Posts Tagged 'Worship Services'

A Look at Liturgy: The Votum

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth

“Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

If you attend a United Reformed church, it’s likely you hear these words from Psalm 124 every week at the opening of morning worship. Although this is a common way to begin worship in our churches, it’s actually fairly unique to the Dutch Reformed tradition. What are the origins of this statement (often called the “votum”), and what does it mean?

In the Psalter Hymnal Supplement the Liturgical Committee of the Christian Reformed Church comments on the term “votum,” “No one is quite sure how this awkward Latin word crept into and managed to stay in a Reformed liturgy that otherwise kept itself clean of Romanist vocabulary.…The word itself seems to mean a ‘wish’ or ‘desire’ and so, perhaps, is roughly similar to an invocation.”

What makes the story of the votum even more unusual is its history. According to the Liturgical Committee, this verse (Psalm 124:8) was originally recited whispered privately by the priest during the Roman Catholic mass. “Thus, it was not the beginning of the people’s worship; it was part of the priest’s private preparation for worship. The words were taken over by Calvin to begin the morning worship for all the people. He did not tell us why he used the words; our liturgical rationale is, in a sense, after the fact.” And today Reformed churches differ widely with regard to the votum; many replace or combine it with a “call to worship” or an “invocation.” In West Sayville our morning service opens with a call to worship from an appropriate passage of Scripture, followed by a song of praise, then the votum and God’s greeting.

So what justifies the use of the votum in opening public worship? This explanation comes from the Agenda for Synod 1920 of the Christian Reformed Church: “This ‘Votum’ is not meant to be a prayer for divine aid, but rather a solemn declaration that God is in the midst of His people with His saving grace.”

The scriptural context of the votum sheds some light on its application to Christian worship. Psalm 124 is a song of Israel’s deliverance, opening with a vivid picture of the fate that would have befallen them “if it had not been the LORD who was on our side”:

then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

–vv. 3-5 ESV

Instead of leaving them to their destruction, the Lord mightily delivered his people, freeing them from their bondage in Egypt. With joy and relief they could exclaim, “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!” (v. 7)—proceeding to state their continued dependence on the Lord in the words that have become our votum.

We, too, lay in bondage in a spiritual Egypt of sin and death. We deserved the torrent of God’s righteous judgment to sweep us away and the punishment of sin to overwhelm us. But he delivered us, even more mightily than he delivered the Israelites, by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. The Lord was on our side, and he deserves all our praise!

For the church of Christ, stating that “our help is in the name of the LORD” acknowledges our profound need and complete dependence on our heavenly Father. We do not come into his presence in our own strength or because of our own merit, but because of his saving grace and only with his sustaining help. We are gathered not as the righteous, but as the sinners the Son of Man came to call to repentance. Yet despite our unworthiness, we appear in God’s courts with confidence. He has no need of our worship, but he delights in it. The almighty Creator of the universe is present wherever his people gather in his name—and thus we can say, not only in acknowledgment of our need but also in joyful assurance, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

And that, perhaps above anything else, is reason enough to keep the votum in Reformed worship.


–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from p. 92

A Look at Liturgy: The Beginning of Worship

Today’s post is an extended quote from pp. 90, 91 of the Report of the Liturgical Committee in the Psalter Hymnal Supplement.  Here the committee presents an excellent and thorough explanation of the attitude that should characterize the opening of a Reformed worship service.

How any meeting begins is settled, generally, by the character or office of the participants.  God Himself defines the nature of this meeting.  He graciously calls His people into His presence, welcomes them into His fellowship, speaks His Word to them and listens to their words.  Two things about God and His call to worship stamp the character of our weekly meeting with Him.

The Psalter Hymnal SupplementHe is the Holy One.  However close He tabernacles with us in the Incarnation, the Word, and the sacraments, He remains the God who is Holy.  He is the Awful One.  Sinners neither stroll nor storm into the Holy Mountain; they come tremblingly, by royal invitation.  The response to the Holy One is awe, wonder, fear and trembling.  We begin our meeting with Him, if we begin it fittingly, with a liturgical act with betrays that we know we are meeting with the Holy One of Israel.

