The Regulative Principle of Worship (Article Series)

What follows is a very helpful series of articles by Dr. Ligon Duncan, written in July 2014 at his blog of

Why how we worship matters
July 12, 2014

Protestants have always believed that how we worship, the manner of our public worship, matters. The main reason for this is because Protestants believe that the Bible itself, in both the Old and New Testaments, commands a number of important things about how we are to conduct ourselves in gathered worship.

There are, of course, historical reasons for this interest in the manner, or how, of public worship as well. For instance, the Protestant reformers believed that the way you worship actually influences and reinforces what you believe. That is one reason they were so interested in reforming the worship practices of the church in their day. They did not believe that you could make a Protestant with Roman Catholic worship. More deeply, they believed that much of Roman Catholic worship was unbiblical (and that it undermined the Gospel), and hence they wanted to reform congregational worship according to the Bible. Indeed, John Calvin said that there were two main issues at stake in the reformation: biblical worship and justification by faith (in that order!). So, for Calvin, how we worship is no small matter.

But isn’t focusing on “how” we worship a little legalistic? Worship is a matter of the heart, right?, and so doesn’t focusing on the outward manner of worship get us off on the wrong track. Well, I hear that objection and I am not unsympathetic to its concerns. Externalism and formalism are both serious problems when in comes to public worship. Certainly the Bible vigorously and extensively condemns hypocritical external piety and shows a prime concern for the state of our hearts in approaching God. But the Bible also show a serious concern about the manner of our worship. Heart and form need not be set in opposition. The Bible shows an interest in both.

Furthermore, Protestants are not concerned with the manner, or how, of worship, with the forms and circumstances of public praise, simply for their own sake, but for the sake of the object and aim of worship.

In other words, Protestants understand that there is an inseparable connection between way we worship and whom we worship. It has often been said that the Bible’s teaching on idolatry shows that we become like what we worship, but it also indicates that we become like how we worship, because the how and the who of worship are linked.

The Protestant reformers (from whom we have learned much about Scripture) understood two things often lost on moderns. First, they understood that the liturgy (the set forms of corporate worship), media, instruments and vehicles of worship are never neutral, and so exceeding care must be given to the “law of unintended consequences.” Often the medium overwhelms and changes the message.

Second, they knew that the purpose of the elements and forms and circumstances of corporate worship is to assure that you are actually doing worship as it is defined by the God of Scripture, that you are worshiping the God of Scripture and that your aim in worshiping Him is the aim set forth in Scripture.

So the Protestant approach to liturgy (not a word Calvin liked, but by it we simply mean: the order of service) is based on this foundation. Protestants care about how we worship not because we think that liturgy/order of service is prescribed, mystical or sacramental, but precisely so that the order of service can assist and get out of the way of (rather than distract and impede) the gathered church’s communion with the living God. The function of the order of service is not to draw attention to itself but to aid the soul’s communion with God in the gathered company of the saints by serving to convey the word of God to and from God, from and to His people.

C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t have to notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God” (from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer). This is why the great Baptist preacher Geoffrey Thomas can say: “In true worship men have little thought of the means of worship; their thoughts are upon God. True worship is characterized by self-effacement and is lacking in any self-consciousness.”

That is, in biblical worship we so focus upon God Himself and are so intent to acknowledge His inherent and unique worthiness that we are transfixed by Him, and thus worship is not about what we want or like (nor do His appointed means divert our eyes from Him), but rather it is about meeting with God and delighting in Him. Praise decentralizes self.

So, interestingly, ordering our worship in the way that the Bible tells us to do so allows the forms of worship (the how of worship) to fade into the background in our public services and the object of worship (the Whom of worship: the Triune God) to come to the fore. The power of worship is not in the forms, but in God. The forms are appointed by God, not so that we will focus on them, but so that we will come to the God who really is (rather than one of our own imagination).

What gathered worship should look like: Simple
July 14, 2014

Christian public worship ought to be simple. It should not seek to add to the elements warranted by Scripture or to elaborate forms not endorsed by the word. This is just the faithful application of the general biblical principle that we have nothing to add to God’s word that improves it! Moses tells us in Deuteronomy 12:32 that God says: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deu 12:32 ESV) and Proverbs 30:6 warns: “Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Pro 30:6 ESV). Indeed, the Bible virtually ends with the solemn admonition of the Apostle John in Revelation 22:18 “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book” (Rev 22:18 ESV).

