Worship Matters: The Regulative Principle

There are few things that have caused as much controversy within the Church as worship. One of the reasons there are so many denominations is largely due to how churches worship. We could all give examples all over the spectrum in regard to this. Within one small city it is likely to see a church with very hefty structure or liturgy, a church with no structure at all, as well as a church that tries to blend the two. For each of these particular local churches, beliefs about worship govern how they function. Everything from how the building is built, what kind of things the building is used for, and what happens throughout the week. When the Sunday service(s) are in view a whole new batch of questions come up in regard to a church’s worship philosophy. How does worship begin? What do we do in worship? What do we not do? Is there music? If so, what kind and what instruments do we employ? Is there a sermon? If so, who preaches it and what makes up it contents? Is there prayer? If so, how should it be done? Is there an offering, a greeting, announcements, sacraments, calls to worship, or a benediction? If so, how do we do these things? The answers to all these questions (and more) comes down to one thing. What we believe about the nature of worship.

Amid all the varying opinions about worship and all the worship wars that have been fought over the centuries there is one thing too often forgotten – what does God say about worship? Perhaps on the surface that statement seems a bit naïve, but hear me out. Too many people have confused the difference between biblical mandates for worship and personal preference in worship. And by so doing we have often given our own personal worship preferences a divine weight they were never intended to carry. When this happens we can easily fall into the error of being more committed to our own man made traditions than God’s requirements for worship. Which would make us modern Pharisees.

So as we approach the subject of worship we must take caution. I want to discuss worship with a twofold aim. First, I want to examine what has historically been called the regulative principle to see what God has to say about how He’s approached in worship. Second, I want to discuss how the Scripture encourages us to apply this regulative principle in worship.

The Regulative Principle

As early as Genesis 4 we see that God has a great concern about how He is worshiped. Here we see Cain and Abel both worship God through making their own offerings. Cain’s is rejected and Abel’s is accepted. When God replies to Cain about why his offering was rejected in 4:6-7 He implies that Cain knew how to make an appropriate offering and if he had correctly made the offering he would’ve been accepted. In his anger over being rejected by God, Cain kills his brother. Later and all throughout Exodus we see God rescue and redeem Israel out of slavery in Egypt for the purpose of worship. Moses told Pharaoh, “…let us go a three days journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God” (Exodus 3:18). This theme of letting them go to worship is repeated on and on and on as the narrative progresses. Of this Ligon Duncan says, “It is the primary reason why God sets His people free: to worship Him. The primacy of worship in a believer’s life is, thus, set forth. We are saved to worship!”[1] After being redeemed from slavery God then brings them to Sinai and gives them the law to order their life and worship. The law is clear in the first two commandments. “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve (lit. ‘worship’) them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:3-6).

They were to worship God only. No images, no idols, nothing else. Only God. All of Israel’s worship is to be governed by a true knowledge of God, His character, and His Word. No idols are to be worshiped and the true God is to be worshiped in the right way. Why? God is a jealous God. This means there are regulations on what the true worship of God looks like. These regulations are where we get the term, the regulative principle. The clearest definition of this principle is seen here in the first two commandments. One of the most helpful explanations of it is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 21, paragraph 1. “The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good to all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called on, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped 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.”

To sum this up, since the Bible is where we learn who God is, the Bible is also to be the place where we learn how God is to be worshiped.

Israel did not do this well. In Exodus 32 we further see God’s concern over how He is worshiped when He rebukes the people for the golden calf incident. Afterwards in Leviticus 10 we find the sad account of Nadab and Abihu. Two brothers who offered strange or “unauthorized fire” to the Lord and were killed on the spot. We learn from these instances that the holy God must only be approached by a holy people. After the second giving of the law in Deuteronomy we see prophet after prophet reminding God’s people of what He revealed to them through the law of Moses. And when we cross over into the pages of the New Testament we do not see God’s concern about how He is worshiped lessen. We see it continue in Jesus’ teaching and in the teaching of the apostles.

The Application of the Regulative Principle

There are many ways we could speak of how to apply the regulative principle, and in order to do so here I’d like to take a brief look at the 16th century Protestant reformers. If you were to ask any one of the reformers what the reformation was about what do you think they would say? Justification by faith alone? Salvation in Christ alone to the glory of God alone? No. I think, they would say the reformation was about worship. Think about it. Before the reformation the worship of the church was done as a mass, and the centerpiece of the mass was the table. In the Roman Catholic understanding it was at the table, and by the priestly words, that the bread and the wine would literally become the body and blood of Christ. And when this happened Christ would be re-sacrificed anew and all those present would benefit from it. The reformers rightly saw this as what it was, heresy. So after the reformation broke out and Protestants began gathering together for worship, they put a new centerpiece in place by replacing the table with the pulpit. Because, it’s in the Word of God where we encounter, meet, and reckon with God Himself. And so by placing the pulpit front and center it was a visible reminder to all present that the Word of God governs the worship of God’s people.

Let’s now move back to the present and apply this regulative principle in light of the reformers recovery of the centrality of the Scripture. Because the Word is the only rule for faith and practice, and because His Word governs all of worship, the Bible should take center place in the worship of God’s people. This is applied in many ways. While all of life is to be worship to God as we give ourselves to be living sacrifices, the heart of our personal worship is the gathered worship with the body of Christ.[2] So let’s aim at applying this to corporate worship.

First, we should apply the regulative principle in the theology or philosophy of our worship. This first point answers the question as to what the basis of our worship is. As Westminster Confession chapter 21 states, we must not worship according to our own imaginations or preferences, but instead we must worship God in the manner God has instituted to be worshipped. We worship Him the way He wants us to, not the way we think is best. So, our theology of worship should not be based on pragmatic principles or popular trends or fads but based on what we see from God in Scripture. This means that rather than thinking about what we enjoy in worship, let’s instead think about what God expects of us when we gather together to worship Him.[3]

Second, we should apply the regulative principle in the structure of our worship. This second point answers the question of what elements to include in a worship service. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we see a variety of things taking place among the worship of God’s people. We see Scripture being read, Scripture being preached, prayer, singing, offerings, sacraments, and vows/oaths. Other than this, there’s not much guidance as to how to put all these things together.[4] God has given us a great measure of freedom here (this is why churches can look and feel so different). For example, many passages such as Colossians 3:16, John 4:24, and 1 Corinthians 14:40 give us principles for worship, but doesn’t direct how to plan our services step by step. There is one guiding principle to keep in mind. Which brings us to the last point.

Third, we should apply the regulative principle in the content of our worship. This third point answers the question of the substance of our worship from beginning to end. Everything done in the worship of God’s people should be pointing towards and proclaiming the same message as the text of the sermon. In this way, everything done serves the preaching of the Word. Why do this? Because while we may be speaking to God in song or prayer throughout the service the sermon is the apex of the service where God speaks to us. In this manner we sing the Word, pray the Word, hear the Word, see the Word, and respond to the Word. If we’re to continue to reformers tradition of the centrality of the pulpit, we will keep the Word the most prominent factor in our worship.



[1] Ligon Duncan, Give Praise to God, page 29.

[2] R. Kent Hughes, Worship By the Book, page 142.

[3] D.A. Carson, Worship By the Book, page 29.

[4] I mean it when I say that Scripture doesn’t give us much guidance on how to put all these elements together, but that does not mean there is no guidance on how to put it all together. For example we’re to serve one another in love, so if we only employ contemporary music to reach our modern world, we neglect the older members of our congregation and ignore the history of the Church. And the opposite is just as true – to only employ hymns would be to neglect the younger members of our congregation and to idolize some bygone era of Church history that was just as fallen as our current culture is now. Inspiration in song didn’t end with the hymnal and doesn’t begin with modern music.

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