Law and Liturgy

Liturgies of the Western Church, by Bard Thompson, has been invaluable to me over the past few years as I consider the worship of the church. One of the more interesting things I gleaned from this book, with the help of a professor, comes from the liturgy of John Calvin’s churches in Strasbourg and Geneva.

Calvin, following Bucer, emphasized what has come to be known as the ‘third use’ of the law in worship:

In the main, however, as one can see in the liturgy of Grund und Ursach, Bucer used the law as Calvin also used it in worship: not to accuse sinners, but to bring the faithful to true piety by teaching them the divine will and exhorting them to obedience (p. 164).

Likewise,

In his Strassburg text, Calvin appointed the Ten Commandments be sung after Confession, even as Bucer had suggested in Grund und Ursach. Here he employed the Law according to its ‘third and principle use’; not to accuse and convict the sinner (in which case the Commandments would likely precede Confession) but to bring the penitents to true piety by teaching them the will of God and exhorting them to obey. ‘In this way the saints must press on’ (Institutes 2:7:12) (p. 191).

This seems like an insignificant point, but it had a marvelous effect on me. My home-church, for years, had a practice which has recently been changed. I really wish it hadn’t been changed; and I fear the reason it was changed was out of ignorance to this point. Let me explain.

During a service that involved the Lord’s Supper, we would recite the Apostles’ Creed followed by the Ten Commandments. Having learned the intentionality of Calvin’s liturgy, this bore a certain weight with me. I would reflect each service on the glory of faith before obedience, of accepting the gospel as the sole enabling for the keeping of the law, and as the sole source of forgiveness in my constant failure to do so.

The problem lies in the fact that many only see the law as either a) condemning and pointing us to Christ or b) something we can keep in our own strength. The Creed before the Law emphasizes that it is faith in Christ that leads to sanctification; that the gospel enables us to keep the law; that all our power for obedience is derived from what Christ has done for us. It drives us to Christ for forgiveness to be sure, but it also drives us to him to gain strength for obedience.

Calvin’s liturgy began with a confession of sin, yet the creed was sung before the law. This reflects a note that is missing in the modern church: the law condemns us and drives us to Christ, but once it has done so, faith in Christ now empowers us to new obedience. As John Flavel, Samuel Bolton, and others have said: the law sends us to Christ to be justified, and then Christ sends us back to the law to frame our way of life. But he never bids us keep the law under our own power. It is only Holy Spirit-wrought faith in him, living, dying, rising, that will empower us.

This is the indicative before the imperative played out in worship: to confess the faith before reciting the law; to confess our sins, to confess our faith, and then to confess the law anew as believers in Christ. Reciting the law before faith and reciting the law after faith are two totally different things.

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