Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

The will of God governs the church’s worship. According to that will of God, at the heart of worship is to be the preaching of the gospel. The Reformed faith gives the central place in worship to the ministry of the Word.

We must worship God aright. But the right and proper worship of God is the worship of God throughHis Word. This is expressed in the well-known Reformation creed, the Heidelberg Catechism. The first question and answer of Lord’s Day 35 teach that the Second Commandment requires that we worship God in no other way than He has commanded in His Word. Then the question is asked, “But may not images be tolerated in the churches as books to the laity?” The answer given is: “No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his Word:”

The Reformation’s Recovery of Preaching

The outstanding achievement of the Reformation of the 16th century was its restoration to the church of the pure preaching of the gospel. By the time of the Reformation, preaching had fallen into horrible neglect. The church did not busy herself in preaching. The clergy did not occupy themselves in sermon-making and sermon delivery. And the people did not come to worship services to hear carefully worked-out expositions of God’s Word.

Rather than being busy in the spread of the gospel, the leaders of the church either isolated themselves from God’s people in some monastery or were preoccupied in pursuing political ambitions. Rather than laboring with the Word, clergymen were whiling away their time in idleness, drunkenness, and debauchery. Rather than hearing the Word of God regularly on the Lord’s Day, the members of the church were contenting themselves to attend periodic Masses or to go off on extended pilgrimages. In the pre-Reformation church there was a silence, a deafening silence, of the hearing of the preaching of the Word.

The Reformers changed all that. Being, to a man, preachers themselves, they made it their objective to restore preaching to the church. This was their passion. This was their life-calling. This was their heartfelt service to God and to His church.

Luther emphasized the centrality of the preaching in worship in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church which emphasized the importance of the sacrifice of the Mass. While Luther did not minimize the importance of holy communion, he gave the chief place in worship to the preaching. In his writings, repeatedly he insists upon it that the congregation is not even to gather for worship unless the Word is preached.

In a treatise entitled, “Concerning the Ordering of Divine Worship in the Congregation” (1523), Luther complained of the great and serious abuses that have crept into divine worship. “The first,” he says, “is that God’s Word has been silenced, and only reading (of liturgy, RC) and singing remain in the churches. This is the worst misuse.” A little later in that same work he writes, “Now in order to do away with these misuses, it is necessary to know, first of all, that the Christian congregation never should assemble unless God’s Word is preached . . . no matter for how brief a time this may be. Therefore where God’s Word is not preached, it is better that one neither sing, nor read, nor even come together.” In his work on “The German Mass and Order of Service,” Luther lays down the principle that “among Christians the whole service should center in the Word . . . .”

As on most other issues, Calvin was in agreement with his mentor Luther on the centrality of the preaching in worship. He writes in his Institutes, (IV, III, 1), “Further, nothing fosters mutual love more fittingly than for men to be bound together with this bond: one is appointed pastor to teach the rest, and those bidden to be pupils receive the common teaching from one mouth…. The Lord has therefore bound His church together with a knot that He foresaw would be the strongest means of keeping unity, while He entrusted to men the teaching of salvation and everlasting life in order that through their hands it might be communicated to the rest.” Calvin goes on, “… there is nothing more notable or glorious in the church than the ministry of the-gospel, since it is the administration of the Spirit and of righteousness and of eternal life.” And, he contends, “Christ has so ordered in His church, that if it (i.e., the pure preaching of the gospel) is removed the whole edifice must fall.”

Why the Importance of Preaching

Why is the preaching central to the worship of God? Why can there be no worship of God apart from the preaching of the Word? Why is preaching the chief task of church and minister alike? There are several reasons.

First of all, the Word is central because we knowGod through His Word. If we are to worship God, we must know Him. And we know Him through His Word. We do not know Him through images; we do not know Him through involved liturgical ceremonies; we do not know Him through frenzied religious services whose main appeal is to the emotions. But we know God through His Word, because it is in His Word that God has chosen to reveal Himself.

The preaching of the Word is central to worship, secondly, because it is the chief means of faith. This is the teaching of Scripture and this was the position of the Reformers. Nothing else in worship, not even the sacraments, has the importance of the preaching of the Word. The preaching is unique, because the preaching is the means both to work and to preserve faith. Even the sacraments derive their importance from the preaching. They depend on the preaching and serve only to reinforce the preaching of the gospel. Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” And in I Corinthians 1:18 he says, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it (the preaching) is the power of God.” The preaching, nothing else, is the power by which God saves men.

And thirdly, the preaching of the Word is central because in worship the people of God havefellowship with Him through His Word. That is the reality of worship! That is the miracle of worship—fellowship with God, standing in God’s presence, before that face of God! But you do not have fellowship with God through an image. He is not present to you through ceremonies and religious rites, as impressive as they may be. God is present to His people and God has fellowship with His peoplethrough His Word.

A Warning to the Church Today

As was the case in the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation, so it has become true of many Reformed churches today that the preaching no longer occupies the central place in worship. Over the years the time allotted to the preaching has been steadily reduced, so that ten or fifteen minutes is standard fare in most churches today. Substitutions have been made for the preaching, substitutions that are supposed to attract the unchurched and keep the young people in the church. The second service in many churches has been abandoned altogether. Little by little the Reformed churches have relinquished their distinctive heritage and moved closer and closer to Rome.

Neither are we exempt from dissatisfaction with the preaching. We are often quick to voice complaints about the manna with which God feeds us. Sermons are too long! The preaching is so doctrinal! Why does the preacher always have to be negative? Why can’t our services be spiced up a little? Worship is so dull!

Have we forgotten what the preaching is? Have we forgotten what worship really is? Have we forgotten that not our will but God’s will is determinative for worship?

And we suffer. There is the loss of assurance of salvation. Our lives are joyless and without purpose. There is no peace, no confidence, no good hope for the future. We are restless, worldly, self-centered. There are problems in our marriages. There are heartaches with our children. A price is paid for our contempt for the preaching of the gospel.

In the 62nd of the 95 Theses that Luther nailed to the chapel door in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517, he wrote: “The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” may that conviction be shared by each of us. May we continue to value this treasure as the Reformers valued it. And may we exercise ourselves on behalf of its preservation as they exercised themselves.