Biblical Worship

1650 psalter

We have been on a series of articles dealing with the marks of true churches. We noted that the Westminster Confession of Faith suggests purity of worship as one of the four criteria: WCF 25.4b—“Particular Churches… are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.” It would do well for us to notice the magnanimous tone of this statement so that we may not be tempted to have a judgmental spirit and label any church that is not worshipping according to the recommendations of our Confession as being therefore false churches. Purity of worship may, according to our Confession, be a criterion to judge the purity of a church. But we must be careful not to summarily dismiss a church of the Lord which worships in other ways as being “synagogues of Satan”; or even to give the impression that believers who do not worship in the same way as we do as being second-class Christians.

Having given this cautionary introduction, it is now necessary for us to examine what is the manner of worship recommended by our Confession, to see whether there is a biblical basis for it. The manner of worship recommended by our Confession may be known as regulated worship, or worship according to the Regulative Principle (RP). WCF 21.1b makes it clear: “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.” This principle must be distinguished from the Lutheran and Romish principles of worship, which may be simplified as: “Whatever is not forbidden is allowed,” or “Whatever is not prescribed in Scripture is not necessarily forbidden.” The Reformed principle of worship, which is given in our Confession, is “Whatever is not sanctioned in the Word of God is forbidden.”

John Calvin, the theologian par excellence of the Reformation, was firmly persuaded that this is a biblical principle. He taught: “The right rule then as to worship of God is, to adopt nothing but what He prescribes” (Comm. on Jeremiah, 4.543). Commenting on Ezekiel 6:6, he expands his assertion:

There is no need of a long discussion if we desire to know how God is to be worshipped. For he rejects and excludes our works. If, therefore, we do not obtrude our works, but only follow what God demands, our worship will be pure, but if we add anything of our own, it is an abomination. We see, therefore, that useful instruction can be collected from one word, namely, that all worship is perverse and disapproved by God when men bring anything forward of themselves (Comm. on Ezekiel, 1.226).

The fact that Calvin subscribes to it does not make it right. The question is: Is it a biblical principle? I believe that it is. Let us examine both the Old and New Testaments. It is clear that in the Old Testament, the covenant people of God were required to worship according to such a principle.

Firstly, in Genesis 4, we read about the first acts of formal worship of God. Abel offered of his flocks, and his offering was accepted, but Cain offered of the ground, but his offering was rejected. Why? It must be because God must have instructed Adam and Eve that they must always worship with a bloody sacrifice to foreshadow the coming Messiah. Perhaps, God gave them this instruction when He made a coat of skin for them (Gen 3:21). It is clear that this instruction was passed down, for we find that years later Noah would know that exactly what to offer unto the Lord (Gen 8:20) although we do not read of God giving him any instruction on how to worship. Cain had offered of the ground voluntarily and sincerely, but his offerings were rejected as they were not sanctioned by God.

Secondly, in Leviticus 10, we read about how Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire into them and then put incense into them to offer unto the Lord. This appeared pious and reverential, but what they did was displeasing to God, for in a moment they were struck dead because they “offered strange fire before the LORD, which He commanded them not” (Lev 10:1–3). What was their sin? Jeremiah Burroughs, a member of the Westminster Assembly, answers:

Their sin was offering strange fire, for the text says that they offered strange fire which God had not commanded them. But had God ever forbidden them to offer strange fire or appointed that they should offer only one kind of fire? There is no text of Scripture that you can find from the beginning of Genesis to this place where God had said in so many words expressly, “You shall offer no fire but one kind of fire.” And yet here they are consumed by fire from God for offering strange fire. I find in Exodus 30:9 that they were forbidden to offer strange incense, but I do not find that they were forbidden to offer strange fire (Gospel Worship [SDG], 3).

What is strange fire? We are not told the details, but it is either fire taken from the wrong source or they had offered it at the wrong place or wrong time—a time, place or source not expressly sanctioned by God. In other words, they had not acted according to the prescription of the Law and as a result they were struck dead. This passage very dramatically demonstrates God’s zeal for the purity of His own worship, that they must be strictly according to His own prescription. It also shows that the Lutheran / Romish principle: “what is not forbidden is allowed” is false. Rather, God must be worshipped exactly as He has appointed, nothing more, nothing less.

