“Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”
“In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
“Nadab and Abihu… offered strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord… the Lord spake, saying, ‘I will be sanctified in them that come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.'”
Order of Contents
A Simple Definition of The Regulative Principle of Worship:
A Simple Definition
The Regulative Principle of Worship is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) as necessarily applied to, and encompassing, the Church’s worship.
We are to worship God only in the way that He says: by Scripture alone. Scripture tells us what worship pleases God. If something is religiously significant, and Scripture does not prescribe it, it is forbidden. God is holy and is not to by worshipped by the imaginations of men.
The Westminster Confession of Faith
“The light of nature sheweth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.¹
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 worshipped 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.²”
¹ Rom. 1:20. Acts 17:24. Ps. 119:68. Jer. 10:7. Ps. 31:23. Ps. 18:3. Rom. 10:12. Ps. 62:8. Josh. 24:14. Mark 12:33.
² Deut. 12:32. Matt. 15:9. Acts 17:25. Matt. 4:9,10. Deut. 4:15-20. Exod. 20:4-6. Col. 2:23.
Where to Start?
Williamson, G.I. – ‘The Scriptural Regulative Principle of Worship’ n.d. 37 paragraphs, with two appendices 13 paragraphs long together
This is the best introduction to the Regulative Principle of Worship (R.P.W.). Williamson briefly exposits all the major Biblical passages that teach the R.P.W., including 10 from the O.T. and 7 from the N.T.
The first appendix looks at how the historic, reformed church applied this Biblical principle of worship to particular acts of worship. The second appendix addresses the loose interpretation of the R.P.W. that is common today.
Schwertley, Brian – Sola Scriptura & the Regulative Principle of Worship Buy (2000) 71 pp. with two appendices
This is the best, contemporary, full scale defense of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Schwertley proves it from scripture in extensive detail, corrects modern misinterpretations of it, and persuasively argues against other views of worship.
Anonymous – Vindiciae Cultus Evangelici [A Vindication of Evangelical Worship]: Or the Perfections of Christ’s Institutions & Ordinances about his Worship, Asserted & Vindicated from All Ecclesiastical or Human Inventions (London, 1688) 52 pp.
The author was English and was writing in the English/Anglican context (p. 5), especially during the time after the Great Ejection of 1662 and the subsequent Acts of Indulgence. The writer, from his writing style, may appear to be a layman. He references positively Brownists (separatists) and the New England congregationalists on pp. 23-24.
The first half of the treatise about the necessity for the purity of God’s Worship is very good, however on pp. 34-35 to the end, his separatist streak comes out, which is both erroneous (according to Scripture and historic presbyterian writers of that age) and dangerous.
Rule, Gilbert – A Vindication of the Purity of Gospel-Worship (no date, no year) probably circa 1690
Rule (c.1629-1701) was a divine-right Scottish presbyterian and leader in establishing the Revolution Church of Scotland as presbyterian in 1690. This work is nowhere to be found on the net. It is mentioned in the Hew Scott’s Fasti Ecclesiae, in John C. Johnston’s Treasury of the Scottish Covenant and in Drysdale’s History of the English Presbyterians.
The work appears to have actually existed (though probably in a small print run) as it is mentioned in Samuel Palmer’s Non-Conformist’s Memorial, vol. 2 as being against George Rit[s]chel’s, Dissertation on the Ceremonies of the English Church (in Latin, London, 1661), evidencing that Palmer actually saw this work or knew something about it. Johnson likewise says that it was against the English-Popish Ceremonies.
Binnie, William – Who May Appoint Ordinances? p. 53 ff., 7 pp. from his The Church
Binnie was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland.
Isbell, Sherman – ‘Hear Ye Him’ (n.d.) 30 paragrahs
Isbell examines the New Testament evidence for the Regulative Principle of Worship.
Coldwell, Chris – ‘Where Did the Term ‘Regulative Principle of Worship’ Come From?’ (2014) 30 paragraphs, this is a post at the Puritan Board, the third one down on the page.
Coldwell documents the idea of the Regulative Principle of Worship from 30 primary sources since the Reformation, though the popularization of the term appears to have been most concretely popularized by John Murray’s 1946, OPC Minority Report on Psalm Singing.
This is an excellent dissection and refutation of the modern, loose views of the Regulative Principle of Worship common today
Smith, Frank & Chris Coldwell – ‘The Regulative Principle of Worship: Sixty Years in Reformed Literature’ in The Confessional Presbyterian, vol. 2 Here is the 4 page Introduction.
Smith, Frank & David C. Lachman – Reframing Presbyterian Worship: A Critical Survey of the Worship Views of John M. Frame & R. J. Gore (2005) 35 pp. in The Confessional Presbyterian, vol. 1
Williamson, G.I. – ‘The Regulative Principle of Worship’ (2001) 12 pp.
This is a short condensation of Williamson’s longer article above.
Barth, Paul – ‘What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?’ (2017) 29 paragraphs
Silversides, David – The Worship of God: the Importance of Purity of Worship, the Westminster Directory of Public Worship & How Should Our Churches Worship Today Buy (1997) 71 pp.
Young, William – ‘The Puritan Principle of Worship’ published serially in Blue Banner Faith & Life, vols. 14-16 (1959-1961) The substance of this article was delivered on Dec. 18, 1957, at the Puritan Conference, London.
Young quotes or references on the topic: Calvin, Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Westminster Confession, Knox, Gillespie, Perkins, Ames, Bradshaw, Burroughs, Owen and Romaine. Young has a section on the content of sung praise, where he quotes Cotton, Byfield, Manton and Calvin.
Adjemian, C. – “John Owen on the Regulative Principle” (2002) 7 pp.
Adjemian summarizes Owens doctrine from six main places in his Works: Christologia (vol. 1), Duties of Pastors & Duties of Laity (vol. 13),
Discourse Concerning Liturgies (vol. 15), A Discourse Concerning Evangelical Love, Church Peace & Unity (vol. 15), Worship of God & Discipline of the Churches of the New Testament (vol. 15), Two Questions Concerning the Power of the Supreme Magistrate About Religion & the Worship of God (Vol. 13).
The Reformers & the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1989 reprint), p. 36
“Men, under the pretense of curing the defects and shortcomings, the nakedness and bareness, attaching to ecclesiastical arrangements as set before us in the New Testament, have been constantly proposing innovations and improvements in government and worship. The question is, How ought these proposals to have been received?
Our answer is, There is a great general scriptural principle which shuts them all out. We refuse even to enter into the consideration of what is alleged in support of them. It is enough for us that they have no positive sanction from Scripture.”
The Early Church
The essence of the Regulative Principle of Worship is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) as encompassing the Church’s worship. Sola Scriptura, and often its relevance and application to worship, was testified to throughout the early Church.
The quotes below should be read in light of their larger patristic context. The fathers, as one would expect, often had inconsistencies in their thought and practice, as do we. The quotes are as cited in Archbishop James Ussher’s, Answer to a Jesuit; with Other Tracts on Popery (d. 1656; 1835), ‘Of Traditions’, pp. 31-41.
For a wealth of more primary resources to dig into from the Early Church, see the massive collections of excerpts concerning Sola Scriptura in David King & William Webster’s, Holy Scripture, the Ground & Pillar of our Faith, 3 vols. Buy
“Whether all things are made of any subject matter, I have as yet read nowhere. Let those of Hermogenes’s shop show that it is written. If that be not written, let them fear that woe which is allotted to such as add or take away.” (Tertullian, Against Hermog., ch. 22)
“every word that appertains to God may be required and discussed, and all knowledge of things out of them may be understood. But if anything do remain which the holy Scripture ought to be received to authorize any knowledge; but that which remains we must commit to the fire, that is, we must reserve it to God. For in this present world God would not have us to know all things.” (Leviticus, Homily 5)
“There is one God, whom we do not otherwise acknowledge, brethren, but out of the holy Scriptures. For as he that would profess the wisdom of this world cannot otherwise attain hereunto, unless he read the doctrine of the philosophers; so whosoever of us will exercise piety toward God, cannot learn this elsewhere but out of the holy Scriptures. Whatsoever therefore the Holy Scriptures preach, let us know; and whatsoever they teach, let us understand.” (Hippolytus, tome 3, Bibliotheca. Pat., pp. 20-21).
