What should our worship look like? What is the regulative principle of worship? What are the benefits of Psalm singing? This article answers these questions, discussing the characteristics of healthy Christian public worship.

2013. 11 pages. Transcribed by Ineke van der Linden. Transcription stopped at 47:35.

Public Worship Marks of a Healthy Church 5

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He commanded them not.

Leviticus 10:1, KJV

Why do we worship God as we do in this church? Sometimes when we go on vacation or go away and work in another place, we go to other churches, and we find that these churches worship quite differently to ourselves. And sometimes it seems more enjoyable, livelier, more engaging, and more attractive, and we wonder, “Why do we worship like we do?” Maybe young people especially, as they begin to branch out and move out of the circles they were brought up in and encounter different kinds of worship, different worship styles. And again, it can often appear (at least at first look and at first sound) to be very attractive, very compelling. And the question is raised, “Why can’t we be like them? Why do we worship as we do? Why are we different?? It is not good enough to simply say, “Well, this is our tradition. This is just the way we have always done it.” We need a much better reason than that for what we use in worship and how we worship.

That is what we would like to look at today. I would like to defend our church’s principles of worship – why we do what we do and why we don’t do other things. But I would also like to challenge our church’s practice of worship, because we can have all the biblical principles in the world and yet not be biblical in how we implement them. Similarly, we can find churches that maybe do not have biblical principles for worshipping, yet in their practice they may be more biblical than we are. We want to be able to join both of these together – both the principles and the practice. This is what is acceptable to God. This is sermon number five in the series on the Marks of a Healthy Church. I gave you seven of these. The first one was veracity, or truthfulness. We looked at how the Church must be the pillar and ground of the truth. We looked at: “What is a preacher?,” “What is preaching?,” and how we listen to the preaching of the truth.

We now go on to our second mark, which is purity, or holiness. And really they flow quite naturally one to the other; if we have the truth, that should lead to purity. Truth should lead to holiness. The two areas of purity we want to look at is purity of worship (which we will look at today) and purity of life (which we will look at another day). Holy worship and holy living should be marks of a healthy church. Today we want to look at worship. We want to look at three things. We want to see that holy worship is careful worship; holy worship is truthful worship, and holy worship is joyful worship.

Holy Worship Is Careful Worship🔗

Holy worship is careful worship. Every Christian has some principle, or principles, for regulating worship. Every Christian has some idea that there are some things that we can have in worship and some things that we cannot. Even the most extreme, outlandish worship leaders in the Church today as a whole still have some lines where they say, “Well, here is one area where I just would not go to.” So whether we like it or not, we all have a regulative principle. A principle, or principles, that regulate worship. That set bounds and borders. We all have some sense, some conscience that there are some things that are acceptable to God and some things that are simply not acceptable. So we all have a regulative principle. The only question is: What is it? And there are various principles people use. I would like to briefly summarize a few of them quickly.

Firstly, for some people it is the past. What we have always done, that is what we should always do. So the principle that regulates worship is: Is this the way we have always done it?

A second principle people often work by is preference. This is what I like. This is what I enjoy. This is what gets my feelings going. This is what gives me a kind of high. It is my preference.

The third principle is pragmatism. It works. It is attractive. It is popular. It draws people in. People like it. And therefore, if it is not drawing people in, if it is putting people off, then we must change it. We must keep changing until we get the recipe, the formula that does the job and that draws people in and keeps them in. Pragmatism.

A fourth principle is prohibition. That is basically saying we can do whatever we like unless God has forbidden it. Unless we can find a commandment somewhere in the Word that says, “You shall not do this,” then we are ok, we are fine. So for example, if the Bible does not forbid services where pets are blessed – dogs and cats – then who is to say it is wrong? Or if we cannot find a text that says that we should not have liturgical dance, then again, who is to say that is wrong? It is not forbidden, and therefore it is ok. Prohibition. That is probably the most common principle today.

