The Heart of the Reformation and the Heart of Worship
By. Dr. Albert Mohler President of Southern Seminary
Martin Luther said about the Reformation that began 500 years ago, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word. Otherwise, I did nothing. … I did nothing, the word did everything. I let the word do its work.” Luther preached, and as he slept, the word did its work.
Ulrich Zwingli, another of the great Reformers, said that “the word of God is so sure and strong that if God wills things that are done, the moment he speaks his word, they are done. There is nothing beyond its power.”
The Reformers were merely echoing the words of Scripture itself, which testifies that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).
The word of God is active and alive, and it is the task of Christian preachers everywhere to preach it and let it work. It must be done with skill – which Luther knew as one who taught preachers. But at the end of the day, the Word will have to do the work, or the work will not be done.
The question for us five centuries later is whether such a commitment to the authority of God’s word defines what happens in the worship of our churches.
Most evangelicals would agree that worship is central to the life of the church, and yet there would be no consensus to an unavoidable question: What is central to Christian worship? Historically, the more liturgical churches have argued that the sacraments form the heart of Christian worship. These churches argue that the elements of the Lord’s Supper and the water of baptism most powerfully present the gospel. Among evangelicals, some call for evangelism as the heart of worship, planning every facet of the service—songs, prayers, the sermon—with the evangelistic invitation in mind.
Though most evangelicals mention the preaching of the word as a necessary or customary part of worship, the prevailing model of worship in evangelical churches is increasingly defined by music, along with innovations such as drama and video presentations. When preaching the word retreats, a host of entertaining innovations will take its place.
Traditional norms of worship are now subordinated to a demand for relevance and creativity. A media-driven culture of images has replaced the word-centered culture that gave birth to the Reformation churches. In some sense, the image-driven culture of modern evangelicalism is an embrace of the very practices rejected by the Reformers in their quest for true biblical worship.
A concern for true biblical worship was at the very heart of the Reformation. But even Martin Luther, who wrote hymns and required his preachers to be trained in song, would not recognize the modern preoccupation with music as legitimate or healthy. Why? Because the Reformers were convinced that the heart of true biblical worship was the preaching of the word of God.
Expository preaching is central, irreducible, and nonnegotiable to the Bible’s mission
of authentic worship that pleases God. John Stott’s simple declaration states the issue boldly: “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity.” More specifically, preaching is indispensable to Christian worship — and not only indispensable but central.
The centrality of preaching is the theme of both testaments of Scripture. In Nehemiah 8 we find the people demanding that Ezra the scribe bring the book of the law to the assembly. Ezra and his colleagues stand on a raised platform and read from the book. When he opens the book to read, the assembly rises to its feet in honor of the word of God and respond, “Amen, Amen!”
Interestingly, the text explains that Ezra and those assisting him “read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Neh 8:8). This remarkable text presents a portrait of expository preaching. Once the text was read, it was carefully explained to the congregation. Ezra did not stage an event or orchestrate a spectacle — he simply and carefully proclaimed the word of God.
This text is a sobering indictment of much contemporary Christianity. According to the text, a demand for biblical preaching erupted within the hearts of the people. They gathered as a congregation and summoned the preacher. This reflects an intense hunger and thirst for the preaching of the word of God. Where is this desire evident among today’s evangelicals?
In far too many churches, the Bible is nearly silent. The public reading of Scripture has been dropped from many services, and the sermon has been sidelined, reduced to a brief devotional appended to the music. Many preachers accept this as a necessary concession to the age of entertainment. Some hope to put in a brief message of encouragement or exhortation before the conclusion of the service.
As Michael Green so pointedly put it: “This is the age of the sermonette, and sermonettes make Christianettes.”
The anemia of evangelical worship — all the music and energy aside — is directly attributable to the absence of genuine expository preaching. Such preaching would confront the congregation with nothing less than the living and active word of God. That confrontation will shape the congregation as the Holy Spirit accompanies the word, opens eyes, and applies that word to human hearts.
For more material from Dr. Albert Mohler, please visit www.albertmohler.com.