A missing link in Reformed liturgy

Dr. K. Deddens A Brief Biography

The following is taken with permission, from Clarion Vol. 37, No. 15 16, 17, 18, and 19 (1988)


Four and a half centuries ago John Calvin had to leave Geneva and go to Strasbourg.

What Calvin did in that European city with respect to liturgy is very important. No doubt Dr. T. Brienen was right when he recently said that Calvin already in the first edition of his Institutes had drafted a certain order for public worship, especially for the service of Word and sacrament. No doubt it is also true that Calvin remained faithful to this first draft throughout his whole life. Nevertheless I would like to maintain that the cradle of Reformed liturgy is neither Basle (where Calvin wrote his Institutes), nor Geneva (where the reformer lived for a long time), but Strasbourg, where he was in exile for three years. There Calvin, to a large extent, crystallized a detailed order which had been used already for several years, with special attention to what precedes the reading and preaching of the Word of God. There Calvin was also in a position to start the Psalter in a rhymed version, which was finished later on in Geneva. This appeared to be of great importance for Reformed worship.


As far as preaching is concerned, Calvin followed the custom which originated in the beginning of the 16th century. In 1503, Johann Ulrich Surgant of Basle wrote a handbook for preaching in which he pleaded that worship services be improved. This improvement had to start with the preaching. He directed himself especially to the young preachers, the "freshmen." He also described the preaching as it existed in his days in some parish churches at Basle and in some villages in Alsace. This preaching was done completely in the German language, in contrast with the Latin part of worship in the mass.

It is also important that the Ten Commandments had a place in this worship service. Not that Surgant ushered in reformation, for theologically he did not deviate from the Romish doctrine of the church. But Surgant's book certainly proved to be useful to the reformation when it first attempted to create a renewed worship service. Leo Judae and Huldrich Zwingli, for instance, used Surgant's book in Zurich. The same can be said of Strasbourg and the changes made by Martin Bucer with respect to liturgy. But preeminent is the name of Theobald Schwartz, who on February 16, 1524 - even before Martin Luther! - read the mass in Strasbourg in the German language. Some consider this to be the date of the first Protestant worship. Not only did church Latin have to make place for the language of the people, but also the "communion" was to be distributed to the believers in both elements, bread and wine.

Martin Bucer

In the same year a book written by Martin Bucer was published in which he gave an account of the liturgical changes (he himself called them "renovations") which had taken place in Strasbourg.

In the second chapter Bucer gave a description of public worship as it took place in Strasbourg:

When the congregation comes together on Sunday, the minister exhorts the people to confess their sins and to pray for pardon; and on behalf of the whole congregation he makes confession to God, prays for pardon, and pronounces absolution to the believers. Thereupon, the whole congregation sings a few short psalms or hymns. Then the minister says a short prayer, reads to the congregation a passage from the writings of the apostles, and, as briefly as possible, expounds the same. Then the congregation sings again, this time the Ten Commandments, or something else. After that, the minister reads the gospel, and preaches the sermon proper. The sermon ended, the congregation sings the Articles of our Belief [i.e. the Apostles' Creed in metre]; and the minister says a prayer for the Magistrates and for all men, and specially for the congregation there present, beseeching an increase of faith, love, and grace to hold in reverence the memory of Christ's death. Then he admonishes those who wish to observe the Lord's Supper with him that they are to do so in memory of Christ, to die to their sins, and bear their cross willingly, and be strengthened in faith for what must come to pass when we contemplate with believing hearts what measureless grace and goodness Christ has shown to us, in that for us He offered up to His Father His life and blood upon the cross. After this exhortation, he reads the gospel concerning the Lord's Supper, as the three Evangelists and Paul in I Corinthians 11 have described it. Then the minister distributes the Bread and the Cup of the Lord among them, having partaken of also himself. The congregation then sings again a hymn of praise; and afterwards the minister closes the Supper with a short prayer, blesses the people, and lets them go in the peace of the Lord. This is the manner and custom with which we now celebrate the Lord's Supper on Sundays only.

Opening of the service

Now I address especially the opening of the public worship service on Sunday morning, as Calvin experienced it in Strasbourg in 1538. We have the following description of it.

When the congregation is assembled, the Pastor (Pfarrer) enters, and goes to the Holy Table (Altartisch) taking up such a position that he faces the people, and in order that every one may hear every word he stands upright, and begins the Common Worship, using approximately the following words; for he is able to lengthen or shorten them as opportunity or time affords

1. The Confiteor

Make confession to God the Lord, and let each one acknowledge with me his sins and iniquity:

Almight God, eternal Father, we acknowledge and confess unto Thee that we were conceived in unrighteousness,

and in all our life are full of sin and transgression, in that we have not gladly believed Thy Word nor followed Thy holy commandments. For Thy goodness' sake and for Thy Name's sake, be gracious unto us, we beseech Thee, and forgive us our iniquity, which is very great.

2. An absolution or comforting word: I Timothy 1.

This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus is come into the world to save sinners.

Let each make confession in his heart with St. Paul in truth and believe in Christ. So in His Name do I pronounce forgiveness unto you of all your sins, and I declare you to be loosed of them in earth so that ye may be loosed of them also in heaven and in all eternity. Amen.

Sometimes he takes other Words which comfort us in the forgiveness of sins and in the ransom of Christ for our sins, such as St. John 3:16, or 3:35-6, or Acts 10:43, or/ John 2:1-2.

3. Thereafter, the Church begins to sing a Psalm or hymn instead of the Introit; and sometimes the Kyrie eleyson and the Gloria in excelsis follow.

4. When this has been done, the Minister (Diener) says a short prayer for grace and for a right spirit, in order that the Word of God and the Sermon which are to follow may be heard with fruitful effect. The content of this prayer is based upon those desires which a Christian ought to have, and is usually drawn from the Sermon which follows it. I will now take one of the sort to which I refer, which I have formerly allowed to be issued.

The Lord be with you.
Let us pray.

Almighty, ever gracious Father, forasmuch as all our salvation depends upon our having truly understood Thy holy Word: therefore grant us that our hearts be set free from worldly things, so that we may with all diligence and faith hear and apprehend Thy holy Word, that thereby we may rightly understand Thy gracious will, and in all sincerity live according to the same, to Thy praise and glory; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

5. Then the Church sings a Psalm or some verse, and the Minister (Diener) goes to the front of the chancel, and reads from one of the gospels (Evangelisten), reading it in order, and selecting as much as he is minded to expound in a Sermon.

Calvin in the French congregation

In the French refugee congregation at Strasbourg Calvin followed this order which Bucer employed in the German congregation of Strasbourg. But it must be said that he did not slavishly imitate that which had been accepted as a custom in Strasbourg.

The order of the opening of the public worship service of Calvin's congregation at Strasbourg can be summarized in the following manner:

1. Scripture sentence with the words of Psalm 121:2.

2. Confession of sins.

3. Scriptural words of pardon to comfort the consciences, with the "absolution," the words of acquittal and forgiveness.

4. Singing by the congregation of the Constitution of God's covenant (the address of God and the first table of God's law in a rhyming version of Exodus 20, sung with Kyrie eleison after each commandment).

5. Short prayer.

6. Singing by the congregation of the second table of God's law in the same way as mentioned sub 4.

7. Prayer of the minister (now from the pulpit), ending with the Lord's Prayer, as a prayer for the opening of God's Word.

After this prayer for the illumination of the Holy Spirit, there follows the reading of the Scriptures and the preaching of the Word of God.

It is remarkable that the confession of sins (and the subsequent absolution) takes place at the very beginning of the worship service. Calvin used the following words:

Almighty, eternal God and Father, we confess and acknowledge that we, alas, were conceived and born in sin, and are therefore inclined to all evil and slow to all good; that we transgress thy holy commandments without ceasing, and ever more corrupt ourselves. But we are sorry for the same, and beseech Thy grace and help. Wherefore have mercy upon us, most gracious and merciful God and Father, through Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ. Grant to us and increase in us Thy Holy Spirit, that we may recognize our sin and unrighteousness from the bottom of our hearts, attain true repentance and sorrow for them, die to them wholly, and please thee entirely by a new godly life. Amen.

The words of absolution which follow the Scriptural words of pardon are as follows: "Let each of you confess that he is really a sinner who has to humble himself before God. He must believe that the heavenly Father will be gracious to him in Jesus Christ. To all who have repentance and who seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I pronounce forgiveness in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen."

Actually there are only a few differences between Martin Bucer's order of liturgy in the German congregation at Strasbourg and the one which Calvin employed in the French congregation of the same city.

The main difference is at the beginning of the service.

Bucer started right away with a confession of sins, while Calvin preceded it with the words of Psalm 124 (some say it was Psalm 121:2). Another difference concerns the Constitution of God's covenant, which Calvin had the congregation sing in place of a Psalm or a Hymn sometimes connected by Bucer with Kyrie eleison, and always used by Calvin after each commandment).


