Previous article in this series: April 15, 2012, p. 326.
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. Jeremiah 7:31
What doth God require in the second commandment?
Answer. That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commandedin His Word. – Heidelberg Catechism Question 96.
We have been engaged in a study of three great principles of public worship. The first of those principles is that public worship is a covenantal assembly gathered to meet with God. The second principle is that God carries out that covenantal meeting as a dialogue between Himself and His people. And last time we began an exposition of the third principle, that God is the one who determines what happens at this assembly. He has us gathered into His presence, and He is the one who tells us how to interact with Him. He is the sovereign God also of worship. This principle is called the regulative principle of worship. We explained that principle and proved it from the Old Testament, especially from the passage quoted above from. Now let’s turn our attention briefly to some New Testament proof for the principle itself and then apply the principle to public corporate worship.
The Regulative Principle in the New Testament
The regulative principle stands as God moves His people into the New Testament. Though many things about worship change from the Old Testament to the New Testament, this principle stays. Why would this fundamental principle fall away? “What does God desire in worship?” remains the question of worship in the New Testament as well. Only now it is, “God, what dost Thou desire in this New Testament era, where types and shadows have fallen away?”
The principle is specifically re-stated in the New Testament. When the Pharisees were pressing their own desires on the people with respect to their life and worship of God, Jesus responded this way in: “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” The Pharisees’ desires were imposed upon the people as though they were God’s, and God’s desires were brushed aside. This led to vain worship. What is needed is the commandments of God, not men, whether those commandments of men are old or new.
Inthe apostle Paul calls worship according to the hearts of men, “will-worship.” There the apostle really teaches us that the issue is not whether or not you will have a regulative principle. Everyone has a regulative principle. The question is, will worship be regulated by the will of man or by the will of God? Will it be man’s will worship, or God’s will worship? That is the question.
The Application of the Regulative Principle (Elements and Circumstances)
God answers this question in the New Testament by saying to us in His Word, “There are specific elements I require in worship, and I require them to be carried out in the worship of my name.” We see God telling us this in the explicit commands regarding worship and in the example of the New Testament church. Through commands and examples in the New Testament, God tells us what the elements of worship are for the New Testament church.
There is a difference between elements and circumstances. The elements of worship are the actual things we do. They are the what of worship: singing, praying, reading Scripture, etc. The circumstances are what attend those elements. They are the how of worship: tunes of songs, length of prayers, place and time of meeting, etc. They are not the things we do, but how we do them.
In the New Testament God tells us what the elements of worship are. The regulative principle governs only the elements of worship. God leaves the circumstances to His people’s judgment, governed nonetheless by His church’s understanding of who He is as the Holy and Majestic God.
You see this distinction between elements and circumstances going back to the command given to Moses to build the tabernacle. God gave specific commands for what to build and how to use the tabernacle. But He did not give specific commands for every last detail. He gave Moses dimensions and told him what type of material to use, but did not tell him which trees to cut down, or from where to get his gold. This is the difference between elements and circumstances. God specifically ordained elements, and circumstances are not prescribed. There is no liberty regarding elements. There is some regarding circumstances.
What are these elements of New Testament worship? The worship of the church as recorded in the New Testament Scriptures, and as recorded in history up until the corruptions of Rome, was basically the worship of the Jewish synagogue modified by the truth of the coming of Jesus Christ. The elements in this worship were the reading and preaching of Scripture, prayer, singing, and the giving of alms. The New Testament church continued to use these elements in worship, giving us an example of what God desires in our worship in the entire New Testament age. We see this inwhere Luke records the worshiping life of the New Testament church: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
Praying is an element of worship commanded by God. It is commanded not only in, but also in , where the apostle gives Timothy commands for the church. : “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.”
The reading and exposition of Scripture is an element commanded by God.and the various commands to Timothy to preach the Word and to labor in the Word and doctrine prove this ( ; ).
Singing was also part of the synagogue and early church worship, and is commanded inand .
The sacraments as instituted by Christ were added to worship.makes that plain when it speaks of “breaking of bread,” a reference to the Lord’s Supper.
Finally, the giving of alms is a commanded element of New Testament worship. We see this in, where the apostle Paul commanded that the Corinthian church collect alms for the Jerusalem church, and that it do so specifically on the Lord’s Day.
