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Does Your Sunday Church Service Preach the Gospel?

Young preachers are encouraged to find their way to the cross in every sermon. Some even argue this is an essential ingredient of preaching. The point is clear: preachers should not pass up the opportunity to tell the wonderful story of God’s grace in every sermon. We recognise that this gospel opportunity is present when preaching of the word. But what other aspects of the Sunday church service are opportunities to proclaim the gospel?

What if the way that we structured our services could be used to tell the story of God’s grace anew? Could we order our church services in such a way that the liturgy itself declared the gospel?

What if the way that we structured our church services could tell the story of God’s grace?

This was a topic close to Thomas Cranmer’s heart. Cranmer (1489-1556) was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of Henry VIII (1491-1547), and was largely responsible for the Reformed direction the Church of England took after it broke from Roman Catholicism. During several trips to mainland Europe, Cranmer encountered Reformed theology and desired to bring these truths to the English church. To achieve this would be an enormous undertaking, but Cranmer was uniquely positioned to achieve it. As Archbishop, he had the King’s ear, and for the most part, the King’s approval in his work.

Church Services that Preach the Gospel

Including these truths in the liturgy ensured that worshippers would be repeatedly led to the truth of the gospel.

Cranmer’s strategy was to weave the truths of the Reformed doctrine of justification into every church service. These were set out in the Book of Common Prayer. There were several versions published, but each was based on Cranmer’s work, before his martyrdom.

Cranmer used a structure which could be described in four steps:

  1. Confession of sin
  2. Praise to God for salvation
  3. Word and sacrament (typically the Lord’s Supper)
  4. Benediction or blessing.

This pattern should be familiar to those with a Reformed theology of justification: the almighty and gracious God reaches out to sinners and saves them by the power of the cross. By including these truths in the liturgy, in the structure of every service, Cranmer artfully ensured that every time the church gathered, worshippers would be repeatedly led to the truth of the gospel.

1. Confession of Sin

The service is to begin in an attitude of repentance. For we depend on God’s promises and grace. Thus both morning and evening prayer services begin with the minister reading a passage to remind the congregation of our need to repent before God.

It is key to notice that the congregation is encouraged to active participation in the church service. Cranmer wanted to be clear that church is not about a church leader speaking to God on their behalf. Church is God’s gathered people worshipping him directly, boldly approaching his heavenly throne.

In the act of repentance, our eyes are lifted from our sinfulness to God’s grace in salvation.

In the words that prepare the congregation for confession, Cummings says Cranmer was clear that, “although we ought at all times humbly to acknowledge our sins before God, yet ought we most chiefly so to do, when we assemble, and meet together, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise.” In the act of repentance, our eyes are lifted from our sinfulness to God’s grace in salvation.

2. Praise to God for Salvation

Confession leads to praise, the second broad step of Cranmer’s structure for church services. This response of praise is worth pausing and reflecting on. This response of praise is a distinctive of Reformed doctrine. The confession already points our eyes upwards towards our God, and now this focus is heightened in full-bodied praise.

When we turn our eyes from our sin to Christ our salvation, we gloriously confess the gospel together.

Prior to the Reformation, the question that followed confession was “what must I do now to atone for my sin?” Cranmer’s Reformed liturgy offers a radically different response; not of penance but of praise. Does your church service preach this rich gospel of our sin, washed away by God’s grace? The change in focus from our sin to God’s faithfulness is key. If we retain confession but do not move to praise, the focus remains on us and our sin, and our eyes are not drawn to our gracious God. Yet when we turn our eyes from our sin to Christ our salvation, and open our mouths in repentance and praise, we gloriously confess the gospel together.

3. Proclamation of the Word

Already, we have personally and corporately experienced the gospel by this point in the church service. But Cranmer wanted to explicitly include the proclamation of the gospel to the congregation. We must be reminded of it, refreshed, and refuelled by it. The final part of the service was defined by the reading and preaching of the Word as well as the celebration of the sacrament (typically the Lord’s Supper).

Preaching and celebrating the Lord’s Supper was the high point of Cranmer’s liturgy.

Scripture was key to the services Cranmer wrote. His services drew readings from both Old and New Testaments. In our modern context, we often read little of the word in our services, apart from the main scripture reading before the sermon. Cranmer envisioned that these readings would not only serve to make the congregation more familiar with God’s word, but also remind us that in church we expect God himself to speak to our hearts.

The preaching of the word and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was the high point of Cranmer’s liturgy. These moments reveal God’s grace. In the preached word we hear of Christ’s work on the cross. In the Lord’s Supper we’re reminded of his death, called to long for the heavenly marriage supper of the Lamb.

4. Benediction

Every good story has a conclusion. However, Cranmer’s church services end abruptly. With the high point of the word and sacrament reached, believers are to go out, reminded of and refreshed by God’s grace in Christ. This knowledge and comfort would encourage them to faith in the Christian life.

Biblical Liturgy: Show, Tell, and Send

There is much for us to learn here as we think through how our own church services and worship is structured. Now, this does not mean that every church in every context should adopt or adapt a service from the Book of Common Prayer. The scriptures should be our primary guide, and tradition only as it is faithfully subject to the authority of God’s word.

Every Sunday, on top of the sermon, we have another opportunity to proclaim the gospel.

Yet these same scriptural truths proclaimed and celebrated in Cranmer’s services should be part of our worship, no matter our tradition. The reason is simple: every service can proclaim that Christ came for sinners. Every Sunday, on top of the sermon and the text, we have another opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Let us take this opportunity and ensure that our church services proclaim Christ. And let us open our hearts and ears to hear their gospel message.

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