Thirdly, Moses gave specific instructions pertaining to the manner of worship, and he warned the Jews against adopting the manner of worship of the people of the land (Deut 12:31). And he concludes: “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut 12:32). Someone may object to our using Cain and Abel, and Nadab and Abihu, by saying that “in those cases, something was commanded, therefore, it must be done precisely, but what if there is no instruction on it? Wouldn’t the act then be allowed? Since there is no instructions regulating or forbidding the lighting of candles, or for the use of a choir in the New Testament Church, shouldn’t they be allowed?” This argument falls flat since Moses, under inspiration, tells us that we are not to add or diminish from God’s commands concerning worship.

Many who do not believe in the RP assert that we must not use the Old Testament to derive the principle because the Old Testament was a time of shadows and types, and acts and elements of worship were minutely detailed; whereas in the New Testament no such detail is found. We grant that there is indeed a much greater degree of details and minuteness in the acts of worship commanded in the Old Testament. However, we must assert that the principle of worship on which those commands were based is not changed. How can the principle be changed since it is founded upon God’s character and self-revelation, and God does not change (Mal 3:6)? Indeed, how can it be changed when the principle is encapsulated in the Second Command-ment of the perpetual Moral Law of God? The Second Commandment, properly understood, for-bids the use of any images in our worship of the living and true God (Ex 20:4–6). But just as the Sixth Commandment forbids unjustified anger and the Seventh Commandment forbids lustful looks, we can be quite sure that the Second Commandment is not just about the use of images, but about the manner in which we should worship God. We may call this principle of interpreting the Moral Law of God, the Classification Principle. We can be very sure that this is how the Second Commandment should be interpreted because, immediately after giving the Ten Commandments, the LORD Himself applied the Second Commandment! We read:

Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.

Ex 20:23–26

What has making of an altar to do with the Second Commandment that the LORD restated the Second Commandment, and then gave directions about how to build the altar? Surely, it shows us that the Second Commandment has to do with,—not just images,—but the manner of worship: that it must be according to God’s own prescription.

Thus, the principle of worship which may be derived from the Old Testament must be a perpetual one still applicable today. Christ did not abrogate the Moral Law of God, though He set us free from the curse due to our failure to keep them. No one who believes that God is immutable and holy will assert that God has lowered the standard of behaviour that He requires of His children. Our understanding is confirmed when we look at the New Testament and see that the New Testament does indeed indicate that the Regulative Principle is still in force, and that there are also prescriptions for worship, though admittedly not as detailed as in the Old Testament.

The Lord, condemning the scribes and Pharisees for their extraneous acts of worship, quoted Isaiah 29:13 to show the vanity of their deeds: “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt 15:9). Notice how the Lord Jesus considered worship invented by men as vain or meaningless. Someone may object that the Lord had not yet usher in the New Covenant. But consider the Lord’s words to the Samaritan woman: “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:23–24). What does He mean by “in truth”? The only objective truth that God has given to man is His revealed Word, therefore to worship in truth is to worship according to the prescription of His Word. It is not by coincidence that when the Lord gave His disciples the Great Commission, He instructed them to teach the people “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Thus the Apostle Paul warned the Colossians against will-worship: “Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances… after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh” (Col 2:20–23; italics mine). What is “will worship”? It translates the Greekethelothrêskia, which refers to arbitrary and unwarranted invention pertaining to worship. Calvin defines it as: “fictitious modes of worship that men themselves device or receive from others, and all precepts whatsoever that they presume to deliver at their own hand concerning the worship of God” (ICR 4.10.8). Lighting of candles, dances, processions, dramas, choir presentations, puppet shows, etc., would all be regarded as will worship by Calvin and, I believe, by the Apostle Paul.

The evidence is, I believe, compelling. This explains why from the time of the Reformation every genuine Presbyterian and Reformed church has acknowledged it as true (more or less), though sometimes in practice these churches violate the principles. We are compelled to agree with Calvin in his treatise on the True Method of Reforming the Church: “All modes of worship devised contrary to his command, he not only repudiates as void, but distinctly condemns. Why need I adduce proofs in so clear a matter? Passages to this effect should be proverbial among Christians” (Tracts, 3.261).

The New Testament, moreover, does give warrants or prescriptions pertaining to the ordinances or elements of New Testament worship. We should note carefully that divine warrant needs not necessarily require an explicit command in the Scriptures. Michael Bushell has well stated:

When we say that each element of worship requires a divine warrant, we do not mean that an explicit command in a single text is required in every instance. Commandment in the narrow sense of the term is not necessary to establish divine prescription. Approved example or inference from relevant scriptural data is sufficient to determine the proper manner of worship.

Songs of Zion,122

This means, for example, that there is warrant to pattern our worship on the synagogue worship of the Jews during the days of the Lord, for the Lord and the Apostles sanctioned such manner of worship by attending them.