Christians have not always been careful in this area, however. Even great heroes of early Christianity took disastrous missteps in regard to the simplicity of worship. For instance, Cyril of Jerusalem, reckoned among the doctors of the church (and rightly regarded and appreciated in so many ways), attempted to compete with (and surpass) the elaborate rituals of initiation popular in the culture of that day by creating Christian rituals laden with mystery and symbolism, and instituted liturgical innovations that set the direction for the medieval church. He virtually laid the foundation for the errors in worship that the reformers would have to shed blood to overturn a thousand years later. And he did it with the best of intentions. He wanted to attract people to Christianity. And he thought that the way to do that was to create more attractive rituals and ceremonies. Wittingly or unwittingly, he located the power of attraction in the forms (and indeed, in humanly invented forms, ceremonies and rituals not commanded in God’s word). People have been making the same mistake ever since.

But the power of Christian worship (and the attraction of Christ and the Gospel) is not in the majesty and mystery of manmade ritual. Indeed, biblical Christian worship requires no intricate ritual, no prescribed, complicated, manmade, symbolic liturgical drama, on the one hand, nor does it demand a high-tech, electronic, technologically sophisticated setting on the other. So pastors who try to create “worship experiences” more akin to a rock concert or a late night comedy show are making the same mistake as Cyril (though with less taste and theological sophistication!).

True Christian public worship is merely based on the unadorned and unpretentious principles and order found in the Bible, by precept and example, which supply the substance of new covenant worship. Everything that is claimed to be essential or key or important to thriving or renewing Christian congregational worship (whether it be sound and lighting, instruments, clerical vestments, or prescribed liturgy based upon some fixed form of the past) must pass the test of the Apostles and the test of the catacombs. Is this warranted by Scripture?, and is this essential to the faithful corporate worship of persecuted Christians huddled away in some hole worshiping God together in Spirit and truth?

Anything that is asserted to be “essential” to public worship that cannot pass those tests is making a false claim upon the people of God, and laying a burden on them that will not help, but rather hinder, their corporate communion with God.

What gathered worship should look like: Spiritual
July 15, 2014

Christian congregational worship is Spirit-gathered, Spirit-dependent, Spirit-engendered, and Spirit-empowered, because left to ourselves we will not worship the right object, according to the right standard, for the right motivation(s), through the right means and to the right end. It is the Holy Spirit who creates, enables and energizes our desire and capacity to worship. By his ministry we are ushered into God’s presence and commune with him. The is one of the lessons of Jesus’ words in John 4:24 “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24 ESV).

One of the first steps to truly worshiping God is to recognize that, left to our own devices, we can’t and won’t and don’t. We need help. We need the help of the Spirit. We can’t even pray without him. This is why Paul says, in Romans 8:26-27 “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26-27 ESV). The Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God, or in other words, the Spirit intercedes for us in accordance with the truth, and so it is not surprising that the Spirit is essential our worshiping in spirit (or better, in Spirit) and truth.

C.H. Spurgeon, in a brilliant sermon called The Axe at the Root-A Testimony Against Puseyite Idolatry preached on Sunday Morning, June 17th, 1866 explains why spiritual worship is so difficult and rare. Basically, Spurgeon says that it is easy, very easy to go through the motions of external rituals but that “it is hard, very hard, to bring the heart down to humble penitence, and the soul to holy meditation. The last thing that most people will do is to think.” So, Spurgeon explains that spiritual worship is demanding: “Humbly to tremble before God, to confess sin before him, to believe him, to love him — this is spiritual worship.” And that is not easy. And so, we are tempted to worship unthinkingly, unthoughtfully. To perform the duty without the heart and mind fully engaged.

Spurgeon addresses this even as it comes to bear on our congregation singing. He says: ” I am afraid too that many of you are content with singing through the hymn; now all that singing which is not thought-singing is of no use; you may have very sweet voices but God does not regard your voice, he hears your heart, and if your heart does not sing you have not sung at all.” I have lost count of the times I have sung a hymn, a favorite hymn, a solidly biblical and theological hymn, but at the end of my singing, I realize that I have not really been praising God with its truth or lifting it up as a prayer to hymn, but on auto-pilot, going through the motions.