“The holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, are of themselves sufficient to the discovery of truth.” Oration against the Gentiles
“The things which we find not in the Scriptures, how can we use them?” Offic., bk. 1, ch. 23
“I read that he is the first, I read that he is not the second; they can say he is the second, let them show it by reading.” Virginis Instit., ch. 11
“Believe those things which are written; the things which are not written, seek not.” Homily 29, advers. Calumniantes S. Trinitate
“It is a manifest falling from the faith, and argument of arrogancy, either to reject any point of those things that are written, or to bring in any of those things that are not written.” Of Faith
“That it is the property of the faithful man to be fully persuaded of the truth of those things that are delivered in the holy scripture, and not to dare either to reject or add any thing thereunto . For if whatsoever is not of faith be sin, as the Apostle saith, and faith is by hearing, and hearing by the word of God; then whatsoever is without the holy scripture, being not of faith, must needs be sin”. Ethicis Regul xvi & lxxx, ch. 22
“which no man should contradict, in that only the truth may be acknowledged, wherein the seal of the scripture testimony is to be seen.” Dialogue on the Soul & the Resurrection, tome 1, ed. Graecolat, p. 639
“… forasmuch as this is a upholden with no testimony of the scripture, as false we will reject it.” Book on the Knowledge of God, cit. ab Euthymio in Panoplia, Tit. viii
“As we deny not those things that are written, so we refuse those things that are not written. That God was born of a virgin we believe, because we read it: that Mary did marry after she was delivered, we believe not, because we read it not.” Jerome, against Helvidius
“In those things, which are laid down plainly in the Scriptures, all those things are found which appertain to faith and direction of life.” On the Doctrine of Christ, bk. 1, ch. 9
“whatsoever you hear [from the holy Scriptures] let that savor well unto you; whatsoever is without them, refuse, lest you wander in a cloud.” On the Pastor, ch. 11
“all those things which in times past our ancestors had mentioned to be done towards mankind, and have delivered unto us; all those things also which we see, and do you deliver unto our posterity, so far as they appertain to the seeking and maintaining of true religion, the holy scripture hath not passed in silence.” Epistle 42
St Cyril of Alexandria
“The holy scripture is sufficient to make them which are brought up in it wise and most approved, and furnished with most sufficient understanding.” Contra Jul., bk. 7
“That which the holy scripture hath not said, by what means should we receive and account among those things that be true?” Glaphyrorum, in Gen., bk. 1
“by the holy scripture alone am I persuaded.” Dialogue 1
“I am not so bold as to affirm any thing which the sacred scripture passeth in silence.” Dialogue 2
“it is an idle and a senseless thing to seek those things that are passed in silence.” Exod. Quarts. 26
“We ought not to seek those things which are passed in silence, but rest of the things that are written.” in Genesis, Question 45
Eusebius Pamphili in the name of 318 Fathers of the first general council of Nicea:
“Believe the things that are written; the things that are not written, neither think upon nor inquire after.” Gelas. Cyzicen. Act. Concil. Niven., part 2, ch. 19
Samuel Rutherford on what is Regulated
The Divine Right of Church Government… (London, 1646), Introduction
Section 1, p. 1
“Christ Jesus has so far forth set down and stablished a perfect platform of Church-government in all morals, not only both for the inward, but also for the outward and external government of his House, that He has left no liberty or latitude to magistrates or Churches whatsoever to choose and settle such an orderly form of Church-government or discipline, as is most suitable to their particular civil-government, laws, manners and customs, so this form be not repugnant to the Word of God.”
ch. 1, question 3
“All means of worship devised by men pretending holiness, by teaching, exciting our dull affections to devotion, as if they were powerful means of grace, and did lay a band on the conscience, when as yet they be no such thing, and want all warrant from God, and are contrary to devotion, are unlawful.”
