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Reverence and Emotion in Reformed Worship Part 1

This is the first in a three-part series on the role of emotion in Reformed worship (part two is here). In these articles, I argue for the necessity and importance of emotion in worship. We must avoid the "frozen chosen" caricature of emotionless formalism. At the same time, however, outward displays of emotion should be self-controlled to prevent the opposite extreme of emotional formalism, in which believers are pressured to conform to outward acts of emotional expression.


In both the Old and New Testaments, faith is equated with the fear of God.[1] This fear is not the terror of the wicked before the holiness of God, but the reverent fear of those who have been loved and redeemed by the blood of Christ and who apprehend Him truly. According to the author of Hebrews, “he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Nearness to God, and a greater understanding of His majesty, serve only to magnify the sense of awe and reverence of approaching Him in worship. It is no surprise that Reformed worship, which so heavily emphasizes the majesty of God, is also characterized by a reverent style of worship.

In the Reformed tradition, reverence is compatible with joy and the gamut of human emotions. At the same time, reverence implies a restraint, such that these emotions tend to be internalized. Is this understanding of reverence culturally conditioned, or a universal principle? A historical survey of Reformed worship will uncover the theological principles underlying the Reformed understanding of reverence and emotion. These principles will then be briefly applied to cross-cultural missions to understand how they apply to indigenous churches with different cultural norms.

The Early Church

A reverent restraint in worship did not begin with the Reformation. Clement of Alexandria in the second century A.D. decried all sorts of revelry in the church, which he called “an inebriating pipe” serving only to arouse the sensuous passions.[2] “For,” he continues, “if people occupy their time with pipes, and psalteries, and choirs, and dances, and Egyptian clapping of hands, and such disorderly frivolities, they become quite immodest and intractable.”[3] To Clement, these activities are contrary to the apostolic injunction to “put off the works of darkness” (Romans 13:12). Proper worship, by contrast, was reverent, temperate, and appealing to the rational soul.

The Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century likewise depict an orderly and reverent worship service. The deacon was appointed to “oversee the people, that nobody may whisper, nor slumber, nor laugh, nor nod; for all ought in the church to stand wisely, and soberly, and attentively, having their attention fixed upon the word of the Lord.”[4] Interestingly, this description accords closely with the instructions in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship more than a millennium later.

The Reformation (1500s)

This attitude of reverence continued in the medieval church, under a garb of superstition and ceremony. The Reformation, which has been called “the greatest revival since Pentecost,”[5] rescued reverence from the impiety of superstition and unbelief. As the Spirit was poured out and the Word of God was understood, the Reformers regained several truths which inform true, reverent, worship.

First, they recovered the sense of the majesty of God and the fallenness of man. When man comes before the majestic God of the universe in worship, reverence is appropriate. Commenting on Hebrews 12:25, John Calvin writes:

By saying that God is to be served acceptably, εὐαρέστως, with reverence and fear, he intimates that though he requires us to serve with promptitude and delight, there is yet no service approved by him except it be united with humility and due reverence. Thus he condemns forward confidence of the flesh, as well as the sloth which also proceeds from it.[6]

The majesty of God is the basis for reverence in Reformed worship. In Malachi 1:6, the Lord asks Israel, “If then I am the Father, Where is my honor? And if I am a Master, Where is My reverence?” Reverence is the respect shown in the presence of a “great King” (Malachi 1:14). Nor is it incompatible with our status as adopted children. Calvin writes in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that, “we have been adopted for this reason: to reverence him as our Father.”[7]

Second, the Reformers recovered the understanding that true worship is internal and spiritual, not external. This priority of the internal reality is what Jesus had in mind when He said that, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). True reverence must begin in the heart. In the Institutes, Calvin describes true and reverent worship as proceeding from faith:

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law. And we ought to note this fact even more diligently: all men have a vague general veneration for God, but very few really reverence him; and wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed.[8]

These two truths (the majesty of God leading to reverent worship, and the necessity of spiritual worship proceeding from faith) correspond to the two main concerns of the Reformation, with which John Calvin begins his appeal, On the Necessity of Reforming the Church. In this letter to the Emperor Charles V, Calvin argues that the “the whole substance of Christianity,” and thus the emphasis of the Reformation, is comprehended in two things: “first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.”[9]

Calvin acknowledges that there are legitimate modes of expression in the public worship of God. He permits kneeling or lifting the hands in prayer, because these postures are sanctioned by the Scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments. Commenting on Acts 20:36, he writes:

The inward affection is indeed the chiefest thing in prayer; yet the external signs, as kneeling, uncovering of the head, lifting up of the hands, have a double use; the first is, that we exercise all our members to the glory and worship of God; secondly, that by this exercise our sluggishness may be awakened, as it were. There is also a third use in solemn and public prayer, because the children of God do by this means make profession of their godliness, and one of them doth provoke another unto the reverence of God.[10]

Note that for Calvin, raising the hands always referred to prayer. In his commentary on Psalm 28, he refers to them as a synecdoche, a figurative expression for prayer.[11] Likewise, commenting on Psalm 141, he writes that whenever the lifting up of the hands is mentioned, “the natural inference is, that prayer is meant, in allusion to the outward action practised[sic] in it.”[12]

However, Calvin was careful to say that these postures were not commanded and are, therefore, matters of Christian liberty. In his Institutes, he gives these balanced words regarding kneeling in prayer:

Lastly, because he [the Lord] has taught nothing specifically, and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church ought to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.[13]

[1]Moses, for example, connects the fear of the LORD with loving Him in Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (NKJV). In Acts 9:32, Luke juxtaposes the “fear of the Lord” with “the comfort of the Holy Spirit” when describing the growth of the early church: “And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied.” Finally, but not exhaustively, in Revelation 14:7, an angel preaches the everlasting Gospel, telling those who dwell on the earth to “Fear God and give glory to Him ... and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.”

[2]Steven A. McKinion, Life and Practice in the Early Church (New York and London: New York University Press, c2001), 47.

[3]Ibid., 48.

[4]Ibid., 53.

[5]Iain H. Murray, The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (London: Banner of Truth Trust, c1971), 3.

[6]John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, ed. and trans. John Owen (Bellingham, Washington: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 338.

[7]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, c1960), 3.17.6.

[8]Ibid., 1.2.2.

[9]John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1983), 1:126.

[10]John Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Henry Beveridge, trans. Christopher Fetherstone (Bellingham, Washington: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 265.

[11]John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Bellingham, Washington: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 1:446.

[12]Ibid., 5:235.

[13]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, c1960), 4.10.30.

Robert Kelbe

Robert Kelbe

I am a pastor at the Manhattan Reformed Presbyterian Church in beautiful Manhattan, KS.

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