God-Active Verbs and Biblical Imperatives in Worship


I am new to a Reformed church. In the church’s sermons and prayers and other aspects of liturgy, I am struck by all the emphasis on what God does. There is so much emphasis on this that I barely hear anything about what we are supposed to do. What about all the Bible’s commands?


My first reaction to this is gratitude! A central dimension of worship is “remembering the wonders God has done” and interceding to God in all circumstances. Attending to God’s actions past, present, and future is indeed one hallmark of biblical, trinitarian worship. Seminary students at Reformed seminaries are often taught to learn how to form sentences with “God-active verbs” that stress divine agency—and rightly so. Reformed confessions introduce the sacraments by explaining what God does in and through them. This emphasis on divine action is especially important for our celebration of creation and justification—two of the many gifts of God that happen without any action on our part.

Yet, as you say, the Bible also talks a lot about what we are called to be and to do—the shape of covenantal life with God. The Bible relishes imperative verbs, including commands about what we are to be doing in worship: setting our minds on things above, seeking God’s face, singing praise, giving gifts, and more. As you suggest, worship services rightly include rehearsals of these biblical imperatives in the middle of sermon, in the reading of God’s law, or in a “charge” spoken just before a concluding benediction.

The challenge here is resisting a kind of zero-sum math about these commands. What we don’t want to do is to simplistically suggest that our sermons move from an 80/20 ratio of divine to human action verbs to 60/40, or vice versa. Throughout the Bible, we are taught to reject this zero-sum math and learn to perceive the ways in which both God and humans can be exercising agency at the very same time, where God’s help heals and inspires our actions.

When the psalmist testifies that God “put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:3), God is acting (giving the song) even though the psalmist is singing. When the psalmist prays, “Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15), the psalmist intends to act, but in a way that is prompted and enabled by God’s action.

Isaiah reflects on the human activities of teaching and listening, amazed at how God makes both actions possible and fruitful: “The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue . . . [and] wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed” (Isaiah 50:4).

In Philippians 2:12–13, Paul advises, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (human agency), and then goes on to add, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (divine agency). Similarly, in Philippians 4:13, Paul states, “I can do all this” (human agency) “through him [Christ] who gives me strength” (divine agency).

So I am agreeing with you that the Bible’s commands belong in worship, but also stressing that we do this in a way that does not diminish or replace the emphasis on divine action.

This is why we respond to a call to worship with song lyrics like “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace” or “Come, thou almighty King, help us thy name to sing.”

This is why we speak vows in worship with the phrase “We do, God helping us.”

This is why a sermon on one of the Ten Commandments rightly features the command itself and its call on our lives while also conveying the sense that the command is a gift from God and that God offers us help as we seek to obey it.

This is why at the Lord’s Supper we not only rehearse the Bible’s mandate to celebrate the feast, but also pray in a way that acknowledges the Spirit’s work in and through our participation.

This is why a charge at the end of a worship service is incomplete without a benediction.

In a famous sermon on Romans 8 that John Calvin later quoted, Augustine once preached: “Yes, you act and are acted upon. And if you are acted upon by one who is good, then you act well. The Spirit of God who acts upon you is the helper of those who act. The name ‘helper’ indicates that you also do something. . . . Grace does not destroy the will but rather restores it” (Sermon 156, on Romans 8:12–17, discussed memorably in Calvin’s Institutes II.V.15).

What a compelling vision—the very idea that God’s Spirit is healing and renewing our capacity to act faithfully.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 144 © June 2022 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.