We believe that God should be worshiped strictly and exclusively according to the Bible, with no additions or subtractions whatsoever (Deut. 12:29-32). Why is this so important? One reason is that, according to the clear teaching of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, true worship is fundamentally an act of service (Luke 4:8).
Consider the following illustration: If you entered a restaurant and ordered a Philly cheesesteak (provolone, peppers, no onions) and the server returned with a cheesesteak drenched in caramel syrup, would you be pleased? Of course not! The duty of a server is to bring you precisely what you ordered, without any additions or subtractions. Surely you would politely explain to the server that he or she had failed to properly carry out your order. But what if the server replied, “Well, you never said not to add caramel syrup!” or “Yes, but I find serving you to be more enjoyable when I get to pour caramel syrup all over your food!” Quite obviously, both of these responses would be entirely inadequate.
Regardless of their own personal preferences, servers are expected to carry out the precise orders of those whom they are serving, with no unwarranted additions or subtractions. Anything less is self-serving, right? The same may be said concerning our service of worship to God. The moment we deviate from the specific elements of worship prescribed in God’s Word, our worship becomes tainted with the service of self rather than the service of God. The Scriptures call us to serve God by worshiping Him exclusively according to His own commandments. This Biblical principle is commonly called the Regulative Principle of Worship.
“DOES SOLA SCRIPTURA APPLY TO WORSHIP?”
At the heart of the “Reformed” wing of the Protestant Reformation was the notion that the principle of Sola Scriptura (i.e. Scripture alone) applies not only to Christian doctrine, but also to Christian worship. Just as we must refuse to supplement Biblical doctrine with man-made teachings, so we must reject any attempt to supplement Biblical worship with man-made innovations.
This is a major reason why Reformed Christians like John Calvin and John Knox originally broke ties with Roman Catholicism. They were horrified not only by Rome’s corrupt doctrine, but also by the numerous man-made religious ceremonies which she had incorporated into her worship. They rightly understood that Christian worship (like Christian doctrine) must be derived from Scripture alone. No action or ordinance of religious significance may be performed in New Testament Christian worship except what is positively warranted from the Bible.
There are, of course, certain circumstances of worship which carry no religious significance, but which are necessary for the conducting of Christian worship. Examples of such non-religious circumstances include the start-time of the service (whether at 8:00 AM or 10:00 AM), its location (whether at a traditional church building or in a hotel conference room), and the congregational seating accommodations (whether pews, chairs, or benches). So long as none of these circumstances is invested with religious significance, there is freedom to determine them according to the light of nature, Christian prudence, and any otherwise applicable Scriptural principles. But for anything that has religious significance, there must be positive Scriptural warrant.
We must note that positive Scriptural warrant for a particular ordinance may not always involve an explicit command. Sometimes it may simply involve an approved historical example (such as the apostolic church meeting on the first day of the week, Acts 20:7) or a necessary logical inference (such as allowing women as well as men to eat the Lord’s Supper, 1 Cor. 11:28; Gal. 3:28). Positive Scriptural warrant may take any one of these three forms, but it must never be absent. Let’s see how this Regulative Principle of Worship unfolds in Scripture itself.
“HOW WAS OLD TESTAMENT WORSHIP REGULATED?”
Even from the earliest recorded examples of worship in the Bible, it is clear that God has always demanded to be worshiped exclusively according to His own personal appointment.
Following the fall of Adam and Eve into sin and the pronouncing of the first gospel promise (Gen. 3:15), God killed an animal and clothed Adam and Eve in its skin. This not only pointed ahead to the atoning death of Jesus Christ; it also marked the institution of animal sacrifice as an ordinance of Old Testament worship.
Soon afterward, Adam’s son Abel exercised his faith by following the prescribed pattern and offering an animal sacrifice, which pointed ahead to Christ (Heb. 11:4; 12:24). However, when his brother Cain brought an unauthorized offering of vegetables, we’re told that the Lord “did not respect Cain and his offering” (Gen. 4:5). Not only did God reject Cain himself for his improper attitude; He also rejected Cain’s offering, since Cain had not exercised true faith by offering up the divinely commanded blood-sacrifice.
The Regulative Principle of Worship is also seen in the second of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). Most of us are aware that the first commandment forbids worshiping false gods (Ex. 20:3), but what about worshiping the true God in a false way? This additional question is addressed in the second commandment (Ex. 20:4-6), which states,
You shall not make for yourself a carved 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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
When Israel worshiped the golden calf in the wilderness, we’re told that they held “a feast to the LORD” (Ex. 32:5) and said of the calf, “This is your God that brought you up out of Egypt” (Neh. 9:18). From this we learn that they viewed the calf not as another god, but as a visible representation of the true God, Jehovah. In opposition to such idolatrous innovation, the second commandment both forbids idolatry and requires strict adherence to God’s commandments. So emphatic is our jealous God in instituting the Regulative Principle of Worship that He actually describes those who worship according to “My commandments” as “those who love Me” and regards all others as “them that hate Me.” Later in Deuteronomy 12:29-32, Moses gives an even clearer exposition of the second commandment:
When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.)
According to Scripture, the God-ordained solution to pagan idolatry is not merely some sort of vague or general “discernment,” but a principled, unswerving commitment to worship God precisely and exclusively as He has prescribed in His Word, with absolutely no additions or subtractions. Here are just a few Old Testament passages which serve to reinforce this principle.
The Lord kills the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, with fire because they “offered strange [lit. unauthorized] fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.” (Lev. 10:1-4)
King David transports the Ark of the Covenant in an unauthorized fashion (using an ox cart instead of poles, as in Ex. 25:10-16), leading to the death of Uzza the priest (2 Sam. 6:1-13; 1 Chron. 15:1-3; 11-16).
The Lord condemns the idolatrous sin of child sacrifice specifically because “I did not command [it], nor did it come into My heart.” (Jer. 7:21-32; 19:4-6).
The Lord condemns King Jeroboam of the Northern Kingdom of Israel for adding his own self-devised innovations into divine worship (1 Kings 12:25-33; 14:16).
The Lord condemns those who worship God at “high places”; that is any location other than the one appointed “high place” of Mount Zion (Deut. 12:2, 5-6, 8-9; 1 Kings 15:11-14; 2 Kings 10:28-29; 2 Chron. 33:11-17)
HOW IS NEW TESTAMENT WORSHIP TO BE REGULATED?
When speaking with the Samaritan woman in John 4:22-24, Jesus revealed that New Testament worship would be far simpler and more spiritual than Old Testament worship, yet equally regulated by His own Word of truth.
Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
The centralized, outward, sensory worship of the Old Testament was destined to be replaced by New Testament worship “in spirit and in truth”. The phrase “in spirit” describes the manner or method of New Testament worship, whereas the phrase “in truth” describes the authoritative source of its content. New Testament worship is more “spiritual”, involving less of an outward spectacle than Old Testament worship. It also continues to be defined and regulated by God’s “truth” as revealed in His Word. One contemporary writer has explained Jesus’ words in this way:
There is a distinction between Old Testament and New Testament worship in the manner of our access to God. Old Testament believers dealt with altars, tabernacles, veils and animal sacrifices, shadowy representations of approach into God’s presence, rather than relating immediately to the true tabernacle in heaven. There is a directness of approach in New Testament worship, because we deal not in the menace of shadows, but come boldly to God’s own throne of grace, the way into the most holy place now being manifest.
. . . The beauty of New Testament worship is not produced by aesthetic display. When a congregation tries to worship God by making a creative artistic program for its services, it is not only offering to God something he has not commanded and never sought, it is also failing to appreciate the nature of our access into God’s very presence in heaven which was won for us by the blood of Christ. The glory of our worship is the glory which surrounds our priest in heaven. Does that suffice us?
. . . The simplicity of New Testament forms of worship – the absence of outward pomp and aesthetic exhibition – speaks volumes. It tells of the complete reality of our entrance into the holiest of all in heaven. We are no longer playing with models, but have come to the new Jerusalem itself.
This same writer elsewhere comments on the tendency of many churches to be dissatisfied with the sheer simplicity of New Testament worship.
Why is it such a common feature of church life in our day that activities never required by God in the Scriptures are introduced into worship? Is it not because men fear that the few and simple ordinances prescribed in Scripture will be insufficient to build the church? Is there not an underlying anxiety that further means beyond the biblical ordinances must be devised in order to secure the welfare and prosperity of the church?
. . . The rebuke to our generation’s fascination with extra-Scriptural worship practices is the apostles’ persuasion that, insufficient as they were in themselves, the ministry Christ commissioned them to carry out would be accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Regrettably, this analysis appears all too accurate. Too many churches in our day have chosen to supplement simple New Testament worship with trendy, externally-stimulating, man-made innovations. Perhaps this reflects a lack of faith in the promise of Christ to build His church according to His own commands (Matt. 16:18; 28:19). But whatever the cause, it is surely an abandonment of the Scriptural “truth” by which New Testament worship is to be regulated.
In order to dispel any remaining doubt about the Regulative Principle of Worship, consider the following New Testament passages which serve to confirm it.
Jesus refuses to participate in the man-made, Pharisaical religious tradition of hand-washing, saying of the Pharisees that “in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:1-9; Mk. 7:5-13).
Paul warns the Colossians against any religious observance which is “according to the commandments and doctrines of men” calling it “will worship” or “self-imposed religion” (Col. 2:18-23).
Paul reminds Timothy that Scripture alone is fully sufficient to equip him (and all believers) “for every good work”, which must certainly include the “good work” of worshiping God (2 Tim. 3:14-17).
For a more detailed treatment of this subject, we recommend listening to our pastor’s 2-part Theological Foundations Afternoon lecture entitled, The Regulative Principle of Worship.
WHAT SONGS SHOULD WE SING IN WORSHIP?
Many churches today are embroiled in “worship wars” over whose preferences should determine the content of congregational singing. We believe that the Scriptures themselves provide a plain and peaceable solution to all of this unfortunate controversy. The only praise songs that should be sung in worship are those which God’s Word has specifically authorized us to sing. Of course, the next logical question is, What praise songs has God’s Word authorized us to sing?
To answer this question, we must briefly survey the history of singing praises to God as recorded for us in the Bible.
During the period from Adam to Moses, we find no record of God’s people singing praises to Him in worship.
During the period from Moses to King David, we find God’s people singing praise songs written exclusively by divinely inspired prophets and prophetesses, such as Miriam (Ex. 15:20-21), Moses (Deut. 32; Psalm 90); and Deborah (Judg. 5).
During the period from King David to the Babylonian Captivity,we find God’s people singing praise songs written by divinely inspired authors such as King David himself and his guild of Levitical prophets (2 Sam. 23:1-2; 1 Chron. 25:1-6; 2 Chron. 5:12-13; 29:30).
During the period from the Babylonian Captivity to the closing of Old Testament canon of Scripture,we find God’s people singing from the inspired collection of praise songs that took its final form as the Book of Psalms, probably under Ezra (Neh. 12:45-47).
During the period from the closing of the Old Testament canon of Scripture to the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, there were no new prophets and, therefore, no new praise songs added to already-finalized Book of Psalms.
During the period from the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ to closing of the New Testament canon of Scripture, we find certain individual prophets personally singing inspired songs (Lk. 1:46-55; 2:29-32; 1Cor. 14:13-15, 26) and entire congregations singing from the inspired Book of Psalms (Mt. 26:30; Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16). [For a persuasive demonstration that Eph. 5:18-19 and Col. 3:16 both refer to the Book of Psalms, click HERE.]
During the period from the closing of the New Testament canon of Scripture to the future return of Jesus Christ, God’s people possess the inspired Book of Psalms and can expect no ongoing gift of prophetic inspiration (1 Cor. 13:8; Heb. 1:1-2) and no new additions to Scripture (Rev. 22:18).
A straightforward examination of this Scriptural evidence forces us to conclude that the singing of inspired praise has clear and well-documented Scriptural warrant as an element of New Testament worship. As for the singing of uninspired praise, we find no such warrant (i.e. explicit command, approved example, or necessary logical inference) anywhere in Scripture. Now that the canon of Scripture is closed, the Book of Psalms constitutes the only inspired “hymnal” which God has seen fit to give to His Church.
We rejoice that God has given us the Book of Psalms as a fully sufficient, Christ-centered collection of inspired New Testament praise songs. Martin Luther was correct to call the Psalter “a little Bible” and John Calvin was right to characterize it as an “anatomy of the soul.” Even more significant is the Apostle Paul’s designation of it as “the word of Christ” (Col. 3:16), and our Lord’s own assertion that it speaks so very explicitly “concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). Indeed, who better to author the lyrics of Christian praise songs than Christ Himself, who inspired every word in the Psalter by the operation of His Holy Spirit?
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS IN WORSHIP?
If our desire is to be strictly Biblical in our worship, we cannot answer this question until we first answer a far more fundamental question: “Is there any positive Scriptural warrant for using musical instruments in New Testament worship?” Sadly, this is a question that is rarely (if ever) raised in most American churches today, largely due to a lack of interest in Scriptural worship. Nevertheless, if we are to put God’s glory and God’s commands ahead of our own opinions and preferences, we must diligently search the Scriptures to answer this crucial question!
Consider the following brief historical survey of musical instruments as they appear in the Bible within the context of worship.
During the period from Adam to Moses, we find no record of God’s people using musical instruments in worship.
During the period from Moses to King David, we find three possible examples: (1) The prophetess Miriam’s use of a tambourine to lead Israel’s worshipful, patriotic celebration of its deliverance from Egyptian bondage (Ex. 15:20); (2) God’s explicit command to make two silver trumpets, which only the sons of Aaron could use, for the threefold purpose of gathering the worship assembly, directing military camps, and accompanying animal sacrifices at the tabernacle (Num. 10:1-10); and (3) The private use of various musical instruments by prophets in connection with prophetic activity (I Sam. 10:5, II Kings 3:15).
During the period from King David to the Babylonian Captivity,we find four sorts of examples: (1) David’s appointment of Levites to play musical instruments alongside animal sacrifices in celebration of ark’s return (1 Chron. 13:8; 15:27; 16:1); (2)David’s institution, by divine command, of specific musical instruments to be played by certain Levites over the burnt sacrifices at the tabernacle and eventually the temple (1 Chron. 16:4-6; 23:5; 25:1; 28:11-12; 19; 2 Chron. 5:12; 29:24);(3) The command to sing certain specified Psalms alongside certain specified musical instruments, as indicated in the introductory titles of those Psalms (Ps. 4:1; 5:1; etc);(4)The command to worship God with the specific divinely-commanded musical instruments employed by the Levites at the temple (Psalm 33:2-3; 150:4-5; etc).
During the period from the Babylonian Captivity to the closing of Old Testament canon of Scripture,we find two examples: (1) When the Levites were taken into captivity in Babylon, away from lately-ruined temple in Jerusalem, they discarded their musical instruments (Ps. 137:1-2); (2) When the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they made sure to identify the God-appointed Levitical musicians before re-instituting musical instrumentation at the rebuilt temple (Ezra 2:41; Neh. 12:27).
During the period from the closing of the Old Testament canon of Scripture to the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, there is no indication from ancient historians that musical instruments were used outside the temple ceremonies (such as in the Jewish synagogue) or by anyone other than the God-appointed Levitical musicians.
During the period from the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ to closing of the New Testament canon of Scripture, we run across at least four relevant pieces of data: (1) The New Testament repeatedly indicates the abolition of all Old Testament ceremonies, particularly those relating to the temple’s sacrificial system (Heb. 10:1-13), the office of the high priest (Heb. 5:1-10), and the unique status of certain tribes, such as the Levites (E.g. Heb. 7:1-16).(2)The New Testament nowhere even hints at the use of musical instruments in New Testament Christian worship;(3)Christian worship assemblies are characterized as a direct continuation of the Jewish “synagogue”, which did not employ musical instruments (Matt. 18:20; Heb. 10:25; James 2:2);(4)Multiple New Testament passages seem to militate against the use of musical instruments in worship, noting that, when singing praise, believers should be actively “making melody [Lit. “plucking an instrument”] with your HEART to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:19), that Christian praise is “the fruit of lips” (Heb. 13:15), and that musical instruments are “things without life” (1 Cor. 14:7).
During the period from the closing of the New Testament canon of Scripture to the future return of Jesus Christ, we find that, according to church historians, (1) Musical instruments were not introduced into Christian worship for hundreds of years after the apostles, as indicated by the fact that the term “a capella” literally means “as it is done in the church”; (2) Musical instruments did not become prevalent until at least the tenth or eleventh century, when the Church of Rome’s elaborate, priestly ceremoniesbegan to reach their height; (3) Following the Protestant Reformation, Reformed Churches were virtually unanimous in prohibiting the use of musical instruments in worship, since they viewed it as an aspect of the ceremonial temple worship now abolished under the New Testament; (4) Musical instruments did not become commonplace in Reformed Churches until around the 19th century, despite the adamant protests of many sound pastors and theologians.
Based upon the Scriptural evidence, it appears quite clear that musical instruments were specifically commanded and regulated by God as part of the Old Testament temple ceremonies, which have since been fulfilled and permanently abolished by Christ. We have no more warrant to re-institute musical instruments in Christian worship today than to re-institute animal sacrifices or the Levitical priesthood. These shadowy ordinances have passed away and been replaced by the glorious simplicity and spirituality of New Testament worship.
Whatever pleasant sounds may have emanated from the temple and its courts during the Old Testament, the Lord is far more pleased today, as His people offer up the “fruit of lips”, filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, gladly “singing and making melody with their hearts” to Him.
For a more detailed treatment of this issue, we encourage you to consult the following online resources: