“The Regulative Principle: Rules for God’s Worship”
Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer
The regulative principle of worship is a doctrine which is derived from the 2nd Commandment, as well as from our text for today in Deuteronomy 12, and from several other Scripture passages. God’s Word carefully regulates what may and what may not be done in worship. Since no activity of mankind is as important as our worship of God, God is very careful to spell out for us the way in which He desires to be worshipped.
We have plenty of examples as to what happens when every man does what’s right in his own eyes regarding worship. For instance, in the book of Judges we see that Israel’s worship degenerated into a whole list of abominations against God. Various rituals and graven images virtually turned God into sort of a lucky “rabbit’s foot” with the exercise of so-called “magical powers.” Those powers were believed to work on behalf of whoever did the ritual, or performed the magical incantation, or whoever owned the relic, regardless of the person’s heart attitude or lifestyle or doctrine.
We see the same sort of thing happening in our day with the use of such “magical” items in worship as “prayer cloths,” “anointing oils,” “religious relics,” and much more. In many cases today, just as in the time of the Judges, religion has degenerated into a business where you have ministers selling themselves for money like prostitutes.
One day while eating lunch I watched a TV program where TV evangelist, Robert Tilton, spent the whole program trying to convince poor widows to make a vow to send him $1,000. In fact, he commanded them, in the name of Jesus, to do that. Then he promised them that God would bless them financially and enable them to buy a new car, because God made new cars for His children, not for the world’s children to drive. He twisted the story of the widow of Zerephath who cared for God’s prophet, Elijah, and was provided for by God. Mr. Tilton authoritatively instructed his viewers that he was God’s prophet and that to send him money, even out of their poverty, would result in the same blessing of God as what God gave to that poor widow.
Men, today, devise ways to worship God as they see fit. Some of them, like the St. Lazarus cult and the Santeria folks all around us here in Hialeah, even resort to offering animal sacrifices, or worse, human sacrifices, as part of their worship!
You also find churches, such as those out in California, who encourage dancing in worship, and who encourage hugging and kissing other men’s wives, all as a part of the worship of God. You find the Moonies and several other cults setting up harems, or practicing polygamy, or other deviant activities.
John Tuck sent me an e-mail several years ago that told of a church that even holds worship services for pets! The article states, referring to a church in Los Angeles, CA, that holds these services:
The 30-minute worship service, complete with individual doggie beds, canine prayers, and a tray of dog treats for the offering, is intended to attract new members who are as crazy about God as they are about their four-legged friends. [http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33617857/ns/us_news-faith/]
You find even what once were ‘Reformed’ churches, such as Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, engaging in all manner of foolishness in the name of worship. Willow Creek Church is pastored by Bill Hybels, a former Dordt College classmate of mine, who left the CRC to form his own independent, 5,000 member church.
I quote from the March 1998 issue of Lux Mundi, a Reformed Christian magazine published in the Netherlands, describing the Willow Creek Church [p. 3]:
The catch word of Willow Creek is ‘seeker services.’ Bill’s big discovery was that to reach out to the unchurched, you need to disband with just about everything that reminds one of church: no sermon, no law, no creed. To really be a church you must reach out to the unchurched, and gear your services to street kids. Willow Creek Community Church looks more like a classy hotel and golf course than it does a church. It is a huge recreational-like complex in South Barrington, Illinois, close to the Chicago heartland. The services are slick, the presentations use the latest equipment and high powered media... Bill insists that the services are not regular church services. He calls them evangelistic services. There is very little in terms of traditional elements in the service. There is a ‘sermon’ by Bill, but most of the attention is given to creating a positive image and a warm atmosphere for newcomers. Every part of the service is couched in positive tones and God is said to be present everywhere, and in all the happenings of the day. The music is contemporary. There are light shows, movies, drama and pictures. Bill promotes a multi-faceted ministry. Men and women together minister to the thousands. There are no elders and no deacons. There is a collection, but newcomers are encouraged to skip that part of the service. The whole service is like one grand show for them. These are ‘seeker services.’
The Willow Creek ministry puts most of its emphasis on ‘seeker services.’ There has been a phenomenal growth rate in attendance through the years, and presently there are up to 15,000 people attending the services on any given Sunday.
That’s about half the size of the whole OPC!
Now some of you may think that’s such a far-fetched, wacko, extreme case that it’s hardly worth mentioning in an OPC congregation, but I’m telling you that there are people within our own OPC and other Reformed denominations who are carefully studying Bill Hybels’ model of worship to get some ideas to help their own churches to grow!
In stark contrast to all of this, God’s Word, in Deuteronomy 12:4 says, “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.”
And v. 8 says, “You are not to do as we do here today, everyone as he sees fit...”
Instead, God commands, in v. 28, “Be careful to obey all these regulations I am giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the LORD your God.”
And He adds in v. 32, “See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.”
There, we see the regulative principle of worship clearly expressed. God has given us regulations in His Word which are to regulate the way in which we worship Him. We’re told that we may not add to those regulations, and we may not take away from those regulations regarding worship.
Because the worship of God is the most important activity of mankind, God carefully regulates it and prescribes how we must do it. The 2nd Commandment even adds special importance to our manner of worship by adding a blessing and a curse to it. It tells us not to make images of God and it tells us not to bow down to or worship such images of God. Why?
“...for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the 3rd and 4th generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
And our WLC #110 indicates that these “reasons annexed to the second commandment” are given, “the more to enforce it,” because God considers “all false worship, as being spiritual whoredom” and accounts all “the breakers of this commandment such as hate him.”
