So far, in this mini-series designed to aid your preparation for congregational worship on the Lord's Day, we've asked (and answered) the questions "what is worship?" and "why do we worship?" or rather "why ought we to worship?" Answering these questions biblically is one good way to ready oneself to "go into the house of the Lord." This week, we ask a third question. "What is it that we are supposed to do when we gather for public worship?" "What are the essential elements of the regular worship of the people of God?" "What things are to be done when we gather for the purpose of giving God the the glory due his name and engaging with him?"
What our worship looks like: the Elements and Principles
When a congregation committed to the ordinary means of grace meets on the Lord's Day, Bible reading, Bible preaching, Bible praying, Bible singing and biblical observance of the sacraments are at the core of what we do in public worship. This means the following for our services.
Read the Bible
We read the Bible in our public worship. Paul told Timothy "give attention to the public reading of Scripture" (1 Tim. 4:13) and so, a worship service influenced by the teaching of Scripture will contain a substantial reading of Scripture (and not just from the sermon text!). The public reading of the Bible has been at the heart of the worship of God since Old Testament times. In the reading of God's word, He speaks most directly to His people.
Preach the Bible
We preach the Bible in our public worship. Preaching is God's prime appointed instrument to build up his church. As Paul said "faith comes by hearing" (Romans 10:14, 17). Faithful biblical preaching is to explain and apply Scripture to the gathered company, believers and unbelievers alike. James Durham put it this way: "This is the great design of all preaching, to bring them within the covenant who are without, and to make those who are within the covenant to walk suitably to it. And as these are never separated on the Lord's side, so should they never be separated on our side." This means expository and evangelistic preaching, squarely based in the text of the word of God.
People who appreciate the Bible's teaching on worship will have a high view of preaching, and little time for the personality driven, theologically void, superficially practical, monologues that pass for preaching today. "From the very beginning the sermon was supposed to be an explanation of the Scripture reading," says Hughes Old. It "is not just a lecture on some religious subject, it is rather an explanation of a passage of Scripture." "Preach the word," Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim 4:2). "Expository, sequential, verse by verse, book by book, preaching through the whole Bible, the 'whole council of God' (Acts 20:27), was the practice of many of the church fathers (e.g., Chrysostom, Augustine), all the Reformers and the best of their heirs ever since. The preached word is the central feature of Reformed worship."
Pray the Bible
We pray the Bible in our public worship. The Father's house "is a house of prayer" said Jesus (Matthew 21:13). Our prayers ought to be permeated with the language and thought of Scripture. Terry Johnson makes the case like this: "the pulpit prayers of Reformed churches should be rich in biblical and theological content. Do we not learn the language of Christian devotion from the Bible? Do we not learn the language of confession and penitence from the Bible? Do we not learn the promises of God to believe and claim in prayer from the Bible? Don't we learn the will of God, the commands of God, and the desires of God for His people, for which we are to plead in prayer, from the Bible? Since these things are so, public prayers should repeat and echo the language of the Bible throughout." The call here is not for written and read prayer, but studied free prayer. Our ministers spend time plundering the language of Scripture in preparation for leading in public worship.
Sing the Bible
We sing the Bible in our public worship (Psalm 98:1, Revelation 5:9, Matthew 26:30, Nehemiah 12:27, 46; Acts 16:25; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). This doesn't mean that we can only sing Psalms or only sing the language of scripture, though this tremendous doxological resource of the church should not be overlooked. What we mean by "sing the Bible" is that our singing ought to be biblical, shot through with the language, categories and theology of the Bible. It ought to reflect the themes and proportion of the Bible, as well as its substance and weightiness. Terry Johnson, again, provides this counsel: "Our songs should be rich with Biblical and theological content. The current divisions over music are at the heart of our worship wars. Yet some principles should be easy enough to identify. First, what does a Christian worship song look like? Answer, it looks like a Psalm. The Psalms provide the model for Christian hymnody. If the songs we sing in worship look like Psalms, they will develop themes over many lines with minimal repetition. They will be rich in theological and experiential content. They will tell us much about God, man, sin, salvation, and the Christian life. They will express the whole range of human experience and emotion. Second, what does a Christian worship song sound like? Many are quick to point out that God has not given us a book of tunes. No, but He has given us a book of lyrics (the Psalms) and their form will do much to determine the kinds of tunes that will be used. Put simply, the tunes will be suited to the words. They will be sophisticated enough to carry substantial content over several lines and stanzas. They will use minimal repetition. They will be appropriate to the emotional mood of the Psalm or Bible-based Christian hymn. Sing the Bible."
"See" the Bible
We "see" the Bible in our public worship. That is, we are to observe the appointed visible ordinances or sacraments in public worship. When we say that we are to "see" the Bible, we do so because God's sacraments are "visible words" (so said Augustine). A sacrament or ordinance is a picture of a promise, or to be more precise it is a rite that pictures a promise. In other words, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) are the only two commanded dramas of Christian worship (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Colossians 2:11-12, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
In them we see with our eyes the promise of God. But we could also say that in the sacraments we see/smell/touch/taste the word. In the reading and preaching the word, God addresses our mind and conscience through the hearing. In the sacraments, he uniquely addresses our mind and conscience through the other senses. In, through and to the senses, God's promise is made tangible.
A sacrament is a covenant sign and seal, which means it reminds us and assures us of a promise. That is, it points to and confirms a gracious promise of God to his people. Another way of saying it is that a sacrament is an action designed by God to sign and seal a covenantal reality, accomplished by the power and grace of God, the significance of which has been communicated by the word of God, and the reality of which is received or entered into by faith. Hence, the weakness, the frailty of human faith welcomes this gracious act of reassurance.
And so these "visible symbols of Gospel truths" are to be done as part of our corporate worship. They will be occasional, no matter how frequent, and so we are reminded that they are not essential to every service. This is not to denigrate them in the least. After all, they are by nature supplemental to and confirmatory of the promises held out in the word, and the grace conveyed in them is the same grace held out via the means of preaching.