Lesson 3 – The Regulative Principle of Worship


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

Nomology: Lesson 3 – The Regulative Principle of Worship
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2000, 2010, 2013

Lesson Index
The Mandate of Worship
The Prescriptive Principle of Regulated Worship
Worship and our Liberty in Christ
The Object of Worship

Westminster Confession of Faith XXI

The Mandate of Worship (WCF 21:1a)

I. The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might…

God is wonderful and has done wonderful things. He is the Creator of all that exists. We have already studied in Confession chapters 3 and 4 that all things were made by him for his own glory and purposes (Psalm 19:1-4, Romans 1:20, Revelation 4:11). We saw in Confession chapters 3 and 5, that God upholds all things by the power of his might by his works of providence. His sovereign power is infinite (Psalm 135:5-6). And we have also studied in Confession chapters 6 though 18, that God has redeemed his people by the gracious atonement made by Jesus Christ.

Since God made and upholds all things and orders them for his own glory and for the blessing of his redeemed people, we are duty bound to respond to him appropriately. Our proper response is worship.

The word worship represents three basic words in the Bible. In the Old Testament the primary word in Hebrew is shakhah (שחה) which most fundamentally means “to bow down”. The main New Testament word is proskhuneo (προσχυνεω) which literally means “to kiss toward’. It is believed that its origin was of a humbled subject bowing before the person to be honored and kissing his feet. It is used mostly in Scripture to represent the Hebrew term and therefore takes on the meaning “to bow down”, or “to prostrate one’s self”. Another term often translated worship in the New Testament is the Greek word latreuo (λατρευω) which primarily means “to serve” and often has a ritual sense to it as in serving God in specific acts of worship.

Dr. Morton Smith traces the English word “worship” to the Anglo-Saxon term woerthscipe, which means “worth-shape”. He says, “It denotes worthiness of an individual to receive special honor in accord with that worth.”

The terms used in Scripture confirm that worship is not centered upon man and his own feelings. Rather it is centered upon the glory of God as it produces a humbling of the worshiper before him in subjection, honor, and gratitude.

Therefore worship is our obligation in response to God’s revealed glory as it is expressed in his decrees. The humble attitude of our response is due to the awesome nature of his glory. The Hebrew term for glory is cavod (כבד) which means “heavy, a weighty matter”. God’s nature is made known as something weighty. It is awesome, and ought to impress us who know him that we have a duty of the greatest importance. It is a heavy matter demanding our respect.

Worship is the natural response of the redeemed when God’s glory is beheld. There are many examples in Scripture that confirm that conclusion.

At the dedication ceremony of the temple under King Solomon the Priests, the Levitical singers, and the trumpeters were to come forth saying in unison …

2 Chronicles 5:13-14 “… praise the LORD saying, ‘He indeed is good for His lovingkindness is everlasting,’ then the house, the house of the LORD, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of God…”

2 Chronicles 7:3 “…seeing the fire come down and the glory of the LORD upon the house, bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave praise to the LORD, saying, ‘truly He is good, truly His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

Other examples can be found in the Song of Moses (Exodus 15), and the Song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5). How else but in humble praise could the redeemed react? The majesty of God’s holy nature instills this humble response in his children.

The PCA’s Directory of Worship in its Book of Church Order (47-3) says, “The end of public worship is the glory of God. His people should engage in all its several parts with an eye single to His glory. Public worship has as its aim the building of Christ’s Church by the perfecting of the saints and the addition to its membership of such as are being saved — all to the glory of God. Through public worship on the Lord’s day Christians should learn to serve God all the days of the week in their every activity, remembering, whether they eat or drink, or whatever they do, to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).”

Since worship is so important, how we worship ought to deeply concern every child of God. We want to honor him in ways that please him. The only way we can know with certainty how God is to be worshiped is by his word. This leads us to the study of how proper worship is to be regulated.

The Prescriptive Principle of Regulated Worship

(WCF 21:1-6)
Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1b

I. … 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.

Among humans, honor is given in many different ways. Some would be honored in ways that might offend another person. A formal handshake might be considered very cold as an anniversary wish from a husband to a wife. A hug and tender kiss on the lips would likely be deeply offensive if given by a boss to an employee as thanks for landing a new account. To some people a blue-grass band might please them at a party celebrating their birthday, while another would prefer classical music by a string quartet. The key is to know how we can please the person who is to be honored.

The only way to know how to worship God is to consider what he has made known to us in his word. This is called the prescriptive regulative principle of worship. This means that we do only what God directly prescribes to us in the Bible. Another approach is the proscriptive regulative principle of worship. This method of designing worship excludes things God specifically forbids in his word, but presumes that all other things we do might be pleasing to him.

All Christians regulate worship in some manner. Certainly no believer would allow human sacrifices in worship and would never consider priestly prostitution as a proper way to honor our Lord. These would be things clearly forbidden in God’s word. All concur that worship should be regulated to avoid these extremes. But beyond what is directly forbidden, how can we know what pleases God if he does not tell us? Our own imaginations may lead us to do what pleases us, but worship is to be centered on its object (God) not upon the subjects (the worshipers).

God’s Word involves many positive instructions about worship. It does not just give broad principles to be applied subjectively. Under the Mosaic economy before the coming of the Messiah worship was closely regulated so that it would give an accurate picture of how the Savior would redeem his people and set them aside as his holy nation. The Books of Law are taken up in large part by very detailed prescriptions about how God expected to be worshiped in that era. He did not just give guidelines to the priests then set them free to do whatever felt right to them. Quite the opposite is the case. They were told not to innovate, but to obey very strictly what God prescribed. God’s worship did not follow things already present in their culture. It provided a unique form designed to honor God as he wants to be honored. The Priests did not know fully how the elements of Temple worship prefigured Christ and his work of atonement. If they tampered with what they did not fully comprehend they would have tampered with the heart of the gospel itself.

In this era following the life of Christ we are no longer under the Mosaic regulations for worship. That is made very clear in the writings of the New Testament. But there are worship principles that came before Moses, principles that go back to the earliest days recorded in the Bible. These principles relate to the nature of God the Creator and Preserver so they apply at all times. Some elements relate to the redemptive work of the Savor but take on different forms in each period of biblical history.

Today we know much more than the Old Testament believers knew, but we still only know the nature of God and of his work by way of his revelation. His being and plan are still infinitely above our finite understanding. How we please God is only known by his direct revelation to us in his word.

This admission should caution us against introducing human innovations into worship. But God has not left us to derive what is fit for his worship by our own reason and feelings. He has made it clear in his word by direct precept and recorded example. There is offense to God and danger to ourselves when we dare to imagine what God would be pleased with beyond what he has revealed. Therefore the regulative principle of worship is not only proscriptive, it is more precisely prescriptive.

Cain and Able
From the earliest records in Scripture we see how important it is to offer up worship as God has asked for it. The incident involving Cain and Able shows us that this is a moral principle imposed at creation, not a later ritual law for Israel only.

In Genesis 4 God records how Cain did not bring the offering God regarded as acceptable. He brought things he had grown in his gardens instead of animal sacrifices. Though it seems that God revealed the need for blood offerings to Adam and to Able, it is possible that Cain for some reason did not understand the significance of it. But there can be no doubt that he understood that God had respect for the blood offerings of Able but did not respect the fruit offerings he brought. Yet he insisted on worshiping in his own way regardless of what God approved. Cain is even described as becoming very angry when God did not accept his offerings.

When God spoke with Cain he told him that the issue was that he was not doing well in his worship. He was told to go and do what was right and warned that his present course was sin. But Cain’s answer was to kill his brother rather than to conform to the revealed wishes of God in worship. Sin is compounded by persistent sin. In this case the sin of wrong worship revealed a heart in which more sin was “crouching at the door”. It issued in the horrible sin of murder.

The Ten Commandments
The summary of the moral precepts of God in the Ten Commandments begins with four principles about how God is to be honored.

First, the one true God is to be honored alone. There are to be no other gods in our hearts than the one Creator. He alone deserves our undivided allegiance and worship.

Second, no physical images or likenesses of God are to be made or imagined by us, nor should such images be worshiped. Those who say they make images to remind them of God but do not worship them, show a misunderstanding of the impelling nature of God’s revelation. When we are confronted with that which represents God or his work (such as his written word, or the elements of the Lord’s Supper) we ought to be stirred to worship. To say that an image makes us think of God but does not elicit worship is to deny the very response God requires of us as we behold him.

