“Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” – 1 Timothy 4:13 (ESV)
Sola Scriptura, or the Scriptures alone, is an indispensable belief for the Protestant Reformation and true Christianity. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, taught in the Scriptures (especially the book of Romans), was recovered from a rampant neglect and the contradictions of the Roman Catholic Church. The 16th century Reformers believed in sola fide (salvation only through faith in Christ) because they believed in sola Scriptura. It was through their study of the Scriptures that men like Martin Luther and John Calvin came to reject the false teaching of the Roman Church that salvation was by faith in Christ plus works. The Bible teaches faith alone, so we must believe and teach it as well, pointing sinners to trust in Christ.
So why is it that many who would claim to be heirs of the Reformation, or who would at least call themselves “Bible-believers” have so little of the Bible in their public worship services? The sad observation has been made that, in many instances, a Roman Catholic church service will have far more Scripture read than most “Bible-believing” churches. The tragedy is that the group that repudiates Bible-centeredness is sometimes better at demonstrating the importance of hearing God’s Word than churches who explicitly claim that it is central to them, and that it is their only standard for faith and practice.
Whatever our denomination (or “non-denomination”), if we believe the Bible, we need to intentionally integrate Scripture into the public gathering of God’s people. Most Bible-believing churches will have Scripture read in the sermon or just before it, at the least. But many churches will have no more Scripture than that. There are multiple ways to use Scripture in the service, including as transitions to hymns. But one of the best ways of showing the centrality of God’s written revelation is by the regular, systematic, public reading of God’s Word.
There are many ways that one could incorporate public Scripture readings. I would like to mention two strategies, both of which I have seen. I will start with my home church’s strategy. The service begins with a Psalm (which usually has a common thread with the sermon text). Later we have an Old Testament reading (currently going consecutively through the post-exilic prophets). There is also a New Testament reading, which is either a parallel passage or has a similar theme. Finally, there is the text for the sermon.
Another church uses the following approach. They have two services, one in the morning and one immediately after a fellowship lunch. In the morning service, they are reading consecutively through the books of the Law and the Gospels. In the afternoon, they are reading consecutively from the Old Testament Prophets and the Epistles. Each Scripture reading includes a brief “sermonette” that explains and applies the text with a few points, so that God’s people are hearing God’s Word read and expounded four times in addition to the two Lord’s Day expository sermons (which are around 40-50 minutes each)!
In both these instances, God’s people are hearing God’s Word, week to week in a consistent, intentional, systematic manner.
If your church is accustomed only to the reading of the text of Scripture, it might not be the wisest approach to jump to three or four Scripture readings. It might be best to teach on the importance of Scripture and our intake of it as a foundation to incorporate more Scripture in the worship service. Perhaps some congregations would be receptive to a large change, but others might be better served by a gradual introduction of one additional Scripture reading at a time. The length of passages is another important factor to consider. It would likely discourage many people if you decided to implement a change in the service by reading the whole of Psalm 119 (176 verses) next week, whereas the fourteen verses of Psalm 19 might be a different story.
Of course, there is no Biblical command of exactly how many different readings there should be or how long they should be. But the thing to keep in view is that people need God’s Word to live and to grow.
To that end, consider not only the introduction of more Scripture into the worship service, but consider the preparation for those Scripture readings. The selection of the passages themselves may be difficult work, at least initially. The brief expositions will take a bit of study. If you take this approach, these expositions should be done by the pastor or another man recognized by the church as having the gift of teaching. They need to be well-prepared and probably brief. Scripture readings themselves could be done by faithful church members or the pastor.
In all instances, it is helpful for the reader to have the passage in advance to read it, pray through it, and practice vocalizing the passage. The reader should take great pains to ensure that the reading is not flat and dull. We should take great care not to bore people with God’s Word, but to read it with proper inflection, emphasis, and emotion.
However pastors apply the command “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture,” may we find more and more churches where God’s sheep are hearing God’s voice and becoming better followers of him as a result. Sola Scriptura was essential to the Protestant Reformation, and the people of God need regular exposure to God’s Word to continue to reform according to the Scriptures and be changed more and more to reflect the character of the Christ who saves.
More Resources to Celebrate Reformation Day!
· Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Luther's Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (by Dr. Rob Plummer of SBTS, published here with permission)
· Book Review: The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steve Lawson
· "The Call to Witness" – a sermon by Calvin on evangelism, election, and suffering for the Gospel
"The Danger of Getting Bored with the Gospel" (my contribution to last year's Reformation Day Symposium)