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One of the most powerful winds blowing through the Reformed and Presbyterian churches today is the hurricane of “liturgical renewal,” or “progressive worship.” The service of public worship as the Reformed have conducted it for hundreds of years is summarily scrapped as “traditional” (“traditional” being uttered with scorn or with sorrow, as though describing a service that was either foolish or useless). The traditional service is replaced with a service of bands and singing troops; banners; films, skits, and drama; dialogues; dancing; and shallow, man-centered, Arminian, but lively “gospel songs.”

Or the two kinds of services are placed back-to-back on a Sunday morning. The traditional service is at 9 a.m., the progressive service is at 11. Every member can indulge his preference.

The assumption of those who spend their waking hours planning the demolition of the traditional Reformed worship and concocting new and more appealing activities of worship is that the church is free to shape the worship of God as she thinks best. And what is best is whatever pleases the worshiping people.

This assumption is shared by most of the “conservative” members of the churches where progressive worship is introduced. They dislike the innovations intensely. They complain. They attend only the 9 A.M., traditional service. But they tolerate the new worship.

How we worship is a matter of preference.

Our preference.

This assumption is shattered on the rock of the regulative principle of worship. By the regulative principle of worship is meant that God Himself regulates, or rules, the public worship of Himself by His church. God regulates worship by clearly prescribing in His Word what this worship must consist of. God Himself tells us how to worship Him. This “how” refers to the inner, spiritual disposition of the worshipers: “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). It also refers to the elements of the service of worship: the preaching of the gospel; the two sacraments, rightly administered; prayers and congregational singing; and the offerings, especially for the poor.

God does not leave the “how” of worship to the wisdom and whim of the worshiping people.

It is not even the case that God permits the church to worship Him in any way that she sees fit, as long as nothing in the worship obviously conflicts with His Word. Often Reformed people will defend some aspect of worship by saying, “It is not forbidden by Scripture.” But it is the Lutheran and Anglican position on worship, that whatever is not forbidden is permitted. The distinctively Reformed position is radically different: Whatever is not prescribed is forbidden.

This principle of public worship is in accord with the nature and purpose of worship. Public worship is the fellowship of God with His people in the covenant of grace: God meets with His people in the Word and Spirit of Jesus Christ. In this meeting, God prescribes the manner of the meeting, not we. He is the sovereign, stipulating the “how” of worship, just as He stipulates who is to be worshiped.

Public worship has as its purpose the praise of God, not the religious satisfaction of those who worship. And God determines how He is to be praised.

As regards the benefit of worship for God’s people, this benefit is edification. It is not spiritual entertainment, emotional excitement, aesthetic titillation, and the like. And God prescribes, as He alone knows, the content of worship that will build up the saints.

God, who knows us and who knows the rulers of the church, would never leave such an important activity as worship to our discretion. Foolish, sinful people will soon invent a worship more to their own liking-worship that is not centered in, based on, and permeated with the Word; worship that is not so theocentric; worship consisting of ceremony and ritual; worship that is more conformable to contemporary culture; worship that caters more to ourselves.

Rulers of the church who have the authority to legislate worship, rather than to minister and administer God’s regulations, will do exactly what rulers began to do very early in the history of the church. This resulted in the impressive, but empty and abominable service of Rome. And, in fact, the movement of “progressive worship” and “liturgical renewal” is leading Reformed and Presbyterian churches back to Rome.

Progressive worship is revolution against the regulative principle of worship, that is, revolution against the authority of God in the sphere of worship. I do not refer to this or that outrageously offensive aspect of progressive worship, whether a dramatic portrayal of the crucifixion or a liturgical dance. But progressive worship as such rebels against divine regulation of the service by Holy Scripture. Instead, it shapes the service according to what seems fitting, moving, and effective to the worship leader or to the people themselves.

What drives the new worship? “I like it!” “We feel that this or that religious activity would be a nice addition to the service!” “We were moved by it!” “This will draw the people, especially the young people!” The decisive question is, “What pleases the people?” We may put it this way: Man’s own will governs the worship. The Bible calls this worship “will worship” (Col. 2:23).

We should not underestimate the power of the movement of progressive worship. It is in large part the reason why Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area, Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, and hosts of similar churches throughout North America are booming. They cater to the likes of the people. This is their strategy.

The true church may expect, perhaps is already experiencing, pressure to “learn” from the new worship, always “within limits,” of course. This will come from the carnal members on her rolls and from the carnal natures of the living members.

Against the incoming tide stands the regulative principle: God’s wishes decide the worship. Our wishes have as little to do with the “how” of worship as they do with whom we worship. How the church worships is not a matter of our preference. It is a matter of God’s command.

It is discouraging then that reputedly conservative men in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches deny and even attack the regulative principle. Rev. Steve Schlissel is busy doing this. He has written a series of articles entitled, “All I Really Need to Know about Worship … I don’t Learn from the Regulative Principle” (Messiah’s Mandate, 1999).

Although he pays lip service to the regulative principle, the Presbyterian theologian John Frame, professor at Westminster West Seminary, in fact, empties it of any governing power over his worship services in southern California and the worship services of anyone who heeds his instruction on worship. “It is virtually impossible to prove that anything is divinely required specifically for official services” (Worship in Spirit and Truth, P&R, 1996, p. 44).

Frame, supposedly a conservative at a reputedly conservative seminary, enthusiastically promotes the contemporary, progressive worship that is destroying the traditional Reformed worship regulated by God’s Word. Frame approves teaching in the services of public worship by people who are not elders; children’s church; drama as a legitimate form of preaching; teaching by means of dialogue; infant communion; worship services that are entirely given over to music, that is, services without any Bible reading or preaching; and liturgical dance.

This is to repudiate the regulative principle by gutting it and to substitute for it as the rule for worship the fancies of Presbyterians in southern California and the tastes of worship leader John Frame. Showing which way the wind is blowing, the book comes highly recommended by four leading Presbyterian theologians at two leading, purportedly conservative Reformed seminaries.

No one who fears God will say that the whole matter is unimportant. The right worship of Himself by His chosen people is God’s ultimate purpose in creating and redeeming them. “This people have I formed for myself; they shall shew forth my praise” (Isaiah 43:21).

Such is the importance of the right worship of God by the church that God has devoted the entire first table of the law to it. The first commandment prescribes whom we must worship. The third prescribes wherein we must worship Him. The fourth prescribes when we must worship Him.

And the second?

The second prescribes how we are to worship God.

God thinks that the important question about the manner of the worship of His people is, “What pleases Him?”

So do we.

—DJE

(to be continued)