Dear Church Family,
Years ago, I was having a conversation with a young woman about corporate worship. She was explaining the type of service and worship practices at church she had just visited. In the normal flow the conversation, I explained the worship practices of our Reformed and Presbyterian church. This eventually led to a discussion how a church makes decisions about how they worship. At some point, I mentioned the importance of following the rules of worship that God had given us in His Word, the rules of Christian worship.
You would have thought that I had just blasphemed or cursed her mother. “Rule?” she exclaimed, “There are no rules for Christian worship!” Sadly, if not so directly stated, this is the common thinking of many in the church today. It’s as if we’ve taken the motto of certain marketers (Burger King’s “Have it your way” or Outback Steakhouse’s “No rules. Just right.”) and made them a way of life.
In an effort to explain why we worship the way that we do at PPC, I’ve written a series of essay on the principles and elements of corporate worship; I’ve since put them together into downloadable booklet form which you can find here. In our most recent adult Sunday school class, we examined chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.” Here is a brief overview of that chapter.
WCF 21.1 – The Regulative Principle of Worship
Right off the bat, this chapter explains that the light of nature (general revelation) shows us that there is a God who is to be worshipped (Romans 2:14-16); however, the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is revealed only in Scripture (special revelation). Thus, what has commonly been referred to as “the regulative principle of worship,” is summarized in these words: “He [God] 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 Holy Scripture” (WCF 21.1, Deuteronomy 12:32; Exodus 20:4-6; Matthew 15:7-9; Colossians 2:18-23).
That last phrase is key. God prescribes how He is to be worshipped. As God, it is His prerogative and He has given us instructions in His Word as to how He is to be worshipped. In contrast to this regulative principle of worship, the “normative principle of worship” says that God may be worshipped in any way not proscribed (or forbidden) in the Holy Scripture. That is, all is allowed unless it is expressly forbidden in God’s Word. For a fuller (yet still brief) explanation of the regulative principle of worship, I recommend this article by Derek Thomas.
WCF 21.2 – Worship is Trinitarian and through One Mediator
Only God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are to be worshipped. The worship of angels, saints, or other creatures is idolatry. And, there is only one mediator between God and men: Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
WCF 21.3 – Who to pray to, and how to pray
Prayer is a special part of worship (Philippians 4:6), and is to be made in the name of the Son (John 14:13), by the help of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26), and only according to God’s will (1 John 5:14).
WCF 21.4 – What to pray for
Prayer is not to made to God for those things that are unlawful. For instance, it is unlawful to pray for those who have died and thus already received judgment (2 Samuel 12:21-23; Hebrews 9:27).
WCF 21.5 – The ordinary and occasional elements of worship
In thinking about worship, it is helpful to differentiate and define certain terms:
In order to sharpen this principle and make it more perspicuous and useful, Reformed theologians speak about the substance of corporate worship (the content of its prescribed parts or elements), the elements of worship (its components or specific parts), the forms of worship (the way in which these elements of worship are carried out), and the circumstances of worship (incidental matters that of necessity demand a decision but that are not specifically commanded in the word). (Ligon Duncan, “Does God Care How We Worship?” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, p 23, emphasis added)
Thus, the ordinary elements of worship (the components or specific parts of worship) are given to us in Scripture as follows: prayer (Philippians 4:6); the reading of Scriptures (Acts 15:21); preaching (2 Timothy 4:2); hearing the Word (Hebrews 4:2); singing Psalms – and we would include other songs in addition to those found explicitly in Scripture (Colossians 3:16); and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29; Acts 2:42).
In addition, the confession lists several elements of worship which are occasional: religious oaths and vows (Deuteronomy 6:13; Isaiah 19:21); fastings (Joel 2:12); and thanksgivings (Psalm 107).
WCF 21.6 – The Places of Worship
The Bible teaches that no place is more holy than any other place. Rather, God is to be worshipped in spirit and truth (John 4:19-26). That said, there are several proper contexts for the worship of God: amongst our individual families (Deuteronomy 6:6-7); individually and privately (Matthew 6:6; Ephesians 6:18); and publicly or corporately (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:23-25).
WCF 21.7 – The Lord’s Day
God has appointed one day in seven to be kept holy unto Him; this is explicitly commanded in the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15). In the old covenant, this day was the last day of the week (Genesis 2:2-3). In the new covenant, as Christ was resurrected on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1) it was changed to the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1) and is called the Lord’s day (Revelation 1:10) or the Christian Sabbath.
WCF 21.8 – The Lord’s Day
On the Lord’s day, God requires that His day be kept holy by: due preparation, resting from worldly employments and recreations, private and public exercises of worship, and duties of necessity and mercy (Exodus 16:23-30; Isaiah 58:13-14). This Sabbath day is a God’s gift for mankind to remember His lordship of our lives. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).
Of course, from church to church and from culture to culture, the worship of God will look different. That is because the forms and the circumstances will out of necessity vary from place to place and from generation to generation. Yet, the elements of worship (along with the general substance) are prescribed for us by God in His Word. May the Lord bless His people as we seek to worship Him well.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch