The Regulative Principle

The Importance of Singing the Psalms in Worship

Faith-hope-love (Mark Jones)It should go without saying that the content of the songs that we sing in corporate worship must be biblical. In Colossians 3:16 the Apostle Paul writes,

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (ESV)

And so one of the ways that we are to let the “word of Christ dwell in us richly” is not only by “teaching and admonishing one another,” but also by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God”!

Is the Word of Christ found in the songs that we sing in worship? It ought to be. (If not, we are doing each other a great disservice.) And surely one of the best ways to ensure that this is the case is to sing the Psalms. Even if you don’t hold to exclusive Psalmody (I personally do not), there is simply no good reason not to include the singing of Psalms whenever possible.

In his book, Faith. Hope. Love., Mark Jones writes,

“How many churches today regularly sing the Psalms, which are the very words of God? Some complain that so much contemporary worship is too emotional. I would argue that, in some sense, it is not emotional enough. By this I mean that much contemporary worship needs to lay aside the superficial feel-good approach in exchange for the range of emotions expressed in the Psalms that characterize the Christian life (e.g., lament, joy, thanksgiving, duress). What better way to express our love for God than to use the words he has inspired through those who have loved him?” (p.192)

Good point. The Psalms reflect a wide range of experience and emotion -the very same range of experience and emotion that we as believers are subject to in this life. The superficial happy-clappy model of worship simply does not do justice to this, and so in some sense leaves us ill-equipped to worship and serve God in all the seasons of life.

Our worship (even among Presbyterians!) ought to be more emotional, not less! And what better way to accomplish that than to incorporate the singing (not to mention the reading, praying, and preaching!) of the Psalms into our corporate worship on the Lord’s day!


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.

The Regulative Principle of Worship

Moses Law

How are we to determine what is or is not acceptable in worship?  And, just as importantly, acceptable to whom?  All too often we fail to even bother to ask ourselves those questions in the first place.  Nevertheless, the answers to both of those questions clearly reveal themselves in our worship practices.

These days when we talk about worship, it is very likely that the discussion will primarily revolve around what is or is not acceptable to us, rather than to God.  We talk about what kind of music we inside the church do or don’t like in worship; we talk about the kind of sermons that we do or do not like; we talk about the kind of setting or atmosphere that we do or do not like, and so on.  Or, in some churches the primary question instead seems to be whether or not those outside of the church will find the music, sermons, or atmosphere to be acceptable or pleasing.

Both, while often well-intentioned, seem to be asking the wrong questions altogether.

In their book, With Reverence and Awe, Darryl Hart and John Muether write, “Scripture insists that we must worship in a way that is acceptable to God. The simple test for good worship, then, is whether it conforms to the Bible. This standard has become known in Reformed churches as the regulative principle” (p.77).   Here is a good summary of regulative principle of worship:

“. . .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.”(The Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1)

What exactly does this mean?  It means that we are to worship the Lord only in the way that He Himself has commanded or prescribed in His Word.  We are not left to our own imaginations when it comes to worshiping the one true and living God.  We are not free to improvise, innovate, or imitate the worship practices of other religions.

Simply put, pragmatism (i.e. whatever works) is not the standard for worship; and preference (i.e. whatever we happen to like or find pleasing) is not the goal of worship.  What God has revealed in His Word regarding worship is the only valid standard for guiding & directing us in worship. And our goal is to worship in such a way as is pleasing to God first and foremost, not ourselves.

Hart & Muether point out that both the Westminster Larger Catechism (the catechism of the Presbyterian churches) and the Heidelberg Catechism (the catechism of the Reformed churches) deduce the Regulative Principle of worship from the 2nd Commandment – the commandment against idolatry.   In Exodus 20:4-6 (the 2nd Commandment), the LORD says,

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (ESV)

In other words, self-styled worship may be pleasing to us, but it is not pleasing to God.   It is idolatry.  Not only is self-styled worship or idolatry an act of disobedience, but it is also an act of hatred toward God (v.5).

As Thomas Watson notes, the very length of this commandment in comparison to many of the others should be instructive to us.  It tells us both the importance of this commandment, as well as our tendency toward breaking it.  He writes,

Take heed of the idolatry of image-worship. Our nature is prone to this sin as dry wood to take fire; and, indeed, what need of so many words in this commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make any graven image, or the likeness of anything in heaven, earth, water,’ sun, moon, stars, male, female, fish;  ‘Thou shalt not bow down to them.’ I say, what need of so many words, but to show how subject we are to this sin of false worship. (The Ten Commandments, p.62)

We should not trust our own hearts to guide us in worship.  We should always be mindful (as Watson says) of just how prone we are toward idolatry.

And so let us rejoice that our God has revealed to us in His Word how He is to be approached in worship.  We need not guess as to what our gracious heavenly Father would have us to do in our public worship on the Lord’s day, for He has given us His Word as a clear and sure guide.