He is the Holy One who has come to us in redemptive intimacy.  He did something; He entered a covenant with us, made us His covenant partner.  He divided the waters.  He came down “for us sinners and our salvation.”  He destroyed the power of the Devil.  He opened up the gateway into His Kingdom for us.  “He Arose!”  And His Christ “dwells in us.”  He has given us something to celebrate; the fact of Easter defines our meeting with God as truly as does His holiness.  Therefore the liturgy ought to reflect jubilation—the beginning ought to suggest something of its excitement, its festivity.  Entering worship on a Lord’s Day morning is an anticipation of entering the “new creation.”  And we ought to show it.

The fact of salvation defines the opening; but the character of the Holy One still qualifies it.  We meet God in jubilation; but the God we meet is still the Holy One.


A Look at Liturgy: Its Reformation History

In visiting various United Reformed congregations, I’ve often been curious about the source of the basic structure and consistency of our liturgy.  In pp. 75-88 of the back matter of the Psalter Hymnal Supplement, the Liturgical Committee traces for us the general background of the liturgy inherited by the Christian Reformed Church and passed down to the URCNA.

In its commitment to the regulative and dialogical principles of worship, which we discussed earlier, the Protestant Reformation gave birth to a number of different liturgical structures.  What they had in common was their strong emphasis on the preaching of the Word and prayer, stripping the Roman Catholic mass of its ornate and intricate ceremonies.  The primary focus of worship was the fourfold purpose described in the Heidelberg Catechism: “to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor” (Lord’s Day 38, Q&A 103).

While the Reformation gave the Word of God the proper place in its worship, it tended to de-emphasize the sacraments, perhaps as a pendulum swing away from the Roman Catholic church.  When the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, it was often given its own unique liturgy, which explains why even today churches of Dutch Reformed origin often celebrate the sacrament only once every few months in a specially structured “Communion” service.

From the various liturgies of Bucer, Calvin, Zwingli, and even the Lutherans, Peter Datheen (Petrus Dathenus) created what would become the standard liturgy of the Dutch Reformed churches.  More than the actual structure of the worship service, however, Datheen was involved in the creation of liturgical prayers and formularies, many of which have made their way into the back of today’s Psalter Hymnal.

75AnniversaryWeekProgramInsideIt was not until late in the sixteenth century that the churches in Holland began to incorporate Scripture reading and psalm singing into their worship, first before the services began and later as part of the liturgy itself.  This gradual and unstructured growth explains the fact that a systematized order of worship was not established for the Dutch churches until 1933.

The Christian Reformed Church, ancestor of many of our congregations, inherited this unofficial liturgy from the churches in Holland.  It was not until 1916 that an overture came from Classis Illinois urging the CRC synod to establish a uniform order of worship.  The study committee appointed by synod to consider liturgical matters reported back in 1928 with this proposed order of morning worship, which the CRC adopted.  To emphasize the dialogical structure of this liturgy, actions from the side of God are italicized, whereas actions from the side of the people are in regular type.

  • Prelude
  • Introductory Service
    • Votum
    • Salutation
    • Psalm of Praise
  • Service of Reconciliation
    • Summary of the Law (Matt. 22:37-40)
    • Confession of Sin
    • Penitential Psalm
    • Absolution
    • Apostles’ Creed
    • Psalm of Praise
  • Service of Gratitude and Benevolence
    • General Prayer and Lord’s Prayer
    • Offertory
    • Psalm of Thanksgiving
  • Service of the Word
    • Reading of Scripture
    • Preaching
  • Closing Service
    • Prayer of Thanksgiving
    • Concluding Psalm and/or Doxology
    • Benediction

How was this order of worship received?  According to the Psalter Hymnal Supplement, it fell on its face.  The congregations of the CRC “choked on the ‘absolution’ that had been given a place in the liturgy following the law and confession.  In 1930, the new liturgy was dropped—after considerable protest and agony” (p. 87).

The advisory committee assigned to address liturgical matters identified three common themes among the churches’ vociferous objections to the new order of worship:

  1. The new liturgy would be detrimental to the unity of the churches.
  2. Synod had no authority to impose a uniform order of worship on the churches.
  3. Elements of the liturgy, particularly the absolution, were unnecessary or even unbiblical.  With regard to the absolution and service of reconciliation, “they foster formalism and ritualism; the absolution is lifted to a sacrament; it will push the preaching into the background; it is a step in the direction of Rome; God alone can forgive sins; the absolution transfers the exercise of power of the keys from the Word to the man and his office” (Acts of Synod 1930, 158).

In summary, this advisory committee posed this rhetorical question: “May we endanger the peace and the welfare of our denomination by insisting upon a liturgical element that has no clear Scriptural foundation?” (1930 Acts, 160).

After the liturgical debacle of 1930 no more attempts were made at introducing a uniform order of worship in the Christian Reformed Church until the time of the Psalter Hymnal Supplement.  However, individual consistories continued to develop a variety of liturgies for their own churches, each to fill unique needs and worship God in distinct ways.

And that, in a nutshell, is the liturgical history the United Reformed Churches in North America has inherited.  Next we’ll consider a few of the key elements of Reformed worship and their varied manifestations in our liturgy.


A Look at Liturgy: Definitions

College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church

College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church before an evening worship service

Attending a college located almost 300 miles from the nearest United Reformed congregation has allowed me to acquire the hint of an outsider’s view of how our churches worship.  Sometimes I’m able to stop by one of the URC’s in Pennsylvania or New Jersey on the way to or from Geneva, but for most of the school year I attend worship at the College Hill Reformed Presbyterian Church on campus.  For someone relatively oblivious of worship practices outside our own federation, this sojourn has proved to be eye-opening.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) is closely related to the URCNA in background and theology, and its worship services exhibit the same basic structure and sequence: praise, confession, prayer, and preaching.  However, some of the particulars at College Hill are noticeably different.  Psalms are sung exclusively, instruments are not used, the service does not open with the familiar line “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth,” and the Ten Commandments are not regularly read.

It may seem like an obvious question, but why do different churches worship in different ways?  Which differences really “matter”?  Which distinctions are merely a product of history and tradition (such as the unique Dutch Reformed votum “Our help is in the name of the Lord”), and which arise from convictions about the nature of worship (such as the Reformed Presbyterians’ exclusive psalmody)?  Specific to the United Reformed Churches in North America, why do we worship as we do?  Are there areas in which we should improve our liturgy, and if so, how?

In the next few blog posts I’d like to explore some of these questions along with you.  It’s a study that will require delving into theology, ecclesiology, and history.  If you’re interested, I ask that you bear with my limited knowledge on this subject—I’m just beginning to seriously investigate it myself—and feel free to contribute your own thoughts.

The Psalter Hymnal SupplementAs a relatively simple introduction to the history of worship in the Dutch Reformed tradition, I’ll be referring often to material from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement published by the Christian Reformed Church in 1974.  The Psalter Hymnal Supplement contains a set of sixty-three songs commissioned by the CRC to “supplement” the contents of the blue (1959) Psalter Hymnal.  In addition, it includes the provisional translation of the Heidelberg Catechism that would later appear in the 1976 reprint of the Psalter Hymnal, and—most pertinent to our discussions—the report of the CRC’s Liturgical Committee to the synod of 1968.  While the Psalter Hymnal Supplement’s ideology of worship may raise some questions, and although it has ceased to be of much practical use to our churches (I dug this copy out from a musty corner of my church’s library), it continues to hold significant value for its historical insight.

Before such a discussion can even begin, we need to define our terms.  What is “liturgy”?  What, for that matter, is “worship”?  As the Liturgical Committee describes it, liturgy is “those acts done by the church in its solemn assembly with God” (Supplement p. 69).  Worship, though it can be applied in some sense to every waking moment of the Christian’s life, refers specifically to “a meeting between a Person and persons” (p. 74), that is, God’s meeting with his covenant people.  In other words, liturgy is the sequence of events that take place in our churches’ services; worship is the dialogue we are there to partake in.

Moreover, before any historical or practical arguments for particular worship practices can be made, we must emphasize two principles foundational to any faithful discussion of liturgy: the regulative principle of worship and the dialogical nature of worship.  The regulative principle of worship, a key tenet of the Protestant Reformation, is expressed succinctly in the Heidelberg Catechism’s treatment of the second commandment: we are not to “worship [God] in any other way than he has commanded in his Word” (Lord’s Day 35, Q&A 96).  (Presbyterian friends, see Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXI, Article 1.)  The dialogical nature of worship refers to the pattern of worship exemplified throughout Scripture: God speaks, and his people respond.

