered visible signs of spiritual realities. Though the sacraments are means of grace given from God, then are not effectual in and of themselves; rather the benefits of the means of grace to sanctify a person necessitate the sincere faith of the worshiper and were brought about ultimately by the inner work of the Holy Spirit.


Medieval worship also developed the error of sacerdotalism, the belief in the necessity of a human priest to approach God on the behalf of others. As a result of the drastic increase of church attendance in the fourth century, a strict distinction between clergy and laity had developed wherein the clergy did not trust the illiterate, uneducated masses to worship God appropriately on their own. Thus, the clergy offered “perfected” worship on behalf of the people. The pronouncement by the Council of Laodicea in 363 illustrates this: “No others shall sing in the church, save only the canonical singers, who go up into the ambo and sing from a book.” While this was a local council, it illustrates what became common among most churches in the Middle Ages.

The quality of worship became measured by the excellence of the music and the aesthetic beauty of the liturgy, and while this facilitated the production of some quite beautiful sacred music during the period, it resulted in “worship” becoming mostly what the priests did in the chancel, which eventually was often distinctly separated from the nave by high rails or even a screen. This clergy/laity separation was only exacerbated by the continued use of Latin as the liturgical language despite the fact that increasing numbers of people did not understand the language.

By the end of the fourteenth century, members of the congregation rarely participated in the Lord’s Supper, and even when they did, the cup was withheld from them lest some of Christ’s blood sprinkle on the unclean. Roman worship had moved from the “work of the people” (leitourgia) to the work of the clergy. As even Roman Catholic liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann notes, “the people were devout and came to worship; but even when they were present at worship, it was still clerical worship. . . . The people were not much more than spectators. This resulted largely from the strangeness of the language which was, and remained, Latin. . . . The people have become dumb.” The people became mere spectators of the worship performed by priests on their behalf.

Congregational Participation

Luther criticized this very reality in the Preface to his German Mass: “The majority just stands there and gapes, hoping to see something new.” The Reformers countered this mentality by insisting that each member of the congregation ought to be an active participant in worship, including praying, singing, receiving the sacraments, and hearing the Word. Martin Luther stated in the Preface to his Latin Mass:

I also wish that we had as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing. . . . For who doubts that originally all the people sang these which now only the choir sings or responds to while the bishop is consecrating?

Preoccupation with Sensory Experience

Medieval Christians likewise became enamored with sensory experience in worship. Church architecture deliberately kept the nave dark and the elevated chancel bright and included ornate, elaborate decorations. Liturgy included rich vestments, processions, and other elaborate ceremonies that included bells and incense in order to create a mystical experience.

The Reformers Rejected Visual Images as Essential to Worship

Even Luther considered them “adiaphora”—“things indifferent.” He said of worship in The Babylonians Captivity of the Church, “We must be particularly careful to put aside whatever has been added to its original simple institution by the zeal and devotion of men: such things as vestments, ornaments, chants, prayer, organs, candles, and the whole pageantry of outward things.” In On the Councils and the Church (1539):, Luther said, “Besides these external signs and holy possessions the church has other externals that do not sanctify it either in body or soul, nor were they instituted or commanded by God; . . . These things have no more than their natural effects.”

The Reformed wing argued that if they were adiaphora, they should be eliminated. For example, Ulrich Zwingli was committed to church practice being regulated by Scripture alone, leading him to advocate much more radical reforms than even Luther did. He insisted that worship practices must have explicit biblical warrant, causing him to denounce images, other ceremonial adornments, and even music from public worship since he could find no warrant for them in the New Testament.

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