Regulated Worship🔗

The fifth principle (and I believe it is the biblical principle) is prescription. We can only use in worship what God has prescribed, what God has commanded. That is different to prohibition. Prohibition says: if God has not forbidden it, it is ok. Prescription says: We can only do what God has commanded. And that is what is most commonly known in our circles as the reformed regulative principle. It is a principle that was recovered primarily by John Calvin at the time of the Reformation. He saw that if we are to recover the biblical gospel, we have to recover biblical worship too. The Reformation really had such a high view of God. It recovered such a majestic God. And the reformers said, “This has to impact how we worship as well.” And this is classically summarized for us in the Westminster Confession of Faith, where it says:

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.Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1, 1646.

So when we come to the worship of God, the big question is not, “What does God forbid?” but rather, “What does God command?” Worship is such a solemn and weighty and massive matter that it has not been left to our fallen human natures to try and figure out what is acceptable to God and what is not acceptable to Him. God has the right to determine how He will be worshipped, and He has given Scriptural basis for this.

You take, for example, this classic passage in Leviticus 10. Here we have the sons of Aaron – priests, so it is the right people. And they take censers (little canisters) into which they put hot coals that had a scent, an aroma on them (lots of herbs and spices that created a smell). God had given instructions as to how that formula should be made up. So it is the right people, and they have taken the right censer, and they have put fire therein. This is all good. But then we read: “And put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD.” There was something about the formula that they concocted – the perfume that they put on the hot coal – that was strange to God. It was not what He was familiar with. Not what He had commanded. And that is really what is said here: “which He commanded them not.” There was a lot that was good here, and no doubt well-motivated, but solemnly, seriously, they did not comply with God’s prescription. He had not commanded them. And so “there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD” (Leviticus 10:2).

There are a few other verses that you can look at in your own leisure: Deuteronomy 12:32; 1 Chronicles 15:13-15; Hebrews 12:28-29. You have that classic verse in John 4:24: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” There are many others that tell us that God has the right to determine how He is worshipped, and that He has determined and He has prescribed it, and that is to be our rule. The Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5 summarizes for us the biblical teaching on what should be in worship:

The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God.Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.5, 1646.

So we must not innovate. We are not allowed to be creative when it comes to worship. The big question is not what is forbidden, but what is authorized. Of course, this regulative principle held by many reformed churches varies in how people apply it, but this is the question that goes through every decision that pastors and elders must make when deciding: What is worship? What is included in it? What are we allowed? Does God require this? Does God command this? It is not enough to ask, “Does He forbid it?” In the areas of worship, what Scripture does not authorize is forbidden. John Knox summed this up: “All worshipping, honouring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own expressed commandment, is idolatry.” It is that serious and it is that solemn!

So all this is to say: our worship must be careful. Full of care. There must be a holy anxiety that we use only what God prescribes in the content and the conduct of worship. May God give us that carefulness, that focus, that ruthless focus in using only what He has authorized and prescribed. Let us examine our public worship by this principle. Let us make it a matter of great and constant care that we only in our worship use what God commands. And let Leviticus 10 be a solemn warning to us. Holy worship is careful worship.

Holy Worship Is Truthful Worship🔗

Secondly, holy worship is truthful worship. We are speaking here really about the spirit with which we should view worship. There is great carefulness, there is great reverence, but there has to be content as well. It has to be full of truth. Pastor Ray Lanning, writing in Living for God’s Glory, said this: “Of the many changes enacted by the reformers, none was more dramatic than the change in public worship.” What was so dramatic? Well, out went the Mass with all that was associated with it – all the priests, all the vestments, all the altars, all the candles, all the images. All of that was rejected in the desire to return to divine purity. And each of the reformers went further and further in what they drove out of worship. Luther drove out some, then Zwingli, then Bucer, then Calvin. Knox went furthest of all in his desire to have purity of worship, to have worship that is in spirit and in truth alone.

