THE SUPREME SOLA: Calvin's Primary Place of Proper Worship


When Charles V summoned the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire to meet in the city of Speyer in February 1544, Martin Bucer, the Strassburg reformer, wanted to draft a letter in defense of the Protestant Reformation. Later doubting whether such a letter would accomplish any purpose, Bucer appealed to his friend and fellow laborer, John Calvin, for advice. The result was Calvin’s apologetic treatise, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, which he completed in time for presentation to the Imperial Diet. This treatise is significant because it provides us with Calvin’s own presentation of those things he regarded as most in need of reform.[1] Chief among those them was the matter of worship. In the beginning of his discourse, Calvin made the claim that the “mode in which God is duly worshipped” was of first importance, and “the source from which salvation is obtained” second.[2] This blogpost shall pursue the question of why Calvin ranked worship first amongst those principal places in need of reform. This is a significant question to consider in the present day, for, within Reformed and Presbyterian circles, a substantial amount of debate has erupted in recent decades over the matter of worship. On the one hand are those who argue that a sizeable amount of Calvin’s theological heirs have departed from the Reformed tradition on the matter of worship, introducing forms and practices that are contrary with Reformed principles of worship. W. Robert Godfrey makes the claim that the “last thirty years or so have seen the most dramatic and speedy changes in Protestant worship in any time since the Protestant Reformation.”[3] D. G. Hart says that “Reformed Christians, staunchly united on the God they confess, able to articulate the ‘solas’ of the Reformation and the five points of Calvinism, are increasingly divided over how they ought to worship their God.”[4] Hart goes on to argue that “the decline of distinctively Reformed habits of worship is not a sign of greater tolerance but an indication that many in the Reformed camp no longer see the implications of their theology for their worship.”[5]

On the other hand, however, are those within the same ecclesiastical circles who have argued for new application of the traditional Reformed understanding of those principles that regulate worship. John Frame contends that the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 is the “guide” for “decisions about the order of worship,” which in turn provides a fresh atmosphere that will appeal to the modern culture. Frame’s argument is that when this becomes the application of the regulative principle of worship, churches are able to create “an informal service with a friendly, welcoming atmosphere,” utilizing “contemporary styles in language and music,” even such expressions as “applause, hand-holding, and hugs” and repetitious choruses.[6] Adopting this type of service means a departure from traditional Reformed liturgies, which Frame labels, “Reenactment of Redemption” liturgies that “easily lose [their] power to communicate the freshness of God’s truth.”[7]

In the midst of such a debate, it may be helpful to consider why Calvin said what he said about worship. This essay argues that when Calvin ranked worship first in the need of reform, he did so because he understood worship to be that supreme act for which humans were created. In order to examine this thesis, a concise observation will be made of Calvin’s theology of worship, his identification of idolatry in the medieval church, and some of his reforms of the worship service.

Calvin’s Theology of Worship

Calvin believed the chief end of human life is to know God and glorify him through worship. This was central in Calvin’s theology throughout the course of his ministry as a pastor, preacher, and teacher.[8] He understood this to be the highest good for which God created humankind, a point he made very clear in his Catechism of the Church of Geneva in 1545.[9] Calvin’s argument goes something like this: God made humans to know him and glorify him. Knowing and glorifying God means honoring him duly. Honoring God duly means worshiping him. This, for Calvin, was the piety for which God created humans:

Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge Him to be, as He is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to Him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in Him alone, and in every want have recourse in Him alone. Hence arises prayer, hence arises praise and thanksgiving – these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to him. This is the genuine sanctification of His name which He requires above all things…That in these things consists the true and sincere worship which alone God approves, and in which alone He delights, is both taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the Scriptures, and is also, antecedent to discussion, the obvious dictate of piety.[10]

For Calvin, the worship of God’s majesty is that end for which redemption in Christ is the means. Thus, Calvin goes on to say that the First Commandment calls us “to contemplate, fear, and worship, his majesty; to participate in his blessings; to seek his help at all times; to recognize, and by his praises to celebrate, the greatness of his works – as the only goal of all the activities of this life.”[11]

For this reason, Calvin was adamant that Christian worship must be according to Scripture. If worship is that piety and highest good for which God created and redeemed his elect, God’s Word alone should be its governor. This, indeed, was of the marrow of Calvin’s theology of worship.[12] Never was there a method of worshiping God, not even from the beginning, which allowed for human invention in worship. The Lord would have us “at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command,” said Calvin.[13] This sort of regulative principle of worship was quite different from Martin Luther’s, which allowed for whatever God had not expressly forbidden.[14] Calvin, on the other hand, insisted that Scripture should regulate worship in such a way that nothing be permitted except what God has commanded.[15]

Calvin realized that this position was not popular, yet he believed it was the only method of legitimate worship:

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’[16]

For the Genevan churchman, worship that was lawful was only that which God had established by his command. On the other hand, whatever men did in worship by the imagination of their hearts was unlawful and illegitimate, nothing more than mere idolatry. This great sin, condemned by God in the first two commandments of the Decalogue, was precisely that of which Calvin believed the church in his day to be guilty.

Calvin’s Identification of Idolatry

For Calvin, lawful worship was spiritual worship.[17] He understood this to be the meaning of Christ’s words in John 4 regarding worship offered “in spirit and truth.”[18] While spiritual worship in the Old Covenant was “wrapt up in figures,” it is in the New Covenant “naked and simple.”[19] Calvin believed, therefore, that spiritual worship in the New Covenant always has the characteristic of simplicity. The medieval church, however, had nothing of this characteristic, but instead had become “buried under a multitude of superstitions.”[20] Calvin likened the worship of the medieval church to a “new Judaism…reared up by means of numerous puerile extravagances, collected from different quarters.”[21] He sharply criticized the Roman Catholic Church of legislating where God had not and corrupting Christian worship with practices that rob God of his glory.

In Necessity, Calvin identified several of these practices before turning to the “second principal branch of Christian doctrine,” namely, the doctrine of justification by faith alone.[22] The first he identified as the matter of prayer to saints. Deviating from the command of Scripture, the medieval church allowed for prayer that was corrupt with superstitions. “Passing by Christ, the only Mediator, each betook himself to the patron saint who had struck his fancy.” This was even evident in the public hymns, said Calvin, “in which the saints are lauded for every blessing.”[23]

Calvin then turned to the adoration of images, statues, and relics. He claimed that the medieval church invented the distinction of latria and dulia in an attempt to justify its infatuation with idols.[24]

Ceremonies were next on Calvin’s list. He identified three “evils” in Rome’s worship. The first was the “immense number of ceremonies.” Second was the vain fascination with the sheer quantity of the ceremonies, when they “ought to be living exercises of piety.” Finally, he called “by far the most deadly evil of all,” the way in which men mocked God in their participation in these vain ceremonies and thought themselves justified in their doing “as if these ceremonies included in them the whole essence of piety and divine worship.”[25]

Calvin saw in these practices a perversion of the spiritual worship that God requires, that highest good for which God created humans. He believed it necessary in his appeal to the Emperor to deal with these matters first before turning to the essential matter of justification sola fide. He concluded that the “whole form of divine worship in general use in the present day is nothing but mere corruption…the random offspring of their own brain.”[26]

 Moreover, spiritual worship in simplicity also meant worship that was intelligible. Like the prophets who castigated the idolatrous ceremonies of the people that obscured the truth, Calvin attacked what he believed to be unintelligible worship:

The first thing we complain of here is, that the people are entertained with showy ceremonies, while not a word is said of their significancy and truth. For there is no use in the sacraments unless the thing which the sign visibly represents is explained in accordance with the Word of God. Therefore, when the people are presented with nothing but empty figures, with which to feed the eye, while they hear no doctrine which might direct them to the proper end, they look no farther than the external act. Hence that most pestilential superstition, under which, as if the sacraments alone were sufficient for salvation, without feeling any solicitude about faith or repentance, or even Christ himself, they fasten upon the sign instead of the thing signified by it.[27]

For Calvin, such unintelligible worship was offensive to God and could only lead to more idolatry and works-righteousness.

Calvin's Reforms of Worship

Given the fact that Calvin was a pastor, both in Strassburg (1538-41) and Geneva (1536-38; 1541-64), one should not be surprised to learn that Calvin labored to put his theology of worship into practice in the local churches he served. Setting out to reform the Mass and design a liturgy in which superstition would be removed and every element would find its root in Scripture, Calvin turned to Acts 2.42 for the basic biblical paradigm for New Covenant worship:

Luke relates in The Acts that this was the practice of the apostolic church, when he says that believers ‘…continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers’ [Acts 2.42, cf. Vg.] Thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper, and almsgiving. That this was the established order among the Corinthians also, we can safely infer from Paul [cf. 1 Corinthians 11.20]. And it remained in use for many centuries after.[28]

The four main categories: apostolic doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers served as the foundation of Calvin’s liturgies, which ran as follows:[29]


Confession of Sins


Singing of First Table of the Law

Prayer of Commitment

Singing of a Psalm[31]

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture Reading


Prayer of Intercession and Lord’s Prayer

Baptisms, Marriages, etc.

Lord’s Supper (Apostles’ Creed before, Prayer of Thanksgiving afterward)[32]

Singing of a Psalm


This liturgy, published as The Form of Church Prayers According to the Custom of the Ancient Church in Geneva in 1542, remained in use for many subsequent years. It was, for Calvin, a demonstration of simple, spiritual worship done in accordance with Scripture.

Whatever debates on worship continue amongst the theological and ecclesiastical descendants of those believers bearing Calvin’s name (i.e. “Calvinists”), it must be understood that for the Genevan reformer himself, worship was the matter of first priority in the reformation of Christ’s church. While Calvin vigorously sought to bring reformation to the church’s doctrine of justification sola fide, that doctrine which he regarded as the “main hinge on which religion turns,” he nevertheless saw an even greater urgency in the reformation of the worship service.[33] In his famous reply to Cardinal Sadoleto in 1539, Calvin said, “there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a distorted and perverse worship of God.”[34] For Calvin, the primary place of proper worship was of first importance to guard the supreme sola, namely, Soli Deo Gloria.

[1] W. Robert Godfrey points out that “[o]f the three major works by Calvin addressing and defending the Reformation, the ‘Necessity’ is the only one that is not a reply to a previous work. In a reply much of the form and content of the work is determined by the work being answered. But in ‘Necessity’ Calvin was free to present the cause of reform in a way that he regarded as most balanced and effective in communicating to the emperor.” W. Robert Godfrey, “Introduction” to The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Audubon: Old Paths Publications, 1994), v.

[2] The full quote runs as follows: “If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshiped; and, secondly of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name Christians, our profession is empty and vain.” “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” as found in Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume I: On the Reformation of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 126.

[3] W. Robert Godfrey, “The Psalms in Contemporary Worship,” in The Worship of God: Reformed Concepts of Biblical Worship (Ross-Shire, UK: Mentor/Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 101. For similar claims by Godfrey, see his booklet, Pleasing God in Our Worship (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999)

[4] D.G. Hart and John Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2002), 11.

[5] Ibid, 21. For similar arguments by Hart, see Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).

[6]  John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, P & R, 1996), 38-45, 60, 84, 122.

[7] Ibid., 68.

[8] For example, in his first edition of the Institutes of Christian Religion in 1536, Calvin made the claim that his book “Encompass[es] almost the whole sum of piety [pietatis summam] and whatever it is necessary to know about the doctrine of salvation, a work most worthy to be read by all who are zealous for piety.” According to Calvin scholar Elsie Anne McKee, Calvin used the word pietas here to mean a “kind of loose equivalent for the whole worship of God.” McKee goes on to say, “Pietas represents generally a very positive concept of the human attitude of adoration and service of God. True piety implies knowledge, but its primary emphasis is commitment, devotion, attitude. Pietas can cover worship generally, but it is also commonly used to designate the first table of the law, especially when worship is distinguished from service of neighbor. Calvin can distinguish pietas from outward ecclesiastical ceremonies (e.g., Institutes, 4.10.27), but he often speaks approvingly of the exercises or duties of piety as outward manifestations of the first table of the law.” See McKee’s “Context, Contours, Contents: Towards a Description of Calvin’s Understanding of Worship,” Calvin Studies Society Papers, 1995, 1997 (Grand Rapids: CRC Product Services, 1998), p.68. See also Institutes, 1.2. Says Calvin, “Now, the knowledge of God, as I understand it, is that by which we not only conceive that there is a God but also grasp what befits us and is proper to his glory, in fine, what is to our advantage to know of him. Indeed, we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety. Here I do not yet touch upon the sort of knowledge with which men, in themselves lost and accursed, apprehend God the Redeemer in Christ the Mediator; but I speak only of the primal and simple knowledge to which the very order of nature would have led us if Adam had remained upright.”

[9] See the first seven questions. Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume II: On the Doctrine and Worship of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 37-38.

[10] Necessity, 127. This connection of piety and worship Calvin developed further in his definitive edition of the Institutes in 1559. In his treatment of the Decalogue, for example, he said that the First Table contains “those duties of religion which particularly concern the worship of his majesty…Surely the first foundation of righteousness is the worship of God. When this is overthrown, all the remaining parts of righteousness, like pieces of a shattered and fallen building, are mangled and scattered…We call the worship of God the beginning and foundation of righteousness. When it is removed, whatever equity, continence, or temperance men practice among themselves is in God’s sight empty and worthless…Accordingly, in the First Table, God instructs us in piety and the proper duties of religion, by which we are to worship his majesty.” (2.8.11)

[11] Institutes, 2.8.16 (italics mine)

[12] Hughes Oliphant Old, “John Calvin and the Prophetic Criticism of Worship” in Calvin Studies Society Papers 3 (Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, 1986), 73. 

[13] Necessity, 128.

[14] Horton Davies aptly pointed out how this was the main difference between Calvin and Luther regarding the reformation of worship: “The real difference between Lutheran and Calvinist reforms in worship may be summed up as follows: Luther will have what is not specifically condemned by the Scriptures; whilst Calvin will have only what is ordained in the Scriptures. That is their fundamental disagreement. The Worship of the English Puritans (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, repr.1997), 16.

[15] See also Calvin’s “Reply to Cardinal Sadolet’s Letter” in Tracts and Treatises, vol I, 34-35.

[16] Necessity, 128-29

[17] Institutes, 2.8.17; cf. 1.12.1

[18] Necessity., 127-28; Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, repr.1999), 161-64

[19] Necessity, 127

[20] Ibid., 128

[21] Ibid., 131

[22] Ibid., 133

[23] Ibid., 130-31

[24] Ibid., 131. Cf. Institutes, 1.12.2. See also “An Admonition Concerning Relics” in Tracts and Treatises, 287ff.

[25] Ibid., 131-32. Cf. Institutes, 1.11-12; 4.2.7-11; 4.17.36; 4.18.8, 18 “Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva proposed by the Ministers at the Council” in Calvin: Tracts and Treatises (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, repr.2006), 49.

[26] Ibid., 132-33.

[27] Calvin, Necessity, 17-18

[28] Institutes, 4.17.44

[29] OS, 6:173-84

[30] While this was the practice in Strassburg, it was not the same in Geneva. Calvin believed that a clear absolution after the confession of sins was appropriate for worship. “For when the whole church stands, as it were, before God’s judgment seat, confesses itself guilty, and has its sole refuge in God’s mercy, it is no common or light solace to present there the ambassador of Christ, armed with the mandate of reconciliation, by whom it hears proclaimed its absolution. Here the usefulness f the keys is deservedly commended, when this embassy is carried out justly, in due order, and in reverence.” Institutes, 3.4.14. Bard Thompson points out that “in Strassburg Calvin supplied an Absolution no less forthright than that of Bucer; but when he returned to Geneva, the people objected to this ‘novelty,’ illustrating their hostility by jumping up before the end of the Confession to forestall an Absolution. Thus he yielded to their scruples. Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 191

[31] This was done in Geneva, but not Strassburg.

[32] It was Calvin’s unfulfilled desire that the Lord’s Supper be celebrated weekly.

[33] Institutes, 3.11.1. For more on Calvin’s doctrine and high and orthodox view of justification by faith alone, see 3.11-19; his commentaries on Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Hebrews; his sermons on Galatians and Ephesians; his treatise responding to the Council of Trent.

[34] “Reply by Calvin to Cardinal Sadolet’s Letter” as found in Tracts and Treatises, Vol I, 34.