Liturgy as covenant service - by Dr. K.Deddens

Dr. K. Deddens A Brief Biography

The following is taken with permission, from Clarion Vol. 37, No. 12 (1988)

Covenant service

Those who say worship service also say covenant service. Not that these two are completely similar to each other, but in the worship service the covenant of God with His people is always present. When the LORD establishes a covenant with His people, He wants to live with that people. He proclaims His Word to that people. He ilicits a response from His people. For that reason a house was built for Him in the wilderness and therefore the tabernacle was called the "tent of meeting." Because Israel may share in the merciful communion with the Lord, the poet sings in Psalm 84 that he longs for God's courts.

In addition to the place of meeting. God also established fixed times of meeting. On the seventh day there was a holy convocation. This gathering was convened by the priests blowing upon silver trumpets and was considered a festive gathering, as often is emphasized in the Psalms.

The sacrifice of the atonement is central in Old Testament temple worship. On the day which the LORD had determined for this holy gathering, the offering was doubled. The assembled congregation was clearly shown that the communion with the LORD was based on the atoning blood. Without the pouring of the blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22). The worship service of the Old Testament shows: the two parties in the covenant meet each other. On the foundation of the blood of the atonement they exercise communion. On the day hallowed for that purpose, the day of meeting, God calls His people together.

In the Old Testament, God approached His people with the glad tidings of the atonement. He put His Name upon Israel and blessed the people. In the temple God's grace was shown to the people by means of the ministry of the priests. The people also heard about God by means of the instruction by the priests.

But also the second party in the covenant was active. They approached God with the incense of their prayers and came to Him with their exultant hymns.


In the New Testament, the word leitourgia makes its appearance. This is a Greek word, which actually means: a service for the well-being of the people. This service does not concern private or individual occasions, but refers to the community. It concerns the people as a whole, in their totality. We must see the people as a community, organized in the form of a "polis," a city-state.

Our word "liturgy" has been derived from this word; it is the word we also use for our worship services.

But in the first place, this word typifies the official position and work of Christ, wherein and through which He has completed the Old Testamentic cult, in that He brought the real sacrifice and now completes His work as high priest in the real heavenly sanctuary.

After Christ had founded the new covenant, the word (liturgy) becomes an indication of the worship service, such as this takes place in the assemblies of the congregation. The altar and the sacrifice have disappeared. The atonement has been accomplished. The shadows have been fulfilled. Now it is called a gathering, an assembly of the church, a gathering of the congregation.

The central idea of the New Testamentic worship service is that God and His people meet each other in the assembly of the exalted Christ-with-His-own people, on the day of Christ's exaltation, the first day of the week. Now, whenever two or three - the smallest possible plurality - are gathered in His Name, there He will be in their midst. In the worship service, the two parties of the covenant are together. God is the First. The initiative comes from Him. He calls the gathering together. But the two parties meet each other in the mutual exchange of love. Therefore the congregation is also active: she may pray and sing. But it is response-motivated, as instigated by God, who, as the First One, comes to meet His people.

Not prescribed

"All right," one will say, "but is there anywhere a certain liturgy prescribed?" Is it not true that the whole matter of liturgy is actually a matter of tradition? That tradition plays such a big role in liturgical matters is shown by the fact that each and every change often is considered by many as an attack on their spiritual life.

According to our Belgic Confession, Article 7, we confess that "we may not consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures; nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God." Over against the Roman Catholics with their tradition, our fathers stated this very clear and maintained it consistently. Tradition does not have the same value, nor stands on the same level as the Word of God, let alone that tradition would have the final word. Time and again we have to test church matters, also liturgical matters by the Word of God itself. It is also wise that Article 50 of the Church Order says, in the last sentence: "On minor points of Church Order and ecclesiastical practice Churches abroad shall not be rejected." In former days, especially liturgical matters were meant in this respect.

I think one is right in saying that nowhere in the Bible a complete liturgy is prescribed and that much is based on custom. However, we have to add two things. In the first place: although not everything is prescribed in the Bible concerning the liturgy of the church, there is given us a certain basic pattern, from which all liturgy is to be derived. In the second place: not all customs are wrong. There is also a good tradition, which is not to be abandoned without good reason.

Basic pattern

The basic pattern of "liturgy" for the church of the New Dispensation is given in the same chapter in which is mentioned the pouring out of the Holy Spririt, namely, Acts 2. After Luke mentions immense growth of the church at Pentecost, he adds in verse 42: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." As a matter of fact that are four elements, which can be called decisive for the dispensation of the New Testament church. The teaching of the apostles means: the doctrine, taught by the apostles. We could interpret this as: the reading and preaching of the Word of God. In the RSV it is not fully clear that "fellowship" is a new element. The Greek word speaks of the communion of saints in a concrete manner, namely, in what later on was called the "offering," or the "collection" in the worship service. In the beginning the believers brought their offerings in natural gifts. In that way the poor were provided for by the rich. The third element is the breaking of bread, which is the celebration of the Lord's Supper. In the church of Corinth it was preceded by the so-called "agapai," the meals of love. Finally Luke mentions in Acts 2 the prayers. It appears that the prayers formed an essential part of the worship service already in the beginning of the New Testament church.

When we oversee these four elements, we can say that there is a remarkable order in them: doctrine - communion - sacrament - prayer. It is the order of Word and answer in God's covenant. First comes the doctrine, the reading and explanation of God's Word, in which the LORD Himself speaks. Then follows the answer of the congregation in the communion of saints: the care for one another. Again the LORD comes with His promises in the sacrament, the breaking of bread, and the answer follows, in the prayers of God's people, prayers which are at the same time offerings of thanksgiving, and also sometimes in the singing of the congregation.

When we place these elements of the worship service after Pentecost beside the explanation of the Fourth Commandment of God's covenant law in the Heidelberg Catechism, we see a remarkable agreement. Lord's Day 38, referring to Acts 2:42, mentions that the ministry of the gospel must be maintained, and continues to say that, especially on the day of rest, I have to diligently attend the church of God, in order to do especially four things:

1. to hear God's Word;
2. to use the sacraments;
3. to call publicly upon the LORD;
4. to give Christian offerings to the poor.

Some are reading in these four elements a certain order of worship. The reading and the preaching of the Word of God is the most important part and, therefore, comes first. Then the sacraments follow, as an underlining and affirmation of the Word of God. Moreover the prayers, inclusive the intercessions are mentioned, and finally the response of the congregation receives its place in the Christian charity. There is a clear parallel here with what is mentioned in Acts 2, whereby the two parts and the two parties of God's covenant are shown very clearly.

Arbitrary elaboration?

When we now pay attention to the other elements which have received a place in the worship service, it will be clear that they are grouped around the four main elements mentioned in Acts 2, and in Lord's Day 38. Of course, a certain tradition has been formed here, but that does not mean that an arbitrary extension has taken place. We take our starting point in the second order of worship as recommended by the Synod of Cloverdale 1983 (Orders of Worship B, Book of Praise, p. 582 ff.), because these orders go back to Calvin who himself always pointed to the early church. We follow hereby the 16 elements for the morning service.

1. Votum. We have here a quotation of the last verse of Psalm 124, one of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). These Psalms were sung in processions when the Israelite pilgrims were ascending Mount Zion at the occasion of the three great temple festivals of the Jewish year. Then the people of Israel came to present themselves before the LORD, the God of the covenant, in order to worship Him, to call upon His Name, since their only help was in the Name of the LORD, the Almighty God, who created heaven and earth. Israel was dependent on the active presence of the LORD. The same can be said of God's people today, who are starting each and every public worship service in dependance on the God of the covenant, who created all things.

2. Salutation. When, in the beginning of his letters, the apostle Paul gives his apostolic greetings to the congregation he points to the rich promise of God's covenant in which the LORD meets His people with His grace and peace. The apostle John does the same in the last book of the Bible. In the very same way the salutation in God's Name to the congregation follows the votum. It is the mouth of the minister speaking words like I Corinthians 1:3, I Timothy 1:2 or Revelation 1:4 and 5a, but, actually, it is the very Word of God Himself; it is the LORD God Himself greeting His covenant people with His covenant promises.

3. Congregational Singing. Upon that Word of promise expressed in the salutation there follows then an answerPsalm from the side of the people of God's covenant. It is clear that this singing has this character of being a response. It is not just an arbitrary song, but an answer to God's Word of promise. I would like to make the remark here that each Psalm in the Bible is to be taken in its entirety. Therefore, it is advisable, if possible, not to sing just one or two stanzas, but the whole Psalm, just as Israel did. Of course, many Psalms are too long, and would take too much time to sing them as a whole, but it is important to stress that the ideal is not only a single stanza but the entire Psalm.