But when they drove out of all of these things that used to characterize worship, it left a vacuum. And what came in but the Bible! Scripture filled this vacuum more than adequately. So instead of all these other things, we had Scripture reading, scriptural preaching, scriptural sacraments and scriptural singing. The singing of Scripture! Calvin (as somebody has said) introduced the true liturgy of the Word. From beginning to end of the public worship it was an encounter with the Word of God. That is what we want, isn’t it? Worship that is full of truth. Full of the Word. So let me say a couple of things here, first of all about preaching and worship and then secondly about Psalms and worship.

Preaching and Worship🔗

First of all, preaching and worship. We can fall into two errors here when we are thinking about the rule [of] the relationship between preaching on the one hand and worship on the other. And the first mistake is this: that we view worship as preliminary to preaching. That the worship is just a “warm-up” until we get to the main event, which is the preaching of the Word. This division has become very, very clear in many churches where you have a worship leader and then you have the preacher. The inevitable result of this is that the actual worship – the singing, the reading and the praying – gets down-played, and people are just sort of coasting along. And then when the preaching comes they engage and they switch on.

We have to avoid this – that our singing and our praying and our reading is just so much secondary stuff until we get to the big stuff, the primary matter of preaching. No, from the moment we come in here, the singing of the first psalter, the prayer, the readings from Scripture are to be right up there with the preaching. So let’s not minimize and shrink and relegate the so-called worship part of the service secondary to preaching. In fact, Spurgeon once went to preach in a place and the pastor said to Spurgeon, “You do the preaching and I will do the prayer before the preaching.” Spurgeon said, “No, no. If we are going to split the labour, I will do the prayer and you do the preaching.” Because to Spurgeon the prayer was right up there with the preaching. And needless to say, the pastor stepped back and said, “No, no, you just do both.” But it communicates to us how Spurgeon saw the lead-up to preaching as right on the same level as the preaching itself.

The second problem we can often encounter with regards to preaching and worship is that we do the worship bit, but then the preaching isn’t worship. We sort of move from a worshipful spirit in prayer and singing and hearing of the Word, and then we get to the preaching and suddenly it becomes sort of cold and intellectual and academic and rational and logical. And the worship spirit goes out the door. No, preaching is to be worshipful and the hearing of preaching is to be worshipful. The singing and the praying and the reading of the Word is all to bring us into a worshipful spirit that we may stay there in worship. And as I preach I should be thinking in my heart and worshipping in my heart. As I declare these truths it should be a heartwarming, a heart-elevating experience for me, but also for you in hearing. You are not just to be sitting there passively receiving, receiving, receiving, but as you receive it should be going up in worship. You should be turning what you hear into prayers and praises and petitions. So that the preaching and the hearing of it is full of worship! Spirit and truth together.

Psalms and Worship🔗

Let me say a word about Psalms and worship. Luther reintroduced congregational singing to the Church. Before that, for a thousand years the worship was done by the choir – the monks, the chanters. The congregation just sort of watched and looked on. And of course, this happens today in many churches, where there is a sort of performance on stage. I was reading a report recently of a man who went to a church like this, and he suddenly realized that by the third or fourth song nobody else was singing. It was just a spectator event. This is a return to pre-Reformation times, when there was no congregational singing. It was done for them. Well, Luther said no, the people of God should sing. And he introduced a hymn book and started congregational singing.

Calvin took the Reformation further. He took this congregational singing that Luther had reintroduced, but he turned congregational singing into biblical singing. The singing of the Bible, the book of Psalms in particular. He wanted worship from beginning to end to be biblical both in its conduct and in its content. He wanted it to be an encounter with the truth. Calvin based this (as many of the other reformers did) on commands in the Bible. Of course, there are numerous commands in the Old Testament. Remember, that is our big question: “What has God commanded?” not “What does He forbid?” What has He commanded? Well, He certainly in the Old Testament commanded psalm singing throughout it. The book of Psalms itself is full of singing: “Sing us! Sing us! Sing us!”