Rutherford’s Section on What Precisely is Regulated
The Divine Right of Church Government… (London, 1646), Introduction, Section 1, pp. 1-7
In this section Rutherford explains his conclusion, distinguishing between what is moral from what is purely natural and indifferent (pp. 2-3), and then between purely physical circumstances (which are indifferent, p. 4), moral circumstances (which are regulated, p. 3) and mixed circumstances, where the circumstance is partly physical, natural and indifferent, and partly moral and regulated (p. 4).
On p. 5 he addresses things that have a “moral and symbolical influence in worship, as positive, religious observances having some spiritual signification and use,’ such as the Anglican ceremonies, which things fall under the ban of the Scriptural principle of worship.
The significance of all this is that Rutherford is defining what is regulated very precisely and formally, even metaphysically, so it leaves nothing out, nor includes too much. Hence, there is no question as to the application of the Scriptural principle of worship: every aspect of everything relating to worship either is religiously significant, and hence regulated, or it is not.
Rutherford’s Distinctions & Conclusions
Divine Right of Church Government (London, 1646), ch. 1, question 2, pp. 101-2
1st Distinction. The Word of God being given to man as a moral agent, is a rule of all his moral actions, but not of actions of art, sciences, disciplines, yea, or of mere nature.
2. Beside the Word, in actions-moral and in God’s worship, is all one with that which is contrary to the Word; and what is not commanded is forbidden, as not seeing in a creature capable of all the five senses is down right blindness.
3. Lawfulness is essential to worship instituted of God, but it is not essential to worship in general: neither is opinion of sanctity, efficacy or divine necessity essential to worship, but only to divine worship and its opinion [that something is divine worship], not actual, nor formal, but fundamental and material.
4. Seeing the apostles were no less immediately inspired of God than the prophets, it is a vain thing to seek a knot in a rush and put a difference betwixt apostolic commandments or traditions and divine commandments, as it is a vain and Scriptureless curiosity to difference betwixt the prophetical truths of Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. and divine prophecies, which is, as if you would difference betwixt the fair writing of Titus the writer, and the writing made by the pen of Titus, or betwixt Peter’s words, and the words spoken by Peter’s tongue, mouth and lips, for prophets and apostles were both God’s mouth.
5. Worship-essential and worship-arbitrary, which Formalists inculcate, or worship positively lawful, or negatively lawful, are to be acknowledged as worship-lawful, and will-worship, and worship lawful and unlawful.
6. What is warranted by natural reason, is warranted by Scripture, for the Law of nature is but a part of Scripture.
7. Actions are either purely moral, or purely not-moral, or mixed of both: The first has warrant in Scripture, the second none at all, the third requires not a warrant of Scripture every way concludent, but only in so far as they be moral.
8. Matters of mere fact, known by sense and human testimony, are to be considered according to their physical existence, if they be done or not done; if Titus did such a thing or not, such are not in that notion to be proved by Scripture: 2. They may be considered according to their essence and moral quality of good and lawful, bad or unlawful, and so they are to be warranted by Scripture.
9. There is a general warrant in Scripture for worship and moral actions, twofold: either when the major proposition is only in Scripture, and the assumption is the will of men, or when both the proposition and assumption are warranted by Scripture: the former warrant I think not sufficient, and therefore the latter is necessary to prove the thing lawful.
* * *
1st Conclusion. Every worship and positive observance of religion, and all moral actions are to be made good, by [Greek], ‘according as it is written’, though their individual circumstances be not in the Word.
2. In actions or religious means of worship, and actions moral, whatever is beside the Word of God, is against the Word of God; I say in religious means, for there be means of worship, or circumstances physical, not morall, not religious, as whether the pulpit be of stone or of timber, the bell of this or this metal, the house of worship stand thus or thus in situation.
3. Opinion of sanctity, holiness and divine necessi∣ty is not essential to false worship. Formalists will have their ceremonies innocent and lawful, so they be not contrary to the Word of God. 2. So they be not instamped with an opinion that they bind the conscience, and are of divine necessity, holinesse and efficacy…
4. It is a vain and unwarrantable distinction to divide worship in essential, which has God’s, 1. particular approving will to be the warrant thereof, and worship accidental or arbitrary, which has only God’s general and permissive will, and has man’s will for its father…
5. Matters of fact are not, and need not be proved by Scripture: 1. Because sense makes them known to us. 2. Their morality is sufficiently known from God’s Word. 3. In matters of fact there may be invincible ignorance: Christ’s resurrection is not a matter of fact, as Hugo Grotius says, but also a matter of Law, as all the miracles and histories in the Word, and to be believed, because God has so spoken in the Word.
On a Loose Regulative Principle of Worship, or a Broad & Loose Application of it
The Divine Right of Church Government… (London, 1646)
Introduction, section 4, pp. 51-2
“Any positives not warranted by some special word of God shall be additions to the Word of God: But these are expressly forbidden, Dt. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18-19.
To this Formalists [Anglicans, etc.] answer: 1. They have a general commandment of God, though not a special.
Answer: So have all the unwritten traditions of Papists; hear the Church, she is Magistra fidei [Teacher of the Faith]; so does the Papist Horantius answer Calvin, that the Spirit of God has given a general and universal knowledge of mysteries of Faith and ceremonies belonging to religion, but many particulars are to be received by tradition from the Church…”
“3. If God reprove Samuel’s light for judging according to the eye, 1 Sam. 16:7, far more He rebukes his purpose to anoint a man without his Word, ‘Who giveth kingdoms to whom He pleaseth’: Yet Samuel had a good intention, and God’s Word in general, that one of Jesse’s sons should be king.
4. If that good purpose had remained with David deliberately to build the Lord’s house after the Lord had said Solomon, not David, must build the house, it would have been sinful; yet the reasons upon common equity, and a general warrant that God would have a house had been as good as before…”
“9. There is a general warrant in Scripture for worship and moral actions, twofold: either when the major proposition is only in Scripture, and the assumption [minor premise] is the will of men, or when both the proposition and assumption are warranted by Scripture: the former warrant I think not sufficient, and therefore the latter is necessary to prove the thing lawful.”
“And, fine linnen is the righteousness of the saints, Rev. 19; Therefore, a surplice is good. And, Mt. 16, ‘Take up your cross’: Therefore, the crossing in baptism is lawful. Enough of this. But so the worship of the Devil is lawful and Aaron’s golden calf is lawful, for I can find a major proposition for them in Scripture, of which you have a faith both negative and positive [because both can be derived from Scripture in this general way];”
“If the general must be warranted by the Word, so also specials under the general, else men’s will may make a horned bullock a decent sacrifice to represent Christ already come in the flesh; for if the written Word warrant not the specials of religious observances, a door is open for all human inventions:”
“Lawfulnesse is an essential property of divine worship resulting from God’s particular approving will in his Word, as is clear, Hosea 8:5; 1 Chron. 15:13; Lev. 10:1; 2 Sam. 7:7; Jer. 7:30; Acts 15:24…
…for it [arbitrary worship] cannot have its warrant from God’s general will whereby the proposition of a syllogism is warranted, but not the assumption, for thus the golden calfe of Jeroboam, the worshipping of Satan, should be lawful: for I can form a syllogism to it from Scripture (All worship commanded in the Word is lawful, but Jeroboam’s golden calf is commanded in the Word; Therefore, it is lawful…
If ceremonies come partly from men’s will, partly from the light of reason, then do they conclude the lawfulness of ceremonies either fallibly or necessarily: If the former be said, we have little warrant of conscience to practice them; nor can God be honored, nor these things lawful, good, and edificative, more than unlawful, evil and unapt to edify, seeing there be no light of Scripture or nature to make them good to us; and because a fallible and unnecessary consequence is over fallible and unnecessary, and stands (as Aristotle says well) in an indivisible point. It is a non-consequence, and so men’s will is the best house that ceremonies are descended of. If they can be proved by a necessary and infallible consequence, we desire to hear it…”
May One Attend Worship with Corruptions in it? Yes
While one ought never to sin in worship by consent or action, the question here is whether a layman who does not consent to the corruptions, nor does them, may attend worship that has corruptions in it?
There is a distinction between idolatry and corruptions. Idolatry is so severe that one ought not to voluntarily remain in the midst of it (1 Cor. 10:21; Rev. 18:4), but ought to flee from it (1 Cor. 10:14). Corruptions in worship, such as Paul describes in 1 Cor. 11-14, do not overturn the essence of the worship wholly, nor ought the faithful to split from the assembly thereof, if you can remain without sinning yourself or being tempted to acquiesce therein, and if you can be edified by the rest of the worship.
The whole responsibility for the corruptions in such worship remains on those who do it. For the rest of the people, they yet need, are obliged unto, and have a right to what is left of the ordinance of God, which is their inheritance in the Covenant of Grace. Thus when the corrupt priests of Israel defiled and disfigured the sacrifices of God in 1 Sam. 2:12-17, though they made it so that “men abhorred the offering of the Lord”, yet what was left of the offering was, sadly, all that God’s people could get of their inheritance. If the crumbs of the Lord’s provision falls onto the floor, yet they are still the children’s.
Letters, vol 3 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication), Letter 346, ‘To the Brethren of Wezel’, pp. 30-31. Calvin is speaking to reformed refugees attending Lutheran churches. See the whole letter in general.
“With regard to the form to be observed in receiving the sacraments, it is not without reason that you entertain doubts and scruples, for nothing is better than to abide by that pure simplicity which we hold from the Son of God, whose ordinance ought to be our single rule, to which also the usage of the apostles was perfectly conformable. And indeed the moment we deviate ever so little from it, our admixture of human invention cannot fail to be a corruption.
But it seems to us that your condition is different from that of the pastors of the place and the great body of the people. If the pastors did their duty, they would employ all their endeavours to retrench those superfluities which do not tend to edification, or rather which serve to obscure the clearness of the gospel. The [civil] governors on their part would also do well to see to it. It is a vice to be condemned so far as they are concerned, that they keep up these unmeaning mummeries — which are as it were a residue of Popish superstitions, the recollection of which we should strive as much as in us lies to exterminate.
But in your capacity of private individuals, not only you may lawfully, but what is more, you should support and suffer such abuses as it is not in your power to correct. We do not hold lighted candles in the celebration of the eucharist, nor figured bread to be such indifferent things that we would willingly consent to their introduction, or approve of them, though we object not to accommodate ourselves to the use of them, where they have been already established, when we have no authority to oppose them.
If we were called upon to receive such ceremonies, we should hold ourselves bound according to the position in which God has placed us, to admit of no compromise in resisting their introduction, and in maintaining constantly the purity which the church confided to us already possesses. But should our lot be cast in some place where a different form prevails, there is not one of us who from spite against a candle or a chasuble [a ministerial vestment] would consent to separate himself from the body of the church, and so deprive himself of the use of the sacrament.”
“He that gave us no account of the lines and circles of the globe, the diameter of the earth, or the height and magnitude of the stars, has told us particularly the measure of every board and curtain of the tabernacle; for God’s church and instituted religion are more precious to Him and more considerable than all the rest of the world.”
on Exodus 25:9