“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 commanded in his word.

Heidelberg Catechism, Question 96.


When John Calvin was asked to give his opinion regarding what were the most important issues in the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, he said this: “If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, a knowledge first of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.”1

So important is right worship, that to Calvin it was a more significant issue in the church even than the doctrines of salvation. This is so because salvation is a means to the end of worship. The church exists for worship. The church trains her members and their children so that there is worship. The church does mis­sions so that there might be worship where there was

not worship before. Indeed, the chief end of man is to worship.

For this reason we have taken up a series on three great principles regarding the public corporate worship of the church. So far we have seen that public worship is a covenantal assembly gathered to meet with God. We have seen that God carries out that meeting as a dialogue between Himself and His people. Now we see that God is the one who in His sovereignty regu­lates what takes place in that covenantal assembly. He decides what brings Him glory and what will bring us into the experience of the covenant of grace. This is the regulative principle of worship.

The Principle

The regulative principle of worship is the principle that God in His Word tells us how to worship Him. What God commands in worship must be done, and what He does not command in worship is forbidden. This principle arises first of all out of the second com­mandment. In the first commandment God commands us whom to worship—“no other gods but Me” In the second commandment God speaks to us about how to worship Him. Exodus 20:4: “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.”

Negatively, the second commandment tells us we are not to worship Him by graven images. Israel was tempted by this. When they made the golden calf, they weren’t thinking that the actual calf was their god; rather they were attempting to worship Jehovah as represented by that calf. The issue was the mode and manner of worship. The calf was not a new god; it was a new way to worship Jehovah God.

God says in the second command, “I will not be wor­shiped that way.” The Heidelberg Catechism expands the application of the principle that God speaks to how

He will be worshiped. The Heidelberg says it is not up to the imaginations of men how God will be worshiped, but rather He will be worshiped in no other way than He has commanded in His Word. He is the sovereign God and He determines how He will be worshiped.

We can state that positively as well. “Worship Me,” God is saying in the second commandment. “And worship me, the way I desire to be worshiped.” That’s the regulative principle—worship God in the way He wants; He’s the one being worshiped, after all. It’s for Him. Give Him what He desires. This is the question we are asking when we speak of the regulative principle of worship: what does God want in the worship of His name? When we come for this covenantal dialogue, what exactly does He want to take place? What are the elements of this dialogue that God requires? May we add different elements to the covenantal meeting?

When people deal with these issues concerning wor­ship, they often begin by asking the wrong question. Some begin by asking, “What will be the most appeal­ing to people? What will allow people to showcase their individual talents the best and make them feel most special? What will be the elements that are most like the culture around us? What will be the most fun for us?” Or on the other side of the coin, sometimes the first question people ask is, “What are our favorite songs from childhood? Or what have we always done?” But none of these questions address the essence of it.

The question first of all is, how does God desire to be worshiped? What does His Word say about the public worship of His name? In worship God speaks to us, and we respond in love for Him. He is the audience, not us. Therefore the question is, what does He desire from us? What will please Him? What brings Him more glory?

I’m sure no husbands reading this have done any­thing like this before, but what if it was your wife’s birthday and you came home with a present for her. You were excited for your wife to open it because it’s her birthday and you got her a present. And, of course, your wife begins to crack a smile wondering what it could be, because obviously this must be something great if you’re so excited for her to open it. And then she does open it, and it turns out to be three tickets to a Colorado Rockies baseball game. You are very excited and blurt out, “Isn’t it going to be great?! My brother and I were going to go, and that is why I had two tickets, but we bought another one, and now the three of us can go together.” Then you see the disappointment on your wife’s face. She begins to try kindly to explain to you that she does not like baseball . . . and you should have known that . . . and even if she did, with your brother there it is not really even a romantic night away. And as she patiently explains her twinge of disappointment to you she gets to the crux of the matter, “Dear, you were really thinking more about what you would want, than what I would want when you got this present. And that’s why you were excited about it. It was more for you than it was for me.”

That is, I am afraid, the way God responds to some of the public worship in His church today. God says, “If you took the time to ask the question, what do I want, instead of what do you want, you would have come with something different.” If the erring husband would have spoken with his wife and known her desires, he would have known how to give a gift that was truly for her. So too we must search God’s Word, study Him there, and ask this question: “God, what wouldst Thou desire in the worship of Thy name? God, how do You want your church to respond to the mighty acts and promises You declare to us?” Worship is for God.

