Results tagged “Regulative Principle” from Reformation21 Blog

The Scripture's the Limit


Worship is truly the greatest privilege of the creature and all of creation is morally obligated to worship the Creator. When the topic of worship is usually discussed today, however, so much of the discussion involves musical style and preferences. This was not, in fact, the focus of the Reformed Confessions. Regarding worship, the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith states:

"... But 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, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures" (LBC 22.1).

Most interesting is the way in which the authors insist that the acceptable worship of God is..."limited by His own revealed will." The common caricature of this statement is that it is inherently stifling to worship. However, the more I think about this particular phrase, the more I am convinced that it is a reminder that the essence of our public worship is only to be governed by the knowledge of God which comes through His Word.

I grew up in settings in which it was common for people to treat "worship" as a mysterious act to be explained by catchy clich├ęs such as, "worship is a lifestyle." I have subsequently come to realize that such sayings fail to answer how we should worship. Others cautioned me about false worship, but their definition of true worship was shrouded with mysticism and subjectivism (i.e. "in my experience, worship is ____"). Still others equated an acceptable worship experience with meditative music in the service. If we divorce our understanding of worship from the Scripture, then we will, by default, make up our own criteria for worship.

The more we grow in the knowledge of God by understanding His Word, the more we begin to understand the nature of biblical worship. The Apostle Paul gives us beautiful examples of how one should apply the knowledge of God to their worship. Paul often wrote about lofty biblical truths and then conclude his discussion with a doxology. This suggests that the Apostle was overwhelmed by the glory of God while discussing these truths and thus, he found that it was only fitting to write a doxology after reflecting on a given topic. There are three passages in which Paul models how worship grows from our knowledge of God and His own revealed will: Romans 11:33-36; Ephesians 3:14-21; and 1 Timothy 1:15-17.

God's Eternal Purpose and Worship

In Romans 11:33-36 Paul concludes his survey of the accomplishment of salvation. After meditating on his conclusion he exclaims, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" Paul was left in awe of the wisdom and knowledge of God. In reflecting on our justification by Christ's righteousness, our election by the Father, the calling of the Gentiles, the partial rejection of the Jews, and the final restoration of the Jews, Paul breaks forth into exclamation. God's ways are not our ways! When we mediate on our salvation, we see that it is truly a profound display of God's knowledge and wisdom. We know that we will not fully comprehend this salvation, but what God has revealed of His work of salvation is the basis for the worship of God.

Consider how much of our corporate worship is focused on our union with Christ and the salvific benefits that flow from that union. As we grow in our understanding of the depth of God's wisdom in salvation, we will understand the subtleties and nuances of Paul's doxology. The saints throughout the ages have also mediated upon God's wisdom. We now have the rich hymnody that we have as a consequence of their meditations. When we reflect on God's dealings with us, it humbles us to the dust and initiates prayer and praise towards God. The more we come to understand this, the more it deepens our worship of God. This is the essence of the regulative principle of worship: as we meditate on God's revelation in the Scripture, the content of our worship is shaped by it and it drives us to worship Him.

The Love of God and Worship

Ephesians 3:14-21 concludes Paul's discussion of unsearchable riches of Christ for the Gentiles. As he begins to pray for the Ephesians for perseverance, he writes,

"Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen."

In this doxology, Paul prays that believers would comprehend that they are fully grounded in the love of Christ that "surpasses knowledge." In reflecting on the greatness of God's love, Paul again breaks off to a doxology, knowing that God will answer his prayer in superabundant ways. Paul is astonished by the truth of the sure foundation that he is resting on and realizes how able and willing God is to accomplish this. In other words, the eternal purpose and power of God is so abundant towards His church that we can be sure that He will accomplish more than we could even think. The thought that He has prepared a glorious future for His church causes Paul to worship God for His goodness and love. Here, Scripture indicates that our worship for God deepens as we understand God's purpose for our redemption and as we become more assured of the glorious future of the Church because of God's grace and mercy. 

Our Testimony and Worship

In Paul's first letter to Timothy, Paul gives his personal testimony of his conversion and in acknowledging his own sinfulness, he writes

"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen" 1 Timothy 1:15-17.

The Apostle doesn't describe the details of his conversion, but simply states that he is the direct product of mercy. The mercy he received was not only for himself, but it was to magnify God's patience. Here, we see why our personal testimonies are a cause for worship. It can also be said that our entire life before our conversion have been designed to reveal God's patience towards us. We can look back on our lives and observe how patience God has been towards us and here, we see a reason to praise God.

From these examples of Paul's doxology, we discover that God's revealed will is the sure foundation for our spiritual service of worship. As we grow deeper in our understanding of God's Word, then our understanding of God inevitably deepens and thus, our desire to worship God according to His word deepens. Worship is directly correlated to our understanding of God's word and inseparable from our theology. Therefore, we must conclude that true worship is "limited by His own revealed will." 

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Noah's first deed upon exiting the ark -- at least as recorded in Scripture -- was to build an altar and offer unto God sacrifices from the "clean" animals and birds which had accompanied him and his family on his recent water-based adventures. God, for his part, smelled Noah's sacrifices and apparently found the scent of them agreeable (Gen. 8.20). Calvin is quick to point out the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic nature of the activity and sentiment thus attributed to God, lest anyone think that God actually has nostrils or, even worse, actually deems pleasing per se the "filthy smoke of entrails, and of flesh."

Calvin is, of course, equally keen to discover what it was about Noah's sacrifices that particularly pleased God, and so to learn how we might perform acts of worship that bring pleasure to the one who has redeemed us from the flood-waters of sin, death, and hell. Calvin ultimately discovers two ingredients in Noah's worship that rendered it pleasing to God.

The first is Noah's faith. Faith is, according to the author of Hebrews, the sine qua non of pleasing God (Heb. 11:6). Noah was a man who, by virtue of his recent experiences, had a fair share of confidence in God. Calvin discovers evidence of just how strong Noah's faith had grown in the biblical record of Noah's departure from the ark. Even when Noah had removed the door of the ark and found the earth dry (Gen. 8.13), he remained in the ark until God bid him leave it (Gen. 8.15). "Thus we see,"Calvin observes, "that by a continual course of faith, the holy man was obedient to God; because, at God's command, he entered the ark, and there remained until God opened the way for his egress; and because he chose rather to lie in a tainted atmosphere than to breathe the free air, until he should feel assured that his removal would be pleasing to God."

Noah's reluctance to exit the ark without divine bidding was apparently informed by the tremendous episode of judgment and salvation he had just witnessed/experienced. God, it was clear to Noah, was no one to be trifled with. God, it was equally clear, was a God who kept his promises and was absolutely reliable. The only sensible thing to do, in light of who God had just revealed himself to be, was to cast himself entirely upon God's mercy and obey his word even to the minutest detail. It was this very remarkable sense of God's reality and power, and God's utter trustworthiness, which informed Noah's sacrifices and rendered them fragrant to God. Such faith should, of course, inform every person's worship of God: "This general rule, therefore, is to be observed, that all religious services which are not perfumed with the odour of faith, are of an ill-savour before God."

We should not, however, conclude that any old act of worship informed by faith is pleasing to God. The second ingredient -- also absolutely essential -- to sweet-smelling worship is careful attention to God's own instructions regarding how he wishes to be worshiped. Calvin admits that no explicit command to Noah to offer sacrifices is discovered in the biblical text, but nevertheless argues that Noah "rested upon the word of God, and... in reliance on the divine command... rendered this worship, which he knew, indubitably, would be acceptable to God." God's intention for Noah to offer animal sacrifices to him as an expression of gratitude for his salvation following the flood is discernible, Calvin argues, in the pre-flood instruction to take on board seven (three pairs plus one) of every clean animal, the seventh, un-paired animal being included "for the sake of sacrifice." It would, of course, have been useless to include a seventh specimen of every clean animal "unless God had revealed this design to holy Noah, who was to be the priest to offer up the victims."

The pre-flood "divine command" to sacrifice post-flood is also discernible in the distinction noted between clean and un-clean animals as such. "It is certain that Noah did not invent this distinction for himself, since it does not depend on human choice." All in all, it is apparent, in Calvin's judgment, that God had given Noah fairly detailed instructions regarding the sacrifices that he should make following the flood, even before the first drops of rain fell. "We conclude that he undertook nothing without divine authority." Calvin's argument certainly makes good sense of what Noah actually did upon exiting the ark. Noah got busy making sacrifices as soon as his feet hit dry ground because God, who had just revealed himself to Noah in a remarkable episode of judgment and salvation, had previously instructed him to do just that.

The lesson we are meant to take from this is decidedly not that we, however full of faith, should offer animal sacrifices unto God. Animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were picture prophecies of the Seed who would come to crush the head of the Serpent by offering himself up as an atonement for the sins of his people. "It was right that [Old Testament believers] should always have before their eyes symbols, by which they would be admonished, that they could have no access to God but through a mediator. Now, however, the manifestation of Christ has taken away these ancient shadows." For that matter, however, Noah's sacrifices (in Calvin's judgment) were more like the "first fruits" offerings the people of Israel would eventually bring God in grateful acknowledgment of God's deliverance of them (cf. Deut. 26) than those sacrifices which properly pre-figured Christ (the true sin-bearing sacrifice).

In any case, the lesson we are meant to take from Noah's sacrifices is that our own worship, if we would have it be pleasing to God, must likewise be performed in faith and careful attention to God's own instructions about how he should be worshiped. We are, of course, not free to simply go through the proper motions of worship, without hearts full of faith. We are, equally, not free to worship God in whatever way we deem suitable, provided our hearts are full of faith. Both worship uninformed by faith and worship unsolicited by God are putrid in his nostrils. Only when we worship him as he has expressly commanded us to do, and do so in faith, is our worship fragrant to him.

Noah's faith, as noted, was informed by his participation in a rather remarkable episode of judgment and salvation. We who stand on this side of the Cross have been made witnesses to and participants in a rather more remarkable episode of judgment and salvation; we have been spared the flood-waters of God's wrath insofar as they have been poured out on our substitute. The faith that informs our own worship has no less substantial a foundation than Noah's faith had. 

And we, like Noah, have been given very clear instructions in Scripture concerning the kind of worship we should offer unto God, whether in private, familial, or corporate-ecclesial settings.

May we, then, be as quick and ready as Noah was to offer unto God our own faith-full and obedient sacrifices.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

Results tagged “Regulative Principle” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 21.3, 4, 5

iii. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of His Spirit, according to His will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.

iv. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.

v. 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: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.

Sections 3 and 4 of Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession provide a list of the "elements" of true worship in accord with the regulative principle as defined in 21:1. New Testament (corporate) worship is characterized by five things: prayer (for the living but not for the dead), reading of Scripture, sound preaching and conscionable hearing, singing psalms, sacraments ("instituted by Christ," limiting these to two, baptism and the Lord's Supper), and occasionally, oaths, vows and thanksgivings. 

This list tells us immediately that biblical corporate worship is essentially simple. In the background lay Roman Catholic worship, providing religious significance to rites and ceremonies that had no place in any biblical understanding of true worship. Also in the background lay Protestant claims that so long as the Bible did not expressly forbid a certain practice, it could be viewed as legitimate. Thus article 20 of the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles stated: "The Church hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies, and[hath] authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written..." This is a very different point of view from the regulative principle which insisted on specific biblical prescription. The Anglican formulation allowed practices not expressly forbidden. Examples forbidden by the Westminster Confession but allowed by the Thirty Nine Articles would be, when an officiating priest dips his finger in water and marks the sign of the cross on the forehead of a child after baptizing, investing such a rite with religious significance. 

Not every issue is easily solved by alluding to a list of the biblical elements of worship. Should the singing be of psalms only, or does the term include other portions of Scripture and humanly composed "hymns"? There is considerable evidence to suggest that the term "psalms" was inclusive of what we might call "spiritual songs" and "hymns." (See, Nick Needham, "Westminster and Worship: Psalms, Hymns? and Musical Instruments?" in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (ed. Duncan), 2:223-306). Should they be accompanied by musical instruments (organ, guitar or human choirs)? Should preaching follow a definite form (textual, lectio continua, topical)? To these questions, the Confession has already intimated an answer in Chapter 1 (section 6) when it insists that "there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God... which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence." Common sense should guide us in addressing certain questions bearing in mind that a circumstance of worship does not constitute a constituent act of worship. 

There are certain principles of common sense that apply to all human societies (secular as well as religious). It is a principle (as we shall see in the next section) that the people of God gather for worship on the Lord's Day; it is not, however stipulated in Scripture at what time, how frequently, or for how long such gathered worship should entail. These latter consideration will vary from one society to another.

In light of these principles, the Westminster Assembly did not produce a Book of Common Prayer, but rather, a Directory which contains principles rather than stipulations. It contains no liturgies, for example, viewing the matter as a violation of the very principle that Scripture demands no one liturgy to be imposed upon a congregation. The Puritans had, after all, rejected the Elizabethan settlement's attempt to impose such a thing despite the threats of fines and imprisonment. 

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 21.1, 2

i. The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But 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.

ii. Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to Him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

Chapter 21 focuses upon two related items: worship and the Sabbath. It begins with a statement that distinguishes between religious truths that can be discerned from (a) "the light of nature" and (b) God's "revealed will" - in other words, general and special revelation. Interestingly, the section begins with a reaffirmation of general revelation and "the light of nature" (see, Chapter 1, sections 1 and 6). God reveals himself to everyone, everywhere: externally, in creation and common grace; internally, in reason and conscience. "Light of nature" may well refer to the latter more than the former in seventeenth century thought. Every human being knows more of God and of a moral and spiritual obligation to worship than he is prepared to admit (see, Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:19-32). Thus, general revelation informs us that we ought to worship and pray - God is "to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served." We are created beings who owe our existence (creation and providence) to the governance of an almighty God.

But general revelation does not tell us how to worship. It is here that the Confession elaborates on a principle already affirmed in the opening chapter - the regulative principle. Few issues were more pertinent in the Puritan era than the issue of conscience - who has the right to impose upon conscience what may or may not be done? Thus the pivotal statement in the previous chapter of the Confession: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship" (20:2). The interference of the State and/or the hierarchical church, insisting on the use of prescribed liturgies, a Prayer Book, kneeling, genuflecting, etc., violated this principle. Far from being viewed as legalistic and restrictive, the regulative principle - that only a prescribed revelation of God may govern my conscience - was seen as liberating. Scripture, rightly interpreted, provides principles and specifics, that inform us as to how God is to be worshipped. We are not at liberty to worship any way we please - whatever works for me, whatever seems fashionable. This would be to put ourselves under the tyranny of the power-hungry and ambitious, or even Satan himself. It is a measure of the importance given to the regulative principle that the Confession suggests that anything less leaves us at the mercy of the devil!

One particular issue is highlighted: we may not employ any "visible representation" of God in worship. The second commandment, which prohibits idolatry generally, specifically forbids making a visible representation of God. For the Divines, it was the crucifix that was the focus of this prohibition. A visible representation of Christ on the cross can easily become an object of worship in itself. It is but one example, of Calvin's warning, that the mind of man is a perpetual factory of idols (Institutes 1.11.8). 

True worship is always Trinitarian (21:2), and with Roman Catholic abuses in view, the Confession rejects a Mariolatry and the veneration of saints , insisting on the sole Mediatorship of Jesus Christ. Solo Christo and sola Scriptura characterize the Protestant understanding of true religious worship.

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.