We should also not confuse “worship ordinances” and “worship circumstances.” Many anti-RP preachers have spoken out against the RP by saying that the RP is impractical since it does not sanction pews or even printed Bibles. Worship circumstances are things that attend to our worship which do not have spiritual significance, such as pews, etc. The following table, edited from a compilation by Rev Brian Schwertley, is helpful:

Worship OrdinancesWorship Circumstances
Preaching from the BibleMt 26:13; Mk 16:15; Acts 9:20; 2 Tim 4:2; Acts 20:7; 17:10; 1 Cor 14:28Structure in which the church meetsActs 20:28, 17:10; 1 Cor 14:28
Reading the Word of GodLk 4:16–20; Acts 13:15; 1 Tim 4:13; Rev 1:3Location at which the church meetsActs 1:13, 16:13; 1 Cor 11:20
Meeting on the Lord’s DayActs 20:7; 1 Cor 11:18; 16:2; Rev 1:10Time at which the church meetsActs 20:7; 1 Cor 11:18
Administration of SacramentsMt 28:19; 26:26-29; 1 Cor 11:24–25Clothing worn to worship1 Cor 11:13–15; Deut 22:5
Hearing the Word of GodRom 10:14; Jas 1:22; Lk 4:20; Acts 20:9Type of seating providedLk 4:20; Acts 20:9
Prayer to GodMt 6:9; 1 Thes 5:17; Heb 13:15, 18; Phil 4:6; Jas 1:5; 1 Cor 11:13–15Congregational use of printed Bibles and Psalters
The Singing of Psalms1 Chr 16:9; Ps 95:1–2; 105:2; 1 Cor 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16Incidental and co-ordinating instructions, such as “rise up,” “be seated,” “turn to…,” etc.

Everything in the left column must be learned from Scripture. Everything in the right column is circumstance. But note how something that may be circumstantial may become illegal in worship. James Bannerman explains:

So soon as you attach a spiritual meaning, a sacred significance, to anything connected with worship, it becomes eo ipso a part of worship. It stands forthwith on a like footing with the typical ceremonies of the Old Testament, many of which were quite as insignificant in themselves as white surplice or a lighted candle (James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 355, n. 2).

In other words, if there is a blackout and the minister lights a candle, that candle has no spiritual significance, and is circumstantial. But if the minister symbolically lights a candle when he comes on the pulpit (perhaps to represent the illumination of the Holy Spirit), then it takes a spiritual significance and is forbidden. In the same way, the printed Bibles and Psalters have no spiritual significance, but suppose each member of the congregation is required to lift up the Bible in the air, and then kiss it before reading it, then it becomes an element of worship, and becomes forbidden.

Note that the context of each element of worship, viz.: preaching, reading, prayer and singing, is either given in the Word or left to the freedom of the minister, apart from general guidelines. In so far as the WCF is concerned, the content for Scripture reading and psalm singing is provided in the Word of God and so nothing else should be read or sung (apart from what may be read as sermons). The content of preaching and prayer is left to the minister, though there are biblical guidelines, such as the Lord’s Prayer. However, the minister may read his sermon and prayer since it is left to his discretion.

Brethren, I am aware that this short article cannot address all the questions that may be posed with regards to the Principle of Worship, but I believe that the evidence is clear that the Regulative Principle of Worship taught in our Confession is a biblical and feasible principle. Believing that there is such a principle, how should we respond? There are two common ways in which many will respond. The first is to say: “I believe in the Regulative Principle, BUT we can also glorify God with….” Such a position actually betrays a failure to understand the RP, for the RP is precisely saying that the way to glorify God is to worship Him according to His prescription. It is the Lutheran / Romish principle that seeks to subjectively gauge if something glorifies God. The second common response is to say: “I believe in regulated worship, but I would not insist on the Regulative Principle.” The problem with such an approach is that the regulation of worship then become arbitrary and subjective. What standard are we to use to say that a certain approach is better than another, or is more edifying than another, or is more glorifying than another. Today a group may say that praise item presentation glorifies God and is very edifying. Tomorrow, another generation will say that adding some dramatic gestures enhances the edification value and so glorifies God. And yet another generation will say that drama and dance heighten the worship experience. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6). This is the story of worship in the Reformed Church from Isaac Watts to John Frame. It may be well summarised with that indictment of the last verse of the book of Judges: “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” I believe our response ought to be: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). “Teach me thy way, O LORD; I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name” (Ps 86:11). Let us in this way seek to worship Him with sincere hearts filled with love for Him.

J.J. Lim