The regulative principle of worship?

2227885639One of the distinct marks of the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions is the belief that the public worship of God should be governed by the revealed will of God in Scripture.  There are a number of arguments in favour of what is known as the regulative principle of worship.  Below are some suggested by T. David Gordon (HT: here):

A. Argument from the Limits of Church-Power

Brief description of the argument. The Church is an institution; instituted by the positive command of the risen Christ, and authorized by Him to require obedience to His commands and participation in His ordinances. The Church is given no authority to require obedience to its own commands, and is given no authority to require participation in ordinances of its own making. The Regulative Principle of Church-Government lies behind the Regulative Principle of Worship. Sample of relevant texts–Mat. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 1:24; Rom. 14:7-9

B. Argument from Liberty of Conscience

Brief description of the argument. To induce people to act contrary to what they believe is right is sinful. Further, God requires us to worship Him only as He has revealed. Therefore, to require a person, in corporate worship, to do something that God has not required, forces the person to sin against his/her conscience, by making them do what they do not believe God has called them to do. Sample of relevant texts–Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8:4-13

C. Argument from Faith

Brief description of the argument. Where God has not revealed himself, no faithful response is possible, by definition. And, without faith it is impossible to please God. Therefore, God cannot be pleased by worship which is unfaithful, that is, worship which is not an obedient response to his revelation. Sample of relevant texts–Rom.14:23; Heb. 11:6, and entire chapter.

D. Argument from the distance between the Creator and the creature

Brief description of the argument. God’s ways and thoughts are above ours as the heavens are above the earth. What makes us think we can possibly fathom what would please God? Sample of relevant texts–Isa. 40:12-14 Deut. 29:29; Isa. 55:9; Prov.25:2

E. Argument from the character of God as jealous

Brief description of the argument. God’s character as a jealous God is introduced into texts which prohibit certain things (creating images) in the worship of God. Thus, the prohibition of creating graven images or any other likeness of anything in heaven or earth is grounded in God’s character as a jealous God, and thus is not grounded in some peculiarity of the Sinai covenant. Sample of relevant texts–Ex.20:4-5; 34:14

F. Argument from those passages where piety is described as doing exclusively what God wishes.

Brief description of the argument. In many passages, the wicked are described not as doing what is contradictory to God’s will, but what is beside His will. Similarly, the pious are described by their trembling in God’s presence, by their doing exclusively what God wishes. Sample of relevant texts–Isa.66:1-4; Dt.12:29-32; Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Sam.13:8-15; 15:3-22

G. Argument from the severity of the temporal punishments inflicted upon those who offer to God worship other than what He has prescribed.

Brief description of the argument. There are places where people offer worship to God, in an apparently good-faith desire to please Him, yet they do so in some manner not prescribed by God, and His punishment of them is severe. Sample of relevant texts–Lev. 10:1-2; 1 Sam.13:8-15

H. Argument from the sinful tendency towards idolatry (Rom. 1).

Paul’s point in Romans 1:19ff is that the human race, in its revolt against God, has “worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Further, this is not due to ignorance, but to moral defilement: “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give him thanks?” cf. Thomas E. Peck, Miscellanies, vol. I, pp. 96-97: “Man, then, is incompetent to devise modes of worship, because he knows not what modes are best adapted to express the truth or the emotions which the truth is suited to produce.”

I. Argument from Church History

Brief description of the argument. Church history amply demonstrates that fallen creatures, left to their own devices, inevitably produce worship which is impious. Especially the Reformation, as an historical movement, bore testimony to the corruption which creeps slowly into worship when worship is not regulated by the revealed will of God.

In our weekly Bible study, we are currently looking at the second commandment.  In Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 35 we looked at how the the second commandment has direct bearing on our public worship and the idea that it is regulated by the Word of God:

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no way make any image of God,1 nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.2

1 Deut 4:15-19; Isa 40:18-25; Acts 17:29; Rom 1:22-24; 2 Lev 10:1-7; Deut 4:23-24, 12:30-32; 1 Sam 15:22-23; Mt 15:9; Jn 4:23-24

41H0WSGF75L._SY346_Among the many objections to the Reformed idea of the regulative principle is the claim that the Word cannot surely govern everything we do in worship because it does not say anything about things like the time or place of worship and the exact order of service.  In response to this challenge, it is important to understand that we differentiate between elements, forms and circumstances in worship.  Very simply put, the proper elements of worship are those activities set forth in apostolic teaching or practice (see, e.g., Acts 2:42).  They consist of the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, song and offerings.  Circumstances are the when of worship: like what time to have the service, which is left up to the freedom of each church council to decide.  The forms are the how of the various elements of worship.  For instance, the ministers sermon will take on a different form depending on which passage he preaches.  The Lord’s Prayer is one example of a form of the element of prayer.  In terms of the bigger picture, the form that the worship service takes as a whole should be one of decency and order (1 Cor 14:40).   What is more, the elements of worship should produce, and be informed and enveloped by the appropriate emotions or feelings toward God: such as godly fear, love, praise and trust.  (For the source of these observations and more, see Darryl Hart’s very useful book called With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship.)

What is Reformed worship?

banner2Reformed minister and church planter with the United Reformed Church, North America, Rev. Danny Hyde, shares in an essay a question that he often gets from visitors to his church:

“Why is the worship in a Reformed church so different from the worship at almost every other church I have ever gone to?” I cannot tell you how many times visitors ask this question. I have found that what first strikes people about a Reformed church is not our doctrine, but our worship. It has an unfamiliar; even cold feeling at first for many.

We owe it to all serious inquirers to explain not only what we do in worship, but why intelligible worship is a biblical requirement. Children asked their parents when they celebrated the feast of the Passover some 3500 years ago: “What do you mean by this service?” (Exodus 12:26) While worshipping the Triune God is profoundly transcendent and mysterious, it must be understandable. This is also what the Apostle Paul taught in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he said that preaching in foreign languages, commonly called “tongues,” must be translated for the edification of those assembled.

This article begins a series intended to introduce you to the basics of Reformed worship so that you will understand and be equipped to explain why we as Reformed churches do what we do in worship. We will do this by looking at eight characteristics of Reformed worship: it is biblical, historical, covenantal, evangelical, liturgical, reverential, joyful, and eschatological.

After setting up his discussion of New Testament worship by speaking to the church as an organism of the Word; corporate worship as regulated by the Word; the Second Commandment and worship; the lessons from Cain and Abel, and Nadab and Abihu; he writes the following:

“But this is all Old Testament teaching,” you might be thinking. Yet Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Is the solemn requirement that the Church teach all things that Christ has commanded not at the same time a solemn prohibition against teaching anything that He has not commanded? If, in the worship of God, we observe all that Christ has commanded, ought we not also to scrupulously avoid anything and everything that He has not commanded?

Jesus said that the Pharisees worshipped God “in vain” (Mark 7:7). Why did God reject their worship?  Because, Jesus said, “You leave the commandment of God” preferring “the tradition of men” (Mark 7:78). They worshipped God in vain because they worshipped God as they wished, rather than as He required. In the same way, the apostle Paul warned the Colossians: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (Col. 2:18). This was worship offered because they wished to offer it, rather than because God commanded it: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).

No doubt Jesus was rude by our standards when He said to the woman at the well, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Yet, He was only being truthful. “God is spirit,” He said, “and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

True worship was impossible for the Samaritans as long as they worshipped God as they wished. They needed to worship God as He commanded in order to find acceptance with Him. “For the Father is seeking such people to worship Him,” said Jesus, who would be “the true worshipers [who would] worship the Father in spirit and truth (4:23). When we persist in worshipping God as we will, rather than as God wills, we are not “true worshippers.”

In Romans 1:21-25 the Apostle Paul condemns every false kind of worship invented by men. He also reveals the source of such false worship. Men become “vain in their imagination,” he says. They invent what they vainly imagine to be “good ways” to worship. They worship as they will, not as God commands. But when they do this, they really “worship and serve the creature more than the Creator,” says Paul, and for this reason “they are without excuse.” They are without excuse because there is no excuse for departing from the rule, which says “we must not worship God in any other way than He has commanded in His Word.”

Rev. Hyde then concludes by discussing the sufficiency of the Scriptures and the elements of worship.

Don’t let what is foreign hold you back from discovering a better way of worship.  Just as the Lord surprises us in revealing the gospel of justification by faith alone, so too he surprises sinners in the way he wants to be worshiped – by his Word and Spirit, and with reverence and joy!