The Primacy of the Word in Worship
The Word of God is of supreme importance in the life of the Christian, containing as it does God’s revelation of his Person, his will and his ways. The Word needs to be pored over, ingested into one’s mind and heart, meditated on, and acted upon. It is a unique and precious repository of spiritual truth and guidance and encouragement. There is no aspect of the life of the church or of the individual believer that should not be tied to a scriptural mooring and infused with biblical substance (2 Tim 3:16-17). The Bible is indeed ”a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps 119:105).
When Christians gather for corporate worship, it is logical that the Word of God should play a central and dominant role. For since worship involves focusing our thoughts and hearts and voices on the praise of God, in response to his self-revelation and his gracious saving initiative, we of course need that view of God which the Word gives us if our worship is to be “in truth” (John 4:23-24). Our worship can only duly honor God if it accurately reflects what he reveals about himself in his Word.
The Word Neglected
That said, the astounding observation has been made as to how little use is made of Scripture in the worship services of most evangelical churches. The irony of course is that those who claim most strongly to stand on the Bible have so little of it in their worship. While the sermon of course takes a prominent role in our services, even preaching consists mostly of talking about the Scriptures (often after reading just a very few verses). It must be said that liturgical groups (whether on the more liberal or the more conservative end of the spectrum theologically) have probably ten times as much actual Scripture in their services (because it is built into their liturgies) as most evangelical free churches!
In too many of our churches the entire first part of the service consists just of music, and no Scripture is read at all. This author has experienced this often in both traditional and contemporary services: the problem is pervasive. It would seem crucially important for people in a service, believers and unbelievers, to hear (and/or see printed in a bulletin or flashed on a screen) verses of Scripture chosen to give a clear signal that: “We have come to worship God. The Word is how we know about God, and therefore it is the foundation for all that we do here and for our understanding of why we have come together.” Without hearing such a declaration, worshipers make the faulty assumption (consciously or unconsciously) that we invite ourselves into God’s presence, when in actuality it is only by virtue of his invitation (and his opening the way through the work of Christ) that we may come before him at all.
As James White puts it, “the first step toward making our worship more biblical is in giving the reading of God’s Word a central role in Christian worship on any occasion” (“Making Our Worship More Biblical,” Perkins Journal 34:38). We simply cannot overstate the importance of Scripture for our worship. By all means, let us be as creative as possible in building in Scripture (verses on banners or projected onto a screen as people enter, verses on the bulletin cover, readers’ theater, children reciting verses, original Scripture songs, etc), but let us make sure that the primacy of the Word in worship is obvious throughout the entire service—not just during the sermon. As White adds: Scripture is read, not just for a sermon text, but to hear what word God addresses to the gathered congregation. Preaching usually builds on that but Scripture is read for its own sake as God’s Word . . . . It needs to be communicated to all that the centrality of Scripture stems from its functions as proclamation of God’s Word to the gathered people (38).
In Scripture we find the prerequisites for worship, the invitation to worship, the authority for worship, the material for worship, the regulation of our worship, the message of worship, and the end to which worship should lead.
The Word and the Prerequisites for Worship.
The Word of God helps to bring us to the point where our approach to God in worship is possible: it teaches us that we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1); it reveals that God has provided for redemption, forgiveness, and eternal life through the work of Jesus Christ; and it presents the opportunity to come by faith into a right relationship with the Father. “The washing of water with the Word” (Ephesians 5:26) provides the spiritual cleanliness which God requires for us to be able to enter confidently into his presence (Ps 15:1-2; Heb 10:19-22; 12:18-24).
The Word as the Inviter to Worship.
God has done everything to make our approach in worship possible, and in his Word he extends the invitation (yea, command) to draw near. The Old Testament book of worship, the Psalter, is replete with calls to “praise the Lord!” (Hebrew: hallelujah). As the Danish hymn (text by Thomas Kingo, 1634-1703), puts it: We come, invited by your Word, To kneel before your altar, Lord.
The Word as the Authority for Worship.
The fact of the matter is that every aspect of the service should serve to reflect and honor the Word of God. The sermon (and the preacher) must be subservient to the Word: the Word must guide and control the preacher’s thoughts and words if the sermon is to communicate God’s message and not just the ideas of man. But also the music must be subservient to the Word: the texts must reflect and express biblical truth, and the music itself must be a suitable medium to carry the text; the musician(s) must also be subservient to the Word in terms of motivation and execution of the music. In addition, prayers and readings must be consistent with biblical teaching, if not actually taken from Scripture. As John MacArthur has put it, “If we are to worship in truth and the Word of God is truth, we must worship out of our understanding of the Word of God” (The Ultimate Priority, 122-23).
The Word as the Material for Worship.
Gary Furr and Milburn Price have suggested a number of ways in which the revelation of the Word can be communicated in the service, besides the ser- mon: Scripture readings of all sorts, music (setting Scripture texts, and also faithfully presenting scrip- tural truth in paraphrased or freely composed form), symbols (fish, cross, stained glass, etc.), carefully used drama (The Dialogue of Worship, 8- 15). When Scripture and scriptural truth are perva- sive in the service, then the acts of response will properly be understood as response to God’s self- revelation through His Word.
The Word as the Regulator of Worship.
Worship must be guided and channeled by truth, i.e. be in accordance with what God has revealed about Himself and His ways (and, as John 4:25-26 shows, must be through the Son, the Messiah, who is the truth [John 15:6]). As Furr and Price state: “This is the perfect blend: emotion regulated by understanding, enthusiasm directed by the Word of God” (125).
The Word and the Message of Worship.
Preaching is part of worship, and leads to worship. Indeed, John Piper calls preaching “expository exultation” and adds: “The all-pervasive, all- important, all-surpassing reality in every text is God. Whether he is commanding or warning or promising or teaching he is there. And where he is, he is always supreme. And where he is supreme he will be worshiped” (“Preaching as Worship”).
The Word and the End of Worship.
The Word should rightly be exalted in our worship (because it is the Word of God), but not as an end in itself. For the ultimate goal of worship (as of the church and of our lives as believers) is to display and pro- claim and magnify the glory of God. The glory of God will be well served in our worship as the Word speaks of the wonders of his person and his ways through reading, preaching, praying, singing, meditating, and practicing ordinances which are infused with and reflective of scriptural truth. The Word will enable us to obey its own command to “praise him according to his excellent greatness” (Ps 150:2).