I have always been a little jealous of Reformed Churches referencing their creedal standards as The Three Forms of Unity. That is what Creeds or Confessions are for – to unify us in the Body of Christ. Contrary to how we think of our Standards, they are not a proposition set forth to be debated as an open question. They are that upon which we stand together. I submit to you in this article that the Word of God is ultimately our three forms of unity. That is, the Word read, the Word preached, and the Word heard. Here are truly The Three Forms of Unity. Without this, you lose the UNITY, and ultimately you lose the Church.
In the luxury of our heritage, with churches, books, preaching, and covenant families, we may easily forget the prominence of the Word of God in worship. We take for granted the abundance of Bibles in many translations, as well as free pulpits from which to expound the Word of God. Tapes and CDs, radio and TV are easily at hand.
These blessings were often obtained through the spilled blood of the Reformation saints. Though Scripture teaches the centrality of the Word read, preached, and heard, in the dark ages with the blessing of the Roman Church the Word was taken away from the Church of Christ. The common man lived in ignorance of God’s Word.
Sadly, we are not free of such ignorance of God’s Word. In our society, however, it is more often a self-willed ignorance of the Word. Most professing Christianity today is built around Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, or a certain generic spirituality in time of war or tragedy, what is sometimes called “civil religion.” Even Hollywood offers its version. Yet in their contentment with their holidays and ceremonies, they will be ignorant of anything amiss. As they relish the pageantry, liturgy, music, and decorations, they are at the same time oblivious to the fact that the Word of God barely functions in their midst.
Rome took away the Word of God and placed superstitious, idolatrous liturgy in its place. The Reformers liberated us from that bondage and gave us back the Word of God. The heirs of the Reformation have removed it from their midst voluntarily. The cry is for music groups, entertainment, showy rituals, smells and bells. Not teaching and preaching, but humanistic therapy for dysfunctional families. Not doctrine, but dance and drama. Not sanctification, but social action for the latest cause. One can almost imagine the voices crying out, much as the women at the tomb, “the church has taken the Bible, and we know not where she has laid it.”
Sola Scriptura is more than a slogan of the Reformation. The awakening that burst forth at the Reformation was a revival based on the Word of God. Hus, Wycliffe, and Luther would not appear radical to us, for we have the Bible. But when Rome’s power depended on keeping the Word from the masses, it meant death to those who would dare to translate it, preach it, or teach it. But the Word could not be contained, being as it is, sharper than a two-edged sword. It is the power of God unto salvation. It is, as James says, the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls.
The Reformation, therefore, centered on the Word of God. Translating Scripture in the common language served to expose the tyranny of Rome. It was the power of Luther’s preaching based on Scripture that drew ever larger crowds, making him a threat to the Roman Church. Not surprising, therefore, in the emerging Reformation churches, the Word of God became the foundation. In public worship, the reading of the Word in the language of the people, and especially the preached Word, became the focal point of that worship. Architecturally, the central pulpit became the focal point, not divided chancels with an altar as the focal point.
This watershed aspect of Scripture alone gives the dynamic context for Luther’s famous statement before the Imperial Diet of Worms, Germany. Confronted with the greatest earthly powers, the pope and the emperor, Luther witnessed the good confession:
“I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is clear as day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless, therefore, I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract.”
Then, with every eye upon him, to the assembly who held his life in their hands, Luther declared: “Here I stand; I can do no other; may God help me! Amen!” Thus it was, that one of God’s greatest warriors stood on the Word of God.
Such doctrine must affect the worship of the church. That Word read, preached and heard is our three forms of unity. No altars, no elevated theater for ritual, no divided chancels, but a large central pulpit, often with a large pulpit Bible, open and visible. What was symbolized was the reality of the centrality of God’s Word.
The Word Read
Scripture itself commands and gives example of meditating upon the Word, hiding the Word in one’s heart, and blessings resulting from such reading. This first point teaches us that we should read Scripture in worship, with a proper attitude.
