[Taken from an address given by Rev H M Cartwright to the Inverness Branch of the Scottish Reformation Society, 14 February 2000, The Regulative Principle.]
The words of the title [The Regualtive Principle] are not taken from Scripture, but it is a shorthand way of identifying a principle which is Scriptural and has great implications for the whole of Christian life, for the life of the Church as an institution in the world, and particularly for its worship. In a similar way we use the word ‘Trinity’, which is not a Biblical word, but conveniently identifies the Biblical truth concerning the three Persons of the Godhead which is fundamental to the revelation God has given of Himself.
The Biblical authority which has been adduced for this Principle
A recent writer (Kenneth Dix, The Praises of God in Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, p. 25) has said that the Regulative Principle
is open to criticism: (i) for being in itself an addition to Scripture; (ii) for going beyond the liberty which the New Testament allows and (iii) as being almost impossible to apply with complete consistency. Paul’s directive at the end of 1 Corinthians 14 is, “Let all things be done decently and in order”. He does not suggest the existence of any further principle.
If the first criticism is false then the other criticisms fall to the ground. If it is Biblical it is consistent with Christian liberty and most practical.
Roman Catholicism and other bodies exalt tradition to a level with Scripture and place the Church above both. Cults and others profess to be guided by the Spirit apart from the Word. The Reformers maintained that for our knowledge of the Lord’s will we are dependent upon His Word. On matters concerning which He has spoken, we are to join no other authority with His. Is there Biblical basis for asserting that the Lord has provided us in His Word with materials from which we can discover His will with regard to the Church’s government, discipline and worship as well as doctrine? Are there doctrines, particular precepts, authoritative examples and general controlling principles in Scripture with regard to the government, discipline and worship of the Church? If there is a Biblical basis for asserting that our Lord Jesus Christ has provided us with such materials then His revealed will must govern our practice in these areas.
Cunningham [The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, pp 33-34] claims that
the truth of this principle, as a general rule for the guidance of the church, is plainly enough involved in what Scripture teaches concerning its own sufficiency and perfection as a rule of faith and practice, concerning God’s exclusive right to determine in what way He ought to be worshipped, concerning Christ’s exclusive right to settle the constitution, laws and arrangements of His kingdom, concerning the unlawfulness of will worship, and concerning the utter unfitness of men for the function which they have so often and so boldly usurped in this matter. The fair application of these various scriptural views taken in combination, along with the utter want of any evidence on the other side, seems to us quite sufficient to shut out the lawfulness of introducing the inventions of men into the government and worship of the Christian church.
We feel justified in assuming that the Lord would not leave His church without guidance as to how the affairs of His house are to be conducted between His two appearings in this world. Paul explained his reason for writing to Timothy: “that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3: 15).
. . .
When we turn to the Bible can we find materials which provide us with an understanding of how the Lord wishes His Church to worship Him?
God in all the glory of His revelation is the Object of worship. That He should be worshipped by the Christian community is not an edict of men but an ordinance of God. The whole of life must be characterised by devotion to God but there is worship which is specific in its form and content and occurs at specific times. The Christian must worship at times on his own and at times in the family and there are summonses addressed to the Church to gather at a specified time and place on a specified day for the specific purpose of engaging in activities which specifically constitute the worship of God. Charnock [Works, vol. 1, p. 298] says:
Worship is an act of the understanding, applying itself to the knowledge of the excellency of God, and actual thoughts of His majesty…. It is also an act of the will, whereby the soul adores and reverenceth His majesty, is ravished with His amiableness, embraceth His goodness, enters itself into an intimate communion with this most lovely object, and pitcheth all his affections on Him.
Acceptable worship must be Spiritual worship, “authorised by the Holy Spirit, constrained by the Holy Spirit, offered in the Holy Spirit” [J. Murray, Collected Writings, vol. 1, “Worship”, p. 167]. James Begg [in The Use of Organs] claims :
The worship of God is the most sacred thing with which His creatures have to do. It is more sacred than the government of the Church, more sacred even than Christian doctrine, for these are, in a sense, merely instrumental in bringing us into proper relations to God; and if it is true in anything whatsoever that God’s will must be the only rule, it is especially true of His own worship.
Does the Bible tell us how we are to worship as well as indicate that we must worship? Or has that been left to the discretion of men? As with church government, information in the Bible on the subject of worship is such that all the Church has to do is put Biblical teaching into effect.
This doctrine is grounded originally in the clear teaching of the Old Testament that God is jealous that His worship should be conducted strictly in accordance with His revealed will. The Westminster divines drew this conclusion not just from the general indications of God’s will in His Word but from what they saw to be the tenor of the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6).
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 [Westminster Shorter Catechism, 50].
The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word [Westminster Shorter Catechism, 51].
The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship [Westminster Shorter Catechism, 52].
The movement from Sinai to Sion, or from Old Testament to New Testament, has not affected this: “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).
Many statements and incidents in the Old Testament illustrate God’s insistence that He be worshipped not only in the spirit of devotion but also in the manner revealed by himself. The principle is carried over into the New Testament as is illustrated in the reiteration of Isaiah 29:13-14 in Matthew 15:7-9: “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” – or, as it is in Isaiah 29, “their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men”. Calvin infers:
That part of the reverence due to Him consists in worshipping Him simply in the way which He commands, without mingling any inventions of our own …. We must be fools in regard to our own wisdom and all the wisdom of men, in order that we may allow Him alone to be wise [Institutes, vol. 4, 10. 23, 24].
John Murray [Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 168] draws attention to “some texts in the New Testament” which he says “bear directly on this question:”
- Mark 7:7-8: “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.”
- John 4:24: “God is a Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth.”
- Colossians 2:20-23: “. . . which things indeed have a show of wisdom in will worship.”
- 1 Peter 2:5: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
Where does the Holy Spirit give us direction respecting that which He approves and leads us to render? The answer is: only in the Scripture as the Word which He has inspired. This simply means that for all the modes and elements of worship there must be authorisation from the Word of God.
These New Testament references indicate that the principle still prevails that how we worship God should be determined by His will not ours. There is nothing unspiritual or legalistic in suggesting that the manner in which worship should be conducted, in an age characterised by the coming of the Saviour and the outpouring of the Spirit, should be regulated by the revealed will of God. “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15) is a principle which prevails in every other area of life. Surely it is operative when a sinner seeks to draw near to God in worship.