Third, the name of God, the terms by which the divine nature is expressed and made known, should not be taken in vain. When we speak of God our minds must not wander off. We should have a conscious awareness of his glory when we speak of him. How many times do people sing words of praise to God in worship while their minds drift off to other things. In this manner we deeply offend God in the midst of called worship itself. The heart of true worship as reflected in the words used for it in Scripture is a deep humble and respectful awe whenever God enters our minds or is mentioned by our lips.

Fourth, one day in seven must be set aside to remember the work of God in creation. This is a creation ordinance first seen in Eden, continued all through the Scriptures even in the establishment of the post-resurrection church. Though the ritual sabbaths of the era of Mosaic law were temporal and were fulfilled in Christ, the Creation Sabbath continues to be a special day for the consecrated worship of God’s people.

Aaron’s Golden Calf
As the Law of God was being engraved on stone for the people of Israel, while Moses was up in the Mountain of God with Joshua receiving the details of how the Lord was pleased to be worshiped, his brother Aaron had an innovative idea to calm the restless rebellion of Israel and to motivate them in their worship of Jehovah who had led them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4-5). Everyone knew that God required sacrifices of animals. The calf of the ox was not only a familiar form of pagan worship back in Egyptian, it was also a form which God himself had authorized in the sacrifices representing the Messiah who would one day come and die for the sins of his people. So what could be wrong with taking their precious gold jewelry and melting it down to make a statue of a calf by which the true God could be worshiped in a familiar way? They vainly justified their sin imagining that God would be pleased with their innovation and he would understand their need and good intentions. To combat the discouragement of the people while they waited for the return of Moses the gold was collected and a beautiful monument to Jehovah was made and a feast was proclaimed in his honor.

There was one problem, it did not please God. In fact it was a deep offense. Their imagined good intentions were no excuse at all. They were in defiance of the true spirit nature of God, and were focusing upon things not prescribed by him as proper forms of worship. They openly did things forbidden in the Commandments delivered at that very mountain not long before.

When Moses and Joshua returned from the mountain and found Israel engaged in such licentious behavior and a golden calf being worshiped, they sent the Levites out in judgment. 3,000 were slain for that rebellion against the Lord. The calf was burned and ground into powder which was scattered on the waters from which Israel was made to drink. Clearly God was angry with their innovation in worship. It did not please him.

Nadab and Abihu
Moses also records the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. This is an incident not only of defiance of revealed truth, but of innovation in worship beyond what was prescribed by God.

Leviticus 10:1 Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. (2) And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

These men fired up the incense offering in a manner that provoked God to immediately judge them by execution. The Fire of the Lord had just descended to consume the offering of Aaron consecrating his priesthood and inaugurating the worship God himself had meticulously prescribed by direct revelation through Moses (Leviticus 9:24). In that context a violation of the just imposed law of worship would have undermined the importance of God’s regulations. This is why this incident was so dramatically and immediately severe.

Instead of following that which God himself called for, these rebellious sons of Aaron used fire which was called strange. The Hebrew term used here is zarah (זרה) from the root word zur (זור). It is a term commonly used for the expression “to be a stranger”. It means “strange” in the sense of being foreign, unusual, or not what is expected.

There are many theories about what was strange about this firing of the incense offering. Some suggest they failed to take the coals from the altar fire (though this was not directly commanded for the incense offering). Others suggest they didn’t bother to prepare the incense according to God’s word in Exodus 30:9. Some suggest that they offered it at a time other than at the morning or evening sacrifice, and some say it might have been some innovation not touching on matters specifically recorded in Scripture. The common element in all these theories is not the heart or intent of these men, but that in some way the offering deviated from what God had so carefully commanded of the details of how he was to be worshiped. The only distinction between what they did and what was acceptable, according to the inspired text itself, is that it was strange, foreign to what God had recommended.

If the regulation of worship is only a matter of proscription, we would expect the text to say they brought fire that had been forbidden. But that is not the term the Holy Spirit chose. He said it was something foreign, strange. We can accurately say that it was something God had not prescribed.

