In Spirit and Truth: Worship as God Requires
(Understanding and Applying the Regulative Principle of Worship)

By James R Hughes © 2005

– Summary –

1. Introduction

This chapter opens with an example of ‘worship’ that causes us to wonder if there is an objective definition of true worship.

The Reformers quickly realized that the connection between worship and theology was so vital that it was impossible for them to change the basis of their theology without also changing the practice of worship. This led them to remove from worship any practices that they believed had been introduced by the will of men during the Middle Ages, and for which they could not find a warrant in the Bible. Today, with the reintroduction of many of the worship practices of the Middle Ages, it seems that the Reformation was a mistake.

The topic of worship has been addressed many times. However, there is much confusion in belief and practice among those who are Presbyterian and Reformed and claim to accept the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Regulative Principle of Worship taught in the Confession. Presbyterian and Reformed worship used to stand apart from the rest of Christendom. This is no longer the case, and many in the Reformed wing of the Church attack the Regulative Principle of Worship and its application. However, their arguments show considerable misunderstanding about what worship is, what constitutes true worship, and what it means for God to regulate worship. One reason for this misunderstanding is that those who defend the historic Reformed position have often not presented their arguments well. For example, the common argument that the Regulative Principle of Worship applies only to public formal worship and not to private or informal worship is full of problems. In other cases, the opponents of the Regulative Principle of worship have created, and attacked, a caricature of the classic Reformed position.

2. God’s Concern for Proper Worship

This chapter asks and answers the question: Does it matter how we worship God? While most people think that this question is peripheral, or was only a matter for OT Jews, the question is one of the most important that we can consider.

A survey is provided of the key OT and NT passages (Ex 20.1-17; Deut 12.28-32l; Is 65.2-7; Mark 7.7-13; Heb 12.28, 29) that show that how we worship is important. This is followed by a brief analysis of passages that show that God punishes false worship (Gen 4.4-5; Lev 10.1-4; 1 Sam 13.13-14; 1 Chron 13.9, 10; 2 Chron 26.16-21; Acts 5.1-11; 1 Cor 11.29, 30). It is demonstrated that God punished false worship during the inauguration of new forms of worship that were associated with each major covenantal administration.

3. Defining True Worship

‘Worship’ is not well defined by most writers on the subject. It is not ‘all of life’, even though all of our lives are to be lived in homage to God. Scripture shows that the acts of worship are separate from other activities of life. Only some acts are valid as worship, and others are not. Nor is worship just a matter of having a right heart or a devotional attitude. Finally, it is not ‘what is done in church’.

A number of definitions of worship, from contemporary writers, are provided. Then a definition is developed from the Bible: True worship consists of reverential acts, authorized by God, that are directed to him and that are performed to honour him or his name. Any action not meeting this definition is not worship. Just because someone calls a particular action by the name ‘worship’ does not mean that that action is in fact what it is called.

4. How God Regulates Worship

Having established that there are some acts that men call ‘worship’ that are not in fact true worship, it is necessary to establish guidelines for determining which actions are true worship. In Reformed churches, the guidelines are called the Regulative Principle of Worship. However, it can no longer be assumed that this concept forms the basis of a common operating principle that guides the practice of worship in Protestant churches.

The possible positions for the regulation of worship are presented in this chapter. An explanation of each position is provided with implications and relevant Scripture references that either support a particular position or show that it is incorrect. The positions examined are:

Position 1: God does not regulate worship

Position 2: God regulates worship

Position 2.1: God regulates worship by proscription (negative exclusions only)

Position 2.2: God regulates worship by prescription (positive inclusions) and proscription (negative exclusions, per 2.1)

Position 2.2.1: God regulates worship only by NT warrant

Position 2.2.2: God regulates worship by NT and OT warrant

Position 2.2.2.1: God regulates worship by direct Scriptural precept only

Position 2.2.2.2: God regulates worship by Scriptural precept, example, and logical inference from principles

The conclusion of the analysis is that God regulates worship by prescription (positive inclusions) and proscription (negative exclusions) through commands and examples, which may be derived from the OT and NT by inference from principles.

5. The Elements of Worship

This chapter identifies, from the Bible, what are the reverential acts authorized by God as worship. These are the true elements of worship: Reading Scripture, Preaching/Teaching, Benediction/Blessing, Psalm Singing, Prayer, Lawful/Religious Oaths and Vows, Tithes and Offerings, Lord’s Supper, Fasting, Baptism.

Each of the elements is considered briefly, where there is little debate about the act being included as worship. More analysis is provided for Lawful/Religious Oaths and Vows, and Tithes and Offerings as some in the broader church do not consider oath-taking valid for Christians, and most people today believe that tithing is only an OT precept. The place of Fasting in worship is also considered in more detail. No analysis of Psalm Singing is considered in this chapter, since Chapter 9 is devoted to the subject of Psalm singing.

Examples from the NT are provided to demonstrate the observance of each of these elements of worship in the Apostolic Church. These examples are drawn from the commands and practice of Jesus, the Jerusalem Church, the Corinthian Church, and other NT churches as well as synagogues.

It is shown that the Westminster Confession and Directory endorse this list of worship elements.

The chapter concludes that these ten elements are the Biblically endorsed elements of worship for the post-Apostolic Church. God has prescribed them as acceptable worship. Anything else that we do in our lives, whether routine or extraordinary, even if the action is intrinsically good and done with a God-honouring motive, is not an act of worship. Anything offered as worship to God that consists of something other than the elements identified above, and in their precise form, is not true worship.

The question of non-Biblical hymn-singing is used to illustrate the crux of the debate about the Regulative Principle of Worship. It is pointed out that the fact that some form of a line is almost always drawn around the elements and forms of worship demonstrates that the real issue is not that a line is drawn but where it is drawn.

6. Elements, Modes and Circumstances of Worship

This chapter defends the position that God regulates every aspect of worship. However, not all directions are as explicit as others. We can think of direct commands, Apostolic examples and general Biblical principles as being regulations on a continuum. In the same way, there is a continuum between those aspects of worship that are specific elements that God requires of us and those aspects that are derived from Biblical principles by Christian’s applying guided common sense (circumstances). Between the elements of worship and the circumstances are modes. Modes of worship may be derived from command, example or principle. God regulates the entire continuum. There is no aspect of worship that is not under his authority. For the elements of worship, God gives explicit commands. God gives general guidance through example of the modes by which the elements may be properly performed. He leaves us to work out from principles the fine details of the circumstances.

Some have misunderstood the distinction between elements and circumstances and suggested that the elements are regulated but the circumstances are not. This is not correct. The distinction is not that some aspects of worship are regulated and others are not. Rather, since all aspects of worship are regulated, the distinction is with respect to the type of regulation. This is the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The chapter identifies six sample guidelines that govern the circumstances of worship, and provides a table showing possible modes and circumstances for each of the elements of worship. While the elements are invariant, in that no additional elements can be added under the NT economy and none can be subtracted, the modes and circumstances allow for variety suitable to the specific situation in which the elements are performed—as long as the guiding examples and principles regulating them are observed.

Among those who claim to believe that God regulates worship in some manner, there is debate about where to draw the line among elements, modes and circumstances. Regardless of where the line is drawn, everyone believes that there is a line—certain aspects of worship are elements, and others are modes or circumstances. This raises the questions about whether non-Biblical hymns are just alternate modes of song-praise or a separate element, and whether using instruments to accompany singing is a legitimate circumstance of worship.

7. Prophets and Covenants

Who is permitted to introduce new elements of worship or change the elements? This chapter demonstrates that God delivered through the prophetic office every change in the order, or form, of worship recorded in Scripture. These changes were associated with new Covenantal administrations. The following generations adhered to the prescriptions for worship put in place by the prophet until the next change in covenant administration.

The two most significant changes that David, in his role as prophet not as king, introduced in worship were Psalmody and the use of musical instruments.

When the New Covenant was introduced, changes in worship were also associated with the covenant administration of Christ. These changes were introduced by Christ and the Apostles, who held the equivalent of the prophetic office.

This examination of the connection between the prophetic office, changes of covenantal administration and the introduction of new elements and forms of worship shows that God’s regulations for worship were delivered through the prophetic office and that a person not holding the prophetic office could not institute changes in the form or elements of worship. The latest covenantal administration was the one introduced by Jesus Christ, directly and through the Apostles. There has been no prophetic office since the close of the NT era. Therefore, our worship form must be in accord with, and be based upon, the Apostolic form.

8. The Ceremonial Law is Not Abolished

This chapter explores the idea that the OT Ceremonial Law has not been abolished in the NT era. It does not argue for the use of a Judaistic ceremonial system similar to that used in the Roman Catholic Church, nor for the observance of the dietary provisions of the OT economy. Rather, it suggests that we need to approach the matter of the ceremonial law from a different perspective than normally considered.

Jesus did not abolish the ceremonial law any more than he did the moral law. It is inconsistent to claim that the Law, in general, has not been abolished, or even that the moral law has not been abolished, but that the ceremonial law has been. However, we must not confuse the way in which the Law is to be observed with the substance or principle of the standing Law. The Sabbath is used to illustrate the point. The principle of Sabbath-keeping stands through all time, but the ceremonial aspects and the form of its observance have been changed under different covenantal administrations.

Passages, which appear to abolish the ceremonial law, are considered: Colossians 2.14-17 and Ephesians 2.14-15. The Westminster Confession of Faith makes a distinction between abolishing the ceremonial law and abrogating the forms by which it was observed in the OT economy.

The answer to the apparent dilemma between the continuing obligation to keep the whole law and the removal of the OT ceremonial rituals lies in making a distinction between the principle of the Law and the forms by which the principle is applied in the various covenant administrations. The principles of the components of the Law pertaining to ceremonial worship have not been abolished. Rather, the forms have been changed. They have not just evolved, as they did through the covenantal administrations of the OT economy—they have been changed radically, i.e., they have been replaced as part of the New Covenant.

The Mosaic forms for observing the redemptive types in God’s Law are not to be observed by NT Christians because of God’s completed revelation in Christ. Under the NT economy, there is a new priesthood not dependent on blood-lineage from the sons of Aaron, the bloody sacrificial system has been replaced with spiritual sacrifices, the ceremonial rituals have been replaced with spiritual ones, the signs of the covenant have been changed, the garments of the priests that pointed to the righteousness of Christ have been changed to the imputed righteousness applied to his people, and the specific laws of holiness and separation are to be manifested in the spiritual life of believers.

One of the reasons that there is so much confusion in the Church today with respect to what constitutes proper worship is because the Church has lost the distinction between the standing obligation of the principles of the ceremonial law and the means of applying the ceremonial observance under the NT economy.

God Regulates Worship – A Summary

At this point, a summary is provided of the conclusions thus far, before the principles are applied to Psalm singing and instrumental music in chapters 9 and 10.

  1. God alone defines true worship . Anything that God does not require by precept or example as worship is, by definition, not true worship.
  2. God has defined the elements of worship . In each covenantal age, God provides a suite of elements that constitute worship. These are the only elements of worship that he permits; any other elements that people bring before God are false worship.
  3. True worship consists of authorized reverential acts . True worship consists of reverential acts authorized by God that are directed to him and that are performed to honour him or his name.
  4. God cannot tolerate false worship . God’s nature requires that true worship be guarded jealously.
  5. God punishes false worship . He shows by the example of severe punishments during the inauguration of new forms of worship associated with changes in Covenant administration that it is a sin to offer worship that is not required by him or that is required by him but not offered in the right manner.
  6. Men are finite creatures . It is absurd to think that men can determine what is right as, or in, worship and what will please God.
  7. Men are sinful creatures . Man’s natural tendency is toward idolatry and toward the introduction of false worship.
  8. Men have no authorityto change worship. Only prophets, under direct revelation, were given temporary authority by God to introduce changes in his worship. These changes were associated with changes in Covenantal administration. There are no prophets today, and no changes to the Covenant, so there cannot be changes introduced in the elements or form of worship.
  9. The Ceremonial Law is not abolished, but the OT form of worship has been changed in the NT economy. The NT Christian is obligated to keep the entire Law, including the ‘ceremonial’ or ‘ritual’ laws. The form of observance of the ceremonial or ritual laws has been changed under the NT economy. A faithful NT Christian will keep the principles of the ceremonial law by observing the NT forms: prayer, psalm singing, and a dedicated life of spiritual holiness.
  10. NT worship is defined by Jesus and the Apostles . Under the NT covenantal administration, we obtain our warrant for the elements of worship from the commands and examples of Jesus and the Apostles. Some elements (e.g., fasting or benedictions) and modes (e.g., baptism by immersion or sprinkling) may be derived from the OT and NT by inference from principles.

9. The Psalter: the Hymnbook of the Church

This chapter defends the position that the Psalter (i.e., the 150 Psalms) is the only hymnbook that the NT Church is authorized to use as worship. In the sections of this chapter, ten arguments are presented for using only the Psalms as worship.

The arguments presented for using the Psalms, all the Psalms, and only the Psalms for praise worship are as follows:

This chapter also deals with a dozen objections that have been raised against the exclusive use of the Psalms in worship since Isaac Watts took the first ‘shots’ at the Biblical Psalter in the preface to his first edition of the ‘Psalter’. Most of the objections used today against exclusive Psalmody were raised by Watts, although they have been refined and restated since his day. Watts initiated a process that has undermined, and largely eliminated, the use of Psalm singing as part of Protestant worship, so it is important that we consider his objections to exclusive Psalmody.

Only two of the objections against exclusive Psalmody speak to the supposed deficiencies with the Psalter. The remainder do not object to the use of the Psalms per se but against the exclusive use of the Psalms in worship. Only a few of the objections present positive arguments for singing new compositions not found in the Bible. The objections to exclusive Psalm-singing considered in this chapter are:

This chapter ends with a parable illustrating the wilfulness involved in offering false sacrifices of praise to the Great King.

10. Praise Him with the Spiritual Harp and Lyre

This chapter addresses the use of musical instruments in worship. There were no musical instruments or singing in the worship of Abraham and the other patriarchs. For the Tabernacle system of worship, a trumpet announced the time of the offering of the sacrifice, but no other instruments were used. Singing, accompanied by musical instruments, was not included as part of the early ceremonial system of worship.

The context for the use of musical instruments in worship appears consistently in the Bible to be that of animal sacrifices. Instruments (other than the trumpet) along with singing were only introduced with the express provision of God for the new liturgy that would be associated with the Temple sacrifices. These changes were introduced under the direction of David as a prophet, based on revelation from God.

A number of apparent exceptions are considered. It is shown that none of them provides a warrant for using musical instruments to accompany singing in praise worship, under the NT economy.

The Early NT Church did not use musical instruments in worship. Most of the early NT congregations consisted of Jews who had learned that musical instruments were part of the Temple liturgy and were associated with bloody sacrifices. The view that musical instruments were part of the OT ceremonial system that was replaced with the final sacrifice of Christ was the predominant view throughout the NT Church. Musical instruments were universally excluded from worship. It was not until the Middle Ages that musical instruments came into the Western Church, and even then, their use was not universally accepted.

Reformed and Puritan congregations from the sixteenth century until about the mid-nineteenth century discontinued the use of musical instruments. They understood the use of musical instruments to be invalid under the NT covenantal economy.

The question of the use of musical instruments for the purposes of evangelism is specifically addressed.

The chapter concludes with five challenges that an advocate for the use of musical instruments in worship must answer.

11. Of Time and Place

Where and when can we worship? Where and when should we worship? The Biblical answer to both questions is anywhere and everywhere. A traditional defender of the Regulative Principle of Worship will likely feel uneasy with the idea that worship is not defined by time or place. He makes a distinction between regulated and unregulated worship by the time and place in which it is performed. His usual assertion is that God regulates public (formal) worship, implying, if not explicitly stating, that God does not regulate private or ‘casual’ worship.

This chapter shows that the elements of worship are the acts of worship, if they are performed with a proper attitude to honour God, regardless of where they are performed. It is not the performance of the acts of worship at a particular time or in a particular place that makes them worship or makes them acceptable to God. Time and place are irrelevant for defining true worship.

That does not mean that time and place are unimportant. Private worship is pleasing to God. However, God is most pleased when his people assemble for worship. The assembly of the saints for worship not only distinguishes them from the world but also it brings them together for participation in the communal elements of worship.

Any complete discussion of the time and place for worship must inevitably lead to a consideration of the question of the place of the Synagogue or the Temple, if any, as a normative model for NT worship. Most people who defend the exclusive use of the Psalms, without instrumental accompaniment, point out that the worship of the NT Church is based on the Synagogue model rather than on the Temple model. This view presents challenges: some claim that there was no singing in the Synagogues and others argue that the existence of the Synagogue form of worship disproves the Regulative Principle of Worship, since there is no Biblical warrant for its introduction.

It isn’t necessary to demonstrate that what was done in the Synagogue is normative, or even to contend that it was endorsed by Jesus, in order to defend the singing of Psalms without instrumental accompaniment. However, this chapter defends the view that Nehemiah 8 establishes the principle that the elements of worship found in the Synagogue can, and should, be performed in places other than the Temple.

Since NT worship has its roots in the worship performed in Nehemiah 8 and subsequently observed in the Synagogue, this does not mean that NT worship is not Temple worship. NT corporate worship is ‘temple’ worship. Under the NT economy the temple is the Church assembled for worship. However, continuing to observe the ceremonial law in its OT form shows a misunderstanding of the meaning of the typical form and is evidence of a bondage to an obsolete system.

This chapter concludes with sample liturgies for NT corporate worship based on Nehemiah 8, and 2 Chronicles 5-7, the classes of sacrifices in the Levitical ceremonial liturgy, and the second millennium BC covenant model.

12. Honest Subscription to the Westminster Standards

Most conservative Presbyterian denominations still require subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is clear that the Westminster standards do not support the singing of non-Biblical hymns—i.e., the Confession and related documents are written with the assumption that only Psalms were acceptable as worship. That this was the intent of the authors, with strong unanimity, is demonstrated in this chapter.

What is the implication of this conclusion? It is that subscription to the Confession includes accepting the intent of the authors of the Confession in all the areas of doctrine covered in it, and this includes their doctrine of worship. A person cannot honestly subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, if he does not agree with the authors’ position on the Regulative Principle of Worship. If the subscriber is unwilling to accept the authors’ view that singing anything other than Psalms as worship is not consistent with God’s requirements, he is not an honest subscriber to the Confession. If he uses musical instruments in worship, he reintroduces components of the ceremonial ritual that have been replaced in Christ and is not in agreement with the intent of the authors of the Confession.

We find, however, that there is a desire on the part of many Presbyterians to appear to be orthodox by stating their agreement with the Confession, but their practice in worship shows that they in fact reject the Confession.

13. What About …

This chapter addresses a miscellany of questions that often arise related to worship. The answers to some of the questions may be considered tentative as more analysis and thought is probably required to provide consistent and complete answers. The topics addressed are the following: