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Serious Worship: A Primer on the Regulative Principle

 

“[T]he acceptable way to worship the true God is instituted by Him, and it is delimited by His own revealed will. Thus, He may not be worshipped according to human imagination or inventions or the suggestions of Satan, nor through any visible representations, nor in any other way that is not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”
The 1689 2nd London Baptist Confession (ch.22.1)

Last summer I did something I’ve never done before in my life: I went trout “fishing.”

I say “fishing” because, though I live in Arkansas, I am not a fisherman. But I went to Walmart and bought a $9.88 Zebco Slingshot, along with worms and hooks, and away we went. I had a great time with my boys, my dad, and my brother-in-law.

This will come as a surprise to no one who knows me well: I caught zero fish.

Because, really, I wasn’t actually trout fishing. I had some items that are useful to trout fishing, but I didn’t really apply everything like a true fisherman would have, according to the right way to fish. Sure, I could’ve gotten lucky and caught a fish anyway, but I didn’t. Ultimately, whatever I did, it wasn’t truly trout fishing.

The Church is Not a Fishing Trip

Sadly, this is applicable to so many churches when it comes to worship. People treat the church like I treated that fishing trip with my family. They invest cheaply and minimally into it. They experiment with their own ideas as to what would be good or not good to do. They enjoy their time with family and friends and so they feel as though they have worshiped acceptably before God.

In reality, they didn’t actually worship Yahweh. They may have gotten a few things right, of course. But they failed to realize that the only kind of worship our triune God accepts is the kind of worship He prescribes in His Word.

That is, it is the church’s great duty and privilege to worship God as He has commanded. And when we do what God says, we honor God and one another! To worship God as He has commanded is known as the Regulative Principle of Worship.

What is the Regulative Principle?

Daniel Hyde writes, “The Regulative Principle of Worship holds that we worship God in the manner He has commanded us in His Word.”

The 1689 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (22.1) says, “[T]he acceptable way to worship the true God is instituted by Him, and it is delimited by His own revealed will. Thus, He may not be worshipped according to human imagination or inventions or the suggestions of Satan, nor through any visible representations, nor in any other way that is not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”

These definitions are taken from places like Deuteronomy 12:32 where God instructs the Israelites to worship Him only as He has prescribed, saying, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”

That last line is important. You shall not add to it or take from it. The Regulative Principle is simply desiring to apply this principle to our Sunday gatherings. What God has said for us to do, we do. And we desire not to add to that or take away from it.

In Spirit and in Truth

Jesus teaches us that those who worship God rightly must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). All of life is a form of worship in one sense. That means that if you think you are worshiping God, but your life is not aligned with His Word, then you are wrong. It doesn’t matter how you feel. Worship that is not according to the truth is abhorrent to God.

I’ll give you two examples:

In the Old Testament, Moses went up to Sinai, and the people told Aaron to make them a golden calf. Aaron did it. And in Exodus 32:5, Aaron called the Golden Calf Yahweh. 

That is, the people were not worshiping according to the truth, and God hated it. 

Then there is Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. They offered worship to the One true God. But the Bible says it was strange fire. It was false worship. And God killed them. 

Those who worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth. 

And here is the point for us: How God is to be worshiped by the church is regulated by Scripture. God knows how He desires to be worshiped, and He calls upon His people to worship Him rightly.

To worship God in spirit means we do not merely go through outward rituals to worship Him.

It means that we are reminded that God is Spirit. That He is Holy and completely distinct from His creation. We cannot make images to depict Him.

It reminds us that God is not in this or that city, that we do not have to go to this or that mountain, but rather, that God gathers with His churches all over the world as they gather in the name of Jesus to worship Him. 

To worship God in truth reminds us that we must begin with truth. 

Christ is the truth. And there is no worship acceptable to God that does not begin with humble repentance from sin and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for forgiveness.

It reminds us that true worship does not only stir our affections for Christ but also engages the mind.

Mindless worship of God is an oxymoron. God is not seeking mindless worshipers but those who worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.

And it also means this: Those who worship God must do so by His revealed will.

Maybe I could put it this way: Every church ought to be a Seeker-sensitive church.

Now, what do I mean by that? I mean that the Seeker is God, not man (John 4:23). To be a Seeker-sensitive church means to be sensitive―that is, obedient to the Seeker, to God.

We don’t bend or tailor our worship services toward the desires or whims of man.

This is the Regulative Principle of Worship. God regulates in His Word how He is to be worshiped by explicit precepts and we must follow that way, and there is no other way to follow that is pleasing to God.

Let us consider these truths as we seek to be serious worshipers, trusting that God knows how He would have His people worship Him and that He has sufficiently revealed this to us in the Scriptures.

For further reading
How Then Should We Worship? by Sam Waldron
Worship: The Regulative Principle and the Biblical Practice of Accommodation by Ernest Reisinger
How Then Shall We Worship? by R.C. Sproul
Corporate Worship by Matt Merker
Allen S. Nelson IV

Allen S. Nelson IV

Allen S. Nelson IV is the pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Perryville, AR, where he resides with his wife Stephanie, and their 6 children. Allen is the author of From Death to Life: How Salvation WorksBefore the Throne: Reflections on God’s Holiness, and A Change of Heart: Understanding Regeneration and Why it Matters. He is an M.Div graduate of Grace BIble Theological Seminary in Conway, AR.

September 22, 2023

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