Called into His Presence: The Opening Service (1)

Previous article in this series: August 2012, p. 448.

 

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heav­en and earth. Psalm 124:8

To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 1:7

Introduction

We have studied three great biblical principles of worship so far. The first is that public worship is a covenantal assembly gathered to meet with the living God. From that principle we drew other principles: public worship must be simple, centered on the Word, joyful, and reverent. The second great principle of pub­lic worship is that this covenantal assembly is carried out as a dialogue between God and His people. God speaks, and we respond in worship and praise. The corporate worship service is the experience, therefore, of covenantal communion. The third principle is that this meeting of the people of God with their God in a dialogue of the covenant is regulated by God Himself. He tells us what elements should be in the worship of His name. He tells us what the character of worship should be. Worship must be after His heart.

From now to the end of the series of articles on wor­ship, we will go through the various aspects of biblical and Reformed worship. We will focus mainly on the elements of worship as they are seen in Reformed wor­ship generally, but carried out in a typical Protestant Reformed worship service specifically.

In this article and the next, we cover what has sometimes been called “the opening service.” It is the part of the worship service that includes the call to worship (if it is understood to be part of worship), the doxol­ogy, salutation, votum, and benediction. This opening service is in a sense introductory. It is not less impor­tant, but introductory. All of it has God ushering us into His presence and we willingly coming as a body to gather before Him in covenantal love.

The Call to Worship

The first aspect is the call to worship. It is debated whether or not the call to worship—and silent prayer following it—are part of the actual worship service of the church. Some would say that it is not. I believe that it is. In Protestant Reformed worship services that have a call to worship, and in the services of other churches that have a call to worship, there is nothing to indicate that it is separate from the actual worship service of the church. If you asked anyone who was ignorant of the issue, I believe he would think that the service has begun with the call to worship.

In addition, the concept of a call to worship is a right and biblical one. In all of salvation God is the sovereign God who calls us to Himself. It is not we who say first that we will come to Him, but He who first power­fully says, “Come to Me” (Matt. 11:28). In the garden, after Adam and Eve fell into sin, it was not Adam who sought out God, but God who called out to Adam, “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9). That is, “Come into my presence; appear before me.” When Israel was led out of bondage in Egypt and unto the base of Mt. Sinai to worship, it was not the Israelites who took the initia­tive. God did: “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15).

This is true also of the covenantal meeting that takes place between God and His people.

God calls this meeting. He irresistibly beckons us to gather before Him in public worship. And so the Scriptures contain inspired calls to worship such as the verse that makes up the rubric of this series (Psalm 95:6), “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker.”

Such a call is necessary. We must be called by God’s almighty voice to come to worship Him. We are lost on our own. Though worship is the chief end of man and man’s highest joy, we are so earthly minded that if not called to it we would not come. It takes faith to see and love what is happening here in the service, and we are often weak. Therefore we must be called to faith and called to come to assemble before our God in faith. The call to worship that draws us into covenantal com­munion in the service testifies to the truth of all God’s sovereign work to draw us to Himself in the covenant of grace.

As God in His Word calls us, His call enlivens our faith to see and know what we are doing here before Him. The congregation responds first in prayer. The purpose of this silent prayer is for us personally to set our hearts aright to come into His presence. Though we pray as individuals, silent prayer also prepares us to come as one body, spiritually united and spiritually prepared to come before God. We are one body by the union we have with Jesus Christ, and silent prayer prepares us to come as one body conscious of that spiri­tual union. We all as individuals set our hearts right to come before God, and by doing that as individuals, we come before God individually prepared all together. Whatever we include in this prayer, therefore, part of it must be giving of thanks for God’s calling us into His presence, an expression of a need to be in His presence, a willingness to come humbly before Him, and an ex­pression of the desire for Him to unite us together as one body before Him that we might together glorify His name.

We respond to His call secondly with praise to His glorious name in the opening doxology.

Let us not sing those words without thinking, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, praise Him above ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

Called by God to worship, we respond in praise. But as we are called, we realize it is not just we in this congregation who are called to worship. Immediately we are aware that this assembly of our local congregation is an expression of the grand host gathered before God. The doxology reminds us that we join the voices of all creation, all true people of God on this earth, and all the host in heaven (Heb. 12:23). in exalting our triune God. We are part of the grand universal body gathered before Him in adoration and praise.

Salutation

Having called His people to Himself, as they now are assembled as one in His presence in prayer and praise, God greets us in the words of the salutation. The salutation is one phrase—it is easy not to pay attention to it—but it is a phrase essential to God’s people and their worship. “Beloved congregation in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Or, “Beloved of God, called to be saints.”

This is God greeting His people. God speaks these words. The minister says them on behalf of God, but it is God’s greeting to His church.¹ That is how we must hear the salutation too. Why would it matter if in the minister’s estimation you were beloved of God? What matters is that in God’s estimation this is your position. And what matters is that He is willing to tell you so.

In this greeting, God addresses the congregation as a whole, “Beloved congregation.” The apostle Paul addresses the whole church at Rome with the inspired greeting of Romans 1:7: “Beloved of God, called to be saints.” He does that even though there may be unbe­lievers present. There may be unbelievers who visit the service. There may be a carnal element in the body. Those unbelievers may be given attention in the ser­vice, attention as unbelievers at times. Yet, worship is the meeting of the true covenantal assembly with God, and the congregation gathered is addressed as such. A wheat field might have weeds in it, and you give those weeds in your field attention as weeds at times, but it is still a wheat field and is called a wheat field and treated as a wheat field.

Children are addressed as we bring them into wor­ship with us. The children of the church are part of the covenantal assembly. They are not visitors; they are members. They are not observers; they are participants. God speaks to them as He speaks to the adults when He says, “Beloved congregation.” Those who are weak are addressed along with the strong; those greatly gifted along with those less gifted. The diverse congregation is greeted as one body, the congregation of the living God gathered before Him.

God calls them “beloved.” The word “beloved” is used in the greeting because so often in the New Testa­ment the people of God are addressed as God’s beloved. Just read I John 3 or II Peter 2.² In addition, in the in­spired greeting of Romans 1:7 “beloved” is the address.

What a wonderful word to hear from God upon entering His presence, “You are my beloved!” We have sins that we carry with us into the house of God. We come here to lay them down at the foot of the cross. Yet we wonder, does God want us here? Sometimes we see our sins so clearly we think, “Is it really His desire that we enter into His presence?”

In addition, we are often troubled by what is happen­ing in our lives or in the world. Things are not always easy for God’s people. We come to the service with the distress of Psalm 124 upon us. Verse 2: “men have risen up against us”; verse 3: “their wrath is kindled against us”; verses 4-5: “Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul: then the proud wa­ters had gone over our soul.” The troubles that we face are sometimes that great. It is as though the waters are about to flood over our souls and take us down. And then we come to the house of God to meet Him, and He says to us from His Word, “Beloved! You are the objects of my love. Embraced. Prized. Valued. Held close.”

What is more, He does not wait to call us His be­loved until after we read the law and confess our sins and pray. But immediately when He meets with us, He greets us as His beloved, as though He can’t wait to tell us. And He does not hold back, even though we come with sins in our hands, needing forgiveness and needing to experience reconciliation.³

He declares this publicly. He is not ashamed to have the whole world hear that He addresses us as His beloved. He speaks of us publicly with the same word He used to speak of His only begotten son Jesus Christ. Remember what He announced publicly to the world at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son!”

Likewise here, He announces to the world that we are His beloved sons and daughters by adoption, dear to Him as His only begotten is dear to Him.

Faith believes this. Faith hears this and knows Jeho­vah is saying this to me as part of the body. And faith believes this because it knows we are Jehovah’s beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ. If I wonder, “Can I believe Him when He says ‘beloved’ at the beginning of the service?” the undoubted assurance and proof that it is true is because we are in the Lord Jesus Christ. Even though we come with sin and need to experience reconciliation, we are objectively reconciled in the Lord Jesus. In Him we are beloved as He is beloved.

Votum

In response to God’s sovereign voice in the saluta­tion, we respond with the words of the votum.

The word votum means “vow.” The words are a vow expressed by the congregation to God in both prayer and praise taken from Psalm 124:8: “Our help is in the name of Jehovah, who made heaven and earth.”

This vow is our response to the fact that Jehovah has called us “beloved!” We have come with our troubles both physical and spiritual, concerning which Psalm 124 itself speaks. And God has called us “beloved.” Now we know we are safe and are accepted in His sight. Thus, we speak with Psalm 124 not only about our troubles, but also about the fact that the Lord is on our side (v. 2); that He has not given us as prey to their teeth (v. 6). Therefore, we can corporately take the last words of Psalm 124:8 upon our lips, “Our help is in the name of Jehovah, who made heaven and earth.”