A Principle for Freedom in Worship

The word “regulative” sounds frightening and imperi­alistic to people today. Nobody wants to be regulated. We like to exist without regulation. People often look at the regulative principle of worship as hampering free­dom, but that is not the case at all. In fact, it is the other way around. The Belgic Confession makes this point in Article 32. “We reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.”2

The Confession is saying that the church should not allow human inventions and laws into the worship of the church, because that puts people under the tyranny of man’s opinion. They bind the conscience to some­thing that God has not required. And true freedom is to do the will of God. The regulative principle of worship ensures that we have the freedom to worship God the way He wants, not the particular way a teenage worship leader wants. It saves us from being subject to a worship governed by the opinions of a specific indi­vidual or group of individuals. Without the regulative principle we are all subject to whatever somebody who puts together the worship decides is best. The regula­tive principle saves us from the regulations of someone’s individual opinions, and it places us under the regula­tion of God. It is the only source of true freedom in worship to ask and allow God to answer this question, “God, what dost Thou desire?”

The Regulative principle in the Old Testament

God has not been silent in telling His church that this is a principle of worship. All throughout Scripture, this principle is clear; God commands what is to be done in the worship of His name. In the Old Testament this principle is clear. God tells Moses when he builds the tabernacle for worship that he may not build it and the furniture any way he wants, but rather, Exodus 25:40: “And look that thou make them after their pat­tern, which was shewed thee in the mount” God gave specific instructions about how the tabernacle was to be built and where it was to be placed and how the worship in that tabernacle was to be carried out.

In Deuteronomy 12:29-32 God commands Israel to worship Him according to the way He has commanded. He says to His people in that passage, I know that when you get to Canaan it is going to be a temptation for you to worship the way the pagans around you worship. So, “Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God”

In other words, be prepared for your worship to go against the grain of the prevailing culture of the day. For the question in worship is not, “What is everybody else doing with respect to their gods?” Rather, as God states positively in the next verse, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” Not: “If I don’t forbid it then consider it wide open.” But: “Do what I command you, and that only. Don’t add or take away from that. That’s the principle you must follow. Do what I desire, and I tell you what I desire in my Word.”

And then the text printed at the top of this article is a striking example of God giving this principle of worship. Jeremiah 7:30-34 records the Old Testament Israelites polluting the public worship of God. The Israelites were following after the pagan worship of the nations around them, even though in the passage just discussed from Deuteronomy, God had told them not to.

Horror of horrors, they were offering their children as sacrifices to God in the Valley of Hinnom, which is on the south side of Jerusalem. They were doing this, many scholars believe, as worship to the pagan gods and also as worship to Jehovah. They thought they could lump Jehovah in with all the other gods and wor­ship Him the same way the pagan gods were worshiped. They thought, if the other gods like this sort of wor­ship, surely Jehovah does too.

That such is what they were thinking is implied when God says in verse 31 that this was not in His heart. Some were saying, “I’m sure Jehovah has this in His heart. If the other gods desire it, Jehovah must as well.” In this way the worship of God was corrupted with this horrible pagan practice. The question, what does everybody else do, and what is in the hearts of the gods of the age, led them all the way actually to offering their children on altars to Jehovah.

But what is so instructive for us here is the way God responds to their worship in Jeremiah 7:31. You would expect God to say, “What are you doing, killing your own children? What are you thinking?” And certainly God does view that practice as horrific in itself and unbelievably pagan and terrible, yet God doesn’t attack the practice. He does not point to the symptom, but to the root issue here. The heart of the matter, God says in verse 31, is you have done in worship that “which I commanded not, neither came it into my heart” In other words, “This would have been prevented if you followed the regulative principle of worship! If you had delved into my Word and asked, ‘What does God command us to do in His Word? For His Word reveals to us what is in His heart regarding the worship of His name,’ then you would not have done this. As horrible as it is that you are offering your children as sacrifices, the root of the matter here is that worship is to be what I command, because what I command comes from my heart. If you were truly interested in what I desired, in what was in my heart, you never would have gone down this path. This is how you got here, you ignored the regulative principle of worship” And we are like the Israelites. Our hearts are idol factories. We ought to have a healthy fear of our idol-making capabilities, and instead turn to God’s heart as recorded in His Word regarding worship.

There are many examples, too, in the Old Testament where this principle is enforced. Nadab and Abihu, who are punished in Leviticus 10 for bringing strange fire that the Lord did not command, provide an exam­ple. Uzzah touching the ark, even when his motive was right, is another example. And there are others. God takes worship seriously and will not allow people called by His name to trifle with His holiness.

Next time we will see this principle in the New Testa­ment, and apply it to public corporate worship.

John Calvin, “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church,” Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), vol. 1, 126.

2 Three Forms of Unity, 42-43.