But we also have New Testament commands. For example, Colossians 3:16: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” You look at that and you say, “Ok, there are psalms, but there are also hymns and there are also spiritual songs.” And the way that the majority of the Church has interpreted this is exactly like that. We have some psalms and we have some hymns and we have some spiritual songs. However, what is interesting here is, first of all, remember this is all couched under that it is the Word of Christ. Secondly, these titles here – psalms, hymns and spiritual songs – in the Greek are the same titles given to the Psalms in the Greek Old Testament. The people of Bible times would have been familiar with that. When they read in the Greek “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” it would put them back to the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. Each of the Psalms had headings, and these were the headings. Some were specifically called psalms, some were called hymns and some were called spiritual songs. That was the reformers’ reasoning in saying, “What God has commanded is the book of Psalms.” There are psalms in the book of Psalms, there are hymns in the book of Psalms and there are spiritual songs in the book of Psalms.

We also have the Lord’s example in Mathew 26:30. He is instituting the Lord’s Supper – transferring from Passover to the Lord’s Supper. And we are told He sang a hymn. Again, that sounds to us as if He sang hymns; no, what they sang on these occasions where the Hallel Psalms, the Pascha Psalms – Psalms 113-118. That is what He was singing there. He gave us that example. Interestingly too, when it says here “spiritual songs,” 24 times out of 25 times in the New Testament when ‘spiritual’ is used it means "off the Spirit." Songs of the Spirit, or from the Spirit. Interestingly also, the NIV translates this phrase “psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit.”

That would be our reasoning for exclusive psalmody. Now, we have to admit that not many people are persuaded of our reasoning. We are a small minority in the whole Church of Christ. I think that calls us to some measure of humility as we make this argument, recognizing that not that many people are persuaded of this. But all I want you to know is that there is a case. We are not doing this because of the past and it is what we have always done. It is not because of preference and [because] it is what we like to do (although we do). It is not pragmatism certainly, because it is not that popular. It is not about prohibition. It is about prescription! Our concern (at least as far as God gives us light) is to do what only God has prescribed, and as far as we can see, this is what He has prescribed.

So there is a case. There is a biblical case. It is an arguable case. But I think it is a humble case that we want to make. I do not see much merit in going around critiquing and attacking every other church’s worship style. I think it is much better to make a positive case for the Psalms. And to do that I would argue along these lines:

First of all, they are inspired by God. We can know for sure that they are songs of the Spirit. They are the Word of Christ. We can be absolutely sure of that. God wrote them.

Secondly, they are without error. I am sure there are many songs, hymns and choruses that are without error, but we can be sure the Psalms are without error, unlike some songs and hymns.

Thirdly, they are God-focused. If God inspired them, then we are going to have a focus on God through the Psalms.

Fourthly, they are balanced. There is a good balance between the focus on God and the focus on man. Some hymns and spiritual songs might be more man-focused than God-focused. There is a good balance between doctrine and experience. There is the truth, but there is the encounter and there is the experience of the truth. There is a good balance between the past, the present and the future. The Psalms look back and draw from the past, the Psalms look to the present and deal with the present day situation, but they also look forward and point us towards our great hope. So they are balanced.

Fifthly, they are Messianic. They are Christ-centered. We can argue that when we sing to God with the Psalms we are singing to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We sing the Psalms with Trinitarian tongues. We also not only sing to Christ with the Psalms, we sing of Christ with the Psalms. If you look at books about the Psalms you will notice that oftentimes writers will trace the history of Christ on earth using the Psalms, showing how the Psalms predicted His birth, His growth, His public ministry, His teaching, His miracles, His suffering, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, and even smaller details like His betrayal. So when we sing with the Psalms, we are singing to Him and we are singing of Him. We are also singing through Him. Only worship given to God through Christ is acceptable to Him. And fourthly, we sing with Him in the Psalms. These were the songs He sang. This was His hymnbook growing up. These were the songs that nurtured Him, encouraged Him, directed Him, taught Him, that He used as man in the worship of God. These were the Psalms that helped Him in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. And so as we sing the Psalms, one of the questions we should be asking is: How did Christ sing them? How did He use them? How did He experience them? This will bring Christ to us in a very close and intimate way. So we sing to Him, we sing through Him, we sing of Him, we sing with Him. The Psalms are Messianic.

