In Chapter 22 of the 1689 Baptist Confession we have the exposition of what has been historically called, “The Regulative Principle of Worship.” This doctrine and its practice is what separates Calvinistic Baptists from Reformed Baptists by showing that it’s not only what we believe about salvation which is regulated by Scripture – but Scripture also determines how we worship God.
In the latter half of the opening paragraph in Chapter 22, the Regulative Principle is spelled out in the following terms: “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that he may not be worshipping according to the imaginations and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” There are two principle things to be observed by this statement. First, there is an “acceptable way of worshipping God” which clearly implies an unacceptable way God can be worshiped. We see this clearly in Scripture. For example, in the second commandment of the Decalogue, God declares, “You shall not make for yourself a carved 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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exod. 20:4-5a). This divine prohibition has everything to do with how we worship God. And the principle point of the command is that there is a wrong way to worship the Lord. Essentially, God’s people are not to worship God via man-made images. In fact, even if we identify the man-made images as the Lord we’re still offering worship to God which He does not accept. This tells us that the worship God does accept is not strictly about our intentions or motives in the act of worship, but the form of worship matters as well. God has therefore specified a certain way in the second commandment He is not to be approached for worship, despite how sincere we may be.
Another example under this point is in Deuteronomy 12:29-32. In this passage God orders Israel not to worship Him in the same way they see the pagan nations worship their gods. But rather, the Lord says, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (12:32). This single declaration is the clinching point of the Regulative Principle. It’s all about doing what God has said to do in how we approach Him in worship. It’s God who sets the standard for the way His people serve Him in worship. The world has no say in this matter. When God’s people see how the world worships their gods, we’re not to mimic the world’s ways.
In fact, it is this point in particular which sets apart the worship service in a local church from any other gathering in the world. The whole service is centered on God with His glory as the end for which everything is done from the singing to the praying to the preaching. No other institution or society in the world has this end in view, since no other institution has this kind of distinctive relationship to God but the church. As Sam Waldron put it: “The church is holy in a way that the rest of life is not.” It is only the church of Jesus Christ which is described as “the household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). Neither the government nor one’s own family gets this kind of status. Hence, the church as God’s household has God’s unique presence which thereby demands a special regulation as to what the church does in the name of worship. Like Israel under the Old Covenant, the church under the New Covenant is not to be of the world. But how the gathered church honors God in this way is by being careful to do what God has commanded and thereby accepts for His worship.
Second, since God has instituted how He’s to be worshipped, then such worship the church offers the Lord is “limited by His own revealed will.” Limited…worship. This is the worship we bring to God. Limited by His own revealed will which is the revelation of His written Word. Thus we cannot worship God in any way we choose. It cannot be, as the 1689 Confession puts it, “according to the imaginations and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” To apply this to our own times – this means that skits and dramas and fog machines are out. It means that interpretative dance is gone. It means that women leading and teaching in a pastoral role or as “worship leaders” is forbidden (see 1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). It further means that when pastors stand to preach they actually deliver a clear, faithful exposition of God’s Word and not a clever home-spun homily which tickles the ears (see 2 Tim. 4:1-4). Moreover, the entire spirit and atmosphere of a worship service should not look like nor sound like a pop concert or a Saturday morning at the Waffle House. We are talking about God’s household. And in God’s household – the gathered church of Jesus Christ – there’s to be nothing profane or common in our whole service to God. Our worship is holy worship because it is limited by the directives of God’s Word. This sets the church apart from what we do at a football game to shopping at the local Walmart to celebrating one’s birthday. The worship of God is a sacred service. It therefore is not to be like what we see and hear and do in all other activities in life. When a local church then is engaged in worship, the point is not whether it’s contemporary or traditional but whether what was offered is “prescribed in the Holy Scriptures” and thus acceptable to God. Hence, we worship God by the limits He sets down.