The Regulative Principle of Worship Proven From Scripture


Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church
by John L. Girardeau

A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine, government and worship in the church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in the Scriptures, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence from their statements, is forbidden.

1. This principle is deducible by logical inference from the great truth—confessed by Protestants—that the Scriptures are an infallible rule of faith and practice, and therefore supreme, perfect and sufficient for all the needs of the Church.

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16). This truth operates positively to the inclusion of everything in the doctrine, government and worship of the church which is commanded, explicitly or implicitly, in the Scriptures, and negatively to the exclusion of everything which is not so commanded.

2. This principle of the necessity of a divine warrant for everything in the faith and practice of the church is proved by didactic statements of Scripture.

Num. 15:39, 40: “Remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: that ye may remember and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God.”

Ex. 25:40: “And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was showed thee in the mount.”

Heb. 8:5: “Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God, when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount.”

Deut. 4:2: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”

Deut. 12:32: “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”

Prov. 30:5, 6: “Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.”

Isa. 8:20: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”

Dan. 2:44: “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people.”

Matt. 15:6: “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.”

Matt. 28:19, 20: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”

Col. 2:20-23: “Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (touch not; taste not; handle not; which are all to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh.”

2 Tim. 3:16, 17: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”

Rev. 22:18, 19: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and out of the things which are written in this book.”

These solemn statements and awful warnings teach us the lesson, that to introduce any devices and inventions of our own into the doctrine, government or worship of the church, is to add to the words of God, and to fail in maintaining the principles and truths, or in complying with the institutions and ordinances, delivered to us in the Scriptures, is to take away from the words of God. The Romanists, for example, who hold the doctrine of transubstantiation, and observe the sacrifice of the mass, add to God’s words; and the Quakers, who maintain the co-ordinate authority of immediate revelations of new, original truth with the inspired Oracles, and neglect the observance of the sacraments, both add to and take away from them. And, in like manner, those who import instrumental music into the ordained worship of the New Testament Church transcend the warrant of Scripture, and add to the words which Christ our Lord has commanded.

3. There are concrete instances recorded in the Scriptures which graphically illustrate the same great principle.

(1.) Genesis 4.

Cain and his offering. The brothers, Cain and Abel, had been in childhood beyond all doubt instructed by their parents in the knowledge of the first promise of redemption to be accomplished by atonement. They had, we have every reason to believe, often seen their father offering animal sacrifices in the worship of God. To this mode of worship they had been accustomed. Cain, the type of rationalists and fabricators of rites and ceremonies in the house of the Lord, consulted his own wisdom and taste, and ventured to offer in God’s worship the fruit of the ground—an un-bloody sacrifice; while Abel, conforming to the appointments and prescribed usages in which he had been trained, expressed his faith and obedience by offering a lamb. Abel’s worship was accepted and Cain’s rejected. “And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and his offering he had not respect.” Thus, in the immediate family of Adam, we behold a signal and typical instance of self-assertion and disregard of divine prescriptions in the matter of worship. This was swiftly followed by God’s disapprobation, and then came the development of sin in the atrocious crime of fratricide, and the banishment of the murderer from the communion of his family and the presence of his God.

(2.) Leviticus 10:1-3.

Nadab and Abihu. “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.” These young men, as the sons of Israel’s high priest, were legitimately employed in discharging the appointed functions of the sacerdotal office. But they presumed to add to God’s commandments. Exercising their own will in regard to the mode of his worship, they did that which he did not command them, and they were instantly killed for their wicked temerity.

(3.) Numbers 16.

Korah, Dathan and Abiram. God had consecrated those descendants of Levi who sprang from Aaron to the priesthood, while the remaining descendants of Levi were set apart to other offices pertaining to the service of the tabernacle. Korah was a Levite, but not a son of Aaron. Dathan and Abiram were not even Levites, but appear to have descended from Reuben. When, therefore, these men, asserting the claim that the whole congregation were entitled to rank with Moses and Aaron, ventured to assume to themselves functions which God had restricted to a certain class, they were overtaken by the swift indignation of Jehovah, and perished in an awful manner. “The ground clave asunder that was under them; and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained unto them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.”

(4.) Numbers 20.

Moses smiting the rock at Kadesh. When, on a previous occasion, the Israelites were suffering from thirst, God commanded Moses to smite the rock at Horeb. This he did, and water gushed forth abundantly. The apostle Paul tells us that that rock typified Christ. The typical teaching furnished by Moses, then, was that from the one death of Christ under the smiting of the law the grace of the Holy Ghost should proceed to satisfy the thirst of the soul. Christ was to be smitten unto death only once. Now again, at Kadesh, the Israelites suffer for want of water. God commands Moses to speak unto the rock. To this explicit command he rashly ventured to add. He spoke to the people, instead of the rock, and he smote the rock and smote it twice. He used his own judgment, asserted his own will, and taught the people falsely. For this sin he and Aaron, who concurred with him in its commission, were excluded from entrance into the promised land. “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink. And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him. And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.”

We have here an inexpressibly affecting instance of the sin and folly of adding human inventions to the ordinances of God’s appointment, of the dreadful results that may follow from what men may conceive slight departures from obedience to the commands of God. Not to speak of Aaron, the accomplished orator, the venerable saint, the first anointed high priest of his people, this incomparable man, Moses, in whom were blended all natural gifts and supernatural graces, the deliverer, the legislator, the historian, the poet, the judge and the commander of Israel, after having brought them out of Egypt, conducted them through the parted waters of the Red Sea, mediated between them and God amidst the terrors of Sinai, led them through the horrors of the waste and howling desert,—this glorious man, now in sight of the Jordan, which like a thread separated them from the long-sought, long-coveted goal of their hearts, is doomed, for one addition to God’s command, which no doubt seemed to him but a slight deviation from his instructions, to die short of the promised land.

(5.) 1 Samuel 13.

Saul offering a burnt-offering at Gilgal. The king had no command to officiate as priest. Saul added to God’s command and performed a function for which he had no authority. The circumstances seemed to him to justify the act. But he gained the divine disapprobation and lost his kingdom for the blunder. “As for Saul, he was yet in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling. And he tarried seven days, according to the set time that Samuel had appointed: but Samuel came not to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him. And Saul said, Bring hither a burnt-offering to me, and peace-offerings. And he offered the burntoffering. And it came to pass, that as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt-offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him that he might salute him. And Samuel said, What hast thou done? And Saul said, Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash; therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the Lord: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt-offering. And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God which he commanded thee: for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel forever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee.”

(6.) 1 Chronicles 13:7, 8; 15:11-15.

Uzza and the ark, and David’s subsequent obedience. The Levites, or, more particularly, the Kohathites, were expressly commanded to bear the ark. The manner of bearing it was also commanded. Rings were appended, through which staves were run. These poles, covered with gold, were to be supported on the shoulders of the bearers. They were forbidden to touch the ark upon pain of death. “After that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear it: but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die.” Such was God’s command. In transporting it from the house of Abinadab, David infringed the divine command by directing the ark to be borne on a cart drawn by oxen. Then when the animals stumbled, Uzza, with the intention of saving the ark from falling, touched it with his hand. He was instantly killed for his pious disobedience. “And they carried the ark of God in a new cart out of the house of Abinadab: and Uzza and Ahio drave the cart. And David and all Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets. And when they came unto the threshing-floor of Chidon, Uzza put forth his hand to hold the ark; for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzza, and he smote him, because he put his hand to the ark: and there he died before God.” The offence was the more inexcusable, because the staves were never detached from the ark, and it is not at all likely that the Philistines, who had been subjected to so severe a treatment while they had it in their possession, had ventured to steal them. And it deserves consideration that those heathen had not been killed for handling the ark, while for doing the same thing God’s people, who should have known better, were taught an awful lesson.

The magnificent demonstration suffered a disastrous arrest, and the king of Israel, sobered by the warning he had received, returned home to do what he ought to have done before—to study the law of God. Having accomplished this neglected office, he makes a second attempt to remove the sacred symbol of God’s covenant to Jerusalem, but in a different fashion from the former. Let us hear the record. “And David called for Zadok and Abiathar the priests, and for the Levites, for Uriel, Asaiah, and Joel, Shemaiah, and Eliel and Amminadab, and said unto them, Ye are the chief of the fathers of the Levites: sanctify yourselves, both ye and your brethren, that ye may bring up the ark of the Lord God of Israel unto the place that I have prepared for it. 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. So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the Lord God of Israel. And the children of the Levites bare the ark upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded according to the word of the Lord.” It merits notice that when the ark was to be removed and instated in its place in the temple which was about to be dedicated, Solomon caused the “due order” to be observed. “And all the elders of Israel came; and the Levites took up the ark. And they brought up the ark, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and all the holy vessels that were in the tabernacle, these did the priests and the Levites bring up. . . . And the priests brought in the ark of the covenant of the Lord unto his place” (2 Chron. 5:4-5, 7). The history of this matter enforces the impressive lesson that we are not at liberty to use our own judgment and to act without a divine warrant in regard to things of God’s appointment.

(7.) 2 Chronicles 26:16-21.

King Uzziah officiating as a priest. God had given no warrant to a king to act as priest, and Uzziah arrogantly undertook, without such warrant, to discharge sacerdotal functions. The consequences of his impiety are vividly depicted in the following record: “But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the Lord his God, and went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense upon the altar of incense. And Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him fourscore priests of the Lord, that were valiant men: and they withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord, but to the priests, the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honor from the Lord God. Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the Lord, from beside the incense altar. And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests, looked upon him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead, and they thrust him out from thence, yea, himself hasted also to go out, because the Lord had smitten him. And Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord.”

(8.) 2 Chronicles 28:3-5.

King Ahaz doubly offending as to function and place. He performed priestly functions without a divine warrant, and performed them in places which God had not appointed. For this wicked self-assertion he was visited with divine vengeance. “Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel. He sacrificed also and burnt incense in the high places, and on the hills, and under every green tree. Wherefore the Lord his God delivered him into the hands of the king of Syria; and they smote him, and carried away a great multitude of them captives, and brought them to Damascus. And he was also delivered into the hands of the king of Israel, who smote him with a great slaughter.”

(9.) The New Testament.

The jealousy of God for the principle of a divine warrant for everything in his worship is most conspicuously illustrated in New Testament times, by the tremendous judgments which befell the Jewish people for perpetuating, without such a warrant, the typical ritual of the temple-service. Until the great atoning sacrifice was offered, they had a positive warrant from God for the observance of that order. But when that sacrifice had been offered, the veil of the temple had been rent in twain, and the Holy Ghost had been copiously poured out at the inauguration of a new dispensation, the positive warrant for the temple-worship was withdrawn. This Stephen insisted on before the Council, and the illustrious witness for Christ was murdered for his testimony. He charged that when their fathers had no warrant to worship sacrificially except at the temple they had persisted in observing that worship elsewhere; and now that God had withdrawn the warrant to worship at the temple, they demanded the right to worship there. “Ye do always,” said the glorious servant of Jesus, “resist the Holy Ghost.” For this sin, by which they endorsed their rejection of their Messiah and Saviour, their church-state and national polity were demolished, and they, after the experience of an unparalleled tribulation, were scattered to the four winds of heaven. Have we not the evidence before us at this day?


The mighty principle has thus been established, by an appeal to the didactic statements of God’s word, and to special instances recorded in scriptural history, that a divine warrant is required for everything in the faith and practice of the Church, that whatsoever is not in the Scriptures commanded, either explicitly or by good and necessary consequence, is forbidden. The special application of this principle to the worship of God, as illustrated in the concrete examples which have been furnished, cannot escape the least attentive observation. God is seen manifesting a most vehement jealousy in protecting the purity of his worship. Any attempt to assert the judgment, the will, the taste of man apart from the express warrant of his Word, and to introduce into his worship human inventions, devices and methods, was overtaken by immediate retribution and rebuked by the thunderbolts of his wrath. Nor need we wonder at this; for the service which the creature professes to render to God reaches its highest and most formal expression in the worship which is offered him. In this act the majesty of the Most High is directly confronted. The worshipper presents himself face to face with the infinite Sovereign of heaven and earth, and assumes to lay at his feet the sincerest homage of the heart. In the performance of such an act to violate divine appointments or transcend divine prescription, to affirm the reason of a sinful creature against the wisdom, the will of a sinful creature against the authority, of God, is deliberately to flaunt an insult in his face, and to hurl an indignity against his throne. What else could follow but the flash of divine indignation? It is true that in the New Testament dispensation the same swift and visible arrest of this sin is not the ordinary rule. But the patience and forbearance of God can constitute no justification of its commission. Its punishment, if it be not repented of, is only deferred. “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of .the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil;” while the delayed justice of God is gathering to itself indignation to burst forth like an overwhelming tempest in the dreadful day of wrath.

The principle that has been emphasized is in direct opposition to that maintained by Romanists and Prelatists, and I regret to say by lax Presbyterians, that what is not forbidden in the Scriptures is permitted. The Church of England, in her twentieth article, concedes to the church “a power to decree rites and ceremonies,”‘ with this limitation alone upon its exercise, “that it is not lawful for the church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s written word.”1 The principle of the discretionary power of the church in regard to things not commanded by Christ in his Word, was the chief fountain from which flowed the gradually increasing tide of corruptions that swept the Latin church into apostasy from the gospel of God’s grace. And as surely as causes produce their appropriate effects, and history repeats itself in obedience to that law, any Protestant church which embodies that principle in its creed is destined, sooner or later, to experience a similar fate. The same, too, may be affirmed of a church which formally rejects it and practically conforms to it. The reason is plain. The only bridle that checks the degenerating tendency of the church—a tendency manifested in all ages—is the Word of God: for the Spirit of grace Himself ordinarily operates only in connection with that Word. If this restraint be discarded, the downward lapse is sure. The words of the great theologian, John Owen—and the British Isles have produced no greater—are solemn and deserve to be seriously pondered: “The principle that the church hath power to institute any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God, either as to matter or manner, beyond the observance of such circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ himself hath instituted, lies at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution and wars that have for so long a season spread themselves over the face of the Christian world.”

In view of such considerations as these, confirmed, as they are, by the facts of all past history, it is easy to see how irrelevant and baseless is the taunt flung by high churchmen, ritualists and latitudinarians of every stripe against the maintainers of the opposite principle, that they are narrow-minded bigots who take delight in insisting upon trivial details. The truth is exactly the other way. The principle upon which this cheap ridicule is cast is simple, broad, majestic. It affirms only the things that God has commanded, the institutions and ordinances that he has prescribed, and besides this, discharges only a negative office which sweeps away every trifling invention of man’s meretricious fancy. It is not the supporters of this principle, but their opponents, who delight in insisting upon crossings, genuflexions and bowings to the east, upon vestments, altars and candles, upon organs and cornets, and “the dear antiphonies that so bewitch their prelates and their chapters with the goodly echo they make;” in fine, upon all that finical trumpery which, inherited from the woman clothed in scarlet, marks the trend backward to the Rubicon and the seven-hilled mart of souls.

But whatever others may think or do, Presbyterians cannot forsake this principle without the guilt of defection from their own venerable standards and from the testimonies sealed by the blood of their fathers. Among the principles that the Reformers extracted from the rubbish of corruption and held up to light again, none were more comprehensive, far-reaching and profoundly reforming than this. It struck at the root of every false doctrine and practice, and demanded the restoration of the true. Germany has been infinitely the worse because of Luther’s failure to apply it to the full. Calvin enforced it more fully. The great French Protestant Church, with the exception of retaining a liturgical relic of popery, gave it a grand application, and France suffered an irreparable loss when she dragooned almost out of existence the body that maintained it. John Knox stamped it upon the heart of the Scottish Church, and it constituted the glory of the English Puritans. Alas! that it is pasting into decadence in the Presbyterian churches of England, Scotland and America. What remains but that those who still see it, and cling to it as to something dearer than life itself, should continue to utter, however feebly, however inoperatively, their unchanging testimony to its truth? It is the acropolis of the church’s liberties, the palladium of her purity. That gone, nothing will be left to hope, but to strain its gaze towards the dawn of the millennial day. Then—we are entitled to expect—a more thorough-going and glorious reformation will be effected than any that has blessed the church and the world since the magnificent propagation of Christianity by the labors of the inspired apostles themselves.

[1] Some curious and remarkable statements have been made with reference to this article. When, in 1808, the question of the introduction of instrumental music into public worship was before the Presbytery of Glasgow, the Rev. Dr. Begg, father of the late Dr. James Begg, published a treatise on the “Use of Organs,” in which the following statement is attributed to the Rev. Alexander Hislop: “The Church of England has admitted into its articles this principle, that it belongs to ‘the church’ of her own authority, to ‘decree rites and ceremonies.’ (Article 20) As a matter of historical fact, this principle was never agreed to by the Convocation that adopted the Thirty-nine Articles, this sentence being found neither in the first printed edition of the articles, nor in the draft of them that passed the Convocation, and which is still in existence, with the autograph signatures of the members; but it is believed to have been surreptitiously inserted by the hand of Queen Elizabeth herself, who had much of the over-bearing spirit of her father, Henry VIII., and who, as head of the church, which the English constitution made her, was determined to have a pompous worship under her ecclesiastical control.” In support of this statement, reference is made to “authorities in Presbyterian Review, July, 1843.” The Use of Organs, etc., by James Begg, D.D., (p. 150). See also Bannerman’s Church of Christ, Vol. I., p. 339.

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3 thoughts on “The Regulative Principle of Worship Proven From Scripture

  1. […] John Girardeau made an excellent and concise case proving the RPW from many didactic statements of Scripture as well as from several concrete instances recorded in Scripture which graphically illustrate the principle. We have posted that section in full and thus will not argue for the RPW any further here. But we will assume that the reader has an understanding of the categories and biblical basis for it as we continue. cf. The Regulative Principle of Worship Proven From Scripture. […]


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