First of all, the reading of the Word of God is to be a part of public worship. We have a vivid example of that in Nehemiah 8, when all the people were gathered in front of the Water Gate. Ezra opened the book of the law to read it, and all the people stood up. Jesus gave us a further example in Luke 14:16-21 when He began His public ministry. Jesus read a messianic text from Isaiah, and then gave the most forceful one-sentence sermon on it imaginable. This pattern of reading the Word continued with the apostles, as they would read the word in public worship and then expound it.
Second, such reading is also to be done in family worship as we can see in Deuteronomy 6:6-9 and Psalm 78:5. What a duty and a privilege for families and fathers as heads of families! Here is the grand motive for all education as we know it. Not better jobs with higher pay, not social status, but being able to read the Word of God. This is part of the baptismal vow. That is why schools are important: to teach children to read the Word of God.
Third, Scriptures are also to be read in secret, or private worship. We are to search the Scriptures, meditate upon them, hide them in our heart.
We also need to consider HOW should we read the Word and with what kind of attitude do we come to Scripture. The Confession says the Bible is to be read “with godly fear.”
If many fail to be faithful in the reading and hearing of the Word, even more fail here. Many, I fear, are unaffected by the reading or singing of God’s Word. What pastor has not looked out on a congregation only to see supposed worshipers stone silent during the singing or staring out the window as the Word is being read? At most, there is a superficial grasp of the content.
Question 157 of the Westminster Larger Catechism has an expansion of this point:
Q. 157. How is the Word of God to be read?
A. The holy Scriptures are to be read with an high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very Word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.
Can you conceive of what could happen in the church if all who professed Christ really dealt with His Word in this way? If you want revival and spiritual prosperity for Christ’s church, if you want unity within the Body of Christ, here is where to start. Come to the Bible with the right attitude! So we are to read the Word of God in public, family and private worship; and we are to do so with a godly attitude.
The Word Preached
I always liked the story of a church where one of the parishioners didn’t think much of the preaching. Desiring to say something good rather than critical, each week he would greet the pastor with, “That was a good text you had today.” You cannot criticize (at least with impunity) the Word of God. The preaching, however, can be worthy of criticism. Nevertheless, God has ordained preaching as central to public worship.
The preaching of the Word is a Divine ordinance appointed to continue in the church till the end of the world. In addition, it is central to God’s plan of salvation. In evangelism, church growth, and missions preaching is pre-eminent. Romans 10:14–15 brings out the relevancy, permanency and centrality of preaching God’s plan of redemption.
There is no calling upon the name of the Lord without faith, no faith without hearing of the Word, no hearing of the Word without preaching of the Word, and no preaching, we might add, without the sending of Christ and His Church. In Acts it is the Holy Spirit who directs the church to set apart those who were called to preach.
We would emphasize that the spotlight is NOT on the preacher, NOR on the sermon, BUT on the preaching of the Word of God. It is the implanted Word, as James calls it, that is effectual to save. God’s grace is seen in His condescending to us to reveal His Word through human instruments.
The Westminster Larger Catechism again gives a good summary.
Q. 159. asks: How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?
A. They that are called to labor in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.
The central place of preaching in God’s plan of redemption teaches us that private reading of the Bible, or private Bible study is not sufficient for true and continual spiritual growth and development. We may not absent ourselves from the public worship of God or the preaching of the Word of God in public worship. The grace obtained from personal Bible reading depends upon the grace of the preached Word. Think of Christ opening the Word to the men on the Road to Emmaus, or Philip expounding Isaiah to the Ethiopian eunuch. The Word must be explained and commented upon and put into present day context by a man designated for that purpose by Christ Himself.
I feel very uncomfortable stressing this point and yet I must. I believe with all my heart this is what our Savior intended as the means of conversion. It makes me seem important, though I know that is not what it really means. I am just an unworthy instrument; none of this gives glory to me. In fact, I don’t really begin to understand why preaching should be so special.
As far as I can see there is no inherent value in preaching above other things. All preaching has, and it is a big “all,” is God’s command and promise. There is a divine imperative. Don’t ask me for a reason why this works better! It is not answered by human wisdom. It is efficacious because God wills to do it this way! We just have to surrender to His way. Because God ordained the preaching of the Word as the primary means of salvation and sanctification, therefore it must be effective to those ends. Thus does Isaiah say: “So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to me empty.”
The Word Heard
The third and last consideration we will take up with respect to the Word concerns HEARING. The Confession’s words are: “the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence….” The definition of this “conscionable hearing” in the Confession is four-fold.
First, the Word preached is to be heard in obedience to God. This is no academic exercise; it is not entertainment; it is a life and death matter. Jesus declares: Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” (and we might add, not everyone who hears) but he who does the Father’s will.
Second, the Word is to be heard with understanding. Scripture knows of two kinds of knowledge. There is bare knowledge, historical knowledge, and there is knowledge as in wisdom. “Wisdom” is when one truly perceives how knowledge is related to God and our life.
In the parable of the soils, one soil (beside the road) was hard. The seeds sown there were picked up by the birds. The seed is there, but the hardness of the heart prevents understanding. Loving evil instead of God, the knowledge is perverted; thus there is no understanding.
Third, the Word is to be heard with faith. If it is true that whatever is not of faith is sin, then something as central as preaching, without faith on the part of the hearer, is not worship (it is not “conscionable hearing of the Word”). If you look at Hebrews 4 you will see this explicitly taught, although it should be clear even by implication that without faith, there is no mediator, and without a Mediator, there is no true worship. Proper hearing is hearing in faith.
Fourth, hearing is qualified by the word reverence. Knowing the nature of preaching, that it is God’s Word proclaimed, and God is speaking through His Word, reverent awe is the only possible attitude to take in worship.
Can you see then, how utterly crucial your hearing is in the part of worship we call preaching? The spotlight is really on you. It is not so much how well the preacher preached, but how well did you hear? Is your hearing obedient, with understanding, faith, and reverence? Or is it routine, an occasional show, an academic exercise, a halfhearted ritual you hope will be a sort of “insurance policy?” The stakes are awfully high!
Application Let me mention a few things by way of application:
First, get yourself and your family under the faithful preaching of the Word, frequently and regularly. Anything less is inexcusable in the eyes of God. Faithlessness here is a denial of the covenant! If you have any love for your family, they will be with you among the people of God whenever the Word of God is being soundly preached, and you will find a church home where that is the case! If such is not the case, you had better question your own relationship to Jesus.
Second, get unbelievers under the preaching of the Word. This, whatever value other forms of evangelism might have, this is still the primary, God-ordained means of evangelism. Qualitatively and quantitatively, this is the way of fruitfulness. The lost are drawn to the light of Jesus under the preaching of the Word. Many who do not know if they are saved, find assurance based upon true faith while under sound preaching. And, of course, babes in Christ mature under the preaching of the Word.
Third, be a hearer of preaching in the way God prescribes in His Word. Especially, be a doer and not a hearer only! Obedience is the hallmark of conscionable hearing of the Word of God. Read Psalm 1 and James 1 to learn the difference between a living hearer and a dead hearer.
Fourth, let this truth about preaching make you victory oriented as a soldier of the cross. Right doctrine cures a multitude of ailments, and truth about God-ordained preaching should cure us of discouragement. If the frail, fallible church and imperfect preaching of a perfect Word is the way God has ordained to build His kingdom, then we, in spite of our weakness, should be joyously confident. “Nothing can stop the faithful, God-owned preaching of the Word of God from conquering the world, because it is nothing less than the sword in the mouth of the King of kings and Lord of lords by which He will defeat all His enemies and erect and develop His kingdom in the earth in human history before the return of Christ.”
Finally, be reminded, that these points of exposition are our “three forms of unity.” The reading, the preaching, and the conscionable hearing of the Word of God. That which grounds our worship, is the basis of our unity. May God grant us a vision for such a result. Remember this: It is not man’s word, it is God’s Word. Therein resides its power and efficacy.
Dr. Carl W. Bogue is the minister of the PCA Church in Akron, Ohio. He is also a guest lecturer at many colleges and seminaries.