Such was the comment from a couple of my students after my lecture on Biblical Worship. And every evangelical who go to Sunday worship services will agree with this statement that worship must be biblically-based. Why then is Reformed worship so different from evangelical worship? Because there’s a chasm that separates the Reformed and evangelical doctrine on worship.
God’s Word versus Man’s Imagination
When the 16th century Protestant Reformers studied how the church is to worship God, they concluded that everything that the church does in worship must be grounded in Scripture. Thus, when they reformed the worship of the church, they threw away all that the Roman church did that was not prescribed in Scripture, which included: pompous ceremonies, priestly vestments, dramatic presentations, unscriptural songs, and the idolatrous doctrine of transubstantiation. The Reformers also brought back the centrality of God’s Word in worship, particularly in preaching, because medieval preaching was centered on the priest and the eucharist.
This is where Reformed and evangelical worship divide. Evangelical worship, otherwise known as Anglican worship, is based on the principle that worship may include anything not expressly forbidden in or contradictory to Scripture. Drama, dance, rock music, movie clips, puppet shows, talk shows, comedy shows, hula shows, Super Bowl shows, and many other human innovations: are any of these expressly prohibited in Scripture? Of course not! Then these are allowed in the public worship of God.
In contrast, the Reformed view of worship, known as the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), affirms the authority and sufficiency of Scripture: everything done in the worship of God must be explicitly prescribed in Scripture. The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith clearly summarizes this principle in Chapter 21:1:
[T]he acceptable way of worshiping the true God has been instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations or devisings of men, or the suggestions of Satan, or under any visible representation, or any other way not commanded in Holy Scripture.
The London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) Chapter 22:1 also adopted this article verbose. As well, the answer to Heidelberg Catechism Question 96, “What does God require in the second commandment?” affirms,
We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word.
It is clear from the Reformed confessions that worship is to be regulated by Scripture, a view that arose from one of the great solas of the Reformation – sola Scriptura – which affirms that Scripture alone, as opposed to Scripture and tradition, is the ultimate basis for Christian doctrine, worship, and practice.
A Factory of Idols
Why must Scripture be the sole basis of the church’s doctrine, worship, and practice? Because the Bible says that fallen man, even when he is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, is incapable of completely obeying God’s commands. God knew this too well, so he left nothing to the imagination and creativity of man, as seen in the construction of the Tabernacle and the Temple:
God knew too well what transpired in the wilderness soon after he redeemed the Israelites from Egypt by his almighty hand: they imagined that the golden calf they carved was the god “who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex 32:4). What kind of idolatrous images would they have built if God left the plans for the Tabernacle and the Temple to their “imaginations or devisings”?
Calvin also knew well man’s sinful inclination: he calls the human mind a “factory of idols.” Because God has written his law on the human heart (Rom 2:14-15), those who do not hear the gospel of Christ imagine and create their own idols and “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). Human religious creativity knows no bounds.
Creativity and Condemnation
But what happens when man’s imagination prevails over God’s Word? In addition to the story of the golden calf, the Bible has plenty of other lessons for the church regarding worship:
In almost all of these cases, the worshipers were “sincere” and had the “best of intentions” when they committed false worship which reaped them condemnation. Yet, their sincerity was not counted as acceptable by God; sincerity of heart plus the “desire to do [God's] will” was more pleasing to him (Ps 40:6-8).
The capstone then of the Regulative Principle is the authority and sufficiency of Scripture alone in all of doctrine, worship and practice, as stated in Deuteronomy 12:32: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (see also Deut 4:2). And Jesus, in his Great Commission, instructed the apostles to “[teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).
Saturated with Scripture
God’s instruction to man throughout Scripture was to be careful to do everything that he commands. This is the reason why the Reformers saturated their worship services with Scripture, in contrast to the various devisings of the medieval Roman church. From the call to worship to the benediction, Reformed worship was filled with Scripture. The psalms were sung and prayed, Scripture portions were sung as doxologies, the Ten Commandments and other large portions of Scripture were read, the Lord’s Prayer was recited often, preaching was an exposition of Scripture together with exhortations for godly living, and the administration of the sacraments was explained carefully from Scripture.
Today’s evangelical churches would be wise to heed the warning of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 98:
Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as “books for the laity”?
A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images, but by the living preaching of His Word.
The entertainment gimmicks in many churches today are in effect Rome’s “dumb images” which teach believers nothing but idolatry. God’s people are to be taught by the preaching of God’s Word (Rom 16:25), not by all kinds of “innovations and devisings” by sinful minds who think they are “wiser than God” in their foolish creativity (1 Cor 1:20).
In the next part, “Worship Must Be Historical,” I will look at how the early church guarded the public worship of God by adhering only to “everything that Christ has commanded” and how the Reformers recovered this Scripture-centered worship.