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Six Principles of Reformed Worship

Rev. Glen J. Clary

Reformed worship is governed by several Biblical principles including the following.

First, Reformed worship is according to Scripture. Scripture is the rule of worship as well as the rule of faith. And Scripture regulates worship prescriptively not merely proscriptively. Thus, whatever is not commanded in Scripture is forbidden as an ordinance of worship (cf. WCF 21:1; WLC 108, 109; WSC 50, 51). This principle, often called the regulative principle, may be contrasted with the so-called normative principle, which holds that whatever is not forbidden in Scripture is lawful in worship if it edifies the church. Since Scripture regulates worship prescriptively, ordinances that are additional to Scripture (not merely those that are contrary to it) are unlawful. Lawful worship is established by God himself and cannot be the product of human invention. That does not mean, however, that every act of worship must be sanctioned by Scripture explicitly. Biblical warrant can be established not only by explicit precepts or precedents but also by good and necessary inferences drawn from Scripture (cf. WCF 1:6). Worship that is according to Scripture is worship that is founded on and fully consistent with the principles and ordinances of worship appointed in God’s Word.

Second, Reformed worship is God-centered. The purpose of worship is to glorify God. In worship, we ascribe to him the glory due his name and give thanks to him for his wondrous works of creation and redemption (cf. Ps. 26, 29, 136). Since that is its highest purpose, it must not be used as a means for attaining some other end. Worship must be God-centered (theocentric) and not man-centered (anthropocentric). God is the alpha-point and omega-point of our worship; he is the source and the object of true worship (cf. Ex. 20:1–11). In this regard, it is necessary to distinguish worship from entertainment and the performing arts (cf. Acts 17:29). The aim of worship is not to entertain people or to give expression to their creativity but to glorify the triune God our Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator, for “from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

Third, Reformed worship is offered through the merit and mediation of Christ. “Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone” (WCF 21:2). Worship is “covenantal communion between God and his people in his public ordinances” (DPW), and since “Christ is the Mediator of the covenant, no one draws near to God except through him alone” (Ibid.). In order for worship to be acceptable to God, it must be offered on the ground of Christ’s redemptive work and through his priestly intercession, for it is only “through him” that we “have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). To worship in a proper manner is “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). Those who are united to Christ through Spirit-gifted faith are, in virtue of that union, participants in the worship of heaven where Christ serves as our high priest (Heb. 8:1). With “full assurance of faith,” we draw near to God in the heavenly sanctuary and worship him “with reverence and awe” (Heb. 10:19–22; 12:28).

Fourth, Reformed worship is spiritual. Worship is a work of the Holy Spirit. It is the direct result of the renovating work of the Spirit in our hearts. It is by the Spirit that we invoke God as “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6) and confess that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3). Worship does not originate with us and is not performed by us in our own strength; it is a work of the Spirit in our hearts. Being filled with the Spirit of God, we sing praises and make melody to him with our hearts (cf. Eph. 5:18–19). To “worship the Father in Spirit and Truth” (John 4:23) is to worship the Father by the agency of the Spirit in the realm of the Spirit through the Person and redeeming work of the ascended and glorified Christ. Christian worship is thoroughly Trinitarian. It is the worship of the seeking Father, mediated by the priestly intercession of Christ, and engendered by the life-giving Spirit.

Fifth, Reformed worship is covenantal. Worship is covenantal communion with God in his public ordinances. “An assembly of public worship is not merely a gathering of God’s children with each other, but is, before all else, a meeting of the triune God with his covenant people” (DPW). When we gather for worship, God meets with us and communes with us, and we with him in a manner that expresses and nurtures the covenant-communion bond that unites us in loving fellowship. Accordingly, in the service of worship, there is a dialogue between God and his people. God instructs us through his Law; we respond with confession of sin. God assures us of forgiveness; we respond with praise. God declares his promises in the gospel and seals them in the sacraments; we respond with prayers of intercession and thanksgiving. Through these divinely appointed ordinances of public worship, we have communion and fellowship with the triune God on the basis of his covenant promises fulfilled in Christ.

Sixth, Reformed worship is edifying and orderly. In 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul states two principles that govern the worship of the church: (a) the principle of edification (v. 26) and (b) the principle of good-order (v. 40). Paul demonstrates how these governing principles regulate the church’s worship by applying them to various activities that the Corinthians were doing in their assemblies. For example, Paul reasons that a message in tongues is unsuitable for public worship if no interpreter is present because, without an interpretation, it will not edify the church. Whatever we do in worship should edify the church, and whatever does not edify the church should not be done in worship. “Let all things be done for edification” (v. 26). Similarly, Paul uses the good-order principle to determine how the service of worship should be conducted. “Let all things be done decently and in order” (v. 40). Paul teaches that worship is to be conducted in a proper and orderly manner because “God is not a God of confusion but a God of peace” (v. 33). Thus, Paul is not concerned with good-order for its own sake. His concern is that the worship of God reflect the nature of God. Hence, proper Reformed worship is worship that is both edifying and orderly. It is worship that builds up the body of Christ and reflects the orderly nature of the God we serve.

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