Calvin was of the opinion that this order of the public worship service was very important. In his Institutes (III,4,11) he shows the reason for this very common confession of sins at the beginning of the service:

Seeing that in every sacred assembly we stand in the view of God and angels, in what way should our service begin but in acknowledging our own unworthiness? But this you will say is done in every prayer; for as often as we pray for pardon, we confess our sins. I admit it. But if you consider how great is our carelessness, or drowsiness, or sloth, you will grant me that it would be a salutary ordinance if the Christian people were exercised in humiliation by some formal method of confession. For though the ceremony which the Lord enjoined on the Israelites belonged to the tutelage of the Law, yet the thing itself belongs in some respect to us also. And, indeed, in all well-ordered churches, in observance of an useful custom, the minister, each Lord's day, frames a formula of confession in his own name and that of the people, in which he makes a common confession of iniquity, and supplicates pardon from the Lord. In short, by this key a door of prayer is opened privately for each, and publicly for all.

In this respect, Calvin points also to the example of Holy Scripture. Not only personally but also together, in common, confession of guilt and sin has to be made:

Of this latter description we have an example in the solemn confession which the whole people made under the authority and guidance of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 1:6,7). For their long captivity, the destruction of the temple, and suppression of their religion, having been the common punishment of their defection, they could not make meet acknowledgment of the blessing of deliverance without previous confession of their guilt. And it matters not though in one assembly it may sometimes happen that a few are innocent, seeing that the members of a languid and sickly body cannot boast of soundness. Nay, it is scarcely possible that these few have not contracted some taint, and so bear part of the blame.

Calvin considered himself in this respect to be in the line of the church fathers. For instance, Chrysostom had stated in a sermon on the gospel of Matthew in the year 390 A.D. that the first prayers in public worship must always request the forgiveness of sins and appeal to God's mercy.

Calvin's opinion was that also the common forgiveness of sins was very important (Institutes, IV, 1, 20ff.):

Our first entrance into the Church and the kingdom of God is by forgiveness of sins, without which we have no covenant nor union with God. For thus he speaks by the Prophet, "in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and 1 will break the bow, and the sword, and the battle, out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in mercies (Hos. 2:18, 19). We see in what way the Lord reconciles us to Himself by His mercy. So in another passage, where he foretells that the people whom he had scattered in anger will again be gathered together, I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me (Jer. 33:8). Wherefore, our initiation into the fellowship of the Church is by the symbol of ablution, to teach us that we have no admission into the family of God, unless by His goodness our impurities are previously washed away.

Nor by remission of sins does the Lord only once for all elect and admit us into the Church, but by the same means He preserves and defends us in it. For what would it avail us to receive a pardon of which we were afterwards to have no use? That the mercy of the Lord would be vain and delusive if only granted once, all the godly can bear witness; for there is none who is not conscious, during his whole life, of many infirmities which stand in need of divine mercy. And truly it is not without cause that the Lord promises this gift specially to his own household, nor in vain that He orders the same message of reconciliation to be daily delivered to them. Wherefore, as during our whole lives we carry about with us the remains of sin, we could not continue in the Church one single moment were we not sustained by the uninterrupted grace of God in forgiving our sins."

Back to the early church!

Did Calvin link up with liturgical customs of the late Middle Ages and with the situation in Strasbourg for the sake of convenience or because he himself was not very inventive?

Neither is the case! We already saw that Calvin consciously wanted to base himself on Holy Scripture. Besides, he also very much stressed the connection with the early church (L'eglise ancienne). Especially when liturgical matters were involved he pointed to the customs of the New Testament church and the first period after Pentecost. Frequently he quoted apostolic fathers and church fathers in order to emphasize his argument.

It must also be said that Calvin was absolutely not aiming for a multitude of forms in worship. But that which had shown itself to be significant in former ages, especially in the early church, had to be taken over.

As for the first part of the worship service, which we are now discussing, I want to investigate why Calvin stressed the importance of:

1. Confession of sins.

2. Forgiveness of sins.

3. God's words of His covenant.

4. The Kyrie-eleison.

Confession of sins

We have already discovered that Calvin stressed the importance of common guilt, an emphasis which he based on the Bible.

Evidently also personal guilt had to be confessed, but that is not a matter of a sacramental auricular confession before the priest. Calvin here quoted James 5:16, from which text we learn that we have to confess our sins before each other and that we have to pray for forgiveness of sins.

In the New Testament we more than once find indications that there is the necessity of the confession of sins and the petition for forgiveness. But it is also clear that the Christian church realized this from the very beginning.

In the first letter of Clement to the church at Corinth (dated before the end of the first century) we find this prayer: "O merciful and compassionate, forgive us our iniquities, and unrighteousness, and transgressions, and shortcomings.

Reckon not every sin of Thy servants and handmaids, but cleanse us with the cleansing of Thy truth, and guide our steps . . . ." We agree with the comments of A.B. Macdonald, who notes that the reference to men and women ("servants and handmaids") is one of the clearer indications that Clement's prayer had its origins in the public worship of the community.

I draw a second example from the Didachè ("Teaching of the twelve apostles"), probably also written at the end of the first century, or else not long after.

We read in that book two statements which are important: "In church, confess your transgressions, and do not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of Life" (IV, 14), and: "When you gather together each Lord's Day, break bread and give thanks. But first confess your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure" (XIV,1).

Later on, this confession of sins was limited to the priest personally in the Confiteor: "We beseech Thee, Lord, take away from us our sins, that we may be worthy to enter the holy of holies with a pure conscience."

That concerned the personal preparations of the priest before he celebrated the mass. "The priest was not to start his work before he had personally confessed his unworthiness and sinfulness . . . " (Van Rongen). But that had to be done just before the mass.

Bucer said in Strasbourg: No, before anything else there must be confession of sins; and Calvin agreed with that. Moreover, both of them were of the opinion that this was a matter concerning the whole congregation. Before the Word of God was administered, and before the minister went to the pulpit, sins were confessed on behalf of the whole congregation.

Forgiveness of sins

Confession of sins and forgiveness of sins are closely connected. Therefore the forgiveness of sins is an element in the liturgy which Calvin placed immediately after the confession of sins. He preceded the words of absolution with a word of comfort from Holy Scripture. He also came into contact with this in Strasbourg, for in Bucer's congregation the worship service started with confession of sins, after which was quoted the word of acquittal from I Tim. 1:15, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Another word of comfort from the New Testament could also be quoted, e.g. John 3:16, John 3:35 and 36, Acts 10:43, or I John 2:1 and 2.

Evidently the absolution had nothing to do with the sacramental absolution of Rome, let alone the mediation of the saints or any form of indulgence. It was a word of comfort that God is a good and forgiving God, who after confession of sins does not mark transgression.

God's words of His covenant

After the word of comfort from Holy Scripture and the forgiveness of sins, Calvin followed with the singing of the Decalogue by the congregation. This singing of God's law was done "in order to bring the congregation to the awareness that it was the duty of the congregation to walk in holiness before God, thankful for the forgiveness of sins" (Kruijf).

This rhymed version of the Decalogue came from Calvin himself. The opening words of the Decalogue were, in Calvin's opinion, not just a kind of introduction, but the promise of the LORD God in the covenant with His people: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

H. Hasper correctly writes: "Ex. 20:2 is not an `introduction' in the sense of the introductory stanzas of rhymed versions. Ex. 20:2 is the main point: God's deed of love, God's action. After that must follow man's deed of love, his reaction."

In the light of the forgiveness and acquittal of sins and also in the light of God's promise that He brings His people in Christ out of the house of bondage of sins, His people have to live according to the obligation of God's covenant. In connection with this what is also remarkable is Calvin's last stanza, which is not directly derived from Exodus 20:

Dieu, qui de toute sainctete,
contiens seul la vertu en toy,
a la Justice de to Loy,
vueilles noz meurs conformer.

(O God, in whom alone is the power of all holiness,
let our behaviour be according to the justice of Thy law.)

Calvin here followed Luther's version of "Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot."

However, Luther added to his rhymed version a New Testament stanza, in which the help of the Mediator Jesus Christ was invoked.

Did the Reformers invent the practice of reciting the words of God's covenant? No, actually this custom is much older.

Think of the priests serving in the temple, who had to impress God's law upon the people of God's covenant.

Think about the reading of the whole Torah in the synagogue. There are indications that the law played a role in the liturgy of the early church. With respect to this I quote E.F. Kruijf: ". . . when the gnostics had appeared, who spoke more about trust in God than fear before God, some had the opinion that the Law should be placed more in the foreground; and even before traces are found of the reading of the Law in the worship services, it appears that some had sown it into the hearts of young and old." Kruijf refers then to the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century, which partially go back to the second century.

Also later on, at the end of the Middle Ages, the reading of the Law, or the singing of it, was used in some churches.

In Calvin's case the reading of the Law replaced more or less the Great Gloria, which was used for many centuries after the Introitus and which was derived from the song of the angels in Luke 2: "Glory to God . . . ." That Gloria had the tone of thanks to God, who had sent His Son into the world. Hence it is noteworthy that in Calvin's case the singing of the Decalogue was placed in the framework of thankfulness, after the forgiveness of sins.

Later on the Law was emphasized much more as the source of the knowledge of misery, but for Calvin its function in worship service was different. Something of this is retained in the last part of stanza 9 of Hymn 7 in the Book of Praise:

That we, delivered from all evil,
May live in thankfulness to Thee.

The Kyrie-eleison

As we have seen, Calvin had the Kyrie-eleison sung after each stanza ofthe Decalogue. He prayed a short prayer after the singing of the first table of the Law and twelve times the people sang "Lord, have mercy."

We see that Calvin is again in harmony with Luther, who also connected the Kyrie with the singing of the Law.

The Kyrie-eleison was well-known as the refrain of an old Christmas song, also dating from the century of the reformation. This hymn goes back to an old German song from the 11th century: "Nu sis uns willekomen, herro Christ, du unser aller herro bist."

In popular language the Kyrie-eleison was well-known in the times of Luther and Calvin. But its history is much older.

In the years 381-384 the nun Egeria came from northern Spain or southern France and stayed in Jerusalem. There she attended many worship services when Cyril was bishop of Jerusalem. In the account of her travels she speaks about these services. In the daily service at four P.M. the bishop rose and one of the deacons prayed. Then, "many little children standing around always responded: Kyrie eleison, which means: 'Have mercy'." Egeria relates that this singing happened often in Jerusalem's liturgy.

From the East this Kyrie-eleison was brought to the West, and the Greek words were maintained for a long time.

Often the Kyrie-eleis took turns with Christe-eleis.

It is not impossible that stadtholder Plinius in his well-known letter to the emperor Trajan in the beginning of the second century alluded to this Christe-eleis and Kyrie-eleis when he wrote that the Christians in prayer called upon Christ as a God. Definitely this same Kyrie-eleison was found in Egypt coinciding with the morning prayer, while the faces of the people were turned to the East, to the rising sun.

We also have to bear in mind that the Kyrieeleison is used more than once in the New Testament (cf. e.g. Matt. 15:22 and 25; 20:30 and 31), but also in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (cf. e.g. Psalm 6:3; 9:14; 31:10; 41:5 and 11; 56:2; 86:3, and Isa. 33:2). In the Apostolic Constitutions it is said that this Kyrie had to be the response in the prayer of the deacons. Already in early times Kyrie as well as Gloria were hymns which received their place at the beginning of the worship service. It is typical of Calvin that he did not abolish these hymns but placed them in his liturgy. The singing of God's Law as a rule of thankfulness took the place of the Gloria, while the refrain to it became the Kyrie. It should also be mentioned that this Kyrie did not have the character of a confession of sins (that had already been done), but the character of a petition for help, in order to live according to the obligations of God's covenant.

Continuation of the service

The first part of the Sunday morning service in Strasbourg was closed with the final Kyrie-eleison after the last stanza of Calvin's rhymed version of God's law. Until this point in the service, Calvin stood the whole time at the table in front of the pulpit. This first part of the service was placed in the framework of humility and thankfulness. Now, after the conclusion of this first part, the opening of God's Word followed. For that purpose the minister ascended the pulpit. Before the reading (or readings) from Holy Scripture took place, there was first the prayer for the opening of God's Word and also the prayer for the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Right after the reading, the preaching followed. The other elements of the service (also the service of the sacraments) had their place after the sermon.

To these other elements belonged the singing of Psalms, the intercessions, the collection, and finally the benediction. In the eventuality that there was the administration of the Holy Baptism and/or the celebration of the Lord's Supper, these also were placed after the sermon.

Obviously, respecting the traditions of the church, without becoming formalistic, Calvin had a carefully considered order for the first part of the service.

Calvin declared he was not against forms, but emphasized that it was necessary to get the essence of forms. One must be conscious of what is going on in the worship service!

Back to Geneva

Calvin was called to return to Geneva and finally he complied with the urgent request. But he could never completely accomplish in Geneva what he had been aiming for and appeared to have been accomplishing in Strasbourg.

When Calvin came back in Geneva in the year 1541, he was confronted with Farel's liturgy, which was already in use when he had left the city three years earlier.

That was a liturgy without congregational singing and with an infrequent celebration of the Lord's Supper. There were similarities between this liturgy and that of Zwingli, but not so much that of Bucer and Calvin at Strasbourg. Calvin did his best to change this liturgy and he partially succeeded. A very important point to him was the singing by the congregation. Indeed, the whole Psalter was finished in 1562, two years before Calvin's death. But he did not succeed in bringing about more frequent celebrations of the Lord's Supper, which caused grief to Calvin. The Reformer was troubled by the fact that even a monthly celebration did not appear to be possible. Once he wrote about that fact: "I mentioned in the public announcements that our custom is abnormal in order that our offspring would feel freer to improve upon it." But that offspring did not change it very much!