Sixthly, the Psalms are uniting. There is nothing that will divide a congregation more than choosing worship styles and worship songs. At least with the Psalms we know that we could unite in them. We know that they are of the Lord, and nobody can argue with that.

But I would also like to make this point: we are in danger of losing the Psalms. We are in danger of losing them if we do not understand why we use them. If we just attribute it to preference or the past tradition, then our young people will grow up and they will also say, “That is just your tradition.” They have another, and they go. No, they have to learn the principles!

But what about the practice? Are we biblical in our practice of singing the Psalms? (I will touch on this a bit more in the next point.) This is something that has really struck me since I left Scotland. When I was in Scotland we used the Scottish metrical Psalms. That is what I grew up with, what I was familiar with and comfortable with. Then I came to the States and we do not use any Scottish Psalms. They felt very uncomfortable, very unfamiliar, and I began to realize how much of my experience of the Psalms was cultural. There was a Scottish element to the way the words were framed and even the music that accompanied them. So now I have come here and after a number of years here I begin to get comfortable and familiar with the Dutch Psalter. But it still raises this question: How much of this is cultural? Not the fact that we sing Psalms, but how the Psalms are written. The music that is set to them.

One of the dangers is that if we do not recognize the cultural element to our Psalm singing, then we end up holding on to the culture at the risk of losing the Psalm singing. Because cultures change, tastes change. That is why oftentimes when people are brought up with exclusive Psalmody and begin to want to outreach, begin to want to evangelize and church plant and do children’s camps, they come to our Psalms (as we did in Scotland) and people cannot connect with them. It is alien; it is different; it is unfamiliar; it is uncomfortable. And so what happens? The Psalms are put aside and non-Psalms are brought in! If we want to keep our Psalms, we have to look at what elements are cultural. What elements are merely traditional. I do not want my own comfort zone, my own familiarity, my own what I am used to to have the priority, and then I am responsible, maybe, for our churches losing the Psalms altogether. God forbid that any of us be responsible for that. We have to carefully look at preserving the biblical principle, but also translating the biblical practice in our own context and in our own generation.

But this brings us back to this point again: holy worship is truthful worship. John Calvin said of the Psalms, “There is nothing lacking which relates to the knowledge of eternal salvation.” Calvin also said, “I have been accustomed to call this book an anatomy of all parts of the soul, for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not represented here as in a mirror.” An anatomy of all parts of the soul! What a treasure we have here. May God help us to preserve it for our generation and future generations to come!

Holy Worship Is Joyful Worship🔗

Lastly, holy worship is joyful worship. There are many emotions that should characterize our Psalm singing. There is hope, confidence, love, contrition, lament. But there is also joy. We have to be very careful that we are not overreacting against the modern excesses in worship. We look around maybe, we visit other churches, we might see some things on TV or video sometimes, we hear other people in our workplaces talk, and we think, “That worship is so superficial. It is so artificial. It is just ‘Happy, happy, happy, clappy, clappy, clappy’! We don’t want anything to do with that!” The danger is that we go to the other extreme and we are never happy, happy, happy! And there is never even an impetus to be clappy, clappy, clappy! Even with the hands of our souls internally. We are always in this great danger of overreacting. We say, “Oh, they have gone way too far over there, so we are going to go way far over here and focus on lament and contrition and mourning and groaning.” So we can have all the biblical content but be totaling lacking in this biblical spirit of joy!

There are over a hundred references to joy and rejoicing in the Psalms! A hundred times we are told to rejoice and to be joyful! And it is not just, “Come on, be happy, be happy!” That is what you often get in modern worship; there is a sort of stirring up of the emotions. That is not what we have in the Psalms! It is always based on truth. Let us be joyful, because this is true. I listed a few of these hundred:

Rejoice, because You defend us!
Rejoice, because we trust in You!
Rejoice, because of Your mercy!
Rejoice, because of Your great goodness!
Rejoice, because of Your righteousness!
Rejoice, because You lift me up!
Rejoice, because You don’t let my enemies triumph over me!
Rejoice, because You considered my trouble!
Rejoice, because You knew my soul in adversities!
Rejoice, because of Your justice!
Rejoice, because You revive us!
Rejoice, because we seek You!
Rejoice, because You are our Maker!
Rejoice, because You have reversed my captivity!
Rejoice, because Your statutes are right!
Rejoice, because You guide us to the desired haven!
Rejoice, because this is the day the Lord has made!
Rejoice, because I am going to Your house!

