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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:
- The details of the priestly garments and the tabernacle were designed by God, “Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (Ex 39:32, all Scripture emphases mine). God strictly commanded Moses regarding the construction of the tabernacle, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain” (Heb 8:5).
- As well, the details of the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem were also given by God to David, “All this he made clear to me in writing from the hand of the LORD, all the work to be done according to the plan” (1 Chr 28:19).
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:
- Cain and Abel: Genesis 4 tells us that Cain’s offering of his best produce from the land was rejected by God, while Abel’s offering of animals was accepted. Cain and Abel knew, either by direct revelation or by their knowledge of the animal skins God provided for their parents (Gen 3:21), that the only offering acceptable to God was one where blood was shed. But Cain willfully violated God’s command, and reaped condemnation for his rebellion.
- Nadab and Abihu: These are the sons of Aaron who were also priests, but who “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them” (Lev 10:1-2). Was God’s sentence too harsh for such a “minor” offense done with good intentions? No, they were judged because they did what the Lord had not commanded.
- Two Sincere but Foolish Kings: Only priests were authorized by God to offer sacrifices. Yet these two kings insisted on doing what God prohibited, and he was offended greatly. In his impatience, King Saul offered burnt offerings before his battle against the Philistines in Gilgal. But Samuel condemned Saul for his unlawful sacrifice, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you” (1 Sam 13:8-14). So God tore the kingdom away from him and gave it to David. In a similar story, proud King Uzziah “entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (2 Chr 26:16). But he was instantly smitten with leprosy and was leprous until he died as a sign of God’s judgment.
- Worship by Two Wicked Kings: To consolidate his power in the northern kingdom, King Jeroboam “appointed” and “instituted” worship “he had devised from his heart” (1 Kgs 12:28-33). One of these “devisings” was two golden calves, which he commanded all the people to worship, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Did Jeroboam not remember the 3,000 Israelites (and many more later) who perished in the wilderness 500 years before him for the same sin? For this, he was known as the one who “made Israel to sin,” and his whole household was eliminated by God (1 Kgs 15:29-30). King Ahaz, on the other hand, “made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations” (2 Chr 28:3), which God said he “did not command” (Jer 7:31).
- David’s Sincere Soldier: As the Ark of the Covenant was being brought back to Jerusalem in a cart, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah, one of King David’s men, put out his hand to keep the ark from falling. But the Bible says “God struck him down there because of his error (or “irreverence”)” (2 Sam 6:7). How could God be so cruel to kill him for his effort to protect God’s own holy ark? David would later realize his error, saying that only Levites should carry the ark of God and it was to be borne on their shoulders with poles, “[T]he Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule… as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord (I Chr 15:13-15).
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.