Review: Reformed Worship

Rob Hill Articles
Reformed Worship: Worship That Is According to Scripture
By Terry Johnson
72 p.
Reformed Academic Press (2002)
Reviewed by Rob Hill

It has recently been noted in Christianity Today, among other places, that Reformed theology is enjoying a resurgence among the younger generation of Christians in America. [1]   For that we can give thanks to God.  It is questionable, however, whether Reformed worship is enjoying a similar resurgence.  But can the two be legitimately separated?  Terry Johnson, pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, thinks they cannot.  In his recent re-release book Reformed Worship: Worship that is According to Scripture (Reformed Academic Press: 2008), Johnson argues that we must return to "the simple, spiritual, reverent worship of the Calvinistic heritage... It alone can sustain and nurture Reformed faith and piety" (p. 59).

What makes Reformed worship distinctive?  Johnson takes as his starting point John 4:24, where Jesus says, "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."  To "worship in truth" means that we worship according to Scripture, namely, only those ways that God has prescribed in his Word (also known historically as the Regulative Principle of Worship).  But it also means that our worship should be filled with Scripture.  One of the most disturbing aspects of much contemporary evangelical worship is its lack of biblical content; instead, Johnson says worship should be characterized by reading the Bible, preaching the Bible, singing the Bible, praying the Bible, and celebrating the sacraments as visible words.  Biblical worship must also be "in spirit."  This means, in Johnson's words, that worship should be "internal or of the heart," "simple," and "reverent."  

Possibly the most significant insight of this book is that Reformed worship must be distinguished from both its low-church and high-church alternatives.  It does not neatly fit the categories of "contemporary" or "traditional," categories often used by those who assume that worship-style is morally neutral and merely a matter of taste.  Low-church charismatic or revivalistic worship is often driven by personal and emotional experience rather than the truth of God.  In fact, throughout the book, Johnson responds to many of the arguments made by John Frame, who is the most popular Reformed defender of contemporary worship.  High-church liturgical worship, on the other hand, is often filled with extra-biblical ritual that appeals to the senses, but in the end obscures Christ and becomes nothing more than a form of entertainment.  In contrast to these alternatives, Johnson makes a positive case for distinctively Reformed worship that is simple, reverent, and filled with Scripture.
This is a timely book for today's evangelical church. If you are looking for a fresh contribution to the in-house debates among Regulative Principle enthusiasts (such as exclusive psalmody, the use of musical instruments, or the legitimacy of choirs), you will not find it here.  The size of the book, only 71 pages, excludes such discussions.  But what you will find is a brief, spirited, and thoroughly biblical defense of distinctively Reformed worship.  Can Reformed theology be grafted onto any form of worship and still flourish?  Johnson says no, and I believe he makes his case.

[1] Colin Hansen, "Young Restless Reformed," Christianity Today, September 22, 2006.

Rob Hill is the Senior Minister at St. Paul Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS.