As we saw in the previous article, worship is to be directed to God, for His glory. If this is to be the case, we must ask Him how He wants to be worshiped. The answer to this question is called the Regulative Principle of Worship.
The principle is stated in our confessional documents: The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. It is stated in three places in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
I.VI. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God …
XX.II. God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.
XXI.I. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism in its answers to questions 50 and 51 develops the Principle in its exposition of the second commandment:
Q. 50 What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing and keeping pure and entire all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.
Q. 51 What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
The Principle includes three things. We must have a clear biblical revelation for what we offer to God in worship (the elements of worship), our worship must include all the things God reveals, and our worship must not include anything outside of what God has commanded.
The primary biblical foundation for this principle is the second commandment: You should not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).
When God forbids us to worship Him through images, He is forbidding our worshipping Him according to our imaginations. By forbidding us to worship Him according to human imagination, God requires us to worship Him according to His uniquely divine revelation. Furthermore, we must avoid all occasions that tend to corrupt worship by inventing symbols or introducing liturgical devices and any other thing that would challenge God’s proprietary rights in worship.
The Presbyterian theologian, William Plumer, wrote, “While the second commandment, no less than all the other precepts of the decalogue, should be regarded as designed to regulate our tempers, it no doubt has special reference to the external worship of God. The things forbidden in it relate to outward acts. It is true the most gross form of violating God’s worship is mentioned, just as the most flagrant form of sinning against our neighbour’s life, and peace, and property are mentioned in the sixth, seventh and eight commandments.”
Later he added, “Our worship must be according to divine directions. Every sovereign, as every court, has a right to regulate the manner in which petitioners shall approach. Nothing more effectually destroys all acceptableness in worship than that our fear towards God be taught by the precept of men. . . We may not, therefore devise any false worship, Num. xv. 37-40; nor recommend it to others, Deut. xiii. 6,7,8; nor enjoin it upon others, Hosea v. 11; nor use it ourselves, 1 Kings xi. 33; nor in any wise countenance it. Rev. ii. 14.”
In addition to the Second Commandment, the Bible gives several reasons why we should worship God only according to His Word. First, Scripture throughout affirms that we are to worship God only according to His Word. Let us consider some examples. In Leviticus 10:1, 2, God strikes Nadab and Abihu dead with fire, because they offered incense with strange fire. God destroyed them with fire because they offered strange fire. They did not use the fire of the altar (for which there was no specific commandment) but brought their own fire. Hence, God enforces the principle that men may not worship Him according to their imaginations.
Or consider the death of Uzzah. David failed to transport the ark by its poles as commanded in Scripture. Rather, he transported it on a cart. When the oxen nearly upset the ark, Uzzah reached up to steady it. God struck him dead for touching the ark (2 Sam. 6:1-11). Later, David transported the ark according to the divine ordinance (2 Sam. 6:12-15).
One New Testament example affirming the Regulative Principle is Christ’s quoting Isaiah 29:13 in Mark 7:6-8. The Pharisees rebuked the disciples for not observing the ceremonial washings (baptisms). Christ defended His disciples by showing that these ceremonial washings were man-made traditions and thus contrary to God’s Word:
Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, But their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.
Second, the principle flows out of the broader principle of the sufficiency of Scripture as stated in Deuteronomy 4:2: “‘You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.’” God concludes instruction on worship with the same exhortation in Deuteronomy 12:32: “‘Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.’”
Third, we understand the reason God carefully regulates His worship when we ponder Who He is and who we are. The very nature of God demonstrates the necessity of Scripture regulating worship (John 4:24). In Job 11:7-10 we read: “Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty? They are as high as the heavens, what can you do? Deeper than Sheol, what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. If He passes by or shuts up or calls an assembly, who can restrain Him?”
Since God is infinite and transcendent, He must take the initiative. He must reveal Himself to us; God must tell us Who He is and what is pleasing to Him. We cannot discover by our wisdom what pleases Him; thus, He comes to us as a self-revealing God in covenant and teaches us how we are to respond to Him.
Because God is infinite, He is also sovereign. As the sovereign God, He alone is Lord of the conscience (WCF 20). What one does in corporate worship of necessity binds the conscience. When elders include things for which they have no biblical warrant, they compel worshippers to do that which is not dictated by Scripture; thus, binding their consciences.
Compounding the infinite distance between God and man is our sinfulness. The depravity of man necessitates the Regulative Principle. We are born dead in sins and trespasses and possess a remnant of sin. Calvin pointed out: “such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions.”
How foolish for us who possess a remnant of sin, which fuels our lusts and vain imaginations, to think that because something pleases us it pleases God. Therefore, we seek to offer to God in worship that which He has revealed is acceptable to Him.
 All Scripture quotation are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), 1995
William Plumer, Law of God (Pennsylvania: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1864; reprint ed., Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1996), 185,187.
For an excellent discussion of this passage see Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship (first published 1648; reprinted., Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990), 3-7.
Compare Isaiah 55:9,10.
 John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. Henry Beveridge 1844 (revised reprint Dallas: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), 128.