There is a principle found within the Reformed confessions that seems to be ignored if not reviled. This principle is the Regulatory Principle of Worship (i.e. RPW). Like so many things in life, take the New York Yankees for example, the RPW is either loved or hated. The lack of knowledge and concern for biblical truth has also placed this principle in the proverbial bench never to get a chance to play.
Reformed Theology, the Doctrines of Grace in particular, has made a popular rebound of late, and anytime God’s Word come to the fore Christians ought to praise God. The RPW, however, has not come to the fore, but should stand equally beside the Doctrines of Grace. For without the Bible no one would ever come up with the later, and without the former no one would ever come up with the proper way corporately to worship God. The RPW merits attention because of its lack of emphasis and use in the Reformed community. It’s time to get back not only to TULIP but also to God’s prescription for Sabbath worship. The RPW found in Reformed confessions is the biblical principle that should fix the motivations and activities that characterize corporate worship.
This paper relies on the Westminster Confession of faith 21.1 as its definition for the RPW. This paper assumes a Reformed audience, therefore, only interacts with Reformed luminaries for its treatment of biblical and theological arguments for and against the RPW.
The Reformed tradition, a confessional tradition, has produced a litany, pun intended, of beautiful historic confessions. Many even outside the Reformed tradition can recite the Westminster Shorter Catechism question number 1, “Man’s chief end is to glory God, and to enjoy him forever.” The answer begs the question, “how are Reformed Christians to do that,” or “what rule following the catechism has God given to direct the church that she might glorify him.” Because Reformed Christians are confessional it is fitting to begin with a Reformed confession for the definitive statement for the RPW. There are many confessions one could use, however, for the sake of precision and clarity, I want to look at the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1:
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all…But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.
The prescription for Scripture as the only rule is clear from this statement on the RPW. It expresses that God should only be worshiped in the way he has commanded in Scripture. Any additions or subtractions from his commands are forbidden. Many within the Reformed tradition following Calvin understood the RPW as sola scriptura applied to the act of corporate worship. The RPW is not a difficult principle to grasp, it simply teaches that we study the Bible to determine God’s will concerning worship and do only those acts. Reformed piety like its theology comes from Scripture alone. Reformed Christians have never had an appetite for rationalistic autonomy about the things of God. The principle of autonomy assumes self-sufficiency and self is never sufficient in religion. Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well highlights this when he tells her that the church must worship in “Spirit and in Truth.” The church’s worship is Trinitarian—the Father is worshiped by the Holy Spirit through the Son.