Every Christian believes that there is an acceptable and an unacceptable way of worshipping God. Every Christian has a regulative principle, a rule (or rules) which regulates the content and conduct of worship. Even the most extreme worship leader has some limit on what he or she deems acceptable in the worship of God. Some of the most common regulative principles that people use today are:

  • The Past: This is the way we have always done it.
  • Preference: This is what I like and enjoy.
  • Pragmatism: This works, it’s popular, it draws people in.
  • Prohibition: Everything and anything goes unless it is specifically prohibited.
  • Prescription: True worship is commanded worship; we may only include what God commands.

This last principle, prescription, was recovered by Calvin at the time of the Reformation and was linked to the rediscovery of the Gospel. The reformers saw that the God-centered and God-glorifying salvation they had rediscovered, required God-centered and God-glorifying worship, and that this could only be secured by including in worship only what God had commanded. This principle was based on Scripture (e.g. Lev. 10:1; Deut. 12:32; 1 Chron. 15:13-15; John 4:23-24; Matt. 15:9; Col. 2:23) and the teaching summarized in the Westminster Confession:

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 (WCF 21.1)

In other words, when we are considering the content and conduct of our worship, the biggest question is not “Does the Bible forbid it?” but “Does the Bible command it?” That makes things much simpler because any list of what God forbids in public worship would take an encyclopedia to cover all that the human mind has invented as “worship.”

In something as holy and serious as the worship of God, we cannot trust our fallen and foolish human natures to guess what pleases God in divine worship. Therefore, in His mercy, God has prescribed for us how we may worship Him acceptably. In the area of public worship, what Scripture does not authorize, it forbids – no matter how enjoyable it may feel.

Reformed churches have differed in how to apply that principle, but this basic idea should infuse every decision about what to include or exclude in public worship.

As John Knox put it: “All worshipping, honoring, or service, invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own express commandment, is idolatry.”

  • http://Anglogeek.tumblr.com Joseph

    Wasn’t it Zwingli actually before Calvin?

  • Matt

    The dilemma is in the application, as you noted: “Reformed churches have differed in how to apply that principle.” This would seem to demand greater rigor in determining precisely how the Bible authorizes in worship. For instance, although not expressly commanded (or even mentioned) in the New Covenant, shall we sing with the accompaniment of musical instruments? Some take their cue on this from the harps in Heaven described in Revelation while others dismiss this as symbolic language that hardly speaks to literal instrumentation. Or, are we authorized to perform dramas and various other skits in order to illustrate a biblical principle? Again, no such things find even a mention in the NT, and yet there is a deep tradition of such practices across a broad cross section of denominations. Do these constitute violations to the extent that God does not accept such worship practices? Granted, our salvation never seems to be predicated on correct worship, but it leaves one wondering how greatly our relationship to the Father is negatively impacted if we do not honor the Prescriptive, or Regulative, Principle. Thoughts welcomed.

    • stuart

      Application of the Regulative Principle is THE issue, and hermeneutics is the issue behind the issue. One could argue from his view of Scripture that musical instrumentation is not prescribed while another could argue the exact opposite. Perhaps this means the principle isn’t as clear in application as we might like.

      One thing I think IS clear: Scripture prescribes that our worship must be done in Christ or it cannot be acceptable. Apart from Jesus our worship is always unacceptable to God. Sometimes it seems we leave off discussions of this foundational truth for discussions of a more peripheral nature.

  • Philip Larson

    Hi, David. I’m inclined toward the view that only that which is commanded may be part of public worship, but I wonder if that is truly a biblical position. Here are two lines of data that give me pause–and make me wonder whether the view you offer is derivative or correlative. If derivative, we are duty-bound to hold it; if correlative, we probably aren’t.

    (1) I wonder about the high place at Elijah’s Carmel, at which YHWH sent down fire, much like the inauguration of the Temple, but to a high place, far away from the only place seemingly authorized by God. Then on Horeb, Elijah twice laments that the wicked have torn down the high places at which God’s people worshiped, again, unauthorized places of worship, one would think.

    (2) I also wonder about the trajectory of the Ark of the Covenant after it left Philistine hands, even after Uzzah: it seems that the Ark was moved to a “tabernacle” prepared by David in Jerusalem, while all the other articles of worship remained with the Tabernacle a few miles away. This seems highly unusual, and without any command, unless the reader invents it (since David was a prophet). And thus, when David sings in the Psalter about how he loves God’s presence, perhaps he often is referring to the Ark in his personal “tabernacle,” rather than the one designed by God.

    It makes me wonder if 21.1 may be sincerely held while heartily rejecting what some have taken it to say.

    Just musing. Got your new book; hope to read it soon. Love your podcasts.

    • Bob S

      FWIW Ursinus on the Second commandment in his Commentary on the Heidelberg.

      Obj.4 But certain of the saints have worshipped God with acceptance without any express commandment of his; so Samuel offered sacrifices in Ramah, Elijah in Mount Carmel, Manoah in Zorah,&c. (1 Sam.7:17, 1 Kings 18:19, Judges 13:19.) Therefore there are certain works which constitute the worship of God, though not expressly commanded by him.

      Ans. These examples establish nothing conclusively in reference to will worship; for in the first place, as it respects these sacrifices, they were the worship of God, because they were works commanded by him. And then as it regards the place appointed for offering sacrifices, the saints of old were free before the erection of the temple. Samuel fixed upon the place where he lived as the one in which he would offer sacrifices, this being the most convenient. And the prophets very well knew that the worship of God did not consist in the circumstances of place, in respect to which the godly were left free, while as yet the ark of the covenant had no fixed place. And finally, as it respects the persons themselves who offered these sacrifices, they had extraordinary power conferred upon them, being prophets, as Samuel and Elijah were. And as it respects Manoah, the father of Sampson, he either did not sacrifice himself, but delivered the sacrifice over to the angel whom he supposed to be a prophet, to be offered up; or else he offered it, being commanded by the angel, so that nothing was done contrary to the law.

      So we may easily return an answer to the other examples which are adduced by our opponents. Abel and Noah, say they, offered sacrifices; (Gen.4&8) but they did not do it without a command from God; for they offered their sacrifices in faith as Paul affirms in Heb. 11. Faith now cannot be without the word of God (Eerdmans, 1954, pp. 523-4).

      • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

        Very helpful, thanks Bob.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Hi Phil, Glad you are enjoying the book. I think the comment below goes some way to answering your question. Descrption is not prescription. Also the unsettled state of Israel should not be taken as the rule for the settled state. But, you’re right, 21.1 has been held by many who disagree about the practical outworkings.

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