In the year after Calvin's return to Geneva, an important book by Calvin about liturgy was published; in it he made mention in the title already that he would like to go back to the custom of the early church. He was aiming to continue what he had written already before in his Institutes, and what he had worked out in Strasbourg. But in certain points he had to give in, also concerning the first part of the worship service on Sunday morning. (Calvin did not give a specific order for the Sunday afternoon service.) Accordingly there were five ways in which it was different from the order of Strasbourg:

1. The omission of the words of comfort from Holy Scripture after the confession of sins.

2. The omission of the words of "absolution."

3. The change from the rhymed version of the law to the reading of it.

4. The omission of the singing of the Kyrie-eleison after the individual stanzas of the rhymed version of the law.

5. The change from standing behind the table in the first part of the service: from the very beginning the service was now conducted from the pulpit.

Some considered these things as "novelties." Not each and every point weighed equally heavily with Calvin. For instance, the omission of the words of comfort from Scripture after the confession of sins, and also the "absolution" he really wanted to introduce in Geneva, and, indeed, later on he advised its introduction elsewhere. At a later time Calvin answered a question concerning liturgy in the following manner: "To add to the public confession of sins a promise, which exhorts the sinners to the hope of forgiveness and reconciliation - there will be no one who does not acknowledge that this would be very useful. I wanted to introduce this use from the very beginning; but because some feared the novelty of it, I was willing to abolish this use. Therefore this matter is omitted. It would not be opportune to change things now.

For many are busy standing up (from kneeling prayer, K.D.) before others have reached the end of the confession of sins. But more so it is our wish to get people used to both of these things, because they are not bound to anything yet."

So the confession of sins was maintained, but not the words of comfort afterwards. Calvin introduced the confession of sins in Geneva with these words: "Brothers, let everyone of us place himself before the LORD with confession of his sins and debts and let him say with me these words in his heart."

Refugee congregations

Was this the end of the elements which had been omitted from the beginning of the Sunday morning worship? Let us turn for a moment to London, England, where Martin Micron had fled in 1549, seven years after the publication of Calvin's liturgical book in Geneva. In 1554, just a year after he had to leave London again, he wrote his Christlicke Ordinancien, from which we learn the order of worship of the refugee congregation in London. The first part of this service was only an exhortation to prayer which ended with the Lord's Prayer and the singing of a Psalm.

After the sermon followed the reading of the law, exhortation to confession of sins, a prayer in which this confession was expressed, and the proclamation of the "loosing and binding of sins."

Several things are noteworthy. In the first place almost the entire first part of the service was placed in a later phase of the service, namely, after the sermon. Moreover, the confession of sins was placed after the reading of the law, and the law was apparently considered as the source of knowledge of misery. The exhortation to confession of sins was worded in this way: "We see in this divine law as in a mirror how much and in how many ways we have incensed God with our transgressions; so let us now wholeheartedly desire that He will forgive them, saying, . . ." (there follows a prayer with confession of sins).

What is new is the "binding of sins," the so-called formula of retention, directed to those who do not repent from their sins:

. . . I proclaim to them from the Word of God that all their sins are bound in heaven and are not loosed until they will repent."

So the forgiveness of sins came back, but in a totally different place than in Calvin's Strasbourg liturgy. Here should also be mentioned the name of Vallérand Poullain, who served the French refugee congregation at Strasbourg after Calvin and who departed to England in 1547, where he in 1551 received the function of superintendent of the French-speaking refugee congregation at Glastonbury.

In that year his Liturgia Sacra was published. In this book we find the Liturgia diei dominici (the order of Sunday), which contains (as far as the first part of it is concerned):

1. Singing: first part of the song of the Ten Commandments.
2. Confessio peccatorum (confession of sins).
3. Absolutio (formula of forgiveness).
4. Singing: second part of the song of the Ten Commandments.
5. Short prayer.
6. Singing: last stanza of the song of the Ten Commandments. Then followed the reading of Scripture and the preaching.

When "Bloody Mary" started her reign, Poullain, Micron and many others had to flee to the continent. Poullain continued his work in Frankfurt and established church life in the same way as in England.

Other countries

At the same time John Knox was a minister of the English refugee congregation at Frankfurt. A year later he became a minister of the English refugee congregation at Geneva and met Calvin. The year thereafter he published in Geneva his liturgical book The Forme of Prayers and Administration of the Sacraments, etc., used in the Englishe Congregation at Geneva; and approved by the famous and godly learned man, John Calvin.

Knox started the service as follows:

1. Confession of sins.
2. Prayer for forgiveness.
3. Singing of a rhymed Psalm.

Then followed the prayer for illumination, the reading of Scripture and the preaching. Again Calvin's influence is to be seen: the service started with humiliation, followed by prayer for forgiveness and the singing of a psalm that has to do with forgiveness. Only after the sermon there followed intercessions, the Apostles' Creed, and the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

This liturgy was maintained in Scotland.