4. The Ten Words of the Covenant. They can be taken from Exodus 20:2-17 or Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Already in the Old Testament the reading of the law of the LORD was an important element of the worship service, and the same can be said of the synagogue. Also before the Reformation of the 16th Century, here and there the law of the LORD was read in the worship service, but Calvin brought the law back into the worship service as a regular part of it. Actually, the name law is not completely correct, for in Exodus 20 (and also Deuteronomy 5) there is a clear coherence between the promise and the obligation of God's covenant.

First there are the opening words of the law, in which the LORD God announces Himself. I refer to that one sentence, written in the beginning of Exodus 20 (we hear that every Sunday morning in public worship): "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." We have to bear in mind what this sentence means. It is not a mere introduction, which has little or nothing to do with the contents of God's law, but these opening words are the PROMISE of God, which accompanies all Ten Commandments. In this promise, the LORD God announces Himself as the God of His covenant, who is very high and exalted, but who, at the same time, bows Himself down in deep mercy to His people, and who wants to show Himself as the Father of His children.

Therefore, in these opening words we have, right from the beginning, the twofold idea, which must be remembered with all God's commandments, namely, that in this promise the LORD announces Himself as the Almighty, who is exalted far above all creatures, while, at the same time, He announces Himself as the God of His covenant, who magnifies Himself by His great deeds in history, the God of the communion, the fellowship in His covenant.

Then the Ten Words follow, expressing the covenant obligations. These Ten Words must always be read in the light of the opening words, God's promise. Therefore, I prefer to speak about the constitution of God's covenant, consisting of two part: the promise and the obligation of the covenant of the LORD.

Already for this reason we should not replace this constitution of God's covenant by some admonishing parts of letters from the New Testament. There are some who prefer this and say: let us read a few parts of the New Testament letters instead of the law from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5. However, the whole of God's covenant with its two parts is involved! I also do not like to read after the constitution of Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 the summary as found in the New Testament, in the words of Christ found in Matthew 22. In the first place, Christ gave that summary in a very special context, in an argument with the Pharisees. In the second place, Moses had summarized God's Ten Words in the same way. However, my main reason is that in this summary the first constituting element of God's covenant, namely His promise, is not mentioned.

5. Congregational Singing. After this Word of God's covenant the answer of God's people follows again in the singing of a Psalm. This Psalm must have something to do with that constituting idea of God's covenant. It can be a Psalm in which we confess our sins, because we did not keep God's commandments as we ought to do. It can also be a Psalm of praise, because of God's faithfulness in His covenant. If possible, it is to be preferred that a Psalm is chosen in line with the first Psalm, or - when not the whole Psalm was sung - another part of that Psalm.

6. Prayer. (In this order of worship it is the prayer that contains, among others, a public confession of sins, as well as a prayer for forgiveness, for spiritual renewal, and for illumination by the Holy Spirit.) We have to be aware of this nice order. First of all, the law of the LORD is read to the people, together with the promise of God's covenant.

The life of God's children does not respond to the obligation of God's covenant. But God's people may pray for forgiveness, renewal of heart and illumination by the Holy Spirit, who promises to work with the Word of God. Hence this prayer is also an introduction to the reading and the preaching of God's Word.

7. Now follows the reading of the Bible. It has been said that one or more passages may be read, related to the sermon, and that this can be followed by singing. However, according to the custom of the early church the reading of the Bible and the preaching of God's Word belong together. Our Lord Jesus Himself followed this custom, by reading a passage of Isaiah, and preaching on that Word of God, right away (cf. Luke 4).

8. After one or more passages of the Holy Scriptures are read, there follows the reading of the text, and then comes the:

9. Ministry of the Word. This ministry of the Word of God is the proclamation of God's Word which is, at the same time, the explanation of the Holy Scriptures, the administration of reconciliation, appropriated and applied to God's people today, in their special circumstances. This teaching and preaching is the first element mentioned in Acts 2 and Lord's Day 38. It also received its position of honour in the whole of the (reformed) liturgy of God's covenant. It is and has to remain the main part of public worship service, and it may not be replaced by a short meditation or by a short timely word, the "topic of the day." No, it is to be the living proclamation of God's Word itself. With it the Holy Spirit will work in the hearts of God's people. Therefore we may not reduce this preaching, but we have to give it its rightful place. After the preaching of the Word of God follows:

10. The Responsive Song of the congregation: the Word of God is responded to by the people of God's covenant. Also this song may not be an arbitrary Psalm or Hymn, but should be such a song which expresses the idea that the Word of God that was heard is to be affirmed by a life which is fitting to God's covenant.

11. It is at this point that the administration of the Holy Baptism can take place. In this way we have a more correct order: the first means of grace with which the LORD comes to His people in His Word, in the administration of this Word. It is followed by the second means, the sacrament.

12. Hereafter will take place prayer, that is, the thanksgiving for the Word of God, as well as the prayer for all the needs of Christendom, the intercessions, also in response to the Word of God and its preaching.

13. Now the congregation brings her offerings, according to what is said in Lord's Day 38, "to give Christian offerings to the poor," and Acts 2:42. Therefore, the collection has a proper, Scriptural place in the public worship service. To offer something for the poor is an integral part of worshiping God.

14. After the sermon also the administration of the Lord's Supper can follow, again as the second means of God's grace in His covenant. It is not correct to speak about a service of the Lord's Supper. The Form for the Lord's Supper is not a sermon. It is only an explanation for the people of God's covenant. Also when we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we should first listen to the preaching of the Word of God, the first means of God's grace in His covenant.

15. In the closing song God's people may again give her response to God's grace and praise the LORD with her singing.

16. Then follows the benediction. Just as the people of the Old Dispensation received the Aaronitic blessing according to Numbers 6, and as the apostle wrote his farewell to the church of the New Testament, e.g., as in II Corinthians 13, so the congregation receives, and takes home in faith, God's blessing.

In the afternoon service, the Apostles' Creed has not the same place as the Constitution of God's Covenant in the morning service. We refer again to the order B, as advised by the Synod of Cloverdale 1983. Also the confession of faith fits within the framework of the covenant communion: God speaks and God's people responds. First, in the morning service, there is the Law, or rather, the constitution of God's covenant. It is God speaking His Word. Then, in the afternoon service, in the confession of faith, we have the response of faith of God's people. It is, therefore, a good thing that the congregation herself is actively participating in this act of confessing, for instance by singing the Apostles' Creed.


In the beginning of this article we said that there is such a beautiful order in our public worship service, especially as presented sub number B (p. 582ff. of the Book of Praise), and that this order which is derived from the order of John Calvin. We know that Calvin was in favour of going back to the early church and that he stressed that the church of the Reformation should honour the good customs of the early New Testament church in the times of the apostles and shortly thereafter. In this order, the Word and the response of God's people alternate constantly.

Besides order B, we have order of worship A variety in this sense that in A (p. 581ff. of the Book of Praise). This is the so-called "old order." In fact, this order is not so very old; it goes back to the Dutch synod of Middelburg, 1933. I do not want to say that this order A misses the Biblical, covenantal characteristic of expressing the meeting of God and His people in which God speaks His Word and God's people respond in faith, but I want to stress that the best Reformed tradition is given in order B.

"Out of custom or superstition"

Our conclusion is in the first place that we may not do anything in the whole matter of liturgy out of custom or superstition. We all know these words. They are derived from the beginning of the questions asked at the baptismal font. Over against the danger of an act "out of custom or superstition" it is stated that we have to use the sacrament of baptism for the purpose that to us and our children God's covenant is sealed.

"Out of custom" is wrong also with respect to the liturgy of God's covenant, but according to a custom is not wrong! In the passage of the Scriptures in which Jesus' preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth is mentioned, we read that the Lord "went to the synagogue, as His custom was, on the Sabbath day" (Luke 4:16). That was a good custom! Let us, therefore, continue this good custom, as a Scriptural tradition: to "diligently attend the church of God," "especially on the day of rest." In this respect we can even speak of an "apostolic tradition." This has nothing to do with the Roman equalization of Scripture and tradition, nor with the Roman "apostolic succession," but it is a matter of continuing what, already in the apostolic era, was seen as liturgy of God's covenant.

This does not mean that in the liturgy of God's covenant nothing could be improved any more. On the contrary, discussions on the worship service and the customs and traditions in it, are always necessary. We do not need to aim for a multitude of liturgical forms, but we ought to have as goal that in our liturgy we remain true to God's covenant. Let our liturgy not become a dead service. Not the extent, but the intensity must be our goal. We can also say, let us aim for depth rather than for breadth in our liturgy. K. Schilder said once: "No liturgical forms, just because of tradition." And also: "The Word of life demands living words." Dead forms can lead to the situation in which a congregation is preached to death or, at least, gets tired. But the LORD wants to have a living congregation, living people of His covenant, which is taught by the living proclamation of His Word!