Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Bauer, Michigan.

The force of the second commandment is that the one true God is to be worshiped only as He desires. The nature of God, on the one hand, and the nature of God’s fallen-into-sin creatures, on the other hand, are such that God alone can determine how He is to be worshiped.

First, let us briefly consider the concept of worship.

Worship is the serving of God by His people whenever and wherever God meets with them. Worship can be public or private. Private worship is the serving of God which takes place wherever God meets with individuals or groups of believers, such as families. Public worship is the serving of God which takes place wherever God meets with His people as the instituted church on earth through the instrumentality of the offices He instituted in the church. God comes to His people to fellowship with them and to bless them. His people approach God to serve and to worship Him as the God of their salvation in Jesus Christ, and to extol His glory as manifested in His virtues.

The first and chief purpose of public worship is the public and united service and glorification of God with joy and thanksgiving in an orderly manner (Ps. 35:18; 111:1; 122; 149). The second purpose of public worship is the edifying and building up of the church collectively through the strengthening and growth of the individual members as part of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11, 12). Through the means of public worship the people of God are strengthened in their faith.

Next, let us consider the second commandment. It reads, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20: 4-6).

The second commandment forbids the making of images of the one true God spoken of in the first commandment.

Images of the one true God are forbidden for several reasons. First, we may not make an image of Jehovah because of His freedom as a Spirit (John 1:18; 4:24). An image attempts to comprehend the Incomprehensible One, to control and limit Him. Second, we cannot make an image of God because of His infinite majesty and glory (Is. 40: 25,27,28). God and His majesty are so infinitely great that man cannot know God unless He is pleased to reveal Himself. And even then our knowledge of God is not comprehension. Third, we need not make an image of God because of the nature of His covenant with His people in Christ. God has already established an intimate relationship of love, so He is very near us, in our mouths and in our hearts (Deut. 30:12-14; Rom.10:6-9). His people do not need images to bring Him close to them.

The second commandment’s prohibition of images speaks specifically to the manner in which the one true God is worshiped. Whereas the first commandment rejects all other gods for the one God, the second commandment determines the contents and manner of the worship of Jehovah. It emphasizes that the one God is to be worshiped only in the way He commands, and not as man imagines. An image is the effort of the human imagination to represent the deity, which representation is thought to be needed to regulate the relationship between the god and its worshipers. Thus the second commandment regulates the worship of the one true God.

The fathers of the Reformed faith took the position that the second commandment spoke to the question of the proper worship of God. This is evidenced in the explanation of the second commandment as found in the Reformed creeds.

On the continent of Europe the Heidelberg Catechism expresses creedally how the Reformers applied the second commandment to public worship. Lord’s Day 35 of the Catechism speaks to the second commandment as follows.

Q. 96. What doth God require in the second commandment?

A. That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His word.

Q. 97. Are images then not at all to be made?

A. God neither can, nor may be represented by any means: but as to creatures; though they may be represented, yet God forbids to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them or to serve God by them.

Q. 98. But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity?

A.No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have His people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of the word.

The Westminster standards reflect the thinking of the Reformers on the British Isles. The Larger Catechism presents the fathers’ interpretation of the second commandment and show clearly how they believed it spoke about worship.

Q. 108. What are the duties required in the second commandment?

A.The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.

Q. 109. What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment?

A.The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship, not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed. (emphasis mine—RVO).

The second commandment regulates the worship of God by the church. This commandment denies man the right to determine what belongs as an element of worship. Positively, God Himself, in His Word, prescribes the elements of the church’s worship. That fact that this right belongs to God clearly implies that man does not have this right.

This is known as the “regulative principle.” It is the principle that God is to be worshiped only in ways prescribed in Scripture. The Heidelberg Catechism stated it thus: “That we in no wise…worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His word” (q. 96). The Westminster Confession declares that “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 any other way not prescribed in Holy Scripture” (XXI, 1).

The second commandment’s demand that God be approached and worshiped only as He has commanded does not stand alone in the Scriptures. Elsewhere the Scriptures expressly forbid man adding anything to God’s commands respecting His worship and His service.

“Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandment of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deut. 4:2).

“What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:30).

“Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5, 6).

Concerning the worship of God in the tabernacle, Moses was admonished to be careful to every detail God had shown to him when he was before God on Mt. Sinai. “And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was showed thee in the mount” (Ex. 25:40 and Heb. 8:5). The detail of God’s commands concerning the construction of the tabernacle and the use of the tabernacle for worship made it very plain that whatever was not commanded was forbidden. Those who, contrary to such clear revelation, worshiped God in another way became the object of the fearful vengeance of the jealous God. Consider the history of the fire from the Lord which devoured the priests, Nadab and Abihu, because they offered “strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not” (Lev. 10).

In the new dispensation, the apostle Paul expressly condemns “will-worship” (Col. 2:20-23). In this passage Paul describes will-worship as worship according to the doctrines and commandments of men.

These passages of Scripture support the second commandment’s rule that it is the will of God, not the will of man, which is to determine the worship of the one true God.

The application of the second commandment to a worship service requires the making of a legitimate distinction between the “elements” and the “circumstances” of a worship service.

By “elements” is meant an item or a matter which is included in the liturgy of the service of worship. “Circumstances” refer to the way in which the elements are included or practiced in the worship service. The elements which God’s Word authorizes to be used to worship Him are: salutation, blessings, singing of Psalms, reading of Scripture, prayer, the administration of the two sacraments, offerings, and chiefly the preaching of the Word. The regulative principle demands these elements to be a part of the service.

The regulative principle applies to the elements of a worship service, and not to every circumstance connected with a worship service. The Westminster Confession declares that “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (I – 6). There is much in a worship service concerning which no commandment of God is given, such as the time of day of the services and the length of a service. The regulative principle does not demand that there be a specific biblical command for all the circumstances in a worship service. For example, the minister, while preaching, may stand, though we read in Scripture that Jesus sat. Also, the exact way in which the elements are to be present in the service is not detailed for us in Scripture. God gives no explicit command concerning the order of the elements in the service, the amount of time to be given to each element, etc. In such cases the church has freedom, a freedom she must always use with care.

However, the way in which the elements are present in the worship service is to be always one of reverence, so that it is obvious that the Most High Majesty is being worshiped. Also solemnity, simplicity, orderliness, and stability are to characterize the way in which the elements are present in the worship service (I Cor. 14:40). The way in which the elements of the worship of God are present should not be ritualistic and strictly external ceremony, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, the way in which the elements of a divine worship service are present should not be frivolous and entertaining.

Just how forceful is the force of the second commandment can be seen in God’s use of the words “hate” and “love” in the second commandment.

God describes the making of images of Him as “hating” Him. This hating God by making of images of Him arouses His jealousy (Deut. 4:24). He pursues with anger all who do not worship Him as He has commanded, but are contemptuous of Him. He is jealous of His glory and will not give it to a mere image (the fruit of human imagination). He is jealous of the total devotion His covenant wife owes Him. Self-willed worship arouses jealousy in God, just as jealousy is aroused when one sees his mate loving another.

And in the second commandment God says that it is “love” which makes worship real and true. Love of God is doing always what He wants us to do (“keep My commandments”), and doing that especially in our worship of Him.

The second commandment speaks directly to the worship of God. It specifically demands that God not be worshiped according to the imagination of man. Positively, it demands that God be worshiped as He has commanded. May the force of this truth be ever before the consciousness of the instituted church as it determines what belongs to a service of worship. And may the force of this truth be ever before the consciousness of believers as they gather for worship, fleeing mere formality and insincerity to love the one true God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength.