The Foolishness of Biblically-Regulated Worship

On occasion, the thought still comes to me, This feels silly. That is, the simple acts of corporate worship. We gather the congregation together, somebody gets up and reads a portion of the Bible, then we pray and sing. After that, someone speaks from another part of the Bible for an extended period of time, which is followed with more prayer and singing. And this is what exalts our holy and Triune God? This is stepping into the presence of heaven in spiritual worship? Sometimes it can feel like little more than a corporate delusion of grandeur.

So I completely understand the appeal of a little mood-lighting, perhaps even with candles, as well as music that’s more impressive in its movements and performance. Maybe even architecture that’s grandiose and dramatic pictures to adorn our walls or display on the overhead. I even understand why Christians suggest inserting poignant movie clips or poetry readings or dramatic skits in a service of worship. Wouldn’t adding these elements engage us more and help us feel more like what we’re doing is important, even transcendent?

Christians add foreign elements to worship, because just reading, speaking, and singing from God’s Word feels foolish. But, of course, ensuring that it does is really the point.

Worshiping the God Who Is

If our worship is true, it’ll be consistent with who God is and how sinners may come into His holy presence. In other words, it’ll be consistent with what God has revealed and commanded in the Scripture. To Israel, for example, the Lord commanded that all incense be offered from the smoldering coals of the prior sacrifice (cf. Exod 30:9; Lev 16:12). For no sinner can commune with the holy God in prayer outside of a prior atonement for their sin. The Lord confirmed this with severity by the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, who effectively denied who God was as holy and how they were to approach Him as sinners by bringing incense “which He had not commanded” (Lev 9:24-10:2).

To the Church, the Lord has commanded our worship to exclusively consist of the reading, praying, preaching, singing, and showing (in baptism and the Lords Supper) of His Word. For God is an invisible Spirit who creates light and life simply by speaking (2 Cor 4:6). And sinful men come to Him by faith in Jesus Christ alone, faith that is created and matured simply by hearing (e.g., Rom 10:17). So God has commanded that we exclusively worship Him by speaking and hearing His Word – that’s who He is and how we come to Him.

Worshiping the Way God Commands

Since the Reformation, Christians have called this biblical conviction the regulative principle. That is, God regulates our worship by the commands and examples of His Word. Most fundamentally, the regulative principle is about ensuring our worship preserves the folly of God’s power and wisdom in the Gospel (see 1 Cor 1:18-31).

John Calvin explained it like this:

For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us.

– John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church

In our worship, God has designed that we exalt Him by seeking to “depend entirely on his sovereignty” and that we humble ourselves by confessing “all we are able to do is to go astray.” Biblically-regulated worship forces us to experience the wonder, even the mystery, of worshiping the God who confounds man’s wisdom and needs nothing from us (Acts 17:25). If we are to worship according to the Scripture, our pride must be slain and our boast must be raised to Him alone (1 Cor 1:28-31).

Worship for Our Good and God’s Glory

I’ve gathered with Christians in some impressive venues – with lights, dramatic presentations, moving film clips, and engaging musical performances. And truth be told, I did not leave without being excited or spiritually nourished. But these events were nourishing like a sugar high. I was excited for the moment, but dizzy and distracted a couple hours later. Despite all the stimulation of the senses, it was an experience easily forgot and whose point was hard to discern.

Then I’ve also worshiped in small rooms, with the simple but sincere reading and preaching of God’s Word, prayer, and clear corporate singing – where every voice was heard. Nothing about it was initially impressive. But I’ve been completely changed and unable to forget it. Because in those simple times, you couldn’t avoid God. Even years later, I’ve thought, “That must’ve been a small foretaste of what heaven will be like.” I know, I feel a little silly even writing that. But that is the point, isn’t it?

The simplicity of biblical worship feels foolish because we have to shame ourselves and believe that God is wiser (1 Cor 1:25) and that what is folly to the perishing is actually His power to us being saved (1 Cor 1:18). God must be sanctified and glorified by those who draw near to worship Him (Lev 10:3), so we must worship as He commanded. In biblical worship, without the hindrance or distraction of man-made elements, God is forcing us to actually believe and meet Himself.

For Further Study

If you’d like to consider the regulative principle a bit more, here’s a few places to begin:


  • In Regulative Like Jazz, Jonathan Leeman observes the fact that restricting worship in the Church actually offers more freedom to the Christian.

For book-length treatments, I’ve enjoyed:


  • Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship. Burroughs is one of my favorite Puritans and he’s definitely among the most readable. This is an extended reflection on Lev 10:1-3 that is convicting, instructive, and still relevant.

  • John Frame, “The Second Commandment: Regulating Worship” (pp. 464-86) in The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Frame’s perceptive distinctions have helpfully illuminated what the regulative principle pertains to and how to apply it.

  • “Part 1: The Bible and Worship” (pp. 17-101), in Give Praise to God. Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas, and Edmund Clowney contribute helpful chapters on aspects of worship according to the Bible. Presbyterians maybe really wrong on baptism, but not about everything!

  • Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, “Understanding the Regulative Principle” and “Applying the Regulative Principle” (pp. 77-88), in The Deliberate Church. Simple, biblical, and practical, the same reasons why I’m grateful for 9marks.

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