The Belgic Confession of Faith, article 5, speaking of the dignity and authority of holy scripture, states that they are: “for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” Note, ‘for the regulation.’ It is holy scripture that is to regulate the entirety of our worship of God. That, of course, includes what we do when we gather together as congregations of the Lord’s people. In John Calvin’s volume entitled ‘Reforming the Church,’ he highlights the need of this as an ongoing task throughout the age. Surely, this is the greatest need in our day, when confusion to the utmost abounds. The traditions of Rome that once were abhorred in Protestantism are now practised widely. It is a reformation of doctrine first and foremost that is needed, a return to doctrinal preaching, because that is what or doesn’t regulate how we worship. Doctrine is the servant of worship. The latter is what we will do in heaven, therefore, it is imperative we learn the former now.
The Principle That Regulates:
Is scripture, alone. Otherwise, we are left to our own devices. A tradition of pick and mix, neither pragmatism nor culture is the answer. The book of exodus splits into two parts, redemption and worship. As a result of God’s redeeming grace God’s people are to worship him and they are told how too. It was anything but a free-for-all. It was regulated, by what God said, scripture, in other words. Anything kindles the wrath of God: “And when they came to Nachon’s threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God” (2Samuel 6:6-7). 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. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD” (Leviticus 10:1-2). And: “And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart” (Jeremiah 7:31). It is God who regulates how he is to be worshipped, not we ourselves. The worship that he requires is to spiritual in nature (John 4:24). This includes the elements of worship, for example, preaching, the sacraments, prayer, our offerings, and not only singing but what we sing. It is not left to our whim and fancy. Some would advocate that if it is not forbidden it must be okay. That is the Lutheran and Anglican position. The Reformed position is radically different, what is commanded is what is permissible, nothing more. God rules he regulates how he is to be worshipped.
God’s desires are what is paramount in worship as we meet together as congregations. It is not for our satisfaction, or even our edification, although these things may be a consequent of worship. Left to our desires and what happens? Such foolishness and confusion as is manifest in many so-called Christian assemblies today. The worship of God is to be centred, based upon, and permeated, with what God has spoken, his word. God-centred in other words, not man-centered. Left to ourselves as it pretty much is, all is done to please men: “And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me” (Exodus 32:1-2). Then we’re back to the abominations of Rome. To what God detests.
We are, it has to be said, in the midst of a progressive revolution, a rebellion against worship regulated by God himself, his authority. It would be no wonder was he ready to spew us out of his mouth. Because of worship is driven by man’s will and not God’s (Colossians 2:23). The very purpose of the worship of the redeemed is for God’s praise, not our pleasure (Isaiah 43:21). This is the essence of the tables of the law, written by God’s own finger (Belgic Confession, Article 3). The first table: 1. Who is to be worshipped? God alone, no other. 2. How? Without images, i.e., forms. 3. Wherein? As commanded. 4. When? On the Sabbath Day. Rebellion is the rejection of God’s word, authority, and is as witchcraft (1Samuel 15:23). Rejection of worship biblically regulated is a transgression of the second commandment, and transgression of the law is sin. I more than suggest to you that much of modern worship is just that, sin.
The Principle’s Foundation:
When God forbids the use of images in worship, this includes anyway whatever of our own devising. The only way that is commanded is what God has spoken, his word. This is the heart of the second commandment and of Reformed worship. The foundation is the Bible, our historical confessions, and yes, tradition. Regarding the latter, that which has been handed down to us by our fathers which is good and profitable. (Tradition is not a cuss word).
The Bible, holy scripture, all else is subordinate to scripture. First, that which is right, pure, and spiritual, in line with God’s revealed being. Second, a service of the word of God read, preached, sung, and prayed. It may have come to the attention of the discerning, that word of God in modern worship is marginalised, to say the least. In some cases even totally devoid of it. Our historical confessions of which so little is known of, if at all. We neglect them to our spiritual detriment. I have of late being posting excerpts from those confessions on social media. I have had some delightful feedback. One person said, “I never knew such existed, how wonderful they are.” We have the three forms of unity, The Belgic Confession; The Heidelberg Confession; The Canons of Dordt; The Westminster Confession, with its attendants, The larger and Shorter Catechisms. Great treasures, gold, riches beyond measure. Let me give you an example. The Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 96: “What doth God require in the second commandment? That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word” (Romans 1:23; Deuteronomy 12:30). Another, The Belgic Confession, article 32: “We reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God.” Just one more, The Westminster Confession, chapter 21:2: “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.” The acceptance of the regulative principle is confessional. Rejection of it is not only anti-confessional but anti-biblical also.
Something more must be said about tradition. As already stated, it is not a bad word. There are good traditions and bad ones. The one we keep the other we discard. I will avoid my own native Scottish Presbyterian tradition for fear of any suggestion of prejudice. But we can go back to the English Puritans, the Dutch Reformed, all the way back to the Reformers themselves. Calvin warned the church constantly of her need to practice and uphold the regulative principle of worship. Remember the awful and long consequences if Israel’s idolatry? “But ye have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch and Chiun your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves. Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, saith the LORD, whose name is The God of hosts” (Amos 5:26-27). Many today shun, even pour scorn on the regulative principle. However, one thing we have in our favour, and we are bold to declare, it pleases God!
3. The Principle Applied:
The regulative principle of worship is no less than the truth of the second commandment. As to its fact and importance, there is no difference. It is nothing short of God’s word. The regulative principle applies just as much to the content, the elements of our public services of worship. The elements of worship which were the norm for the early Church and the church of the Reformation, today, some deem to be absurd. I fully realise folk who are not of a Reformed persuasion will not agree. Then there are those who would subscribe to the doctrines of grace and refer to themselves as being Reformed, alas, not in worship. Perhaps either can be shown a better way, God’s way.
The Bible’s teaching on eschatology, the doctrine of last things, governs how we live now in the light of the future. Pretty much, I would say, the church is dead to it. There is very little, or no drive, or growth. Then there is the overreached eschatology, the end-time madness seen in Pentecostal and charismatic spheres. The expectations of believers are raised beyond reality. The biblical psalter provides us with a template, a norm for eschatology. The psalter is a typical reflection of the believer’s life. There is joy and there is sadness. There are advances and retreats. There is victory and defeat. There is deep sadness and grief untold, but in its midst, there is still a real and future hope. In other words, there is reality. Alas the praise sung in the majority of churches today has driven out the singing of the Psalter. The hymn and chorus have driven the psalter (God’s word) out of worship. The good has been substituted with the corrupt, with the superficial, with the subjective, with that which is Arminian in theology and man-centred. First, the Holy Spirit has given us a songbook. Second, it is of greater spiritual depth than any man could produce. Third, we are commanded to sing the Psalms: “Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous works” (1Chronicles 16:9).
So we are not given a choice, the regulative principle is to be applied. Will-worship is cursed (Colossians 2:23). God is a jealous God, and nowhere more so than when it comes to the worship of his name. The regulative principle must be practised and applied. This, of course, does not mean our worship will be automatically acceptable and blessed. If we are at the same time preaching universal salvation and love of God for all men if we are preaching the sovereignty of man and common and resistible grace, it will not be pleasing to God. Our calling is to live radically and antithetically in this world. There have been in a very short time swift changes, changes in thinking, and not for the best always. People do not read and think as they used to do. This is a generation of the electronic, of images, videos, computers, of entertainment. It is a most difficult age in which to be faithful to God in worship. How we need to demonstrate with a personal and experimental joy what exactly the gospel is: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
(James R Hamilton, March 2019)