These are the biblically mandated elements that God desires in New Testament worship of His name. And therefore, they are the ones the Heidelberg Catechism tells us to use in Lord’s Day 38 (explaining the 4th commandment.). There the catechism says that it is my duty on the Lord’s Day to frequent the house of God, “to hear His Word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord [song and prayer¹], and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.”
There are also circumstances. As I said, their job is to facilitate the carrying out of the elements. God does not regulate these things specifically in His Word. That’s not to say they are not regulated. They are just not regulated specifically. God does govern the circumstances of worship, and He does so in two ways. First, the circumstances are governed in a general way by the other principles of worship we already discussed—reverence, simplicity, etc. Second, they are governed by the fact that these circumstances are not elements, and must not become elements in worship.
Tunes of songs are not mandated by the Word of God. There is liberty here. But that does not mean there are not principles that affect what type of tunes ought to be used. The circumstances must be subject to the other principles of worship. Therefore, tunes must be reverent and simple, and they must not take attention away from the Word being sung, which is the power of the element. The tunes must not become a separate element in themselves, they are to be in the background and attend the element.
Musical accompaniment is a circumstance. It facilitates the element of singing. There is liberty here. But yet this circumstance too is subject to the principles of God’s Word. Musical accompaniment must submit itself to the other principles of worship. It must be reverent, simple, and must not distract from the Word, which is the power. And it must not become an element of worship in itself. Musical accompaniment is there for the carrying out of the element; it is not the thing itself. Entertainment-driven worship often makes the musical accompaniment an element of worship, whether that is the intent or not. It is not there simply to facilitate the singing; it is there to be something wholly on its own. The element itself, where the Word is, is the spiritual power of worship. The circumstances are never to point to themselves; they must point to the elements and magnify the elements. As soon as they point to themselves, they are no longer circumstances, but elements. In this way, there is liberty, yet God governs the circumstance of musical accompaniment.
We must apply the principles to the circumstances. We must recognize that there are perhaps other ways of applying these principles that are not exactly the way “we do it.” We must also recognize that there are many ways churches worship that are in direct contradiction to God’s Word and are not the desire of His heart. We must judge wisely and with biblical discernment.
Based on what has gone before, when we analyze worship according to elements and circumstances, I submit we must ask at least these four questions.
First, what elements are in this worship? The elements are commanded by God and may not be added to or taken away from worship. They are the express desire of His heart.
Second, are the circumstances (especially music) becoming elements themselves?
Third, are the elements being carried out in submission to the other principles of worship—with reverence, with simplicity, recognizing the character of the God we are worshiping?
Fourth, is there a distraction from the Word in the elements, or is the Word truly the center and power, not only of the sermon, but of the service in every respect?
There may be other questions, but I believe these four arise naturally out of a biblical discussion of the regulative principle of worship.
Worship is a means by which we reflect God back to Himself. Our understanding of God will therefore shape the way we worship. Theology not only leads to doxology, it shapes doxology. Therefore when we stop asking the question, “God, what dost Thou desire in the public worship of Thy name?” it is generally because we have the deeper spiritual problem of not caring deeply about God Himself and the truths concerning Him. In other words, it is when we have no regard for truth, that we have no regard for God, and worship decays into an expression of our idolatry.
This is the way it was for Israel in Jeremiah’s day. In(a number of verses before verse 31, where God appeals to the regulative principle to chastise His people), God says that “truth is perished, and is cut off from their mouth.” The Israelites did not care about the Word of God and discovering who God really is. This led them to twist God into something they saw in the pagan gods around them. For this desecration of God’s character, and therefore of the worship of His name, there was the chilling judgment recorded in : “the Lord hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath,” and the calling to “take up a lamentation for a people who had forsaken their God.” This is the reaction of God to false worship also today, and you see this judgment in that God has forsaken many parts of Western Christianity.
But for those who by grace seek to answer the question, “What is the desire of God’s heart,” in their worship, and to carry out their worship according to His commandment, there is a peace and a true joy. The husband who brings home to the wife he loves a gift she truly enjoys is joyful that he has made her happy. So too those all over this planet who bring worship according to God’s Word have the confidence and the joy of knowing that they have offered worship that He has commanded and that He desired from His heart.
¹ I will argue in a future series, the Lord willing, that reciting the Apostles’ Creed in public worship is part of the biblical element of prayer and therefore is justifiably part of Reformed worship.