When we say those words, we are saying to Him, “God, our help is not found in this world. Whatever the trial we bear, we do not turn to the gods of this world for assistance. We call upon Thee and turn to Thee for help, the maker of heaven and earth, the one who is in control of all. We turn to the one who is Jehovah, the God of the covenant, who has just told us we are His beloved covenant children. We know now that on our pilgrimage we will be safe with Thee.” And when we say those words we are not just saying that our help is in Jehovah now—that is, for the time that we are in this service. Rather, we are confessing and vowing that our help is always in His name. All along life’s journey He is our strength, and He will lead us to glory.

The congregation is speaking this to God. This is true even though the minister is the one who says it.

The minister functions in the worship service at times in such a way that He is used to speak God’s words to the people in this dialogue, and also at times the people’s words to God in this dialogue. We do not always think about this with respect to the votum be­cause it follows so quickly upon the salutation, and the minister speaks it. Although it is acceptable that the minister speaks these words, it is my contention that it would be beneficial for the congregation to say the vo­tum in unison rather than having the minister speak it. It is not necessary that the minister speak this (as it is necessary for the minister to speak for the congregation in congregational prayer), and if the congregation did speak it, it would highlight the dialogue that is taking place. One could also argue that it would do greater justice to the priesthood of all believers.4 Regardless, the votum is the response of the congregation, trusting in and magnifying the sovereign love of Jehovah God.

Benediction

Finally, Jehovah speaks in this opening service by pronouncing His benediction upon us. Often the words from the benedictions of the apostle Paul in his epistles are used. For example, Romans 1:7: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Often the words, “through the operation of the Holy Spirit,” are added to that to make it explicitly trinitarian. A benediction that is itself trinitarian and can be quoted directly from Scripture is the one given by the apostle John in Revelation 1:4-5, “Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth.”

There is another benediction or blessing at the end of the service. This is often the benediction found in the last verse of II Corinthians, although there are oth­ers. With this benediction God dismisses His people with His blessing as He has greeted them with His blessing. This follows the example provided us in the inspired epistles of the apostles. The apostles used benedictions as bookends at the beginning and end­ing of their epistles, and we follow that example in our worship service. God blesses His people coming into His presence, and He blesses them as they leave His presence.

Again, in the benedictions God speaks. Only now, God is not just speaking to His people, He is pronouncing a blessing upon His people. This means God is not saying, “I hope you have grace and mercy and peace.” Or, “This is my wish for you.” Rather, He is setting grace and mercy and peace upon us in the benediction. In the Old Testament, when Isaac gave Jacob the blessing that he intended to give to Esau, Esau cried out that Isaac should take back what he said to Jacob and give it to him. Isaac responded, “I . . . have blessed him . . . and he shall be blessed” (Gen. 27:33). Isaac could not take it back. It could not be reversed; it was done. So effectual was the blessing. It was a pronouncement made upon Jacob that could not be reversed. So too when God pronounces His blessing upon us, it is not as though God does that on a whim. It is not just a nice wish. This is His pronouncement for His people. And it effects what it speaks. We have His grace and mercy and peace with Him in Christ, and we know that because He pronounces it upon us.

We come to the house of God needing this blessing. We must know that God has created peace between us and Him. Then everything in our life, even if it does not immediately make sense, can be seen through the lenses of our peace with Him and the truth that He works for our good. Thus, we cannot help but respond with the first Psalter number in a song of praise and adoration to His name.

In our next article we will examine the opening service as a whole, and see its function in the broader context of a Reformed order of worship.


¹ This may be a benefit of using the salutation “Beloved of God, called to be saints,” rather than “Beloved congregation in the Lord Jesus Christ.” The first is a direct quote from Romans 1:7. It is the very words of God in Scripture.

² One sees the same in the Old Testament of course. Song of Solomon provides the prime example.

³ Just as in the giving of the law itself in Exodus 20, God tells His people He is their God before He gives the law that leads them to repentance.

4 G. VanDooren goes so far as to attribute the tradition of the minister speaking the votum to the tradition of the mass. It is a Roman Catholic remnant according to him and must be done away with, so that the congregation might speak in unison here. VanDooren, G. The Beauty of Reformed Liturgy. Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 1980. 25.

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