The preceding editorials in this short series demonstrated that the faithful preaching of Holy Scripture by an ordained man is the living voice of God in Jesus Christ. The preaching of the gospel is the Word of God. This concluding installment draws the conclusion that preaching has the central place in worship.
Surprisingly little has been done in Reformed theology, specifically in Reformed liturgics, to develop the place of preaching in worship and the relation of preaching to the other aspects of worship. Reformed theologians have developed preaching as means of grace, but a study of liturgics, homiletics, and even dogmatics reveals that there has been little development of preaching as worship.
In his contribution to the volume on Presbyterian and Reformed worship, Worship in the Presence of God (Greenville Seminary, 1992), Thomas G. Reid, Jr., remarks on this startling lack: “The relation of preaching to the concept of worship and to the other elements of worship remains a relatively unfallowed field” (p. 367; “fallow field” must be intended, that is, a field that has not been worked). Reid’s contribution to the book is a review of “Recent Writings on Worship of Particular Interest to Reformed Christians.” The paragraph that lists writings on “Preaching in Worship” is the briefest paragraph in the chapter. In contrast, the chapter on “Singing of Psalms” goes on for ten and a half pages.
This lack of development of preaching as an element of worship is surprising for two reasons. First, the Reformed churches have been of one mind, that preaching is the main element of public worship. One would think that their treatment of public worship would reflect this importance of preaching.
Second, if preaching is, in fact, the voice of God (as the Reformed faith insists), it is not immediately plain that preaching is part of public worship at all. Is not worship our activity of praise and thanksgiving? But preaching is God’s activity. Through the office of the ministry, God is active in speaking His Word to the church. How is God’s speaking part of our worship? How is God’s speaking the center of our worship?
Exactly this is the objection that modern religious people have against the traditional Reformed worship service with its emphasis on preaching. Most of the service consists of one man’s reading and expounding the Scriptures. The congregation is inactive—as passive, one has said, as chickens sitting on their roost. Such worship services are detrimental to lively, active congregational worship.
If we are successfully to resist the pressure against the centrality of preaching in public worship, as injurious to lively, active worship by the people of God, we must give account of preaching as the very heart of worship. It is not enough to argue that preaching is the voice of God. We must also show that and how preaching is the central element of the public worship of the people of God.
Preaching is, and must be, the heart of right worship exactly because it is the activity of God in Jesus Christ: the voice of God.
Worship is the meeting, the fellowship, of God with His people. The service of public worship of the true church is the official, formal, visible realization of God’s covenant of grace with believers and their children in the world. It is awesome. Every Sunday morning and every Sunday evening, the cloud of glory fills the temple, but now as the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, so that we can bear the Presence and can stand to minister (I Kings 8; I Pet. 2:1-10). In His Spirit and Word, the glorified Jesus Christ walks in the midst of the churches (Rev. 1:10-2:1). Angels attend their sovereign, the triune God in the exalted Jesus Christ, at the service (I Cor. 11:10). If an unbeliever enters the service, the secrets of his heart will be made manifest, and he will fall down on his face and report that God is in us of a truth (I Cor. 14:23-25).
As the covenantal meeting of God with His people, worship is delightful. Psalm 84 is the experience of every friend of God, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker:
How dear to me, O Lord of Hosts,
The place where Thou dost dwell;
The tabernacles of Thy grace
In pleasantness excel.
My spirit longs, yea, even faints,
Thy sacred courts to see;
My thirsting heart and flesh cry out,
O living God, for Thee.
This meeting of God with His people takes place by means of God’s Word. God is present to us, and we draw near to God, by the Word. In the activity of worship, God takes the initiative by revealing Himself as our Father and Savior in Jesus Christ in the preaching of the gospel.
God is first in worship. God is central. God is God in our worship, as He is God in our salvation.
The public worship of the church is theological, is theocentric. We do not make it so. God makes it so. Nor does God make our worship theocentric merely in the sense that all our activity revolves around Him. But He makes it theocentric in the sense that He Himself as the active, working, dynamic God is the center of the service. His activity, work, dynamism, at the center of the service, is the preaching of the Word.
To the preaching of the gospel as the heart of biblical worship are attached, not banners and special music, but the sacraments. They too are primarily God’s actions, not ours. In baptism and the supper, God more fully declares and seals to us the promise of the gospel (Heid. Cat., Q. 66).
This does not imply that the congregation is passive, whether in indolence or in stupefied wonder. By the very preaching in which God is first and central in worship, God calls us to activity in worship. But this activity is not that we come up with all kinds of innovations to make ourselves busy in the services. Rather, our activity is that we hear God speaking—truly hear with the reverence, submission, trust, obedience, and love of faith.
“Hear ye him!” God says to us concerning His Son, Jesus Christ (Matt. 17:5).
This, this is the activity in worship that is required of the congregation. This, this is the public worship that is acceptable to God.
Therefore the supreme worship of God that a man can offer, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is to practice true godliness, to hear and read the Word. On the other hand, nothing is more dangerous than to become tired of the Word. Therefore anyone who is so cold that he thinks he knows enough and gradually begins to loathe the Word has lost Christ and the Gospel…. This is what is finally happening to the frivolous fanatics (Martin Luther, commentary on Gal. 1:11, 12).
When the busy “worship-leaders,” no doubt sincerely, make themselves and us frantic with religious exercises, every Sunday a new set of them, we must say to them, “Sit down! Shut up! Stop working! Let God speak, will you! And hear!”
“Hear!”—the most difficult, strenuous activity of all, and the sweetest, as it is the most glorifying to God.
Commenting on Habakkuk 2:20, “But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him,” Calvin said:
Silence in this respect is nothing else but submission: and we submit to God, when we bring not our own inventions and imaginations, but suffer ourselves to be taught by His Word.
The right worship of God by His New Testament church is described and exhorted in Hebrews 12:22-29. The “church of the firstborn” (v. 23) is called to “serve God acceptably” (v. 28), where “serve” is one of the chief New Testament terms for the church’s worship. This “service” is characterized by “reverence and godly fear” (v. 28), not by wild exuberance and frenzied activity. It is Reformed, not charismatic.
The central act in the church’s worship is the act of speaking: “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh” (v. 25). The one who speaks is the triune God: “much more shall we not escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven” (v. 25). He speaks through Jesus Christ the mediator of the new covenant (v. 24). He speaks still. He speaks today. He speaks by means of the preaching of the gospel, whose message is “the blood of sprinkling” (v. 24) and the promise of a new world (vv. 26, 27). Just as really as the voice of words that Israel heard at Sinai was the living voice of God (v. 19), so truly is the voice that the church hears in the preaching the voice of God (vv. 25, 26).
The resulting and corresponding activity of the worshiping church is pointed out in the warning of verse 25: “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven.”
Negatively, the one great admonition of the New Testament church regarding her public worship is: Do not reject the speaking God! Do not turn away from the one who speaks from heaven! Do not disdain the voice of God! Do not first belittle and despise and then replace altogether the preaching of the Word of God!
Positively, the one great exhortation of the New Testament church regarding her public worship is: Hear Him!
The true church will heed the admonition and exhortation. The speaking God Himself will see to it. He makes His voice lovely to her. Once, from Mt. Sinai, He spoke the awful justice of the law, and Israel “entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more” (v. 19). Now, in Mt. Sion, He speaks the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in the blood of Jesus, and the church receives the Word gladly. She refuses to have it silenced.
Thus does the church rightly worship God.