These two principles set limits on what can and cannot be incorporated into the church’s worship practices.  We live in a culture which prizes above all things freshness and novelty, and our own sinful hearts, “idol factories” as Calvin so aptly described them, love to devise not only wrong things to worship but wrong ways to worship.  The Catechism leaves us without excuse: in worship, as in all things, “we shouldn’t try to be wiser than God” (Q&A 98).

For DiscussionHaving laid this groundwork, we can go on to discuss the particulars of the Dutch Reformed tradition of worship in our next post.  For now, what is your church’s typical order of worship?  How are the various elements rooted in Scripture, and how do they represent an ongoing conversation between the Lord and his worshipers?

May the Lord guide us into the right actions and attitudes for worshiping him.


Lord’s Day 35: Commanded in His Word

Catechism and Psalter

Last week our study of the Heidelberg Catechism revealed that the Ten Commandments form a complete framework on which to build a grateful life of Christian service.  They are much more than a set of prohibitions; understood in the light of Christ, they are rules of gratitude by which we can know how to please God.  Today we turn to the examination of the second commandment as found in Lord’s Day 35.

96 Q.  What is God’s will for us in the second commandment?

A.  That we in no way make any image of God
nor worship him in any other way
than he has commanded in his Word.

97 Q.  May we then not make any image at all?

A.  God can not and may not
be visibly portrayed in any way.

Although creatures may be portrayed,
yet God forbids making or having such images
if one’s intention is to worship them
or to serve God through them.

98 Q.  But may not images be permitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned?

A.  No, we shouldn’t try to be wiser than God.
He wants his people instructed
by the living preaching of his Word—
not by idols that cannot even talk.

Suggested Songs

185, “O Come and to Jehovah Sing” (Psalm 95)

Worship, the focus of the second commandment, is the primary theme of Psalm 95.  This rousing Psalter Hymnal selection calls us to prepare our hearts to worship God reverently and sincerely.

O come and to Jehovah sing,
To Him our voices raise;
Let us in our most joyful songs
The Lord our Savior praise.

Before His presence let us come
With praise and thankful voice;
Let us sing psalms to Him with grace,
With grateful hearts rejoice.

Jehovah is a mighty King,
Above all gods His throne;
The depths of earth are in His hand,
The mountains are His own.

To Him the spacious sea belongs,
He made its waves and tides;
And by His hand the rising land
Was formed, and still abides.

O come, and bowing down to Him,
Our worship let us bring;
Yea, let us kneel before the Lord,
Our Maker and our King.

32, “Jehovah Hear Thee in Thy Grief” (Psalm 20)

“That we in no way make any image of God nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”  The Psalms speak specifically to the necessity of acceptable worship to our great and holy God.  Psalm 20, though not particularly a “worship psalm,” contains one such example:

Jehovah hear thee in thy grief,
Our fathers’ God defend thee still,
Send from His holy place relief,
And strengthen thee from Zion’s hill.

Thy sacrifice may He regard,
And all thine offerings bear in mind;
Thy heart’s desire to thee accord,
Fulfilling all thou hast designed.

In thy salvation we rejoice,
And in God’s Name our banners raise;
Jehovah hearken to thy voice,
Fulfil thy prayers through all thy days.

86, “Praise the Lord, Ye Lands” (Psalm 47)

(Sung in altered form on YouTube)

“God…wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word—not by idols that cannot even talk.”  Psalm 47 perfectly synopsizes the only acceptable attitude for worship: heartfelt praise mingled with humble reverence.  Nor do we praise the Lord with some abstract sense of happiness, but as a response to his majesty and his mighty deeds.

Praise the Lord, ye lands;
Nations, clap your hands;
Shout aloud to God,
Spread His fame abroad;
Praise Him loud and long
With a triumph song;
Bow as ye draw nigh,
For the Lord Most High,
Terrible is He
In His dignity;
And His kingdom’s girth
Circles all the earth.

Praise His majesty
God is King alone
On His holy throne,
Issues His commands
To all heathen lands.
Lo, the princes all
Gather at His call;
His the shields of earth,
His the power, the worth;
He, the God on high,
Is our Helper nigh.


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