John Owen on the Regulative Principle of Worship

owen-communion-with-god-2John Owen has some rather strong words to say regarding what has come to be known as the “regulative principle of worship.” In his book, Communion With God, he writes,

“God never allowed the will of the creature to decide how best to worship God. Worshipping [sic] God in ways not appointed by him is severely forbidden. God asks, ‘Who has required these things at your hand?’ And again, ‘In vain do you worship me, teaching for doctrines the traditions of men.’

“The principle that the church has the power to institute and appoint any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God other than what Christ himself has instituted is the cause of all the horrible superstitions and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution and wars that have arisen in the Christian world. The purpose of a great part of the book of Revelation is to show this truth.”

The context of this quote is nearly as instructive as the quote itself. It is significant that he writes this in a book that is about (as the title suggests) believers’ communion with God, and in a chapter of that book that deals particularly with the consequences or results of our fellowship with Christ. One of those consequences/results is that the saints (believers) will be faithful to Christ. It is in this context that Owen deals with the regulative principle of worship.

According to Owen one of the primary ways in which believers will demonstrate their faithfulness to Christ will be in how we worship. Are we being faithful (i.e. obedient) in our worship? That is a question that we often fail to even ask, isn’t it? We often seem to be much more interested in asking if what we do in worship is pleasing to us (preference?) or maybe even to outsiders (pragmatism?). But what we really should be asking, first and foremost, is whether or not it is pleasing to God.

How do we know if our worship is pleasing to God? We can only discern the answer to that question by asking what God has commanded and appointed in His Word. And that is what the “regulative principle of worship” is really all about, isn’t it. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

“. . .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 Scripture.” (21.1)

This is what Owen is talking about in the above quote. This is what he means when he says, “God never allowed the will of the creature to decide how best to worship God.” And Owen is quick to point out in that same extended quote that God has not left it up to the church to decide either. The choice, when push comes to shove, is between faithfulness to Christ in our worship, and idolatry. Another way of putting that would be to say that we do not enjoy fellowship with Christ in worship on our own terms, but rather on His terms, as revealed in the Scriptures.

Do we think of worship in these terms? Do we consider worship in light of our fellowship with Christ? Do we consider it in terms of faithfulness to what the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has commanded and appointed? Perhaps if we did so, we would be far less prone to the allure of innovation & idolatry.

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