John Calvin and Church Revitalization: Corporate Worship

By Terry Delaney

[Editor’s Note: This is the second blog post of a 3-part series. Click here to read the first.]

John Calvin longed to bring corporate worship back to a God-centered, biblically-informed model.  He believed that worship, understood as what we would today call the entire “worship service” must be simple. To this end, he believed that there must be order in worship so as to “take away all confusion, barbarity, obstinacy, turbulence, and dissension.”[1] While he is largely the “face” of the Regulative Principle of Worship, wherein the corporate worship of God is to be established by the parameters explicitly set forth in Scripture, we must understand that his cultural context largely determined his stance.

Because his context was largely due to the Reformation and was reactionary to the Roman Catholic Church, his understanding of Sola Scriptura and his zeal for consistency led him to this position. He did, however, allow for the incidentals of corporate worship. As a matter of fact, in a parenthetical description on worship he states that God “foresaw that [worship] depended upon the state of the times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages.”[2]

In the preface to the Genevan Psalter, he states that there are two kinds of prayer. The first is simple, spoken prayer. The second is the prayer of singing.[3] Since we are praying to God through our songs, Calvin found it best to sing the hymn book given to us by God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and written by men. That is, the Book of Psalms which he set to metrical form in the aforementioned Genevan Psalter.

Furthermore, he believed in the importance of the pastor as the leader of all forms of worship. In other words, worship was not simply singing. Rather, worship was all-encompassing and included singing, praying, confessing, praising, and preaching and listening to the sermon. To this end, he removed those elements of worship he discerned to be man-invented.[4] According to W. Robert Godfrey, the basic order of worship was as follows:

  • Liturgy of the Word
    • Call to worship
    • Confession of sins
    • Prayer for pardon
    • Singing of a Psalm
    • Prayer for Illumination
    • Scripture reading
    • Sermon
  • Liturgy of the Upper Room
    • Collection of offerings
    • Prayers of intercession and a long paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer
    • Singing of the Apostles’ Creed (while elements of the Lord’s Supper are prepared)
    • Words of Institution
    • Instruction and Exhortation
    • Communion (while a Psalm is sung or Scripture read)
    • Prayer of thanksgiving
    • Benediction (Numbers 6:24-25)[5]

It is important to note that this particular order of worship includes the Lord’s Supper table (Liturgy of the Upper Room) which Calvin wanted to serve weekly but Geneva allowed quarterly. While this order of worship may seem rigid by today’s standards, and perhaps too liturgical, one can readily see how Calvin was passionate that the entire worship service points the Christian to the one, true God. Calvin firmly believed the local church was the best expression as the key meeting place of a local body of believers.

Obviously, Calvin did not affirm that a congregation must have a building in which to worship God. Instead, he affirmed the importance of having a particular location set aside as “holy to the Lord” (my words) in order that the external symbols “should serve as ladders, by which the faithful might ascend even to heaven.”[6]

The bottom line, Calvin, through his concept of the Regulative Principle, was fighting the same battle many today are fighting when it comes to styles of worship. He tired of the mindless, passive approach that the Roman Catholic Church had in essence forced on the congregation. He believed in active participation of the congregants through prayer, praise, singing of hymns, and, perhaps most importantly, the active listening of the sermon.

Many of the churches today in need of revitalization must to move away from the showmanship of Hollywood and ought to be reoriented to the necessity of actively worshiping God in “spirit and truth.”[7] Though Calvin was seeking to reform most, if not all, of Christianity as the Roman Catholic Church had understood it, he was at the same time seeking to revitalize the local church to a greater understanding of worship that is God-centered. This is in contrast to the Sacrament-centered approach of Rome and, by default, to the pew-centered view of the modern church.

As we study Calvin and his thoughts on worship, we will find a sound Protestant understanding of genuine worship rooted in the Word of God. This should serve as a template for our revitalization needs today. Worship is to be God-centered, informed by Scripture, and lead by the pastor though he can delegate to another.


Terry Delaney is pastor of Union Baptist Church in Mexico, Missouri and is a contributor to the Founders Midwest blog. If you would like more information about Founders Midwest or if you are interested in attending the annual Founders Midwest Conference, be sure to check out our Facebook page or visit our website for more information.



[1] McNeill, John T. (Editor). Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion–2. Philadelphia, PA.: Westminster Press. P. 1207

[2] Ibid. p. 1208

[3] Accessed 16 May 2016.

[4] See Institutes Book 4, Ch. 17, Section 43 as he specifically discusses the Lord’s Supper.

[5] Godfrey, W. Robert. John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, p. 71.

[6] Calvin, J., & Anderson, J. (2010). Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Vol. 1, p. 122). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[7] See John 4:23-24.

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