By Charles W. Bradley
Hopewell Presbyterian Church
Preaching and the Sacraments are the gold standard for public worship.
Addressing the management team of a large hospital, a consultant said that if some kind of disaster were to occur destroying the complex of buildings occupied by that organization, he was certain that its people would be in the street doing medicine. It was his way of saying that the hospital’s identity was not tied to its buildings or programs. Identity was found in the hearts of people who were passionate about their primary task.
This should be said of the church. If our buildings were destroyed and our lives disrupted, could we-would we-continue public worship? Would we be found passionately carrying on with preaching and the Sacraments? The optimistic answer is “yes.” The history of the church is replete with examples of believers who did exactly that in the face of adversity of all kinds.
The Word and Sacraments are essential to worship. Why? God’s people honor Him by these means and express their love and gratitude to Him for His works of creation, redemption and providence. As God reveals himself to His people by Word and Sacraments, He works through them to accomplish His purposes. It goes without saying that the church does these things at His command. Therefore, it is best not to trifle about them and better to passionately pursue them.
Preaching and Sacraments Are Influential
Aside from biblical injunctions to preach and to observe the Sacraments, why are they important? Consider what is at stake. There are two outcomes to worship that relate directly to preaching and Sacraments. On one hand, it is through these things that elect sinners come to salvation. This occurs initially as the Gospel is explained, resulting in the faith and repentance that lead to justification.
Salvation continues during the lifelong process of sanctification where believers continually receive grace, enabling them to overcome sin and establish new habits of obedience as the cycle of faith-repentance is repeated. Instruction in the Word and motivation through the Sacraments is crucial to sanctification. The stark alternative to this cycle of growth and discipleship is the death spiral of an ever hardening heart.
Individuals, who participate in worship but do not profit by the Sacraments and preaching, inevitably become increasingly insensitive until hunger for God no longer exists. At best, Word and Sacraments for such persons can only represent a kind of mechanical performance where technique and performance get the lion’s share of interest and energy. The performance may be a well-oiled presentation, with the whir and purr of sights and sounds and many things in motion, but it is without the blossom of Aaron’s rod or the gold of a refined faith. Sounding gong and tinkling cymbal can not sustain the soul, no matter how heroic the effort. At worst, worship becomes something to be endured or avoided. Heartless ritual’s cold breath makes spiritual perception elusive until desire is gone. When God’s Word no longer reaches the heart, it spells disaster.
Today’s Church under Pressure
One cannot take the ministry of preaching and Sacraments for granted. The church is under a great deal of pressure from several directions to dilute the importance of the preaching and Sacraments. Post-Modern influence comes to the church with the denial of the truth and contempt for Christian tradition. This can affect our thinking until the quest for relevance becomes the focal point of worship. This new man-centered standard for success aims no higher than “meeting needs.” In it, church members with needs do not need someone proclaiming God’s word to them, but a successful and charismatic someone to help them discover what works for the moment. The authoritative, Trinitarian God becomes a relic on a shelf in the fundamentalist boutique.
At the personal level, people are individualistic and self-focused by nature. In an age of consumerism this blossoms into a customer-is-king mindset. Personal expectations are brought into worship as easily as the mall. The church becomes a service provider.
Wants and preferences dictate a powerful influence on preaching and in the Sacraments. For the consumer-as-worshipper, preaching and Sacraments are intolerable unless repackaged with audio and visual enhancements, entertaining stories and confined to the same twenty minute duration of a sit-com. And if the church’s music is good, there will always be the temptation to reduce the time and effort given to Word and Sacraments in exchange for the pleasure of entertainment.
The biblical concept of a Christ-centered heart in a God-centered existence is far too confining, once attention has turned away from preaching and Sacraments. The resulting loss of fellowship and integrity in congregational life can only mean inevitable conflict for the church unless there is repentance.
Christian essay writer A.W. Tozer pointed to the danger and a remedy when he said, “One of the world’s worst tragedies is that we allow our hearts to shrink until there is room in them for little beside ourselves… Restricted sympathies make us unlike God, and the bravest thing we can do is admit it” (The Root of the Righteous, p.113). Indeed, where preaching and the Sacraments are in first place, hearts won’t shrink and individual tastes cannot reign unchallenged. We simply must give preaching and Sacraments our full attention and our best effort-or face the inevitable consequences.
Be Instructed: What’s Going on Here?
Preaching and the Sacraments both fall under the category of revelation. In short, God communicates to His people through these means. He speaks to the church through the preacher who proclaims the message of God from the authority of Holy Scripture. He does this on the basis of thorough exegesis, making careful application of biblical principles. The Sacraments serve to confirm and attest to this message.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper serve as signs and seals of a reality that would be impossible to grasp without revelation from God. Water in baptism is a sign of the Gospel’s promise of cleansing. Wine and bread on the communion table are signs of Jesus’ provision. These will receive fuller explanation in another emphasis article. Suffice it to say that the Sacraments are tangible and tactile reminders of God’s work, provision and care.
Be Prepared: What Are My Responsibilities?
When you approach Word and sacrament, you must do so by faith. A powerful lesson in this vein is found in Hebrews 12:18-24. There, the author sets Israel’s experience of God over against that of the church in the New Testament. Israel experienced God directly-they saw smoke and fire; they heard and felt God’s presence and they were absolutely terrified. Wanting no more of this experience, they begged to be excused. By contrast, the New Testament church possesses realities that it cannot see or experience in the way that Israel did.
The new heavenly realities are portrayed and communicated now through preaching and Sacraments. They will not be experienced directly until the new heaven and new earth. Until then, they are to be reckoned as true by faith. Each person in worship must reckon the commands and promises of God that are communicated through preaching and confirmed by the Sacraments as true. Only then can one partake of their benefits. Everyone involved in worship has a responsibility here. This kind of worship transcends taste, preference and “felt need.”
Ministers are to thoroughly prepare for preaching the Word. The task of preaching goes beyond merely filling the air with words as John Calvin reminds us: “Let those who would discharge aright the ministry of the Gospel learn not merely to speak or to declaim, but to penetrate the consciences of men, and make them see Christ crucified, and feel the shedding of His blood.” (Calvin’s Commentaries: Galatians 3:1; 202-3). That being true, the preacher cannot be casual, haphazard, preoccupied, indifferent, or ill-equipped. He must always remember that preaching is his primary task and be able to prove it by his appointment book, where prayer, exegesis, and wide ranging study are the order of the day.
Church members are to prepare for preaching by regularly reading the Bible for themselves and by praying for the pastor and for the public worship service of the church. They prepare for the Sacraments by self examination, whether anticipating the meal in the Lord’s Supper or by remembering their own baptism when another is to be baptized.
To come to preaching and Sacraments by way of preparation is the task of faith. We never know when, where or how God may choose to bless His church and those involved, but we can remember this: He will honor faith. Members thus prepared will anticipate public worship and the potential for meeting with God and hearing Him speak with a degree of excitement.
Preaching and the Sacraments are not things to be trifled with. They are not things to be endured. They are not entertainment. They are the heart and soul of the church’s worship. Every believer should be able to easily recount times when preaching brought the presence of God into the church or into an individual life. Likewise, it should not be difficult to remember sacramental seasons where water, wine and bread gave cause to count anew and afresh how much God has done and how much he cares. It is no embarrassment to count such experiences among life’s very best.