Through the reading and teaching from the Word, God teaches his people how to live and enlivens them to walk in his ways. What the Lord now declares through his ministers every Lord’s Day, he will finally, publicly, and personally confirm on the Last Day by the direct declaration of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Judge of the living and the dead.
Modern society brims with opportunities for people to get together and talk about something. In meetings, discussion groups, clubs, classes, forums, conferences, rallies, and protests, people gather to discuss matters that are important to them.
It is understandable, then, that we often treat corporate worship services in our local churches as a time for us to get together to talk about God, as though he were not present. For this reason, our worship services sometimes feel like a memorial service for someone who has died, as though we have gathered together to keep God’s memory alive by sharing stories from his life. Yet, if our worship unwittingly conveys the impression that God is absent or even dead, how will unbelievers fall on their faces and worship God, declaring that God is really among us (1 Cor. 14:25)?
The Scriptures correct us by teaching that worship is not where we gather together to speak about God; rather, worship is where God summons us into his presence in order to speak to us. To be sure, we will speak as well, but only as a response to what first God says to us.
In Reformed churches, this approach came to be called the “dialogical principle” of worship. God has established worship to be a time to do business with us through his Word, and our responsive praise and prayers. God begins the dialogue, calling us through his Word into his presence for worship. In response to God’s summons, we praise our Almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Then, God speaks again through his Word to convict us of our sin, and we respond with prayers of confession. Continuing the dialogue, God responds to us from his Word with an assurance of his pardon through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, and we respond again with praise—but this time to praise God’s grace, mercy, and work of redemption through Christ. Back and forth the dialogue goes, all the way until the end, when God gets the final word by his benediction, in which he puts both his blessing and his name upon his people (Num. 6:27).
Psalm 50 stands as an enduring witness to this reality: “The Mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Ps. 50:1). From all these nations of the earth, God particularly calls his covenant people: “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” (Ps. 50:5). The psalm is filled with imagery and language from the Mosaic covenant, including Sinai-like fire and storms (Ps. 50:3; Ex. 19:16–20), and echoes of the Shema from Deuteronomy: compare “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4) with “Hear… O Israel… I am God, your God” (Ps. 50:7).
Importantly, God has not appointed worship to be a social mixer for his people to mingle, network, and share their ideas. Rather, God convenes his people for the specific purpose of covenantal judgment: “that he may judge his people” (Ps. 50:4).