Covenant Renewal Worship

Introduction

Hughes Oliphant Old began his book on worship with this sentence: “We worship God because God created us to worship him. Worship is at the center of our existence, at the heart of our reason for being.”[1] The worship of God is indeed at the heart of our reason for being, and therefore worship is also the primary function of the church of Christ. Through the blood of Jesus, we have been granted the privilege of entering the holy place of God (Heb. 10:19–22). We now worship where the Jews feared to tread, through the mediation of Christ, at Mount Zion and the city of the living God (Heb. 12:18–22). And so like St John, Christians are caught up in the Spirit every Lord’s Day to worship their Triune God (Rev. 1:10).

Every week in our Lord’s Day worship services, we follow a consistent liturgical pattern which has been called covenant renewal worship. This pattern follows the worship of God’s people in the Old Testament, where there were three different kinds of sacrifices: guilt offering, ascension (or burnt) offering, and peace offering. The worship service begins with a call to worship and ends with a commissioning. It is called “covenant renewal” not because the covenant expires every week (it is eternal), but because the covenant is a living contract and relationship, which God is pleased to renew with us weekly. This renewal is not like the renewal of a yearly contract, but instead is like how sexual communion renews the marriage covenant or a meal renews the body.[2]

Call

The first part of the Lord’s Day service is the Call to Worship, where God’s covenant people gather together in His presence as He calls them to worship Him. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to spur one another toward love and good deeds by not neglecting to meet together (Heb. 10:24–25). So week after week brothers and sisters in Christ obey this command, and respond to the Psalmist when he writes, “O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together” (Ps. 34:3). The opening portion of the Lord’s service begins with adoration, where the minister greets the congregation and they respond. Following this the minister offers a prayer of adoration or invocation that extols the greatness of God and requests His presence throughout the service. Psalm 145:18 teaches that the Lord is near to all who call upon in him in truth, therefore God’s people rightly call upon Him when they gather to worship Him in Spirit and in truth.

Confession

Following the Call to Worship, God’s people confess their corporate and individual sins to God. This aligns with the first offering, the guilt offering, found in Leviticus 17. We know that if we regard sin in our hearts, the Lord will not hear us (Ps. 66:18). We must first be cleaned of our sin and purified before entering the presence of God, and the good news is that Christ does exactly this when we confess our sins and seek forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:7). 

Often during this part of the liturgy, the minister reads from God’s law or offers a short exhortation which reminds the congregation of God’s instructions and the way we sin in word and deed. The minister then leads the congregation in a prayer of confession. While this time of prayer includes a moment of silence for personal confession before God, as a whole it is a corporate prayer. We are bound together covenantally before God, and He receives our confession and extends forgiveness to us as individuals but also as His people. 

Following the prayer of confession, the minister declares the assurance of God’s pardon. He does not do this because in himself he has the power to forgive sins, for only God alone can do that. Instead, by the authority of his office as an ordained minister of God, he is given the privilege and duty of announcing to the congregation that God has forgiven all who truly repent.

Consecration

The next part of the liturgy is called consecration, which corresponds to the ascension offerings found in Leviticus 16:24–25. In these offerings, like the priestly sword used on the sacrificial animals, the Word of God ministers to the people, piercing “even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow” and discerning “the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). And as the smoke rises from the burnt sacrifices, so do the people of God ascend to the presence of the Lord. 

Within this time of consecration, we have readings of passages from both the Old and New Testaments, prayers of petition and thanksgiving offered on behalf of God’s people, the Word proclaimed and applied as the minister preaches, and tithes and offerings presented.

As we will consider the preaching of God’s Word and the singing of psalms and hymns elsewhere, it would be helpful to consider why we present our tithes and offerings during the worship service. Often this part of the service is overlooked or forgotten when one recalls what happens during the liturgy. But when listing what elements every worship service should contain, John Calvin said, “No assembly of the Church should be held without the word being preached, prayers being offered, the Lord’s Supper administered, and alms given” (emphasis added).[3] When we read that the first converts in Acts 2:42 devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayers we may think that a collection of tithes and offerings was left out. However, the Greek word for fellowship in this passage is koinonia, which can also be translated as meaning the sharing of material goods.[4] Likewise, St Paul directs the Corinthian church to “put something aside and store it up” as a collection for the saints in Jerusalem every Lord’s Day (1 Cor. 16:1–4). This practice of almsgiving is both an act of sacrifice as we give our firstfruits to the Lord, and an act of thanksgiving as we rejoice in all that the Lord has given us (2 Cor. 9:6–7).

Communion

After being cleansed and consecrated, the people of God are now prepared to commune with the Lord. This part of the liturgy corresponds with the peace offering, where the Israelites came together to eat in the presence of the Lord (Deut. 12:17–19). Here the Lord nourishes the church with His body in a simple meal of bread and wine before sending us out into the world. The Lord’s Supper is the covenant meal of the New Covenant established in and by Christ. Jesus commands His people to partake of this meal in remembrance of Him, “proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:23–26). In turn, as we memorialize Christ’s death, He comes to us, giving us Himself as spiritual nourishment. More on the Lord’s Supper will be explored later when we consider the sacraments.

Commissioning

Lastly, after communing with the Lord we are commissioned and sent by Him back into the world, to our families, to our vocations, and to our communities as His witnesses. This commissioning often includes a charge from the minister based on the sermon preached and concludes with a pastoral benediction. As Aaron lifted his hands and blessed the Israelites (Num. 6:22–27) and as Jesus lifted His hands and blessed the disciples before departing (Lk. 24:50), so the minister looks upon the Lord’s flock to which He is entrusted as a shepherd and blesses them.

Find other posts in this series here.


[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 1.
[2] Douglas Wilson, A Primer on Worship and Reformation (Moscow, ID: Canon Press), 36-37.
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), 4.17.44.
[4] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 152.

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