A Guide to Reformed Worship – The Closing Elements
In this series of articles, we’ve now come to the block of concluding elements of the worship service. It’s at this point where God’s people prepare to leave his special presence in the assembly. The parting of ways between two people in a meaningful relationship can sometimes be drawn out or even awkward. In the worship service, however, it is carefully and biblically structured with the normal, divinely commanded elements of song and Scripture.
With the closing song, the norm is a composition which again leads the hearts of God’s people to praise Him for the grace and mercy He has shown in Christ. Although it may be connected to the text for the sermon, it does not have to be. Though it is not well known, traditionally the Jews had a selection of Psalms that were normally used for the beginning and end of the synagogue services. Psalms 95-100 and 145-150 were for the beginning and Psalms 24, 48, 81, 82, 92, 93, and 94 were used at the end. Of course, this pattern is not binding on us today, but it can still be helpful. At any rate, the concluding song should prepare our hearts for leaving God’s special presence with joy and motivation to serve our great and gracious God.
Following the closing song, we have the benediction or God’s farewell blessing to us. VanDooren helpfully speaks about this as a sort of covering: “The service started with a blessing or salutation which ‘covers’ the whole service. The closing benediction ‘covers’ our whole life till the next Lord’s Day” (The Beauty of Reformed Liturgy, p. 48). This is a means by which God sends us out from his presence with the knowledge that He will still be merciful and loving God.
But now the question could be raised: what is the biblical basis for this practice of having a benediction? In the Old Testament, we read about the benediction or blessing that Aaron and the other Levitical priests were to pronounce upon the people of Israel. We find the exact wording used in Numbers 6:22-26 and these words continue to be used in our worship services today: “The Lord bless you and keep you.” We find one implementation of this in Leviticus 9:22, “Then Aaron lifted his hand toward the people, blessed them, and came down from offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and peace offerings.” Thus, we can conclude that it was a normal practice for God’s people to be dismissed from worship with a blessing.
The letters of Paul reflect something of this in the way that they often conclude with a similar blessing or benediction. When we include the fact that these letters seem to have been read in public worship, we can understand why the early Christian church simply continued the practice of the Old Testament era. If God would send away his people in the Old Testament with a blessing and if Paul concludes his letters with a blessing, why wouldn’t God send away Christians from their public worship with a blessing?
It is not my intention here to give an exposition on the Bible texts typically used for the benediction. I can simply note that the Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:22-26 is commonly used, along with the benediction of Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:14. Additionally, we should note that both benedictions speak of the work of the Triune God. This is obvious in the passage from 2 Corinthians, but perhaps (and not unexpectedly) less so in the Aaronic benediction. K. Deddens (Where Everything Points to Him, p. 51) noted that it reflects God the Father’s preserving work (“The Lord bless you and keep you”), God the Son’s atoning work (“The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you”), and God the Spirit’s communal work (“The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”). So, in both services, the Triune God blesses us and sends us on our way.
As in previous articles in this series, I think it’s worthwhile to pause here and reflect on some of the mechanical or practical issues with respect to the benediction. First of all, with respect to the precise wording, I would argue that we should always use the exact text of Scripture as it is found in the prevailing translation. It matters not whether the one leading the service is an ordained minister – we have no right to change the Word of God to accommodate the situation. Moreover, this simply makes no liturgical sense. If a worship service is led by an elder, is God less present than He would be if a minister were leading the service? Does not God still bless his people with his Word? Will not God still send away his people with confidence rather than simply a hopeful prayer that He might bless them? There are a whole host of liturgical problems with the practice of changing the words of the benediction just to account for the fact that a minister is not leading the service. This is a practice that may lead God’s people to wonder whether God is really present in a worship service not led by an ordained minister. In this way, we make far too much hang on one man.
A second issue we need to consider is how we as congregation members receive this blessing. Do we actually focus on the words that are being said?
Do we reflect on the fact that this is our God speaking to us and blessing us? In the past, ministers have lamented the fact that many seem to be distracted at this point in the service. They seem to be thinking about whom they’re going to talk to, or the football game, or even the cigarette they’re desperately craving! Indeed, the work of worship doesn’t stop until the “Amen.” Up until that point, we need to concentrate and focus, focus, focus.
And ALL God’s People said, “Amen!”
That brings us to the last word of the service, “Amen.” This word comes from the congregation, though in most places it is still only on the lips of the minister. God pronounces his farewell blessing and God’s people respond with “Amen” – “it is true and certain.”
The “Amen” is a word of faith and trust. It really does belong on the hearts and lips of all God’s people. I have yet to read a Reformed liturgist (someone who studies liturgy) who has not argued for the congregation to say the “Amen” in unison. In the Canadian Reformed churches, Deddens argued for it and so did VanDooren. A little further afield, I could also mention G. VanRongen and C. Trimp. But more than the symphony of Reformed liturgists calling for this practice, we have the witness of Scripture that God’s people had the Amen on their lips (Deuteronomy 27:11-26, 1 Chronicles 16:36). If that were not enough, the early church also continued this practice. It’s high time that the voice of the congregation sounding out the “Amen” be heard everywhere in Reformed churches.
We’ve now come to the end of our consideration of the elements of Reformed worship. Both in the elements and in the structure, we’ve seen that there is careful attention to what the Bible teaches. Consequently, the difference between Reformed worship and worship found in other Christian circles is not one of preference or style. Reformed worship is “worship that is reformed according to Scripture.” This is why G. VanDooren could write about “The Beauty of Reformed Liturgy.” It’s beautiful because it’s scriptural. Let’s not lose it!