Do you see that? This is only fifteen or so, but there is a hundred of these! We are meant to get a point here. Yes, let worship be careful; full of care. Let it be truthful; full of truth. But let it also be full of joy and gladness based upon the truth. God has given us multiple truths, multiple reasons to be joyful.

I remember a family where the father was a bit of a bully. When he was not around the children were quite happy and cheerful and free, but when the father appeared they suddenly changed. They were cowed and their posture visibly changed. Their face changed. They hardly talked, withdrawing, stepping back. It was very obvious they were in utter terror. And you could only say inside, “I am thankful he is not my dad!” And then when the father would disappear, then there would be a return of this freedom and liberty and joy again. Well, here is a big question: What do people think of our heavenly Father when we are in His presence? What do they conclude when they see our conduct and our spirit when we are in His presence publicly? Are we like these bullied children? Does our posture, our expression, our tone of voice and everything change so much that anyone looking on would say, “I am glad He is not my heavenly Father”?

Surely we want to communicate to one and all and everyone, “I am so glad this is my heavenly Father! Look at the liberty! Look at the freedom! Look at the joy! Look at the confidence! Look at the hope that thrives and grows in His presence! Never freer! Never more joyful than when in the presence of my heavenly Father!”

True worship is joyful worship. And of course, it begins in the heart. But if it is in the heart it is going to bubble up and overflow on our lips, in our words, in our tone, in our volume, in our facial expressions, and even our posture. And notice, it is not joyful, full stop. It is in this context of careful, truthful, joyful. That is the recipe, the formula, the biblical mixing that is so pleasing to God. True worship, holy worship, is joyful worship!


In conclusion, let me say this: let’s try and study and understand what we do. I hope our young people will be able to at least explain why we do what we do. I do not want anyone going out and attacking other churches, critiquing and just being generally nasty. No, let’s know what we believe. Let’s be able to defend it. Let’s be able to give a reason for what we do. Let’s do this humbly. Let’s recognize that although for 200 years after the Reformation the whole reformed Church was a Psalm singing Church, now we are just a tiny minority. The day may come again (let’s hope so) that there will be an increase. And I believe in many parts of the world there is an increase of Psalm singing again. Let’s keep reforming. Let’s not think, “This is it. We are done. No more change required.” The whole ethos of the Reformation was semper referendum – always reforming. In all worship, as in all human activities, there is a tendency to corruption. A tendency to add to what should not be there and take out what should be there. We need to be constantly examining this. Always reforming. And always doing what we do better. Seeking to improve upon it. Trying to learn from others. They may be not so biblical in their principles but more biblical in their practice.

Above all, let’s just be amazed! Let’s just be amazed that we are allowed to worship God! That we are permitted to come into His presence and sing and pray and hear His Word, and not be consumed by holy God! How is this possible? It is only through Jesus Christ. We cannot deal with God directly. None of us can. This is why you and I need Jesus for our worship as well as for our salvation. That all we do is offered to Him through Him, in His Name, because of His merits. And that He would cleanse our worship. Even no matter how biblical we get in our content and our conduct, it is still marred. It is still sinful. It still needs forgiveness. We offer up our praises today in our prayer and in our reading and in our preaching and we say, “Lord forgive it all, and accept it for Jesus’ sake!” And that is a wonder. That He can cleanse not just of every sin out there, but of every sin in here, and make our worship whiter than snow and acceptable in His sight. This is truly amazing, truly humbling, and hopefully truly endearing and enticing, as He draws us to Himself through the Lord Jesus.

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