The Regulative Principle of Worship and the Gospel

18 08 2008

By Douglas W. Comin


I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice.’ ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,’ (1 Sam. xv. 22; Matth. xv. 9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere ‘will worship’ [Col. ii. 23]…is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.” (John Calvin, “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. by Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1983, vol. 1, p. 128f)


These comments from John Calvin are rooted in the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which holds that the worship of the Holy God is defined by Himself, by explicit command or plain example, in His infallible Word. It is not the prerogative of men to determine what rites or activities are acceptable or desirable in the worship of God. Divine precept, rather than human presumption, is to be the rule for determining what is to be done, and what is not to be done, in drawing near to pay homage to the living God.


Once the majority report of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the RPW has become an historical relic, confined to a few small denominations and much maligned by the broader evangelical community. The idea that worship is to be regulated by God’s commands is seen as “legalistic” by the modern church, which views worship rather as an emotional expression of felt devotion toward God, the components of which are determined by whatever seems best to suit the worshipper’s outpouring of his inward feelings of joy and adoration. Men such as John Calvin once understood and rightly warned against the tendency of man to frame his worship according to his own preferences. They knew too well the propensity of fallen creatures to distort the image of God and to incorporate superstition and idolatry into their worship practices. In an essay published by Wesminster Seminary California, W. Robert Godfrey sketched the Genevan Reformer’s view of worship that proceeds from the preferences of men rather than the prescriptions of God:


Calvin’s great caution and concern on matters of worship reflected his belief that Christians too often want to please themselves in worship rather than please God. “Nor can it be doubted but that, under the pretense of holy zeal, superstitious men give way to the indulgences of the flesh; and Satan baits his fictitious modes of worship with such attractions, that they are willingly and eagerly caught hold of and obstinately retained.” Calvin sharply warned of the great difference between the attitudes of God and man toward worship: “This single consideration, when the inquiry relates to the worship of God, ought to be sufficient for restraining the insolence of our mind, that God is so far from being like us, that those things which please us most are for him loathsome and nauseating.” He related this warning particularly to the human tendency to want worship which is pleasing to the senses when he wrote: “And undoubtedly this is the origin of all superstitions, that men are delighted with their own inventions, and choose to be wise in their own eyes rather than restrain their senses in obedience to God.” His conclusion on various activities and ceremonies in worship is striking: “the more it delights human nature, the more it is to be suspected by believers.” These matters are so serious for Calvin because “nothing is more abominable in the sight of God than pretended worship, which proceeds from human contrivance.”


The theological rationale behind the RPW has been variously set forth by its many proponents throughout the history of the Church. Most trace the positive necessity for it to God’s jealousy for His own glory, and His divine authority, which gives Him the right to determine how He is to be approached by His creatures. Negatively, the need for the RPW is generally couched in terms of sinful man’s unfitness to draw near to God and his tendency to pervert God-centered worship by turning it into man-centered idolatry. These are all legitimate and important considerations. There is a fundamentally more important aspect to the issue, however, that is rarely emphasized but which lies at the very heart of worship and its divine regulation. That aspect is the relationship of worship to the Gospel.


Sin’s effect – a broken relationship with God


The fall of man into sin had a profound effect upon the relationship between the creature and the Creator. Prior to his rebellion, Adam had direct communion with God. The effect of Adam’s sin was a breach between himself and the Holy God. No longer could he face his Creator without shame or fear of condemnation. The fundamental effect of sin upon the heart of man was the transformation from a God-centered to a man-centered perspective. Sin’s corruption polluted every part of his nature, rendering man both unfit and unwilling for fellowship with God. The prescribed penalty for transgression of God’s command regarding the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was death. By his deliberate disobedience, Adam incurred the sentence of death, both physical and spiritual. The meaning of physical death is obvious. Spiritual death involved the separation of Adam from God, both immediately and eternally. The effect of the fall upon Adam is apparent from his reaction when he “heard the voice of God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). He and his wife “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD.” They were guilty, and they feared judgment. They knew that a holy God could not tolerate unrighteousness and that standing in His presence would mean certain condemnation.


God’s Provision – restored fellowship by means of sacrifice


What was the Divine response to Adam’s transgression? Justice demanded the penalty of death. Yet God in His grace offered a means of redemption. Physical death would now be part of man’s lot, but the spiritual and eternal death incurred by Adam’s sin would be transferred to a Substitute. In Genesis 3:15 God promised to send “the seed of the woman” to “crush the head of the serpent.” This was a promise that Christ would come into the world as the Redeemer of men.


In token of this promise, God did something very significant. Adam and Eve had attempted to cover the shame and guilt of their sin by sewing for themselves garments of fig leaves. This was a vain effort to make themselves presentable before God after they had disobeyed His commands. It was a form of covering their transgressions by the work of their own hands. After God promised to send “the seed of the woman,” we are told that He made “tunics of skins” and clothed Adam and his wife. The message was simple: You cannot cover your own sins. If you are to be acceptable to stand in My presence, I must provide a covering for your sins by sacrifice. The making of tunics of skins for Adam and Eve involved the shedding of blood – the first recorded instance in Scripture of animal sacrifice, which would become the central focus of the ceremonial worship of God’s people.  


The Link Between Worship and the Gospel


Thus was established the link between worship and the Gospel. Worship is the communion of the creature with the Creator. This communion was broken by man’s fall into sin and its resulting corruption of his whole nature. God graciously provided a means for the restoration of this broken relationship, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, whom He promised to send into the world as Redeemer. The reality of this promised redemption became the central focus of man’s worship, the visible expression of which pictured God’s provision of Salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.


If the making of tunics of skins by animal sacrifice was the first expression of Christ-centered worship, the attempt of our first parents to make themselves presentable by sewing garments of fig leaves made by their own hands was the first expression of man-centered worship. This has been the tension in worship since the fall. God declares that He may only be approached on the basis of His provision, and He frames worship on His own terms, centered upon the finished work of Christ. Man desires to approach God on his own terms, vainly imagining that his own inventions will be acceptable.


Enter the Regulative Principle of Worship


The principle that man’s worship must be in accordance with what God Himself has prescribed is implicit in the first animal sacrifices. Adam and Eve could not restore communion with God by their own efforts but could only draw near to Him by His provision and on His prescribed terms. God’s prescribed terms centered upon, and visibly portrayed, His gracious provision of the means of restored communion through Jesus Christ. That this principle was clearly understood by Adam and Eve can be seen in the account of their two sons, Cain and Abel.


And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” (Genesis 4:3-5)


What made Abel’s offering acceptable and Cain’s inadequate? Some have suggested that it was a matter of sincerity – that Abel sincerely offered the best of his flocks while Cain half-heartedly offered some of his produce. The real difference, however, was in the substance of the respective offerings. God had prescribed a bloody sacrifice as the means of entering into His presence. Adam and Eve’s fig leaves had not been sufficient. Now, Cain sought to approach God with a bloodless sacrifice, contrary to the Divine prescription, while Abel offered the firstborn of his flock – a visible representation of Christ in keeping with God’s requirements. Abel’s worship depicted the Gospel, while Cain’s illustrated pride in his own works.


The RPW and the Ceremonial System


As God’s revelation progresses, we find Him choosing out a people and calling them into a special covenant relationship with Himself. Through Moses God made known His will for worship by setting forth a detailed and elaborate ceremonial system, in which everything – the floor plan of the Tabernacle – the times and types of offerings – the utensils used in the holy services – the decorations on the clothing of the priests – everything was filled with symbolic significance and all of it pointed to and pre-figured God’s provision of redemption through to promised Savior Jesus Christ. When the Lord brought His people into the land that He had promised them, He gave them this commandment and warning:


And you shall offer your burnt offerings, the meat and the blood, on the altar of the LORD your God; and the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the LORD your God, and you shall eat the meat. Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God. When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:27-32)

This is the classic formulation of the Regulative Principle of Worship. When you worship, you are not to look around at your neighbors in order to imitate what they do. You are to do what I command you – without addition or subtraction.  In the subsequent history of Israel, God enforces this principle with the strictest of penalties for those who presume to add to or take away from His commands regarding worship. But why such strict boundaries? Notice once again the centrality of the blood. God had built into His prescribed worship the very message of the Gospel. Every detail was calculated to point them to the promised work of Jesus Christ. If they tampered with the details of God’s prescribed ceremonies, they would be distorting the very message of the Gospel and introducing into it the work of their own hands. In effect, they would be attempting to draw near to God by their own efforts and ignoring the provision that He made for them through Jesus. Like Adam’s fig leaves and Cain’s produce, their worship would be man-centered and unacceptable to God.


Here is the connection: worship is designed by God to be a visible representation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To alter God’s commanded worship is therefore to distort the Gospel. Worship either pictures God’s provision or man’s work and efforts.


The RPW and the New Covenant


With the advent of Jesus Christ, the long-awaited promises were at last fulfilled. Every detail, every nuance, every jot and tittle of the elaborate symbolism of Israel’s ceremonies found its perfect antitype in the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world. Obviously, this would have profound effects upon the worship of God’s people. The detailed ceremonies – the outward and external types and shadows – were now abrogated and put away.


Yet the Scriptures of the New Testament continue to emphasize that God alone determines how His people are to approach Him and counts all man-made traditions and commandments of men as will-worship and gross presumption. The underlying principle behind this truth remains the same – the authority of God to govern His Church according to His own word and to design the worship of His people in such a way that Christ has the preeminence.


In Old Testament times, the preeminence of Christ was seen through the external types and shadows of the ceremonial worship, which testified of Him to the “church under age.” Today the preeminence of Christ is seen in the spiritual worship of the New Covenant Church, the absence of external rites and ceremonies bearing witness to the sufficiency of His Priestly work and the access to the heavenly sanctuary that He won through His sacrifice. While the outward form of worship has changed, the underlying principles remain unaltered.


God is still the Ruler of His Church, Christ remains the central focus of her worship, and man’s inventions imposed upon her activities continue to obscure the perfect testimony of Christ that God has designed her worship to convey. Just as the detailed ceremonies of the Old Covenant visibly represented the promised work of Christ who was to come, so the simplicity of New Covenant worship visibly represents the completed and finished work of the Savior who has come and who has done all that was necessary to accomplish our reconciliation to God and restore us to communion with Him. And just as the addition of un-commanded elements to the Old Covenant ceremonies, or the omission of commanded elements, amounted to a distortion of the Gospel which those ceremonies were designed to portray – so the addition of un-commanded elements to the simple, spiritual worship of the New Covenant obscures the truth that Jesus Christ has accomplished all that is necessary to present us to God.


The Crux of the Matter


This is the problem with Romish worship. By adding a host of outward elements and outward rituals to the worship of God, Rome obscures the Gospel and keeps its adherents dependent upon their own works and the ministrations of their priests. Evangelical worship likewise obscures the pure message of the Gospel when it incorporates elements and activities calculated to appeal to the external senses and which proceed from the imaginations and traditions of men, for in so doing the impression is given that God is pleased and honored by what men do, rather than communion with Him depending solely upon the sufficiency of the completed work of Jesus, whose once-for-all sacrifice has forever done away with the outward elements once required, and replaced them with the surpassing glory of a simple, spiritual, Christ-centered worship.

Does Worship Matter?

12 08 2008

Okay… so you go to church on Sunday morning. What do you see and do there? My bet is that everyone who is reading this will give a different answer to that question. Some will experience a more “traditional” service – announcements, call to worship, hymns, scripture reading, sermon, offering, prayer, and maybe some “special music.” Others will have a more “contemporary” experience – perhaps a concert-style performance, maybe a play or a puppet show, something “interactive” that’s designed to get the people involved, a multi-media presentation in place of a traditional sermon.

What’s the difference anyway? Isn’t the important thing that we are sincere in seeking to give praise to God and that we leave the service feeling inspired and uplifted? Does God care what we do, just as long as we mean well? Is there a “right” way to draw near to God in worship?

These questions have become increasingly more important to me as I have studied the Scriptures and ministered among the people of God. I have become more and more convinced that God cares a great deal about what His people do when they come before His presence in worship. The testimony of the Bible is that God has always been jealous that His people approach Him in the right way. When they ignore God’s directions in the area of corporate worship, God’s people have invariably come under judgment. There is a good reason for this. Worship, as God designed it, is not about doing what WE think is emotionally uplifting or expressive of devotion. Worship, as God designed it, is a reflection of the Gospel which centers in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, I preached an extended series of messages on the subject of worship. The purpose of the series was to walk the congregation through the Bible – from Genesis to Revelation – taking one book each week, and seeing what the consistent message of Scripture was on the worship of God. It was an eye-opening study, and many who heard it have encouraged me to get it into print so that it could be accessible to a wider audience.

By God’s grace, that has now been done! This series of studies is now available in a book entitled “Worship: From Genesis to Revelation.” It comes in paperback and hard cover editions. Click the link below to access the storefront where you can order your copy…

I hope that you will consider digging deeper into the important subject of worship. I believe that this is an area in which the Church stands in major need to reformation. God’s glory and the welfare of His flock is at stake. May the Lord bless you as you seek to bring your life and worship into conformity to His perfect will.