As far as the Hungarian Reformed churches were concerned, we would like to point to the fact that the custom was maintained that during the singing of Psalms of humiliation, confession of sins, and forgiveness of sins (with the Genevan melodies!), the minister was seated below the pulpit. After that first part of the service he ascended the pulpit, just as Calvin also did in his French congregation at Strasbourg.

It was not always the same elements and the same order that entered the Reformed liturgies of several countries, but it is clear that Calvin's liturgy had a great influence. It is also clear that not only in Strasbourg but also in several other places that which Calvin was not able to realize in Geneva was indeed achieved.

Datheen in Frankenthal and in the Netherlands

A clear link to Calvin was found in Frankenthal in the Dutch refugee congregation of the Palatinate.

In 1562 Petrus Dathenus became the minister of this congregation. He had been in London, but in 1553 he, too, had fled. In 1555 he had become a minister of the Flemish congregation at Frankfurt, where he had met Calvin.

In Frankenthal, he first made a translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, and after that a version of the rhymed Psalms of Marot and Beza. In 1566 Datheen's Book of Praise was published. Datheen was in his last year a minister of the refugee congregation at Frankenthal. The opening of Datheen's worship service can be reconstructed as follows: Datheen started with a prayer, and after the singing (or reading) of the law there was an exhortation to penitence and to faith in God's promises. Then followed words of admonition and comfort, retention, and declaration of grace. After the sermon followed confession of sins and intercessions. It is noteworthy that several elements of Calvin's beginning of the service are found here. But the element of Gloria (the law as a rule of thankfulness) disappeared, and there was added a confession of sins after the sermon.

The first synod in the Netherlands, Dordrecht 1574, dropped the matter of confession of sins, words of comfort from Scripture, absolution, and retention-formula.

Gaspar van der Heyden was the chairman and he received the assignment to draft a shorter prayer for after the sermon. Van der Heyden also drafted a new liturgy in 1580, in which retention and declaration of grace were missing completely.

At the Synod of Dordrecht 1578 Peter Datheen presided, but his colleague Gaspar van der Heyden was in the chair again at the Synod of Middelburg 1581.

This synod made an important decision concerning retention and declaration of grace. The delegates from Gelderland had placed on the table the question whether or not it would be good after the sermon to proclaim to the converted forgiveness of sins and to the unbelievers the binding of sins.

But the synod was of the opinion that because the binding and loosing of sins was proclaimed sufficiently in the preaching of God's Word, it was not necessary to introduce a separate form. Indeed, the first part of the service would now be: Reading of Scripture, Singing of a Psalm, Votum and Prayer before the sermon.

Some have said that the Synod of 1574, and especially the Synod of 1581 (both of them chaired by Gaspar van der Heyden) spoiled the beautiful start of Calvin's liturgy.

Not after the sermon

Apparently some were impressed by the argument of the Synod of Middelburg 1581 that the binding and loosing of sins is done sufficiently in the preaching of God's Word. This was supported by Lord's Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which confesses that the key of preaching God's Word opens and closes God's Kingdom. A special formula after the preaching of God's Word appeared superfluous: a kind of sermonette after the sermon.

No doubt there is an element of truth in this. But one must be aware of a question placed upon the table of the Synod of 1581. The delegates of Gelderland asked about a formula after the sermon. That would be a kind of appendix which never had a function before in the worship service. What Calvin did in Strasbourg was different. He maintained Confiteor, Absolution, Gloria, and Kyrie, but in the Scriptural sense, and as a beautiful whole: that humble beginning of the service with confession of sins, comfort from Scripture, acquittal from God, His words of the covenant in promise and obligation, and the petition to live according to God's will.

Thereafter there was a prayer for the opening of God's Word and then followed reading of the Scriptures and preaching. Much later there was again an attempt to insert the "absolution" in the first part of the worship service on Sunday morning.

Deputies, appointed by the Synod of Leeuwarden 1920 to study the Order of Liturgy, placed on the table of the Synod of 1923 a report in which they pleaded for the re-introduction of the declaration of forgiveness of sins. This would then commence with the words: "The minister speaks to all who sincerely regret their sins and take refuge in the only Saviour Jesus Christ, I declare the forgiveness of sins in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen." But this proposal was not adopted by the Synod of Utrecht.

Ten years later when the Synod of Middelburg (!) again dealt with the whole matter of liturgy, the status quo was maintained as it had developed over the course of time in the churches.

After the liberation in 1944 in the Netherlands, the Synod of Kampen 1975 again dealt with the order of worship.

This synod took over a large part of Calvin's order of liturgy for the Sunday morning. Unfortunately his complete Strasbourg liturgy was not taken over.

The Synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches at Cloverdale 1983 followed the sister churches in the Netherlands by recommending to the churches this second order of liturgy. But together with A. Kuyper, G. van Dooren, G. van Rongen and others I would like to plead for the reintroduction of the beautiful beginning of Calvin's liturgy at Strasbourg, which is now a missing link in Reformed liturgy. I agree with the recent remark of C. Trimp that there is room for a third order of liturgy. It could be done in the way of the congregation at Blue Bell, where especially the confession of sins and the absolution is maintained.


Is it true that a word of comfort from Scripture after confession of sins, together with a word of acquittal and forgiveness would be an unnecessary repetition because it is already done in the sermon? The answer is no. In the first place there are other elements in the liturgy which take place more than once. I point to the service of praise. The singing of the congregation is not limited to one selection, but it comes back (fortunately!) several times in the liturgy.

Also praying is not limited to one prayer only.

In the second place: in the Form for the celebration of the Lord's Supper we have the traditional invitation and the retention. This is also true in the Abbreviated Form for the celebration of the Lord's Supper. There the invitation-formula is: "All who by the grace of God repent of their sins, desiring to fight against their unbelief and live according to God's commandments, will certainly be received byGod at the table of His Son Jesus Christ. They may be fully assured that no sin or weakness which still remains in them against their will shall keep God from accepting them in grace and granting them this heavenly food and drink."

Then follows the retention-formula (in the Form called "the admonition"): "But to all who do not truly grieve over their sins and do not repent from them, we declare that they have no part in the kingdom of God. We admonish them to abstain from the holy supper; otherwise their judgment will be the heavier."

Calvin esteemed this retention-formula very highly and placed it at the beginning of the service.

The argument is used that invitation and retention are sound here in the context of self-examination with a view to the celebration of or abstinence from the Lord's Supper. But I ask: is the whole matter of self-examination limited to that? Is this not something which we have to execute continually, even daily?

With respect to this I would like to point to the fact that it is not right that in some churches the Form for the celebration of the Lord's Supper is cut into two parts. One reads the first part on the so-called Sunday of preparation, namely, the part concerning self-examination, while the rest of the Form is read on the Sunday of the celebration itself. But apart from the question whether or not it is desirable to have a separate Sunday of celebration, liturgically it is not right to spread a Form over two Sundays. When the words of comfort concerning forgiveness of sins and the retention come back in the Sunday morning service, the matter of that continual obligation of self-examination will prove to be a real blessing.


In summary, I come to the following conclusions:

1. It was an important and laudable principle of Calvin that liturgically he sought connection with:

a . what he found in Holy Scripture;

b. the custom of the early church;

c . good customs which had developed in the course of history.

2. The first part of Calvin's order of liturgy (the part before the prayer for the opening of God's Word) forms an organic whole according to the triad: misery, deliverance, and thankfulness.

3. Calvin rightly emphasized very strongly the element of humility at the very beginning of the worship service.

4. This humility is expressed in the confession of sins, which is to be followed directly by a word of comfort from Scripture and the declaration of forgiveness of sins for believers.

5. The argument that absolution is given already in the preaching and that it is therefore superfluous to do it in another way is an insufficient argument:

a . there would be an element of truth to this if absolution were placed after the sermon;

b . there are more elements in liturgy which take place more than once, e.g. singing and prayers;

c . similarly, aside from the preaching of God's Word, a kind of absolution (and retention) takes place in the Forms for the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

6. When reintroducing the word of comfort from Holy Scripture and the formula of absolution, one must be on guard not to be uniform: Holy Scripture offers abundant material for this.

7. It is seldom realized that the (singing of the) law by Calvin was designed to be an expresssion of thankfulness and a replacement of the "great Gloria."

8. It is to be emphasized that the beginning of the law contains God's promise, which forms a complete unit with the Ten Words; this is to be called the Constitution of God's Covenant.

9. Because of this unity of promise and obligation of God's covenant, a repetition of the law in the "summary" is superfluous:

a . actually this summary had already been given by Moses in Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18;

b . when Christ gives this "summary" it was done in a different context; c . a repetition of the law in a summary weakens the character of the promise of God's covenant within the framework of the worship service;

10. Calvin had a special reason for having the Kyrie-eleison sung by the congregation, namely, the repeated petition for help from the Lord in order that the congregation would practise the service of love in thankfulness.

11. Calvin had a special reason for reserving the pulpit for the reading and preaching of the Word of God, while the beginning of the worship service and the administration of the sacraments took place in front of the pulpit.

12. With a view to the special character of the second worship service, namely, the emphasis on the confession of the congregation and the instruction in that respect, Calvin's first part of the Sunday morning service was restricted to the morning service only and not interchanged with the afternoon service.