Regulative Principle of Worship

John Calvin

John Calvin

Last week our Pastor preached on the Regulative Principle of Worship. Given all of the contrary teaching found in the evangelical church, I thought that it was a fine time to reflect upon the wisdom in the Regulative (or rather Prescriptive) Principle of Worship.

Summary of the Regulative Principle

For those unaware, one can sum up the Regulative Principle as: “Worshiping God only in the way He has prescribed”. Now the trick in all of this is to figure out what God has prescribed (and on this, all sorts of sincere believers who hold to the RPW may differ) – but this is the key principle that should guide a discussion on the Regulative Principle vs. its opposite, which is: “What God has not prohibited is lawful for worship”, or the so-called Normative Principle which is the stance that most of the Western Evangelical church has taken.


Immediately, in response to the RPW, our fallen nature wants to say, “No, as long as my worship to God is sincere – then God will accept it!”. And while an element of this may be true – I want to look at how the Regulative Principle is actually there to protect you from the abuses of the Church – and is not there to impinge upon your freedoms (always a hot-button issue here in the West). We’ll examine that in some detail after we start with some issues that lay the foundation for the Regulative Principle.

The Holiness of God

One of the things that has struck me since diving into Reformed theology is the emphasis that it places upon the holiness of God. You see, a lot of evangelical traditions will place an emphasis on the holiness of God when it comes to soteriology – that is that you need to be saved from the affronts you have made to a holy God.

However, then we seem to forget this attribute of God. It’s almost like we believe God has become tame and become our doting old grandfather because of Jesus’ work on the Cross. And while God’s wrath is averted and there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, our God is still a Holy God. And we seem to forget this, and treat Him like he’s our fraternity brother. But I want us to see something from the New Testament that says, “hold on one minute!”, “God is still fearsome!”

Turn to Hebrews 12:28 and see what the author has to say:

28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

You see? There still is acceptable worship to God, and our attitude is to be one of reverence and awe, because our God is a consuming fire. All too often, we treat God like He’s a tame lion (to use a Narnia reference if I may).

Continuity in the Bible

All too often we look at our Bible and see that it is split into a part called the “Old Testament” and a part called the “New Testament”. Due to predominant Dispensational thinking (thankfully rolling back as of late) in American Christianity – we treat God as if He’s had two different characters, and that the Church is something completely discontinuous from Israel.

But this is a big deal, as the early church only had the Old Testament as their Scriptures, and would have patterned most of their practices against it. In some cases, this was incorrect due to the New Administration of the Covenant of Grace (the once and for-all sacrifice of Jesus abolishing elements of the Ceremonial and Sacrificial System for instance). This is where the New Testament has a lot to teach us – thus giving us the book of Hebrews for instance (stop doing those things!!), Galatians, etc.

When the early Church got to worship, they worshiped in the synagogues – and would have kept many of the same “regulative principles” that fell under the old administration of the Covenant.

But ultimately, God’s nature hasn’t changed – He still stands in judgement over worship offered to Him. And we dare to enter His presence in such a non-chalant manner!

The Reformers were reacting to Abuses in Worship

This is key, and something we forget – because Church History is not a strong area of teaching in the American Church. But let’s remember something, the Reformers were responding to the Roman Church’s abuses in worship. Veneration of icons, Statues of the Saints, Incense, Bells, Worship of the Eucharist, Holy Relics, etc, etc. were all being found in the Roman Church!

The Reformers wanted to rid the Church of these practices, and return to a Biblical understanding of what was permitted under Worship to the Triune God. Binding the consciences of those who come to Worship Corporately was something that they would have been keen to avoid. The truly believed that Jesus (and only Jesus) is the Lord of your conscience and so they would have trembled before adding elements of worship that would be unbiblical. This is important, and we will return to it in a moment.

Were the Reformers Pharisees? Hardly!

Some will say, “this sounds like Pharisaical behavior!” Which to me is an amusing argument. Think for a moment about what the Pharisees did. They added to the Law, and made the people follow elements not Prescribed by God.

The Reformers on the other hand are careful to do the opposite. Rather than add to what God has commanded, they are careful to avoid adding any burdens to those who are worshiping Corporately. Rather, it is those who ask you to, “Raise your hands if you believe in the Gospel, with your head bowed and your eyes closed” who are tampering with worship and adding unbiblical elements. Same with altar calls, entertainment driven “worship” elements, etc. All of those experiential elements just take us back to Rome.

What if you had choices in where you could worship?

I think a lot of people would be more understanding of the RPW if they thought about the fact that in many places in the world, you still have no choices as to where you can worship. We would understand that as well, if we didn’t have modern transportation. Within a 5 minute drive from me, I can go to a Reformed MegaChurch, a Charismatic Church, a Bible Church, and a Reformed Presbyterian Church.

If I felt weirded out by the Charismania in the Charismatic Church, I could go to the MegaChurch. If I didn’t like the shallow worship music in the MegaChurch, I can go to the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

So we can shop for a church that suits our matter of ‘style’ and our level of understanding of Biblical things. However, for the vast majority of the people living in the last 2,000 years you’d have no choice. What if the only church in my neighborhood was the Charismatic Church with its dancers bounding on the stage, and the ‘worship leader’ asking you to ‘raise your hands if you were feeling the Spirit move?’ Your conscience would be bound to such unbiblical practices!

However, if we only stick to Biblical practices, we wouldn’t have this issue – and all churches would be a safe place to worship. The RPW is to protect the congregation. Not to limit their freedoms. Please keep that in mind.


God gets to determine what is proper worship, not the worshiper. He stands in judgement over our worship, and He is Holy. Also, the RPW protects congregations from abusive practices in worship, and keeping the believer from having to engage in practices that may violate their conscience.

Once you buy into those premises, the RPW should make a whole lot of sense.