It is often said, and rightly so, that all of life is worship. There is little question that we have been redeemed for a life of service to God and that extends far beyond what takes place for two or three hours on a Sunday. Nevertheless, there is something special that happens when God’s people gather together for public worship. For one thing, God is present in the midst of believers gathered for worship in a way that He is not otherwise (Matthew 18:20). Just as God was present in a special way in the holy of holies in the Old Testament, so He is also present in a special way today when God’s people are assembled for public worship (1 Corinthians 5:4). This means that corporate, public worship has a unique character quite different from the everyday service that believers offer up to God.
Because it is so unique and so important, in this series of articles I want to explore our Reformed worship services. We need to know why we do what we do when we gather on Sundays. Are these simply traditions that have been passed on or is there a biblical basis for our practices? When we see churches of other backgrounds doing things in a markedly different way, is this merely a matter of “worship style” or is there more at stake? With this first article, we’ll begin by laying out the two general principles that determine the shape of Reformed worship.
The Regulative Principle⤒🔗
The Heidelberg Catechism expresses this principle most succinctly in Answer 96 when it says in reference to what God requires in the second commandment, “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.” In other words, when it comes to the corporate, public worship of God’s people, only God’s Word can determine that worship. We may not add or take away from God’s Word. The Belgic Confession highlights the connection between the sufficiency of Scripture and the worship of God’s people when it says regarding the Bible that “the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length. It is therefore unlawful for anyone, even for an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in Holy Scripture” (Art 7).
This principle is known as the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), but it could just as well be described as the Reformed or Biblical Principle of Worship. This principle was one of the main things that separated the Reformed not only from the Roman Catholics, but also from the Lutherans. The Roman Catholics believed that the church has been free to add and take away from what is commanded in Scripture regarding worship. The Lutherans believed that if a given worship practice is not forbidden in Scripture, then it is permitted. The Reformed argued, however, that we must only worship God in the manner He has commanded in his Word, not adding or taking away anything.
One of the classic passages for defending this principle is found in Leviticus 10:1-2. Nadab and Abihu offered a fire before Yahweh which had not been commanded or authorized in his Word. Although the details of what exactly they did are scant, it is clear that they attempted to add to what God had commanded. The result was that fire went out from Yahweh and destroyed them. One of the conclusions we can draw from this passage is that acceptable and God-pleasing worship is that which has been commanded by God Himself.
As we reflect on the implementation of this principle, we need to keep in mind two sets of qualifications. The first set has to do with the different ways in which Scripture can command a given practice in worship. There does not necessarily have to be a direct imperative: do this or that. Sometimes Scripture gives us an example that we clearly ought to follow. At other times, we derive or deduce a certain practice through what the Westminster Confession calls “good and necessary consequence” (1.6). As this series of articles progresses, we will have opportunity to see the concrete manner in which this works.
The second set of qualifications is an important distinction between elements and circumstances of worship. Elements are the things which are done in worship. Circumstances are incidental things that surround those things done in worship. So, for instance, whether a church has chairs or pews is a circumstance. The same holds true for the kinds of tunes that are used to accompany the singing or whether the morning worship service should be at 9:30 or 10:00. Those sorts of things (circumstances) are not governed by commands from Scripture, but by wisdom and discretion informed by Scripture. The RPW only applies to the elements of worship and not to the circumstances.
The Principle of Covenantal Structure←⤒🔗
So, let’s say that the RPW is followed and Scripture gives us a number of elements that should be in our worship service. But how should those elements be structured? Here too, the Bible gives us help in the form of something we can call “the Principle of Covenantal Structure.”
In all biblical covenants, there are two parties: God and his people. In the Old Testament priestly service in the tabernacle and temple, the priests acted as mediators between Yahweh and the people of Israel. At certain points, the priests represented God. At other times, they represented the people. In Hebrews 8:5, we learn that this service was a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” In other words, this tabernacle and temple service reflected something grander: the mediatorial ministry of Jesus Christ.
What this means is that biblical worship accounts for the covenant that exists between God and his people. It does so through a structure that reflects the back and forth of a covenant relationship. Through the mediatorial ministry of Jesus Christ, we are privileged to hear God speak to us and we are also privileged to be able to address Him.
From this principle, we can move to divide up the different God-commanded elements into those which are God communicating to man and those which man communicating to God. We can also arrange these elements in such a way that there is distinguishably a back and forth movement through the worship service. God speaks and man responds. God speaks again and man responds again – and so forth. In this way, it’s clear that worship is about a relationship – a covenant relationship between God and his people, one in which the two parties are on speaking terms with one another.
Public worship is one of the most important things that we do in life. Offering up praise and glory to the God of our salvation should be one of the highest priorities for all God’s children. No less should it be a high priority to want to hear what God will speak and witness the ways in which God will continue to manifest his power in our lives as He transforms us with his Word and Spirit. Thinking about these things ought to motivate us all the more to be diligent so that our worship is most certainly in Spirit and in truth.
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