I. The Nature of Public Worship
Since the end of the creation week, God has commanded that one day in seven be set aside as a day of rest and worship (Genesis 2:4). In New Testament times the Lord's Day, which commemorates the resurrection of Christ, has become the weekly day of rest which is to be kept holy in accordance with the Fourth Commandment (Hebrews 4:9), and is to be dedicated to God's glory by the gathering of His people in public worship. Such public worship services held each Lord's Day and on other occasions at the call of the Consistory are official church gatherings at which all of God's children are required to be in attendance unless providentially hindered (Hebrews 10:25).
Since the Word of God itself restricts God's people only to such practices in worship which his Word specifically sanctions (Deuteronomy 12:30-32; John 4:23-24), the principles of the public worship of God must not be derived from any other source than the Bible, nor may they depart from its teaching.
A service of public worship is not merely a gathering of God's children with each other, but above all else a meeting of the Triune God with His chosen people. God is present in public worship not only by virtue of the divine omnipresence but, much more intimately, as the faithful covenant Savior (see Hebrews 12:18-25). The Lord Jesus Christ said: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).
The purpose of public worship is the glory of God. Therefore His people should engage in all the elements of worship with their eyes focused on His glory. The aim of public worship is the building of Christ's Church by the edification of the saints and the addition to its membership of those who are being saved all to the glory of God. Through public worship on the Lord's Day Christians should learn to serve God all the days of the week in all their activities, remembering, whether they eat or drink or whatever they do, to do all to the glory of God.
Public worship is rightly said to be "divine" because God is its beginning and its end. It is of Him and through Him and unto Him.
Public worship is Christian when the worshippers recognize that Christ is the only Mediator through Whom they come to God, when they honor Christ as the great Head of the Church Who rules over public worship, and when their worship is an expression of their faith in Christ and of their love for him.
Public worship must be performed in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Therefore externalism and hypocrisy stand condemned. The forms of public worship have value only when they serve to express the inner reverence of the worshipper and his sincere devotion to the true and living God. Only those whose hearts have been renewed by the Holy Spirit are capable of such reverence and devotion.
The Lord Jesus Christ has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship but, in the interest of life and power in worship, has given His Church a large measure of liberty in using the elements of worship sanctioned by Scripture. It may not be forgotten, however, that there is true liberty only where the rules of God's Word are observed and the Spirit of the Lord is. All things must be done decently and in order, and God's people should serve Him with reverence and in the beauty of holiness. From its beginning to its end, a service of public worship should be characterized by the simplicity which is an evidence of sincerity and by the beauty and dignity which are manifestation of holiness.
Public worship differs from private worship because in public worship God is served by the saints united as His covenant people, the Body of Christ. For this reason, covenant children as well as adults should be present as far as possible. For the same reason, no favoritism may be shown to any who attend, nor may any member of the church presume to exalt himself above others as though he were more spiritual, but each one must esteem others better than himself.
It is necessary for God's people to come into His presence with a deep sense of awe at the thought of His perfect holiness and their own great sinfulness. They are to enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise for the great salvation which He has so graciously provided for them through His only begotten Son, and has applied to them by the Holy Spirit.
II. The Scriptural Elements of Public Worship
- Since a service of public worship is in its essence a meeting of God with his people, the parts of the service are of two kinds: those which are performed on behalf of God, and those which are performed by the congregation. In the former the worshippers are receptive, in the latter they are active. It is reasonable that these two types of elements be made to alternate as far as possible.
- The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is performed by the minister as God's servant. Through it God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the interpretation of Holy Scripture in the sermon. For this reason the minister does well to refrain from interspersing the reading of God's Word with human comments, and the congregation should attend to the reading with deepest reverence. Certain portions of Scripture may be read in response by the congregation when appropriate.
- In the sermon God addresses the congregation by the mouth of His servant. It is a matter of supreme importance that the minister preach only the Word of God, not the wisdom of man, that he declare the whole counsel of God, and that he rightly handle the Word of truth. To fulfil these goals the sermon must be prepared with the utmost care. A text may not be used merely to introduce a sermon but must be painstakingly expounded. In the sermon the minister should explain the Word of God for the instruction of his hearers and then apply it for their exhortation. Care should be taken in preaching that Christian duty not be divorced from Christian truth. The minister fails to perform his task as a God-appointed watchman on Zion's walls if he neglects to warn the congregation of prevalent soul-destroying teachings by enemies of the gospel. The minister shall seek to build up the saints in the most holy faith and as Christ's ambassador should beseech the unconverted to be reconciled to God. Nothing is more necessary than that the gospel of salvation by grace be proclaimed without any adulteration or compromise, so that the unsaved may rely for salvation only on the grace of God, to the exclusion of their own works or character, and so that the saints may ascribe the glory for their salvation only to God. For these reasons, the Consistory must make certain that no person may enter the pulpit if there is reasonable doubt concerning his doctrinal soundness or knowledge of Scripture.
- It is proper for the minister at the beginning of the service to extend a welcome in God's name to the congregation by the use of the apostolic salutation, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." At the conclusion of the service the minister shall pronounce in God's name either the high priestly benediction, "The LORD bless you, and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: the LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace," or the apostolic benediction, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." If, however, the minister considers another scriptural benediction more fitting for a particular occasion, he may use it. The salutation and benediction, as pronounced in God's name, are properly used only by an ordained minister and in a gathering of Christ's church.
- It is entirely fitting that, before the service, each person in the congregation engage in silent prayer. In public prayer the minister is the voice of the congregation. Therefore he should pray in such a way that the whole assembly of God's people may pray with him. Also the members of the congregation are bound to listen as he prays and should themselves pray in their hearts. For these reasons it is desirable that the minister prepare himself for public prayers by previous meditation. Early in the service he shall offer a brief invocation, humbly pleading for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in worship for the congregation and himself. At some point before the sermon there shall be a comprehensive prayer incorporating adoration of God's perfections, thanksgiving for His mercies, confession of sins, supplication for the pardon of sins through the blood of the atonement and for renewal by the Holy Spirit, and intercession for the poor, the sick, the dying, the mourning, the persecuted, the erring, the rising generation, the aged, the churches of the denomination, Christian missions at home and abroad, Christian education and other Christian activities, the Church universal, the civil rulers, the community, human society in general or other worthy causes. Public prayer must be offered with deep humility and holy reverence, and should be free from vain repetition or display of words.
- Since it is the purpose of public worship to glorify God, prayer and praise should predominate in congregational singing. Every member of the church ought to participate in this element of worship. Singing should be done not merely with the lips but with the spirit and the understanding. Since the metrical versions of the Psalms are based upon the Word of God, they ought to be used frequently in public worship. Great care must be taken to insure that all the materials of song are in complete accord with the teaching of Holy Scripture. The tunes as well as the words should be dignified and elevated. The stately rhythm of the chorales is especially appropriate for public worship. No person shall take a special part in the musical service unless he is a Christian and adorns his profession with a godly walk.
- The bringing of tithes and offerings into God's house is a solemn act of thanksgiving to almighty God. It is the duty of the minister to cultivate the grace of biblical giving in the members of the church by calling their attention to the scriptural admonition that every one should give as the Lord has prospered him. He should remind them of the assurance of Scripture that God loves a cheerful giver, and of the blessed example of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who, though he was rich, became poor in order that poor sinners through his poverty might become rich. The Consistory shall take care that the offerings of the congregation are used only for the maintenance of public worship, the preaching of the gospel throughout the world, and other Christian objects. If a member of the church designates his gift to a particular cause, the Consistory shall respect his wish unless it is convinced that the specified cause is unworthy, in which case the gift shall be returned to the donor.