The Good Part of the Regulative Principle: Further References

Paul Washer on the lordship of Jesus in all of life

“One of the things I most appreciate about the Puritans is this: they sought, it seems to me, with everything they had…they endeavored to submit every aspect of their life to Christ, to bring every thought under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”[1]

Joel Beeke on the Puritan view of worship

“The Puritans were churchmen, and so they were concerned that God be glorified in the church’s worship. From the beginning of the Puritan movement, their consciences were most vigorous in protesting against corruptions in public worship. The Puritans wanted the church’s worship to be ordered by Scripture just as they wanted all of life to be ordered by Scripture. This became a problem because the Puritans’ understanding of Bible-ordered worship did not harmonize with the legally established worship pattern of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.

Those wo compiled the Prayer Book supported Luther, Melancthon, and Bucer in their view about the adiaphora, or “things indifferent.” This view taught that while everything the Bible prescribes for worship must be present, additional features not prescribed by Scripture but which have proved their value as furthering reverence, godliness, and edification should be retained. On that basis, the Prayer Book retained four ceremonial elements to which the Puritans objected: the wearing of the surplice (special liturgical clothing of priests), kneeling to receive Holy Communion (a remnant of medieval worship of the bread and cup), the giving of the wedding ring (as a sign of a Roman Catholic sacrament), and the tracing of the sign of the cross on the forehead of a person on whom the water is poured in baptism. The Puritan understanding of biblical authority in relation to worship did not permit the continuance of such adiaphora, since none of these things were commanded in the Word of God.

So the Puritan conviction already in the 1560s and 1570s was that by retaining these ceremonies, the Book of Common Prayer was corrupting worship by adding to God’s Word. The Puritans said these things must be eliminated from our worship, or it is not true worship according to God’s Word, and we cannot expect God to be pleased with it. The goal of worship must be to please God, not ourselves. John Owen wrote, ‘The worship of God is not of man’s finding out…. It is not taught by human wisdom, nor is it attainable by human industry; but by the wisdom and revelation of the Spirit of God. It is every way divine and heavenly in its rise, in its discovery; and so becoming the greatness and holiness of God. For what doth please God, God Himself is the sole judge.’ The Puritan stance, which came to be called the regulative principle of worship, was that nothing that is not explicitly commanded or sanctioned by example in the New Testament should be allowed in Christian worship. The regulative principle of worship was derived from the basic Reformed understanding of the second commandment, ‘that we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 96).

Whether in Puritan times or today, those who adhere to the regulative principle believe that God is offended by unauthorized, man-made additions to His worship. The royalty of Christ is violated, and His laws are impeached. The Puritans believed that these additions are sinful and irreverent, suggesting that Scripture is not sufficient. They viewed these matters the way many evangelicals view certain peoples’ claims concerning prophecy – that they impugn the sufficiency of Scripture and are now out of place because the canon has been closed.

We can learn much from the Puritans, especially when so many churches today give scant attention to purity in worship and put all their emphasis on what pleases people rather than God. The Puritans did precisely the opposite. Their goal was to please God through holy worship. The question was never, ‘What do I want in worship?’ but always, ‘What does God want in worship?’

In all of church life, the Puritans aimed for purity: purity of worship, purity of doctrine, purity of soul experience (meaning experience grounded in Scripture and the church’s sound doctrine), purity of government and discipline, purity in dedicating the entire Lord’s day to God’s service, and purity of life itself as the fruit of worship. They aimed for a pure church with a pure doctrine, a pure pattern of worship, and pure lives in its adherents. Their goal was individual holiness and church holiness that flowed out of the orthodoxy of doctrine and life. They had a comprehensive view of what God requires of us and what we must yield to Him.

Puritans are known for their comprehensive churchly outlook about what is right and what we should aim for as we seek to honor God. Today the church is full of people who have been so preoccupied with one thing that they forget the importance of another. The Puritans did not forget the importance of anything in their church outlook; everything was important. We can learn much from this, for we cannot afford to be unconcerned about any dimensions of purity and rightness” (A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life 850-852; bolds mine).

John Calvin on the regulative principle

See the following discussions in Calvin’s works:[2]

1) “It must be regarded as a fixed principle that all modes of worship devised by man are detestable” (Institutes, I.XI.4).

2) “The Lord cannot forget Himself, and it is long since He declared that nothing is so offensive to Him as to be worshipped by human inventions” (Institutes, IV.X.17).

3) “All worship of man’s device is repudiated by the Holy Spirit as degenerate” (Institutes I.V.3).

4) “…but as God values obedience more than sacrifices, it ought to be sufficient for the rejection of any mode of worship, that it is not sanctioned by the command of God” (“On the Necessity of Reforming the Church”, Selected Works of John Calvin, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, p. 132)

5) “I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (1 Sam. 15:22; Mat. 15:9). Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate” (“On the Necessity of Reforming the Church”, Selected Works of John Calvin, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, p. 128)

6) “We know that elsewhere there are many other ceremonies which we deny not to be very ancient, but because they have been invented at pleasure, or at least on grounds which, be these what they may, must be trivial, since they have been devised without authority from the word of God, and because, on the other hand, so many superstitions have sprung from them, we have felt no hesitation in abolishing them, in order that there might be nothing to prevent the people from going directly to Jesus Christ. First, whatever is not commanded, we are not free to choose. Secondly, nothing which does not tend to edification ought to be received into the Church. If anything of the kind has been introduced, it ought to be taken away, and by much stronger reason, whatever serves only to cause scandal, and is, as it were, an instrument of idolatry and false opinion, ought on no account to be tolerated” (“Form for Administering the Sacraments”, Calvin’s Selected Works, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, Vol.2, Tracts Part 2, pp. 117, 118).

7) “By forbidding the addition, or diminishing of anything, he plainly condemns as illegitimate whatever men invent of their own imagination; whence it follows that they, who in worshipping God are guided by any rule save that which He Himself has prescribed, make to themselves false gods; and, therefore, horrible vengeance is denounced by Him against those who are guilty of this temerity…” (Commentary on Deuteronomy 12:32).

8) “But Christ has faithfully and accurately given the meaning, that in vain is God worshipped, when the will of men is substituted in the room of doctrine. By these words, all kinds of will-worship, (ethelothzeskeia) as Paul calls it, (Col 2:23) are plainly condemned. For, as we have said, since God chooses to be worshipped in no other way than according to his own appointment, he cannot endure new modes of worship to be devised. As soon as men allow themselves to wander beyond the limits of the Word of God, the more labor and anxiety they display in worshipping him, the heavier is the condemnation which they draw down upon themselves; for by such inventions religion is dishonored….for Christ declares them to be mistaken who bring forward, in the room of doctrine, the commandments of men, or who seek to obtain from them the rule for worshipping God. Let it therefore be held as a settled principle, that, since obedience is more highly esteemed by God than sacrifices (1 Sam 15:22–23), all kinds of worship invented by men are of no estimation in his sight; nay more, that, as the prophet declares, they are accursed and detestable” (Commentary on Matthew 15:9).

[1] After minute 36:

[2] These references taken from:

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