The following post is part of our ‘Principles of Reformation’ series. For the first post in the series, please click here.
The Bible provides us with God’s directions for the form and content of Christian worship. When we say that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped 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 Scriptures” (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1), we anchor that assertion in a number of ways.
Our affirmation is grounded not only in the exegesis of specific texts (e.g., Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 4:15-19; 12:32; Matt. 4:9-10; 15:9; Acts 17:24-25; 1 Cor. 11:23-30; 14:1-40; and Col. 2:16-23) and not only in the transcanonical refrain that God does not desire humanly devised worship. We build also and especially on a set of even broader biblical theological realities: the doctrine of God, the Creator-creature distinction, the idea of revelation, the unchanging character of the moral law, the nature of faith, the doctrine of carefulness, the derivative nature of the church’s authority, the doctrine of Christian freedom, the true nature of biblical piety, and the reality of the fallen human nature’s tendency to idolatry. Each of these key foundations for the Reformed view of the biblical doctrine of worship is worth consideration.
The foundational realities mentioned above are connected and compounding and serve to corroborate the legitimacy and importance of the regulative principle – the axiom that we ought to worship God in accordance with the positive warrant of Scripture. This axiom applied, in turn, helps us with the whole scope of worship. Thus historic Reformed worship appreciates God’s concern for the that, what, whom, when, where, why, and how of corporate worship.
It is important that we worship corporately, for God made us for His worship and for community with other worshipers. Worship is the one thing He “seeks” (John 4:23).
What corporate worship is matters to God too. It is not evangelism, nor is it even mutually edifying fellowship. It is a family meeting with God, it is the covenant community engaging with God, gathering with His people to seek the face of God, to glorify and enjoy Him, to respond to His Word, to render praise back to Him, to give unto Him the glory due His Name.
Worship is both active and passive: we come to bless and to receive God’s blessings (Ps. 134). Christian corporate worship is Father-focused, Christ-centered, and Spirit-enabled (Eph. 1:3-14) and “offered up in the context of the body of believers, who strive to align all the forms of their devout ascription of all worth to God with the panoply of new covenant mandates and examples that bring to fulfillment the glories of antecedent revelation and anticipated consummation.”
The whom of worship is, of course, central to true worship (John 4:22, 24). It is what the first commandment is all about. We aim to worship the God of the Bible, God as He reveals Himself, for we cannot worship Him as we ought unless we know Him as He is – and we cannot know Him as He is except insofar as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word. There is a god we want and the God who is, and the two are not the same. The only way to be sure that we have the whom of worship right is to worship according to God’s written self-revelation.
The when of corporate worship remains important in the new-covenant era. In the days of the old covenant, worship was to be rendered on the seventh day because of God’s creational rest and on the various feast days that foreshadowed new-covenant realities. Now, in the end of the ages, corporate worship is to be done on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. Four tremendous realities establish the importance of Lord’s Day corporate worship: (1) the resurrection of Christ, which is foundational to the recreative work of Christ in making a people for Himself (Mark 16:1-8; cf. v. 9; 2 Cor. 5:14-17; Gal. 6:15-16; Col. 1:15-22); (2) the eternal rest foreshadowed in the Lord’s Day (Heb. 4:9); (3) the Lord’s Day language and observance of the New Testament church (Rev. 1:10; cf. Matt. 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19-23; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2); and (4) the New Testament command to the saints to gather, Christ’s promise of presence with us when we do, the faithful example of the gathering of New Testament Christians, and Jesus’ express command that we disciple new converts in the context of the local church (Heb. 10:24-25; Matt. 18:20; 28:18-20; Acts 1:4).
The where of new-covenant worship is important too, though it has also changed from the old-covenant era. Whereas once the answer to where was “the tabernacle” or “the temple” or “Jerusalem,” the answer now is “where the Lord’s house (i.e., His people) is gathered.” Jesus stresses this to the Samaritan woman (John 4:21) and to His disciples in addressing congregational discipline (Matt. 18:20) – surely a solemn component of the life of the gathered church. The place of new-covenant worship is no longer inextricably tied to a geographical location and a physical structure but to a gathered people. This is why in the old Scottish tradition, as the people gathered to enter a church building, it would be said that “the kirk goes in” rather than, as we often say, “we are going to church.” The new covenant locus of the special presence of God with the church militant is in the gathered body, wherever it might be – whether in the catacombs or in a storefront or in a beautiful colonial church building.
The why of corporate is vital to God as well, and there is more than one right biblical answer. Surely at the top of the list is “for His own glory” (1 Cor. 10:31; Ps. 29:1-2). There is no higher answer to “why do we worship?” than because the glory of God is more important than anything else in all creation. The chief end of the church is to glorify and enjoy God together forever, because the chief thing in all the world is God’s glory (Phil. 2:9-11). There are other answers as well: because God said to worship, because God created us to worship, because God saved us to worship, because it is our natural duty as creatures and joyful duty as Christians to worship, because our worship is a response of gratitude for saving grace, because those with new hearts long to hear His Word and express their devotion, because God wants to bless us with Himself, because God has chosen us for His inheritance and seeks to commune with us in His ordinances, and more.
The how of corporate worship is the business of the second commandment, but as we have seen, it is a central concern for the New Testament church as well (John 4; 1 Cor. 11, 14; Col. 2). This is where the regulative principle is manifest most clearly. It is concerned to assure that corporate worship in all its aspects – standard, dynamic, motivation, and goal – is biblical. For the standard to be biblical means that the substance and elements and corporateness of worship are positively in accord with Scripture. For the dynamic to be biblical means that worship is Spirit-gathered, Spirit-dependent, Spirit-engendered, and Spirit-empowered, in accordance with the teaching of Scripture. For the motivation to be biblical means that worship is simultaneously a communal response of gratitude for grace, an expression of passion for God, the fulfillment of what we were made and redeemed for, a joyful engagement in a delightful obedience, and a corporate Christ-provided encounter with the triune God, again in accord with the Bible’s teaching. For the goal to be biblical means that all true corporate worship aims for and is an expression of God’s own glory and contemplates the consummation of the eternal covenant in the church triumphant’s everlasting union and communion with God.
The regulative principle aims to aid the church in ensuring that the elements of worship are unequivocally and positively grounded in Scripture and that the forms and circumstances of worship are in accord with Scripture. The Reformed tradition has not been concerned with forms and circumstances so much for their own sake as much as for the sake of the elements and substance of worship and for the sake of the object and aim of worship.
The Reformers also understood two things often lost on moderns. First, they understood that the liturgy, media, instruments, and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the “law of unintended consequences.” Often the medium overwhelms and changes the message.
Second, they knew that the how of worship exists for the what, whom, and why of worship. The purpose of the elements and forms and circumstances of corporate worship is to assure that you are actually doing worship as defined by the God of Scripture, that you are worshiping the God of Scripture, and that your aim in worshiping Him is the aim set forth in Scripture.
So the Reformers cared about the how of worship not because they thought liturgy was mystical or sacramental, but precisely so that the liturgy could get out of the way of the gathered church’s communion with the living God. Its function was not to draw attention to itself but to aid the soul’s communion with God in the gathered company of the saints by serving to convey the Word of God to and from God, from and to His people. This is why the great Baptist preacher Geoffrey Thomas has said that in true worship men have little thought of the means of worship because their thoughts are on God; true worship is characterized by self-effacement without self-consciousness. That is, in biblical worship we so focus upon God Himself and are so intent to acknowledge His inherent and unique worthiness that we are transfixed by Him, and thus worship is not about what we want or like (nor do His appointed means divert our eyes from Him), but rather it is about meeting with God and delighting in His delights. Praise decentralizes self.
We should also note another thing about the Reformers’ approach to worship. They did not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do. They were against culture-derived worship and were more concerned to implement principles of Scripture in their specific cultures (and even to emulate the best of the Bible-inspired cultures of Scripture) than they were to reclaim current cultural forms for Christian use. This is precisely one of the areas productive of the greatest controversy in our own age.
What is striking about the Reformed approach to worship is that it requires the substance of corporate worship to be suffused with Scripture and scriptural theology. An apt motto for those who embrace the regulative principle then might be, “Read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, and see the Bible.” This then is our corporate worship manifesto, our call for the doxological reformation of the church: sola scriptura and soli deo gloria.
This material was adapted from the second chapter of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice (Edited by Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W. H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan III; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2003), “Foundations for Biblically Directed Worship” by J. Ligon Duncan III. It is reproduced here with permission from the author.
 D. A. Carson, “Worship under the Word,” in Worship by the Book (ed. D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 26.
 I borrow from and pattern this language after the powerful observation of Pat Morley: “There is a God we want, and there is a God who is – and they are not the same God. The turning point of our lives is when we stop seeking the God we want and start seeking the God who is”; The Rest of Your Life (Nashville: Nelson, 1992), 120 (emphasis original).
 John Piper communicates this as effectively as anyone in our generation. See Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Third Edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010).