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.