The Covenant Structure of Worship

The purpose of the Sunday service is covenant renewal. During corporate “worship” the Lord renews His covenant with His people when He gathers them together and serves them. We do not renew covenant with God because it was going to expire or run out, like a lease. We renew our covenant with God because it is our life: we renew covenant with God in Worship the way food renews physical life or sexual communion renews marriage.

The covenant structure of creation and recreation

Yahweh’s covenant with Adam contains, in seed form, the other covenants in Scripture, as well as, covenant renewal worship. The post fall covenants are not ad hoc, novel arrangements, but renewals of the creation covenant. Following is the structure of covenant making and therefore covenant renewal and how it directly informs the liturgy of the Church.

  1. As covenant Lord, Yahweh takes hold of His creation in order to do something new with it.
  2. The Lord effects a separation. What God grasps is then transformed from one state to another, from the old to the new: a new creation. This new union (dirt and life-giving breath of Yahweh) receives from God a corresponding new name, which implies a new hierarchal relationship. There is a covenant head (Yahweh) and there are those who are dependent on that covenant head (human creatures).
  3. A new verbal communication of stipulation is expressed by the covenant Lord, a way of life fit for the new covenantal situation, a gracious enumeration of how to live fully and joyfully in this new covenant.
  4. The Lord offers His covenant partners a fellowship meal. He gives the gift of signs and seals of the covenant (two trees) together with a setting forth of blessings for grateful faithfulness and curses for ungrateful disobedience.
  5. The Lord arranges for the future succession of the covenant, which in this covenant involves marriage and children.

The New Testament covenant:

  1. God takes hold of his creation to do something new. Jesus takes on our flesh in order to faithfully execute the covenant promises.
  2. In Christ we have the fulfillment of all the typological death and resurrection events in the Old Testament. Jesus and His people united to Him die to the old Adamic world and rise again as a new creation. God’s people are mercifully separated out form the old world in union with Christ. This is also a marriage: the Husband leaves his family to secure for himself a bride, and the Church is separated out from the old world to be united to her new covenant Lord. The people of God, there, are now united to Christ and become a new creation in Him. We become a new creation in Him. We Become the Church, the body of Christ, a new reality. Furthermore, we are baptized into the newly revealed name of God: the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The people of God now are given new names: Christians. All of this means that there is a new hierarchy, new lines of authority: Jesus is Lord and as head over His Church has instituted a government which represents Him on earth: pastors, elders and deacons. (Eph. 4).
  3. God speaks anew to His people, now through His Son (Heb. 1:1). There’s a “new” way of life for those in covenant with God through Christ – the way of love and sacrificial living. This is all laid out for us in the new covenantal documents that we call the “New testament (covenant).”
  4. The public face of the covenant has changed too. Gone are circumcision and the animal sacrifice. New, non-bloody signs and seals of the covenant are instituted – the Lord’s Supper and baptism. These are now the memorials of God’s new covenant.
  5. Finally, precision is made for the succession of the covenant with the ordination of minister, elders, and deacons, and Christ’s charge to them to make disciples by baptizing and teaching the nations.

Covenants are never merely formalized individual relationships: rather, they always involve families and communities of people. Covenant renewal worship happens when God takes hold of us as a community, a church, and not simply as a gaggle of isolated individuals that happen to be in the same room on Sunday. When God calls His people together to enter into covenant or to renew His covenant with them, this event has a basic order or shape. If the corporate worship of the Christian Church is such a covenant renewal event, then we should expect it to have a similar shape. This is precisely what we find in traditional Christian liturgies.

  1. Call of worship: God comes near and calls His people out of the world to gather in His presence. He graciously takes hold of us and brings us near to himself.
  2. Confession and Forgiveness: God reminds us what He has done for us in Christ and declares His interest in restoring us again to his favor in Christ. We confess our sins and God absolves us of guilt. God graciously reminds us that we bear the name Christian and are member of His family in Christ. He tears us from our old sinful ways and renews His love for us in Christ.
  3. Scripture readings and sermon: God speaks to us through his Word. His people respond by giving themselves and their gifts as a fitting offering.
  4. The Lord’s Supper: God invites us to commune with Him at his covenant meal, and we respond by memorializing His covenant and enjoying His faithful provision at the family feast.
  5. The benediction and Commissioning: God blesses us and charges us to extend His kingdom in to the future and in the world, making disciples of all nations. We are dismissed from God’s special presence, renewed and equipped for this task.

We will see this same structure in the sacrificial system, which prefigures the sacrifice of the Lamb of God and demonstrates how to apply that sacrifice in the elements of our worship.

This is a paraphrase of some of Douglas Wilson’s A Primer on Worship and Reformation: Recovering the High Church Puritan.

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