The Reformation of Worship

Scott Aniol

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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. His new vernacular liturgy, Act or Custom of the Lord’s Supper (1525), was far simpler than Luther’s, consisting of Scripture reading, preaching, and prayer. Zwingli adamantly opposed the use of images in worship, a conviction that came to be known as iconoclasm. He was convinced that worship was at its core spiritual, and thus “it is clear and indisputable that no external element or action can purify the soul.”

Martin Bucer rejected what he considered ceremonies of human origin, including vestments, insisting that church leaders had no right to invent new forms or to “enrich” existing forms with such innovations which either hid or replaced the basically biblical signs in worship. He noted,

The Lord instituted nothing physical in his supper except the eating and drinking alone, and that for the sake of the spiritual, namely as in memory of him. . . . [Yet] we have observed that many cared neither to consider seriously the physical reception nor the spiritual memorial, but instead, just as before, were satisfied with seeing and material adoration.

Similar to Zwingli and Bucer, Calvin’s central goal was to return to the simple worship practices of the early church, strictly following biblical prescription. He argued that “a part of the reverence that is paid to [God] consists simply in worshiping him as he commands, mingling no inventions of our own.” He interpreted the Second Commandment as God defining “lawful worship, that is, a spiritual worship established by himself” and insisted upon “the rejection of any mode of worship that is not sanctioned by the command of God.” Calvin also agreed with Zwingli and Bucer concerning iconoclasm. He argued, “While the sacrament ought to have been a means of raising pious minds to heaven, the sacred symbols of the Supper were abused to an entirely different purpose, and men, contented with gazing upon them and worshiping them, never once thought of Christ.” He said elsewhere,

Our Lord Christ, says Augustine, has bound the fellowship of the new people together with sacraments, very few in number, very excellent in meaning, very easy to observe. How far from this simplicity is the multitude and variety of rites, with which we see the church entangled today, cannot be fully told.

Individualization of Piety

All of this resulted in an individualization of piety. The only real benefit of corporate worship was the sacramental experience achieved only by a sacerdotal system and the splendor of the corporate setting. The Service of the Word diminished, and the Service of the Table became a mystical sacrament by which worshipers were infused with grace as they observed the clergy offering a sacrifice on their behalf. Herman Wegman diagnoses the problem: “The decline in medieval worship must first of all be laid to clericalization and the related individualizing of the piety of the faithful, a piety that grew apart from the liturgy. . . . This liturgy was marked by an excess of feasts, by popular customs, and by details and superstitious practices that overlaid the heart of the faith.”[21] The Reformers insisted that piety should be corporate.

Diagnosing the Problem

Many factors account for the rise of heretical and erroneous theology and practice, including worship, during the Middle Ages. But perhaps one central factor is that in many cases, church leadership derived worship theology and practice primarily or even exclusively from OT Israel—an empire that essentially consisted of a union between the civil and religious found more support and guidelines from the OT than from the NT.

Therefore, the OT increasingly became the pattern for medieval worship theology and practice, the church becoming the “new Israel.” For example, early theologians explicitly explained the ecclesial hierarchy based on its parallels with OT high priest (bishops), priesthood (priests), and Levites (deacons). Theologians used the OT as the basis for priestly vestments, mandatory tithing, infant baptism, altars, sacrifice, richly adorned sanctuary, incense, processions, and ceremonies. As early as the third century, for example, Tertullian described standing “at God’s altar . . . [for the] participation of the sacrifice” and proclaimed, “we ought to escort with the pomp of good works, amid psalms and hymns, unto God’s altar, to obtain for us all good things from God.” Whether he meant this in the NT metaphorical sense is debatable, but this kind of language unquestionably became more literal in later worship practice.

Priority given to the OT for worship theology also accounts for the sacramentalism, sacerdotalism, and preoccupation with sensory experience that came to characterize worship by the end of the fifteenth century. Christians desired a “worship that can be touched” led by human mediators.

The Reformers criticized this rational in particular. For example, Calvin employed a particular argument of emphasizing the critical discontinuity between OT worship and NT worship in much of his worship reforms. In commenting on Roman Catholic worship, Calvin exclaimed, “What shall I say of ceremonies, the effect of which has been, that we have almost buried Christ, and returned to Jewish figures?” He complained, “A new Judaism, as a substitute for that which God had distinctly abrogated, has again been reared up by means of numerous puerile extravagances, collected from different quarters.” He criticized the priesthood, noting, “Then, as if he were some successor of Aaron, he pretends that he offers a sacrifice to expiate the sins of the people.”

However, a second factor contributing to errant theology and practice of worship was that some theologians, rightly understanding that Christian worship is participation with the worship of heaven (Hebrews 12:22–24), nevertheless failed to recognize that this is currently something to be accepted in faith as a spiritual reality rather than expected as a physical experience. Medieval Christians wanted to experience the worship of heaven tangibly here on earth, either expecting that heaven came down to them while they worshiped or that they were led into the heavenly temple through the sacramental ceremonies. Therefore, if not bringing into worship altars and incense and adornments by appealing to OT Israel, some drew from pictures of heavenly worship, especially those from the book of Revelation. Even the church architecture pictured this theology, with the nave where the people sat symbolizing earth, the “sanctuary” where the mass took place a picture of heaven. In this way, they desired a heavenly worship “that can be touched.”

Again, the Reformers objected. Calvin insisted, “The first thing we complain of here is, that the people are entertained with showy ceremonies, while not a word is said of their significancy and truth.”

Providing the Biblical Solution

The first solution to problems in both medieval and contemporary worship is to submit to the authority of God’s Word over worship, what is sometimes referred to as the regulative principle of worship.

The first solution to problems in both medieval and contemporary worship is to submit to the authority of God’s Word over worship, what is sometimes referred to as the regulative principle of worship.

Affirming this principle alone would go a long way in preventing the errors of sacramentalism, sacerdotalism, preoccupation with sensory experience, and individualization of piety that has plagued both medieval and contemporary worship.

Worship That Cannot Be Touched

But second, a proper application of New Testament Revelation to the theology and practice of corporate worship is essential for correcting errors. In Hebrews chapter 12, the author climaxes his argument with a vivid description of drawing near to God for worship in the Old Testament compared with drawing near for Christians. In verses 18–24, he contrasts two mountains—Mt, Sinai, representing Old Testament worship, and Mt. Zion, representing New Testament worship.

Approaching God in the OT is physical—it can be touched; it has visual sensations—burning fire, darkness, gloom, and storm; it has aural sensations—the sound of a trumpet blast and actual words spoken from God Himself. In other words, this OT worship was decidedly sensory.

In contrast, the author uses Mount Zion to represent NT worship. Christians are not actually worshiping physically in heaven yet, but in Christ they are worshiping there positionally in a very real sense—they “have come to Mt. Zion” (12:22). 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.

But here is the important point: this kind of superior worship through Christ is not physical in its essence. Living Christians are not physically in heaven yet; when they worship, they are positionally worshiping in heaven with all the angels and saints, but they are doing so spiritually. That is the essential difference between these two kinds of worship. OT worship was physical; it was sensory; it happened on earth. NT worship, however, is immaterial; it is spiritual; it takes place in heaven.

Simple, Spiritual Worship

This is why the Reformers argued that worship should be spiritual and simple. Calvin said,

For, if we would not throw every thing into confusion, we must never lose sight of the distinction between the old and the new dispensations, and of the fact that ceremonies, the observance of which was useful under the law, are now not only superfluous, but vicious and absurd. When Christ was absent and not yet manifested, ceremonies, by adumbrating, cherished the hope of his advent in the breasts of believers; but now that his glory is present and conspicuous, they only obscure it. And we see what God himself has done. For those ceremonies which he had commanded for a time he has abrogated for ever. Paul explains the reason,—first, that since the body has been manifested in Christ, they types have, of course, been withdrawn; and, secondly, that God is now pleased to instruct his Church after a different manner. (Gal. iv. 5; Col. Ii. 4, 14, 17.) Since, then, God has freed his Church from the bondage which he had imposed upon it, can any thing, I ask, be more perverse than for men to introduce a new bondage in place of the old?”

He continued, “Then, as it has for the most part an external splendor which pleases the eye, it is more agreeable to our carnal nature, than that which alone God requires and approves, but which is less ostentatious.”

This same emphasis would go a long way in correcting many of the same errors characteristic of contemporary worship.

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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.