Years ago, when I first preached the series that became the primary basis for this blog series, my own study of the biblical expression “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) affected me as profoundly as any sermon I have ever prepared. It forever changed my perspective on what it means to worship.
Those sermons on worship also signaled the beginning of a new era for our church. The worship in our Sunday gatherings took on a whole new depth and significance. People began to be conscious that every aspect of the order of service—the music, the praying, the preaching, and even the offering—is worship rendered to God. They began to look at every kind of superficiality as an affront to a holy God. They saw worship as a participant’s activity, not a spectator sport. Many realized for the first time that worship is the church’s ultimate priority—not public relations, social activities, or boosting attendance figures—but worshiping God.
Furthermore, as our congregation began to think more earnestly about worship, we were continually drawn to the only reliable and sufficient worship manual: Scripture. If God desires worship in spirit and truth, and if worship is something offered to God—and not just a show put on for the benefit of the congregation—then every aspect of our worship must be pleasing to God and in harmony with His Word. So the effect of our renewed emphasis on worship was that it heightened our commitment to the centrality of Scripture.
A few years after that series on worship, I preached through Psalm 19. It was as if I saw for the first time the power of what the psalmist was saying about the absolute sufficiency of Scripture:
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgements of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable that gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
The point of the passage, quite simply, is that Scripture is wholly sufficient to meet every need of the human soul. It suggests that all essential spiritual truth is contained in the Word of God. The truth of Scripture can restore the sin-damaged soul, confer spiritual wisdom, cheer the downcast heart, and bring spiritual enlightenment. In other words, the Bible sums up everything we need to know about truth and righteousness. Or, as the apostle Paul wrote, Scripture is able to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17).
That series on Psalm 19 marked another decisive moment in our church’s life: It brought us face to face with the Reformers’ principle of sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. In an age when many evangelicals seemed to be turning en masse to worldly expertise in psychology, business, politics, public relations, and entertainment, we were pointed back to Scripture as our only source for infallible spiritual truth. That had an impact on every aspect of our church life—including worship.
Scripture as Regulation
How does the sufficiency of Scripture apply to worship? The Reformers answered that question by applying sola Scriptura to worship in a tenet they called the regulative principle. John Calvin was one of the first to articulate it succinctly:
We may not adopt any device [in our worship] which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunctions of him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have Him approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed…God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word. John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Dallas: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995 reprint), 17–18.
Calvin supported that principle with a number of biblical texts, including 1 Samuel 15:22, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” And Matthew 15:9, “In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
An English contemporary of Calvin, John Hooper, stated the same principle this way: “Nothing should be used in Church which has not either the express Word of God to support it, or otherwise is a thing indifferent in itself, which brings no profit when done or used, but no harm when not done or omitted.” John Hooper, “The Regulative Principle and Things Indifferent,” in Iain H. Murray, The Reformation of the Church (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 55.
And nineteenth-century Scottish church historian William Cunningham defined the regulative principle in these terms: “It is unwarrantable and unlawful to introduce into the government and worship of the church anything which has not the positive sanction of Scripture.” William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989 reprint), 27.
The Reformers and Puritans applied the regulative principle against formal ritual, priestly vestments, church hierarchy, and other remnants of medieval Roman Catholic worship. The regulative principle was often cited, for example, by English Reformers who opposed elements of High Church Anglicanism that had been borrowed from Catholic tradition. It was the Puritans’ commitment to the regulative principle that caused hundreds of Puritan pastors to be ejected by decree from Church of England pulpits in 1662. The Act of Uniformity (1661) was given royal assent by Charles II shortly after the restoration of the English monarchy, It required every minister in the church of England to declare unfeigned support of everything prescribed in the new edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Many ministers who dissented objected to the use of vestments and other extrabiblial prescriptions for how worship services were to be conducted. These men were summarily ejected from their pulpits and their livelihoods because of their stand for the principle of sola Scriptura.
Furthermore, the simplicity of worship in Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, and other evangelical traditions is the result of applying the regulative principle.
Evangelicals today would do well to recover their spiritual ancestors’ confidence in sola Scriptura as it applies to worship and church leadership. A number of harmful trends in the church these days reveal a diminishing evangelical confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. On the one hand, there is almost a circus atmosphere in some churches where pragmatic methods that trivialize what is holy are being employed to boost attendance. On the other hand, growing numbers of former evangelicals are abandoning simple worship forms in favor of high-church formalism. Some are even leaving evangelicalism altogether and aligning with Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.
Meanwhile, some churches are opting for a brand of sheer mysticism that is turbulent, emotional, and devoid of any rational sense. You see evidence of this in the rise and fall of movements such as the “Toronto Blessing” and the “Pensacola Revival”—and then again in more overtly sinister forms, such as “the Lakeland Revival” and the Sons of Thunder (whose trademark is acting tipsy and labeling their behavior “Drunken Glory”). People in these movements laugh uncontrollably, bark like dogs, roar like lions, cluck like chickens, jump, run, and convulse—or worse. They see all of this as evidence that the power of God has been imparted to them.
None of these trends are being advanced for solid biblical reasons, of course. Instead, their advocates cite pragmatic arguments, or seek support from misinterpreted proof texts, revisionist history, or ancient tradition. It is precisely the mindset the Reformers rejected.
A new understanding of sola Scriptura—the sufficiency of Scripture—ought to spur us to keep reforming our churches, to regulate our worship according to Scripture, and to passionately desire to be those who worship God in spirit and truth.
In the days ahead, we’ll take a closer look at the details of biblically defined worship.
(Adapted from Worship: The Ultimate Priority).