The fire of Jehovah that had just miraculously fallen upon the offering of Aaron, now fell upon these presumptuous sons who neglected to obey the prescriptive regulative principle of worship. Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

David and Uzzah
There is the incident recorded in 2 Samuel 6:6-7 where Uzzah reached out to steady the ark being brought back to Israel on a cart. The oxen pulling it nearly upset the cart so Uzzah steadied the ark to keep it from falling. There were a number of regulations of God being defied in the whole process. First, the ark had been lost because of the rebellious and superstitious reasons for which it had been brought into battle. Second, David had chosen to transport it back to Israel in an improper way. The ark was only to be moved by the exact method prescribed in God’s law. It was only to be carried by the sons of Kohath of the tribe of Levi. Third, touching the ark was a crime that was to be punished with death.

Even David became angry with the Lord when Uzzah was immediately struck dead on the very spot where he touched the ark. David had developed an attitude that was innovative rather than obedient. He failed to treat this important object of Old Testament worship in exactly the manner God prescribed. His good intentions, and the intentions of Uzzah, did not excuse them from the principle of prescriptive regulated worship.

David learned his lesson and made it clear to Israel in 1 Chronicles 15. He admitted that the ark had to be treated only in the manner exactly prescribed by the God it was designed to honor.

To these examples we could add many more where the wrath of God is directed against those who defied his prescribed ways of worship.

The innovative changes in worship by King Jeroboam after the division of Israel into two nations show a similarity with the innovative thinking of Aaron back in the wilderness. He made golden calves to become helps to worship through which the people could honor the God who brought them out of Egypt (1 Kings 12:28ff).

There were the intrusions into the priestly office by Korah and his family (Numbers 16), by King Saul (1 Samuel 13), by King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26), and by King Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28). Though each thought they had a good reason to modify what God had prescribed, they were each clearly condemned and judged. They did not abandon worship or reject the sacrifices. They merely made some innovation in how worship in their era was to be conducted.

What About Our Liberty in Christ?

Some have argued against the prescriptive principle of regulated worship on the grounds that we are set free in Christ. However, in the past chapter we saw that Christian liberty is not the removal of boundaries but the enablement to move more easily within them. Clearly the New Testament books of Hebrews and Galatians specially show that the old forms of worship connected with the Levitical priesthood, the Temple, and the sacrifices are now obsolete. Their purpose is fulfilled in the work of Christ and therefore the forms are not binding in the post-incarnation era.

It should be kept in mind however as we studied under Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 19, that while the outward forms of the Mosaic law are changed in Christ, the principles they represented are not eliminated. They are brought to a greater level of clarity and blessing. The overwhelming evidence of the New Testament shows us that God is still very concerned that we worship in acceptable ways, only in ways revealed to us by the one who is to be worshiped. Many references in the New Testament detail the elimination of the priesthood, of the sacrifices, of the many holy days, of the dietary laws and other temporal regulations. But these passages never tell us that is has become acceptable to introduce man made innovations into worship. Only God may change and institute worship forms.

In speaking against the confused views of the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus showed that the traditions that help us keep in line with what is right must be God given not man invented.

Mark 7:6-9, “And He said to them, ‘Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.’ He was also saying to them, ‘You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.’ “

The foundation for the prescriptive principle of regulated worship is seen here very clearly. The concern of our Lord was to ensure that our practices, particularly our methods of worship (7:7) are bounded only by traditions that preserve what is prescribed by the Lord for his people. Traditions that perpetuate human innovations are not to be our guide.

Jesus spoke directly of the changes in worship that his coming would bring. In his discourse with the woman at the well in Samaria, he affirmed that the outward forms previously required by God would be done away. But his reasoning with her does not imply that he meant an elimination of the prescriptive principle of regulated worship. Rather, his comments affirm its continuance. The woman asked about a specific difference between the worship she knew as a Samaritan and that of Israel.

Jesus answered in John 4:20, “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

John 4:21-26, Then Jesus said, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:25, The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.”

John 4:26, Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

There are several relevant points made here that serve to direct us in this new era after the completion of the Mosaic law in Christ.

First, God’s revelation is alone the source of how he is to be worshiped. The Samaritans were in error because their innovation was in ignorance while the practice of the Jews had been in accord with what God himself had made known (4:22).

Second, the modes of worship can only change when God gives further revelation directly. Only one who was a true prophet could announce such a change. Jesus as the Messiah had even greater authority than a mere prophet.

Third, the eliminating of the Jerusalem Temple as the only authorized place of called worship did not mean that all concern for what God specified was changing. It only meant that the specifications were changing. The fulfilled form was not to be less careful about offending the unknown aspects of God’s nature. It was to be just as committed to revealed truth. So Jesus said not only that the new era of worship would be more oriented to the non-physical part of man as led by the Holy Spirit. He also insisted that it would be a worship in truth. That is, in accord with what God has made known.

Contrary to the issues in the Samaritan debate with the Jewish Rabbis, true worship would not be determined by man made traditions. It would not be set by individual convictions about what helps them feel as though they were honoring God. It was to be in accord with direct revelation. Again, the prescriptive principle is the only way to account for the way Jesus answered the questions at the well.

Why Were Worship Abuses Sometimes Tolerated?
Some try to soften God’s displeasure over innovative worship by pointing out that God does not treat all violators with death as he did in the cases of Cain and Uzzah. They surmise that other factors must have been involved of which we are not aware, factors other than mere innovation in worship. The problems with such reasoning are rather obvious.

We should base our interpretations upon what the Bible actually says in the accounts of God’s judgments, not upon suspected unrevealed issues. There are always matters beyond what we know. However, if God gives us a reason for his judgment, we should accept it as such. When we begin surmising about unstated extenuations we open the door that confuses every statement of human language and make the Bible an obscure book.

God has purposed to make himself known in the Scriptures. He has not failed. His words are our sufficient guide even though they may at times teach things we would rather not face as true.

The more serious error is to presume that forbearance implies approbation. God many times spoke of how he had allowed sin to abound as men heaped judgment upon themselves. It is certainly true that Aaron was not executed for making the golden calf. Many times kings, priests and false prophets turned the masses of Israel from the true worship of Jehovah to idols. In almost every case, though not always resulting in immediate death, God’s displeasure is beyond doubt. Often the purpose of a biblical passage is simply to record the historical facts about what happened leaving the moral principles to be explained in passages where they are directly taught. The perversion of God’s worship by introducing the innovations of man is sinful. The instances recorded are enough to establish this point clearly.

We must also keep in mind that God’s ordinary way of dealing with sin is by means of human instruments. He instituted offices of authority to carry out his judgments on earth. Authority is given to Elders to oversee his church, and to various types of governors to rule in the state as his ministers of what is good as stated in Romans 13:4. In that same verse civil government is said to bear the power of the sword by God’s appointment. This is why God does not intervene supernaturally to execute murderers or rapists on the spot. He has entrusted that duty to the rulers of the state.

Similarly God does not strike all false worshipers down supernaturally. That judgment is the duty of the Elders of the church. One of their difficult jobs is to follow the detailed process of church discipline as laid out in the Scriptures. In some cases they may have to remove an unrepentant and contumacious member of the covenant community from the table of the Lord. The lack of supernatural intervention in temporal judgments is not a denial of the fact of the sin, but an affirmation of the process God instituted by which justice is ordinarily to be administered.

The Prescriptive Principle Summarized
As long ago as the time of Moses God had clearly summarized the basic principle of Sola Scriptura (that Scripture alone is our absolute rule in matters of faith and practice). The prescriptive principle for the regulation of worship is nothing more than an application of that principle.

Deuteronomy 4:2, You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

The Object of Worship

Westminster Confession of Faith 21:2

II. Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

That God alone is to be worshiped is fundamental. The First Commandment makes it clear that no other person or other created thing should receive the honor due to the Creator. To attribute the special characteristics of deity to any but the true God, or to credit original good any other than him, be it to a person, to a force, or to the mathematical laws of probability, is to defy our purpose as humans.

That we cannot approach God in worship other than by a Mediator who could be none other that our Savior Jesus Christ, was covered under our study of that topic in the eighth chapter of the Confession.

The obvious question that remains is, “What has God prescribed for worship in this era after the completing of the promises in Jesus Christ?” This is the topic taken up in the following lessons.

[Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.]

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