What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?


The Regulative Principle of Worship Defined

We can only approach God on his own terms, not only for salvation, but also in worship. The Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) is the doctrine that everything of religious significance in worship must be prescribed in holy Scripture, either explicitly or by good and necessary consequence, such that “whatever is beside the Word of God is against the Word of God.1 Put another way, “in God’s worship there must be nothing tendered up to God but what he hath commanded, whatsoever we meddle with in the worship of God, it must be what we have a warrant for out of the Word of God.2 Ultimately, the Regulative Principle of Worship is nothing more than the specific application of Sola Scriptura, that Scripture alone is the sufficient rule for faith and life, to worship. Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1 defines the RPW like this:

“The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to 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 representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (Exod 20:4-6; Deut 4:15-20; 12:32; Mat 4:9-10; 15:9; Acts 17:25; Col 2:23).”

The RPW is not just a restriction on things contrary to Scripture, it is a restriction on things that are indifferent as well, if instituted for worship. The church may not authorize anything spiritually meaningful that is not “either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1:6) no matter how edifying or beneficial we may think it is. Things that are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, may not be instituted for the worship of God. In acts of worship, for God “not to command is to forbid.3

“God alone is Lord of the conscience (Rom 14:4; James 4:12), and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship (Mat 15:9; 23:8-10; Acts 4:19; 5:29; 1 Cor 7:23; 2 Cor 1:24). So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience (Psa 5:1; Gal 1:10; 2:4-5; 5:1; Col 2:20-23); and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also (Isa 8:20; Jer 8:9; Hosea 5:11; John 4:22; Acts 17:11; Rom 10:17; 14:23; Rev 13:12, 16-17)” (WCF 20:2).

The RPW applies to stated times of worship, not to all of life. Rev. Matthew Winzer distinguishes this principle of worship from the sense in which we ought to glorify God in all that we do.

“It does not suffice that an act of worship can be justified on the basis of Scriptural principles; this only constitutes a normative principle which is applicable to all of life. Faithful exegesis is required, whereby a divine right must be established from the Word of God for the introduction of a particular action or function into the worship and government of the church. Such an action must be shown to be (1) “above and contradistinct from all human power and created authority whatsoever;” (2) “beyond all just, human or created power, to abolish or oppose the same;” and (3) “so obligatory unto all Churches in the whole Christian world that they ought uniformly to submit themselves unto it in all the Substantials of it so far as is possible” (Jus Divinum, 7). This divine warrant can only be discovered by an interpretative process which takes into account the obligatory examples, divine approbation, divine acts and divine precepts of holy Scripture (13-35).”4

Elements and Circumstances of Worship

The Regulative Principle of Worship inherently assumes the logical distinction between elements and circumstances. An element is an essential property that something must have; it is that which makes it what it is. A circumstance is a non-essential property that is related to the element but that can be changed without affecting the element. Using white paper as an example, whiteness is circumstantial whereas paper is what it is in essence. Elements of worship are prescribed by Scripture whereas circumstances of worship naturally accompany those elements.

Summarizing Gillespie and Thornwell on the discretionary power of the church with regard to circumstances of worship, Michael Bushell writes:

“Nothing which has religious significance can be lawfully incorporated into the worship of the church unless it has warrant from Scripture. The church has limited power of discretion over some circumstances namely, those which (1) are without spiritual significance, (2) are not determinable from Scripture, (3) are such that worship cannot be conducted in an orderly fashion without them, and (4) are not arbitrary.”5

Some have inadvertently ended up sneaking strange fire into God’s worship by leaving room for things that are edifying in the category of circumstances of worship. Finding no warrant for things in Scripture, and being confused about the definition of circumstance, things have been labeled circumstances that are in no way circumstantial. Something that we feel is edifying but that has no authorization in Scripture does not suddenly become lawful by slapping the label “circumstance” onto it.