To worship God in spirit and truth, fully engaged, from the depths of our souls, with all that we are . . . is hard (and it can’t be pre-packaged and franchised, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all). And so, many Christians, and Christian leaders, opt for something easier. It may be (for high church types) an “ancient,” mystical, sacramental liturgical routine or (for low church types) it may be a loud, emotionally cathartic “worship experience” — both approaches provide alternative, substitute experiences for real worship. The high church liturgy “feels” holy. The cathartic emotional experience feels “raw and real and deep” (at least at first).

To worship spiritually is (1) to worship the one true and living God (as opposed to the god of our imaginations). There is a god we want and the God who is, and the two are not the same. Spiritual worship gets that. And deliberately chooses to worship the true triune God as he has revealed himself in his word.

To worship spiritually is (2) to worship according to the word (as opposed to our own imaginations). The Puritans called humanly invented worship forms “will worship.” That is, when we invent ways of worshiping God that he has not commanded or asked for, we are worshiping ourselves (not him), thus it is our will, our desire, that we actually value more than God.

To worship spiritually is (3) to worship God for the right reasons, with the right motivations. For instance, we do not worship him to get him to be gracious to us, we worship him because he is gracious to us, in his Son. Our worship doesn’t cause and condition his love, it responds to it. We love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Furthermore, we don’t worship him in order to get something out of him that is more important to us than he is! He is not a giant vending machine, he is our heavenly father. Whatever gifts he gives (and he gives amazing gifts!), none of them is better than the gift of himself. That’s why John Piper can provocatively say “God is the Gospel.” Meaning, God himself is the greatest and best good we can ever receive or experience. So, our worship isn’t motivated by trying to get things out of him that we care about more than him (Lord, I worship you because I want you to make me rich, healthy, powerful, happy), but our worship is motivated by the fact that we see in him the ultimate satisfaction. The Giver himself is better than any gift that he gives.

To worship spiritually is (4) to come to God in worship via his appointed way — faith in Jesus. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” Rock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.” Real worship is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We do not come to God by our own obedience. We come by the obedience of Christ. We do not come to God by another other mediator. We come by Christ alone “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Act 4:12 ESV). We do not come in Christ plus anything else. Christ and Christ alone. Christ and him crucified. This is our hope and this is the way into the presence of God – “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain” (Heb 10:19-20 ESV). Faith is the alone instrument, by which we are saved. And by faith we enter into true worship. Jesus is the alone mediator of his people. And only through Jesus can we worship.

To worship spiritually is (5) to praise God for the ultimate end of his own glory. We get blessings in worship. Huge blessings. And it is not wrong to want those blessings. But in worship, our ultimate goal is to give to God the glory due his name, to declare that he is what is most valuable, that he is more important and worthy than anything in this world. To acknowledge that he is creator, ruler and redeemer. To be lost in wonder, love and praise at the gift of his Son and our salvation. To have our hope strengthened and rekindled for his return. All of which glorifies him. And, when we do that, we are doing what we were originally created to do. And when we do that we find ourselves in the sphere of unnumbered blessings. But our worship is ultimately Godward. Psalm 115:1 “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psa 115:1 ESV).

What gathered worship should look like: God-centered
July 16, 2014

Christian worship is all about God. And a biblical congregational worship service should reflect that. It is all about God. It is not all about us. Or all about the preacher. Or all about the choir or praise team. Or all about the building. Or all about any of a million other things. It is all about God.

God, the triune God who has revealed himself in his word, is the object of our worship, the focus of our worship. We gather as a congregation, not to seek an experience but to meet with God and give him praise.

The whom of worship is central to true worship (see John 4:22, 24). It is what the first commandment is all about. We aim to worship the God of the Bible. Many Christians leave Sunday services asking the “what did worship do for me?” Yet it is more helpful and biblical to think just the opposite. “What did I give to God in worship?” “How did I encourage the brothers and sisters to praise Christ for his grace?” “How did I take advantage of the means of grace in order to glorify God?” Ask not what this service will do for you, but what you will give to God through this service B the rest will take care of itself.

Don Carson puts it this way: “Should we not remind ourselves that worship is a TRANSITIVE verb? We do not meet to worship (i.e. to experience worship): we aim to worship GOD. ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’: there is the heart of the matter. In this area, one must not confuse what is central with byproducts. If you seek peace, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find peace. If you seek joy, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find joy. If you seek holiness, you will not find it; if you seek Christ, you will find holiness. If you seek experiences of worship, you will not find them; if you worship the living God, you will experience something of what is reflected in the Psalms. Worship is a transitive verb, and the most important thing about it is the direct object.”

What gathered worship should look like: Reverent and Joyful
July 19, 2014

Sometimes reverence and joy are viewed as mutually exclusive in the worship of the church. I have friends who suspect “reverence” is a code word for austere, cold, somber and dour. So, when they hear someone talking about the need for reverence in worship, they want to have none of it. On the other hand, I have friends who are suspicious of calls for “joyfulness” in worship, as if this necessarily entailed emotional manipulation and superficial sanguinity.

In some churches, there is such an emotional display in worship that reverence is lost completely. In other churches, the congregation appears to have been caught at a stranger’s funeral. Deadpan and flat, they go through the customary motions. But each of these tendencies reflect serious deficiencies in the practice of true Christian worship of God. I want to suggest that we aim to worship God with both reverence and joy.

The Bible makes it clear that when we worship the one true God we must come with reverence: “…offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” says Hebrews 12:28-29 (note: that’s the New Testament calling us to reverence!). But reverent worship does not mean dull, emotionless, boring worship, for God wants us to come also with joy: “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs” says Psalm 100:2 (note: that’s the Old Testament call to joy!).

Our worship is to be whole-souled and heartfelt. At some times our hearts and eyes will fill with tears of gladness or contrition, at others we’ll quietly rest in the peace of the Lord, then again we’ll sometimes feel that we can hardly contain our praise and thanksgiving to God. The outward expression of emotion must never be confused, one way or another, with the real state of the heart – but true Christian worship emanates from the heart, and is characterized by the whole range of godly affections and sanctified emotional responses of the soul to the truth and glory of the living God.

We ought to aspire to congregational worship characterized by true heart-worship of the living God, according to His Word, that is reverent, substantial and joyful. Our ideal is not stuffy formality, nor liturgical mystery, nor contemporary/charismatic catharsis. Indeed, we ought to aspire to a reverent, joyful service that is neither designed to promote emotionalism nor to be anti-emotional. We are not interested in emotional manipulation (by either suppressing or producing certain outward effects), but rather aim for an environment in which the congregation naturally responds to God in expressions of both godly reverence and joy.

Every worship service has to carry the freight for people who are bruised and crushed and broken-hearted, and for people who are content and grateful and happy (and both). If our services are only cheerful and upbeat, we’ll miss ministering to the constant heart wounds of the people of God as they gather to meet with him. If our services are only serious (and lack the joy that expresses a filial affection towards the one who made us and saved us and loves us) then we are missing an important part of the Christian life.

John Calvin famously defined piety as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of His benefits induces.” He went on to say: “For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by His Fatherly care, that He is the author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond Him, they will never yield Him willing service.”

Our public services of worship need to be places where that kind of piety can be expressed congregationally. And if so, the service will manifest reverence (we will take God seriously), and love to God (because we have tasted and seen that he is good and we have apprehended his benefits to us), and joy (because grateful hearts will overflow in joy). Sometimes that joy will be expressed exuberantly, and other times it will be subdued. Different people in the congregation will be in different places. And that’s okay. Our goal is not to force everybody to be at the same place, but in a reverent and joyful service, to allow every present Christian to work from where they are towards the praise of God, in such a way that they realize to some degree that meeting with God is a serious joy.

What gathered worship should look like: mediated
July 22, 2014

Sinners (and that’s what we are) are incapable of approaching a Holy God directly. We need a mediator, a stand-between, a reconciler, an advocate who will represent us before God, and take our place, and bear our sin, and render us acceptable to God, and bring us into God’s presence with joy.

In the Old Testament human priests and sacrifices symbolically fulfilled this function, but Jesus Christ is the only real mediator for the people of God. It is he who has paid the penalty for our sins and opened the way to God. Though human priests are no longer necessary for true worship, Jesus mediation is absolutely essential. Through him, and him alone, we can approach God with confidence. As the Westminster Divines reminds us “Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.2).

Thus, everything in our public services ought to confirm that we believe with all our hearts that we understand that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Heb 10:4) “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, . . . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified,” (Heb 10:12-14) and “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God” (Heb 10:19-21).

As Protestants, we have no priest but Jesus, no mediator but the only redeemer of God’s elect. He has done everything necessary to bring us to God, and we come to God only through him. Nothing we do in our public ought to give the impression that Jesus’ mediation needs to be improved or supplemented (or that it may be supplanted or is unnecessary) and everything we do ought to witness to our joy in the glory of his sole mediation.

This truth is deeply reflected in historic Reformed practices regarding the observance of the Lord’s Supper. For instance, the truth of Jesus’ sole mediation is one reason the Presbyterian ministers stand behind the communion table (and not in front of it) when the Lord’s Supper is administered. We do not mediate between God and his people. We are instruments not mediators. We are pastors not priests. The people of God do not come to Jesus through us, rather Jesus’s administers his call to table fellowship through us directly to his people, and they come to him.

Thus the Lord’s Supper is a meal, and he is the host and mediator. His ministers are but servants and stewards, announcing in his own words his invitation to repentant sinners, burdened saints to come, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to come “take, eat, drink” and sup with the risen, ascended, enfleshed Lord at the right hand of his Father, by faith. This is, by the way, something that has been forgotten in the unintended symbolism of some of the diversity of communion practices in many of the Reformed churches today.

What gathered worship should look like: corporate (but I repeat myself!)
July 30, 2014

There is a trend today in some evangelical Christian circles to deny that the New Testament has a category for gathered, public worship like the Old Testament did. The arguments vary. Some point to the lack of Old Testament liturgical language in reference to New Testament gathered worship, or to the application of Old Testament liturgical language to the whole of the Christian life (e.g., Romans 12:1-2). Others argue that one of the redemptive historical changes from old covenant to new, is the fulfillment of Old Testament corporate worship in Christian all-of-life-worship. Some argue that when the church gathers on Sunday, it does not gather to worship, but rather for fellowship, edification and discipleship.

But, as we have already pointed out in this little series, the twin concepts of gathered worship and worship-in-all-of-life are featured in both the Old and New Testaments. It simply will not do to say that the idea of public, gathered, congregational, corporate worship does not feature in the New Testament. A quick glance at, for instance, 1 Corinthians 10-14 will not only confirm that Paul has a category for congregational worship, but that he really, really cares about how we do it.

So, one thing our worship should look like is congregational or corporate or public. It is important that we worship corporately, for God has made us for his worship and for community with other worshipers. Worship is the one thing he “seeks” (John 4:23). Corporate worship is not evangelism, nor is it even mutually edifying fellowship. It is a family meeting with God, it is the covenant community engaging with God, gathering with his people to seek the face of God, to glorify and enjoy him, to hear his word, to revel in the glory of union and communion with him, to respond to his word, to render praise back to him, to give unto him the glory due his name.

The New Testament makes clear that the congregation of Christians, this family, this body, this community, is the place where God is especially present in this world. In the days of the Old Covenant, the place where God manifested his special presence was “the tabernacle” or “the temple” or “Jerusalem.” In the New Covenant, that special “place” is now “wherever the Lord’s house, that is, his people, is gathered.” Jesus stresses this to the Samaritan woman (John 4:21) and to his disciples in addressing congregational discipline (Matthew 18:20, surely a solemn component of the life of the gathered church).

The place of new covenant worship is no longer inextricably tied to a geographical location and a physical structure but to a gathered people. This is why in the old Scottish tradition, as the people gathered to enter a church building, it would be said that “the Kirk goes in” rather than as we often say “we are going to church.”

The new covenant locus or place of the special presence of God with the church militant is in this gathered body, wherever it might be—whether the catacombs, or a storefront or beautiful colonial church building. This makes corporate worship extremely important.