Acceptable Worship

Question: What is the acceptable way of worshiping the only true God?

Answer: 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 the Holy Scripture. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1)

HoW do we know that we have worshiped well? Did we find the Sunday morning service “meaningful” or “dynamic” or “exhilarating”? Or what about the visitors? Was it warm and accommodating? Despite what the current literature on worship might suggest, none of the criteria implicit in these questions establishes the acceptable way of worshiping God because they deflect us away from the Biblical standard for worship. Scripture insists that we must worship in a way that is acceptable to God. The simple test for acceptable worship is this: does it conform to the Bible? This standard has become known in Reformed churches as the “regulative principle.”


The essence of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century was to turn away from medieval Catholic abuses and to return to the simplicity of Christian worship. The goal of all the Reformers was to be Reformed “according to the Word of God.” Submission to the rule of Scripture is the essence of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. It is found, for example, in the sixth of the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requiSite as necessary to salvation.” Similarly, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession condemned the Roman Catholic mass because “its traditions were preferred far above the commandments of God.”

More specifically, the authority of Scripture in worship is a logical consequence of the teaching of the second commandment. There are two ways of offering false worship, according to the Ten Commandments.

First, one worships a false God, which is a violation of the first commandment. worships the true God in a false way. This is a violation of the second commandment. Among the duties of 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,” including “the disapproving, detesting, [and] opposing all false worship” which are “monuments of idolatry” (Westminster Larger Catechism, 108).

To be Reformed in worship, however, is to go beyond the Lutheran and Anglican teaching and to restrict the elements of worship only to what God has prescribed in His word and nothing more. The Reformed saw other Protestants as inconsistent in their submission to the authority of Scripture. For Lutherans and Anglicans, the Bible was the sole authority for doctrine, but not for the government or the worship of the church. They affirmed in worship what has been called the “normative principle”: whatever Scripture does not forbid is permissible. Thus, they bar from worship only what is specifically condemned in Scripture.

For Calvinists, sola scriptura meant the reformation of doctrine, polity and worship. All three of these legs were necessary to undergird the ministry of the church. And so in submitting to the regulative principle of worship, the Reformed only includes in worship what God prescribed in the Bible, believing that Scripture forbids whatever God does not expressly, or by good and necessary consequence, command. In contrast to the “normative principle,” the silence of Scripture regarding a specific practice in worship, such as lighting candles or burning incense, is just as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation of such a practice.

Some Presbyterian churches have recently added dance and drama to their worship. However, Presbyterians who are self-consciously Reformed contend that there must be clear warrant in Scripture for these innovations. Moreover, if that warrant is found, then these elements are required for all churches, and not merely permissible for those who prefer them.

For this reason, simplicity characterizes Reformed worship. The Reformed worship without candles, liturgical vestments, or highly ornamented sanctuaries. While Luther argued that God had given man five senses to use in worship, Calvin argued that we worship for God’s glory, only secondarily for our edification, and not in the least for our pleasure.

In sum, the regulative principle simply states that whatever we do in worship must have support from the Bible. As we shall see, this is not to say that we have a proof-text for everything we do in worship. Scripture gives the church no exact order of worship. But by good and necessary consequence we may deduce from God’s Word the necessary “parts of the ordinary religious worship” of God.




Some historians have described the regulative principle as a “puritan” invention. By this they mean that it is specific to the Anglo-American Reformed tradition, to Presbyterians who subscribe to Westminster Standards. On the other hand, this argument continues, the Reformed tradition that developed on the European continent, as in the Dutch, French, German, Hungarian and Swiss Reformed churches, have no counterpart to this peculiar teaching of the Westminster Standards.

But a study of the continental Reformed creeds and confessions will quickly expose this as a false claim. For example, question and answer 96 of the Heidelberg Catechism instructs us that the regulative principle is the explicit consequence of the second commandment, which requires “that we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.” Similarly, the Belgic Confession states in Article 32:

In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial that those who are rulers of the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church, yet that they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted. And therefore 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. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose, excommunication or church discipline is requisite, with all that pertains to it, according to the Word of God.

When we look beyond the Reformed confessions, we can find evidence that John Calvin himself clearly espoused the regulative principle of worship. In The Necessity of Reforming the Church, he wrote:

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all mode of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct. “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (I Sam. 15:22; Mt. 15:9) Every addition to his word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” (Col. 2:23)…is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.

So, if the regulative principle is so firmly established in the Reformed tradition, why are Presbyterian and Reformed churches abandoning it? An objection that is unhappily gaining ascendancy in Reformed circles contends that the regulative principle is a hyper-scrupulous and narrow-minded rule that robs Christians of the freedom that God would have them express in worship. But ironically, it is the regulative principle that is the surest guarantor of Christian freedom, not the notion that we may do whatever Scripture does not forbid.


One typical objection to the regulative principle is that it is an Old Covenant idea, and it is illegitimate to import it into the New Covenant, where the ceremonial law — including the Levitical restrictions on worship — have been fulfilled in Christ. Yet there is ample New Testament evidence for the regulative principle. In the quote above from Calvin we find from the words of Jesus a reiteration of the prophet Isaiah’s invocation of the regulative principle: “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men” (Matt. 15:9; see Isa. 29:13). Calvin also cites Paul’s condemnation of “will worship”: the will of God, not the will of man, is the rule of worship for the New Testament church (Col. 2:22–23).

Jesus further invokes the regulative principle in the Great Commission, when He directs the ministry of the church “to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). There is no other authority for the church — including her worship — beside the teaching of Christ, who in His office as prophet reveals God’s will by His Word and His Spirit. To observe the Lord’s authority is to worship as He has commanded. So the very charter for the New Testament church is expressed in the same terms of the law of Moses, namely to exclude human invention from her teaching and worship.

Thus, the New Testatment itself refutes the claim that the regulative principle is a ceremonial burden from which the church, come of age in Christ, is now at liberty to worship as she sees fit. It is not a principle that can be abandoned by appealing to the discontinuities between the Old and New Covenants. Instead, the principle abides because it is premised on such unchanging truths as the character of God, the extent of human depravity, and the command for us to love our neighbor. These three truths all inform the New Covenant observance of the regulative principle.

It is obvious that the Bible reveals God to be a jealous God. His very name is “Jealous,” according to Exodus 34:13. This feature of His character is specifically revealed in the prohibitions against false worship. The Westminster Larger Catechism, cited above, goes on to give these reasons for the regulative principle from the second commandment: “his fervent zeal for his own worship, and his revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom” (110). Because God is a jealous God, He does not welcome forms of worship that men and women may devise, even if they are believers or sincere. Instead, He insists that He be worshiped only as He commands (Ex. 34:13–15). Thus the Bible describes as wicked, irreverent, and profane not only those who contradict God’s will, but also those who do what is beside His will.

The regulative principle is also a consequence of the doctrine of total depravity. Paul teaches in Romans 1 that the entire human race is in rebellion against God. This rebellious spirit, of course, extends to worship and makes it false. Paul writes that the worship of unbelievers is false not because of ignorance but rather moral turpitude: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God” (v. 20). Calvinists believe that depravity extends beyond the reprobate, and includes even the regenerate who still bear the corruption of sin. For this reason weare incompetent to devise by our own imagination, even if it is pious, any sort of worship thatis appropriate or pleasing to God. Consider, further, how the Westminster Confession describes good works. After we have done our duty toward God, we are “still unprofitable servants,” and our good works are “defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection” (16:6). What the Confession says here of good works is certainly true of our best efforts at worship If we are incapable of doing good works untainted by corruption, how can we be able to devise worship that is pleasing to God solely on the basis of our own wisdom or desires?

Because of the doctrine of total depravity, Calvin taught that the regulative principle is essential to true worship. Because all men possess the depraved inclination to suppress the truth and to worship idols, Calvin concluded that “experience teaches us how fertile is the field of falsehood in the human mind, and that the smallest of grains, when sown there, will grow to yield an immense harvest.” This idolatrous propensity remained strong even in believers, Calvin insisted, which is why he called the mind a “factory of idols,” and wrote that “everyone of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.”


When we focus on the jealousy of God and the depravity of man, we have ample reason to be aware of the sinful impulses that still influence believers in worship. But restraint of sin is not to be confused with restraint of liberty. Contrary to the modern mindset that prizes unfettered freedom, the regulative principle is the very guardian, not the enemy of Christian liberty in public worship. This follows from Paul’s teaching on the conscience of a weaker brother (see Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8). Out of love for our neighbor, Paul requires that we must not wound the conscience of a weaker brother, even when that conscience is an errant conscience.

T. David Gordon has applied this Pauline principle well to worship. When the elders of the church call the people of God to worship, they are necessarily and unavoidably binding the conscience of worshipers (because Christians are forbidden to forsake the worship of God). This is not a problem if the church is worshiping Biblically, because the elders of the church are binding consciences according to the Word of God as they are called to do in the Great Commission. But imagine a worship service that involves something without Biblical warrant, such as the lighting of an advent wreath. If a believer finds this practice objectionable, what can he or she do? Either one must not participate (which sinfully breaks a divine command to worship God with the rest of the saints assembled) or one must participate iwhich sinfully violates ones conscience).

Seen in this light, as Gordon tellingly argues, the regulative principle of worship, far from restricting Christian liberty, serves instead to protect it. The only way in which a church can worship God and protect liberty of conscience is to observe the regulative principle. Properly observed, it liberates worshipers from the tyranny of churches that impose on their people elements of public worship that have no Biblical warrant. When churches engage in unbiblical practices (whether for the sake of tradition or innovation), they usurp the Lordship of Christ. The sad and nearly inevitable result is the outbreak of controversy and disharmony in the church.


Although the confessions of our churches are explicit about the regulative principle, a moment’s reflection reveals that every consistory or session of Reformed churches makes certain decisions about worship that have no direct warrant from Scripture whatsoever. For example, many churches have determined to call the people of God to worship at I am and 6pm on the Lord’s Day. Why not 10am and 7pm? Or why not all day? It would not be unbiblical to worship from dawn to dusk. Moreover, churches have also determined that the ministry of the Word is more effective with certain lighting, climate control, and voice amplification, and Scripture warrants none of this. And how do we determine how many psalms and hymns to sing in worship? What is too few and what is too many, and where do we find that in the Bible? To answer these questions the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition offers another useful distinction, between the “elements” of worship and “circumstances” of worship. The elements of worship are the “what” of worship, the fixed and unchanging parts of the worship service. These include prayer, the reading and preaching of the Word, singing, and the sacraments.

The circumstances are the “how” of worship. These are the conditions that are most conducive to worship, including time and place. These are described in the Westminster Confession when it states: “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” (1:6). Thus, while there is no Biblical reason not to worship from dawn to dusk on the Lord’s Day, such would be imprudent, a “circumstance concerning the worship of God” that in our culture would put an onerous burden on believers.

More needs to and will be said about the elements and circumstances of worship. But for now the point is a simple one: far from loosening the strength of the regulative principle, this distinction between elements (the “what”) and circumstances (the “how”) clarifies the regulative principle. Further, it allows that there will be some variety in churches that are committed to Reformed worship.


We must not forget that the second commandment reveals not only a God of wrath but also a God who is infinite in His mercy. The very passage that warned of a jealous God’s judgment on false worship also promised God’s “lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6). Only the faithful observance of the regulative principle enables Christians to claim this promise. In his book, Worship That Is Reformed According to Scripture, Hughes Oliphant Old drew the following conclusion about the distinctiveness of Reformed worship:

This program for the renewal of worship in American Protestant churches of today may not be just exactly what everyone is looking for. In our evangelistic zeal we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead. It seemed like a good solution in terms of our American culture. Unfortunately, all too soon the guests discovered the fraud. Alas! What are we to do now? How can we possibly minister to those who thirst for the real thing? There is but one thing to do, as Mary the mother of Jesus, understood so very well. You remember how the story goes. After presenting the problem to Jesus, Mary turned to the servants and said to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” The servants did just that and the water was turned to wine, wine rich and mellow beyond anything they had ever tasted before.

The challenge for the church today is precisely the dilemma that Mary faced. If we desire worship that is pleasing and acceptable to God, we must put aside “the imaginations and devices of men.” In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, “we should not be wiser than God” (Q & A 98). Instead, let us follow the regulative principle of worship, and “do whatever he tells you.”

D.G. Hart is librarian and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA), and is an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).