“Do circumstances, as defined by the Confession of Faith [1:6], give freedom to practice things which edify if they are not forbidden by Scripture? The answer is a definite no. That which edifies is by nature a religious action and must therefore be deemed to be a part of worship. Genuine circumstances are non-religious and merely facilitate the performing of that action which God has prescribed…A circumstance therefore is nothing more than a means of worship without any religious significance whatsoever. It is that without which the action as an action could not be performed. It is an adjunct which incidentally accompanies the worship rather than an addition which qualitatively affects the worship. That which edifies is not an adjunct but an addition to the worship of God.”6

The elements of New Testament worship are prayer (Mat. 6:9; Phil. 4:6; 1 Tim 2:1-2; 1 John 5:14), Scripture reading and hearing (Neh. 8:8; Acts 15:21; Rev 1:3), preaching and hearing of the Word (Neh. 8:8; Mat. 28:19-20; Luke 24:47; 2 Tim. 4:2), singing of psalms (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; James 5:13), administration and receiving the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Mat 28:19; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 11:23-29), as well as occasional oaths (Deut 6:13 with Neh 10:29) and vows (Isa 19:21 with Ecc 5:4-5)7 and “upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people” (2 Chron. 20:2-3; Ezra 10; Neh. 9; Joel 1:14, 2:15; Zeph. 2:1-3; Matt. 9:15).8

Examples of circumstances of worship are the time on the Lord’s Day and place the worship service is held, the order of worship (liturgy), having pews or chairs, the type of clothing people wear, a person to lead the congregation in singing (precentor), etc. None of these things have any spiritual significance, but they are needed for orderly worship. “So soon as you attach a spiritual meaning, a sacred significance, to anything connected with worship, it becomes eo ipso a part of worship.9 For example, candles would be a circumstance of worship if used for lighting, but as soon as religious significance is added to them, such as the lighting of Advent candles, it becomes an unlawful element of worship.

The Regulative Principle of Worship Proven From the Scriptures

In conclusion, we will briefly run through some of the scriptures cited above from where the Regulative Principle of Worship is taught. Much has been written about these verses and more, so a brief overview will suffice.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…” (Ex. 20:4).

The first commandment teaches who the true God is and that he alone is to be worshiped. The second commandment teaches that God alone prescribes how he wants to be worshiped. To worship God however we would like is the very definition of idolatry. In sum, “any religious worship not instituted by God himself” (WLC Q. 109; c.f. HC Q. 96) is a  violation of the second commandment. Calvin rightly observed that the RPW is the heart of the second commandment:

“Although Moses only speaks of idolatry, yet there is no doubt but that by synecdoche, as in all the rest of the Law, he condemns all fictitious services which men in their ingenuity have invented.” (Commentary on Exodus 20:4).

The purpose of the second commandment is further illustrated a few verses later, where the altar is typological of worship and we are forbidden from improving it with the work of our hands,  “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it” (Ex. 20:25).

“God was teaching the Israelites by example that all their own efforts at improving on what God has commanded are in fact no different from the grosser forms of idolatry. All attempts at adorning the worship in order to make it more appealing to the human senses, whether carving an image outright or simply improving upon an altar, were forbidden.”10

Just as salvation is not earned by the work of our hands, God is not “worshipped with men’s hands” (Acts 17:25), all forms of worship devised by man are detestable to him. It can be known from nature that we must worship God how he pleases rather than how we please (Acts 17:24-29), but we cannot know how God desires to be worshiped unless he reveals it to us through special revelation. “Thou art good, and doest good; teach me thy statutes” (Psalm 119:68). “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:32). While this passage is in the context of Old Testament worship practices, which have since been fulfilled (Mat. 5:17), the moral principle applies even in the New Testament where God has sufficiently expressed in his Word everything he requires of us, including how he desires to be worshiped (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

The fact that God himself tore the veil (Mat. 27:51) and modified the Old Covenant ceremonial types and shadows into simpler forms of worship in the New Covenant where we worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24) demonstrates the nature of the RPW, that we may not worship God by our own ingenuity, we can only approach God in worship on his own terms.

“The principle “in spirit and in truth” bears directly upon the content of worship. If worship must be consonant with the nature of God, it must be in accord with what God has revealed himself to be and regulated as to content and mode by the revelation God has given in holy Scripture. The sanction enunciated excludes all human invention and imagination and warns us against the offence and peril of offering strange fire unto the Lord. No principle more than this inculcates jealousy to ascertain that what we offer has the warrant of divine authority.”11

G.I. Williamson summarizes Calvin’s exposition of John 4:

Consider Christ and the Samaritan woman. No one ever expounded the regulative principle with more force and clarity than Jesus did in his meeting with her. As Calvin points out, our Lord “…divides the subject into two parts. First, he condemns the forms of worshiping God which the Samaritans used as superstitious and as false, and declares that the acceptable and lawful form was with the Jews. He puts the reason for the difference that the Jews received assurance from the Word of God about his worship, whereas the Samaritans had no certainly from God’s lips. Secondly, he declares that the ceremonies observed by the Jews hitherto would soon be ended.

Concerning the first point, our Lord said, “Ye worship ye know not what.” Calvin drew this conclusion: “…all so-called good intentions are struck by this thunderbolt, which tells us that men can do nothing but err when they are guided by their own opinion without the Word or command of God.

He then goes on in dealing with the second point to say: “…we differ from the fathers only in the outward form because in their worship of God they were bound to ceremonies which were abolished by the coming of Christ.

So, if we ask what it means to worship God “in spirit and in truth” this is Calvin’s answer: “…it is to remove the coverings of the ancient ceremonies and retain simply what is spiritual in the worship…” But the trouble is that: “…since men are flesh…they delight in what corresponds to their natures. That is why they invent many things in the worship of God…[when] they should consider that they are dealing with God, who no more agrees with the flesh than fire does with water.

To worship God in spirit and in truth, then, is to worship God in the way that he commands—now that the Messiah has come and fulfilled all the promises of that ceremonial law. And “it is simply unbearable,” says Calvin, “that the rule laid down by Christ should be violated.” Those who want to worship the true God, acceptably, must (that is the word Jesus used—must) worship him in spirit and in truth. Any other way is useless.12

God forbids us from worshiping him “after our own heart and eyes,” because our fallen minds will cause us to go “a whoring;” true holiness is to worship God according to His commandments (Num. 15:39-40). Only the mind of God is able to guide us into holy worship, we are not able to do it ourselves. Man made ceremonies are an affront to the Head of the Church because man has no power or authority to invent elements of worship “by art and man’s device” (Acts 17:29; cf. 1 Kings 12:33). Assigning spiritual significance to something Scripture doesn’t is the epitome of “will worship” (Col. 2:23), i.e. idolatry.

“What is idolatry, if this is not, to ascribe to rites of man’s devising, the power and virtue of doing that which none but He to whom all power in heaven and earth belongs can do?”13Ordinances…after the commandments and doctrines of men” have only “a shew of wisdom in will worship” (Col. 2:23), that is, worship practices devised by the heart and will of man rather than by God.

Nadab and Abihu were struck dead by God for offering “strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not” (Lev. 10:1). The fire was “strange,” not because God commanded them not to offer it, but because God had not commanded them to offer it.14 The ark of the covenant was to be carried with poles on the shoulders of Levites (Num. 4; Ex. 25:12-14), there was no command to transport it on a cart. Uzzah was struck dead by God for touching the ark of the covenant (1 Chron. 13:9-11), which was expressly forbidden (Num. 4:15), however David focuses on the greater sin, moving the ark in a way other than God had commanded. “For because ye did it not at the first, the Lord our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order” (1 Chron. 15:13). God was not upset with them because he commanded them not to carry it that way, but because God had not commanded them to carry it that way.

He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (Mark 7:6-9).

John Murray comments on this passage:

“The repeated reference to the commandment of God is of paramount importance. It shows that nothing less than this is in our Lord’s esteem the regulative principle of the worship of God. It does not mean that “tradition” as such is to be depreciated. But it does require that any tradition which is not based upon and derived from divine prescription is of human origin and sanction and incurs the condemnation so patent in our Lord’s teaching on this subject. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple illustrates his jealousy for the sanctity of the house of God and the holy zeal with which desecration should be expelled.”15

In his exposition of the second commandment, Dutch reformer Zacharius Ursinus ties in these “traditions of men” examples from the gospels in response to the objection that many proofs of the RPW are found in the Old Testament:

“There are some who object to what we have here said, and affirm in support of will-worship, that those passages which we have cited as condemning it, speak only in reference to the ceremonies instituted by Moses, and of the unlawful commandments of men, such as constitute no part of the worship of God; and not of those precepts which have been sanctioned by the church and bishops, and which command nothing contrary to the word of God. But that this argument is false, may be proven by certain declarations connected with those passages of Scripture to which we have referred, which likewise reject those human laws, which, upon their own authority, prescribe anything in reference to divine worship which God has not commanded, although the thing itself is neither sinful nor forbidden by God. So Christ rejects the tradition which the Jews had in regard to washing their hands, because they associated with it the idea of divine worship, although it was not sinful in itself, saying, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” “Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but within ye are full of extortion and excess.” (Matt. 15:11; 23, 25.) The same thing may be said of celibacy and of the distinction of meats and days, of which the apostle Paul speaks, (Rom. 14:6; 1 Tim. 4:3,) and which he calls “doctrines of devils,” although in themselves they are lawful to the godly, as he in other places teaches. Wherefore, those things also which are in themselves indifferent, that is neither commanded nor prohibited by God, if they are prescribed and done as the worship of God, or if it is supposed that God is honored by our performing them, and dishonored by neglecting them, it is plainly manifest that the Scriptures in these and similar places condemn them.16

[1] Samuel Rutherford, The Divine Right of Church Government, p. 119.

[2] Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship, p. 8.

[3] Rutherford, ibid., p. 96.

[4] Matthew Winzer, Westminster and Worship Examined, The Confessional Presbyterian Journal (2008), p. 254.

[5] Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion, pg. 116.

“I direct my course straight to the dissecting of the true limits, within which the church’s power of enacting laws about things pertaining to the worship of God is bounded and confined, and which it may not overleap nor transgress. Three conditions I find necessarily requisite in such a thing as the church has power to prescribe by her laws: 1st It must be only a circumstance of divine worship; no substantial part of it; no sacred significant and efficacious ceremony. For the order and decency left to the definition of the church, as concerning the particulars of it, comprehends no more but mere circumstances.… 2nd That which the church may lawfully prescribe by her laws and ordinances, as a thing left to her determination, must be one of such things as were not determinable by Scripture because individua are infinita…. 3rd If the church prescribe anything lawfully, so that she prescribe no more than she has power given her to prescribe, her ordinances must be accompanied with some good reason and warrant given for the satisfaction of tender consciences.”

George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies

“Circumstances are those concomitants of an action without which it either cannot be done at all, or cannot be done with decency and decorum. Public worship, for example, requires public assemblies, and in public assemblies people must appear in some costume and assume some posture…. Public assemblies, moreover, cannot be held without fixing the time and place of meeting: these are circumstances which the church is at liberty to regulate…. We must distinguish between those circumstances which attend actions as actions—that is, without which the actions cannot be—and those circumstances which, though not essential, are added as appendages. These last do not fall within the jurisdiction of the church. She has no right to appoint them. They are circumstances in the sense that they do not belong to the substance of the act . They are not circumstances in the sense that they so surround it that they cannot be separated from it. A liturgy is a circumstance of this kind…. In public worship, indeed in all commanded external actions, there are two elements—a fixed and a variable. The fixed element, involving the essence of the thing, is beyond the discretion of the church. The variable, involving only the circumstances of the action, its separable accidents, may be changed, modified or altered, according to the exigencies of the case.”

James Henley Thornwell, cited from Reframing Presbyterian Worship: A Critical Survey of the Worship Views of John M. Frame and R. J. Gore, by Frank J. Smith, Ph.D, D.D. and David C. Lachman, Ph.D., The Confessional Presbyterian Journal (2005), p. 117.

[6] Winzer, ibid., p. 255.

[7] James Fisher’s commentary on questions 53 and 54 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism explains the difference between an oath and a vow.

Q. 17. What is an oath?

A. It is an act of religious worship, in which God is solemnly invoked, or called upon, as a witness for the Confirmation of some matter in doubt.

Q. 18. Why is it said to be an act of religious worship?

A. Because there is, or ought to be in every formal oath, a solemn invocation of the name of God, Deut. 6:13 — “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God — and shalt swear by his name.

Q. 55. What is a vow?

A. It is a voluntary and deliberate engagement to God only as party, and that respecting matters of a sacred or religious character, Psalm 132:2-6.

Q. 56. What is the difference between an oath and a vow?

A. In an oath, man is generally the party, and God is brought in as the witness: but in a vow, God himself is always the sole party, besides his being a witness, Psalm 50:14. Isa. 19:21.

[8] Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God

[9] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, p. 335, note 2.

[10] Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion, pg. 164.

[11] John Murray, The Worship of God in the Four Gospels.

[12] G.I. Williamson, The Regulative Principle of Worship.

Also see Williamson’s longer treatise on the RPW in Ordained Servant, Vol. 10, No. 4.

[13] George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, ch. 4.

[14] Read more about this passage from Jeremiah Burroughs: God Regulates His Worship By His Word.

[15] Murray, ibid.

[16] Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 257.


20 thoughts on “What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?

  1. I think I’d like to read the book by Samuel Rutherford. While I sometimes disagree with some specifics on what God stipulates, I do wholeheartedly agree with the premise of the RPW.


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