We see that the special worship of God is more carefully regulated in the Bible than the general worship of God. Special worship is what we do on the Lord’s Day, in the Lord’s special presence, in the assembly of the Lord’s people gathered for worship in His Name. General worship is what we do in all things, whether we’re eating or drinking, playing or working, talking or listening. We’re supposed to worship and glorify God in all the things that we do in every part of our lives. That’s general worship.
Now it’s true that God regulates general worship too. For example, we can’t all go around doing whatever seems right in our own eyes to do. There are some things that the Bible commands us that we must do, such as love our neighbors, forgive those who repent, teach our children God’s ways, and so forth. There are also some things that the Bible commands that we may not do, such as commit adultery, steal, murder, etc.
But in between those commands regulating our general worship of God there’s a lot of room for freedom. When it comes to our general worship of God, if the Bible doesn’t forbid something, either expressly or by implication, we may do it.
For example, there’s no command in the Bible that we play tennis, but since there’s also no command in the Bible, either directly or by implication, that forbids us from playing tennis, it’s left up to us whether or not we want to play tennis. But if we do play tennis we must be careful not to cheat, or to lie, or to take God’s name in vain, or to harm our opponent, or to do any of the other things forbidden by Scripture.
In the same way, the Bible nowhere tells us whom we must marry, but it does sort of “limit our field,” so to speak, by declaring that, whomever we choose to marry, they must be a believer, and they must be mature enough to get married, and they must be a member of the opposite sex, etc.
So regarding our general worship of God, the rule is: “What’s not forbidden is permitted.”
But God is far more strict when it comes to the rule regarding His special worship. The “regulative principle” regarding the special worship of God is this: “Whatever is not commanded is forbidden!”
Look again at our text to see the teaching of this principle regarding the special worship of God. We read in v. 4, “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.”
V. 8 says, “You are not to do as we do here today, everyone as he sees fit...”
Vv. 13-14 say, “Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you.”
And God commands, in v. 28, “Be careful to obey all these regulations I am giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the LORD your God.”
And He adds in vv. 31-32, “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.”
Note that these regulations come in the context of the special worship of the LORD. We see this also in Deuteronomy 4:2 which says, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I gave you.”
That text immediately goes on, in vv. 3-4, to say, “The LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, but all of you who held fast to the LORD your God are still alive today…”
So we see that false worship was foremost in view in that whole passage.
Revelation 22:18-19 comes at the end of the book of Revelation, a book which describes a heavenly worship service. The book of Revelation closes with these words, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
And in Matthew 15:9, Jesus rebukes the worship of the Pharisees because they added to what He had commanded. It says, “These people... worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
Jesus was there paraphrasing Isaiah 29:13 which says, “Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
Paul, as well, warns against those who were dividing themselves up into cliques according to those special little things that may have been distinctive of either Paul or Apollos. Paul’s advice to them is given in I Corinthians 3:6, which says, “Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’”
It’s with all of these Scriptures in mind that the Westminster Assembly carefully distinguished between the regulations for general and special worship.
These principles are set forth clearly in the WCF, Ch. XX:II. [It’s found in the back of the blue, Trinity Hymnal, p. 683, if you want to read it for yourself.]
WCF XX:II. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath 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.
So the session of Sharon Church can’t command you to worship God in any way that’s not commanded or implied in the Bible. The next chapter of the WCF adds, in XXI:I:
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.
So what’s not prescribed, what’s not commanded for worship in the Scriptures is forbidden in worship. That’s the regulative principle of worship!
In addition to those statements from the WCF, we also have a statement in the WLC #109 which explains what sins are forbidden in the 2nd Commandment:
Q. 109. What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself...
So my question is, “Where does God, in the Bible, ‘institute’ such things as we see being done at Willow Creek or in a host of other churches of our day? And where do the Scriptures prescribe “canine prayers?”
The Scriptures, our Confessions, and even our OPC Directory for Worship, are all very clear about this regulative principle of worship: If it’s not commanded or instituted by God in the Scriptures, don’t do it!
Don’t worship God by the devices of men. Don’t worship God “any which way you please,” just because you think it’s a nice idea and therefore you think God will like it. Don’t practice things in worship just to get more people to attend. What we need in our day is worship services that are “God-friendly,” not worship services that are “user-friendly” or “seeker-friendly.” We don’t go to worship in order to please men, but to please God. Our greatest concern in worship should not be whether or not things we do are offensive to men. Our greatest concern should be whether or not things we do are offensive to God!
But you may say, “As long as we’re sincere in our desire to please God, won’t God look on our hearts and not on what we do?”
Well, Saul learned the hard way, that sincerity doesn’t mean very much when we’re violating the direct commands of God. In I Samuel 13:7-14 we read, “Some Hebrews even crossed the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul remained at Gilgal, and all the troops with him were quaking with fear. He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and Saul’s men began to scatter. So he said, ‘Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.’ And Saul offered up the burnt offering. Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to greet him. ‘What have you done?’ asked Samuel. Saul replied, ‘When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Micmash, I thought, “Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the LORD’s favor.” So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.’ ‘You acted foolishly,’ Samuel said. ‘You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.’”
Granted, new ideas in worship may bring in great numbers of spectators. They may sound like great ideas. Pageants and movies and puppet shows and dancing and rock music and stand-up comedian sermons and doggie prayers may all serve to attract large crowds. But our concern should rather be, “Will God desire to be present in our worship services? Will God be pleased?”
I pray that we may do everything we can to make sure that God is pleased with our worship here at Sharon church!