Calvin: People Have Never Liked The Regulative Principle Of Worship

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.” (1 Samuel 15:22) “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (Matthew. 15:9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie.  Mere “will worship” (εθελοθρησκεια) is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.

John Calvin | The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Humble Exhortation)


Heidelberg Reformation Association

1637 E. Valley Parkway #391

Escondido CA 92027


The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Scott, my sense is that lots of well-meaning Christians think that the principle of worship is this: that I worship the only true and living God. It never occurs to them go farther and realize that they must not worship that true and living God in any way they want, but only as He wants.

  2. To be a little anecdotal people against the RPW have never had a pulpit supply situation like I did this weekend.

    Finish preaching on Election only to have the following “hymn” on the projector screen be a Gaither song about “going and finding Jesus and asking him into your heart”…

  3. I am open to following the RPW, but I have yet to find a good explanation, but also, I have not gone looking very strongly (i would assume would be a good place to start). So, I’m open for conversion, as it were, but….

    The quote above does little to persuade (it is short). It seems that the regulation is a sacrifice and that this principle is a commandment of men. Also, how does the RPW fit with Eph 5:19 & Col 3:16?

    Furthermore, wouldn’t the RPW prove too much? I mean, should we exclude anything from worship that is not sanctioned in the word, including any technology, which includes not only a projector, but books (including the printed bible and the psalter)… let alone electricity. Also, does scripture mention any church-buildings?… for otherwise, I would think that the RPW would condemn that as well.

    I hope these questions are read with the intended humility (and not sarcastic). As I stated before, I haven’t researched this and I would assume that these are not new objections and so, I’d love to hear a response or where I could find one. I gladly bend my knee to scripture and Calvin, insofar as he’s not yelling where scripture is silent.

  4. Indeed, only a few shall understand. The way is narrow, the slope down off it is gentle, but unbarmherzig.

    Precisely Eph. 5:19 makes the full point of RPW and ditto for Col. 3:16.

    The other part of your question Luke, deals with different aspects not in equality with each other. Differentiation is made on the means of worship versus incidentals of worship. — Getting with a car to the church service in an incidental of the worship, so is your clothing, as is the building; but the means of corporate worship, the actual actions taken, are not just incidental but are the instrument we use to worship. This differentiation is also there because it is corporate worship. This is where John Frame missed the narrow path.

    Hope this is at least putting you on the track to look at it all. Sorry, if I am rambling on a bit – I am visiting Australia currently and have serious jet-lag…

  5. Thank you for the response, Vaclav. First, why does the RPW divide between incidentals and means?… is this convenience or is there a principle that judges where that line is drawn as well. Apart from that objection (if incidentals are ignored), I would still argue that the church-building is a hard sell for an incidental, at least in comparison to electricity or projectors, for that change of venue dramatically affects numbers and dynamics. (Books still seem like a stretch to me as well, for I think the Lord intended for His written word to be proliferated via copying/printing and yet scripture does not regulate this to my knowledge).

    Concerning the Ephesians and Colossians passages, why do “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” only imply the 150 psalms? (or am I too limited in my understanding of the RPW and its application?) If this is the case, do we never sing directly of Christ, the cross, or the bride of Christ… but only of the coming Messiah, obedience & sacrifice, and Israel?

    Finally, I’ve heard it said that the early church (even apostolic) sung ‘hymns and spiritual songs’ beyond the psalter… if that were the case (assuming you’ll allow hearsay as evidence), were they wrong to do so, according the the RPW?

    Thanks to anyone who helps me understand this principle better.

    • Luke,

      There is a principle. See RRC on this. The distinction is an important way of preserving Christian liberty. If everything is essential (and element) then nothing is accidental (non-essential). This makes language, time, and place essential to worship. The Reformed worked this out in the 16ht and 17th century in the crucible of the Reformation where Christian liberty was a valuable but rare commodity. Do you want a session to be able to impose whatever it will on you? If not, how will you protect your liberty and that of others without distinguishing between what is essential and what is not?

      The RPW is only the 2nd commandment and sola scriptura applied to worship. Those, I think we agree, are principles!

  6. Dear Luke;
    Another way of thinking of the differentiation is distinguishing between the substance and the circumstances of worship. The time we meet for instance is a circumstance, but the components of worship are part of the substance.

    Is the Christian church confined to singing the psalms of David?
    Firstly, we notice we have a New Testament warrant for continuing to sing the psalms;
    Jam 5:13. Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
    Col 3:16. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
    Eph 5:19. Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.
    What are the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of which Paul speaks? To help us understand this question we note that the Septuagint, uses these words in the titles given to many of the psalms;
    ‘Psalm’ occurs 66 times, ‘Song’ 36, eg. (Ps 120:1) “A Song of degrees.” Song and Psalm are sometimes used together; eg. (Ps 68:1) “To the chief Musician, A Psalm or Song of David.”
    The Septuagint translated the Hebrew ‘Neginoth’ as ‘humnos’ or hymn in six instances and in Psalms 67 and 76 we find all three titles together; eg. “To the chief Musician on Neginoth, A Psalm or Song.”

    “It is significant that on several occasions in the text of the Psalms humnos translates the Hebrew word tehillah which is the word used to designate the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew. This shows that psalms may be called hymns and hymns are psalms. Psalms and hymns are not exclusive of one another. A psalm may be not only a psalm but also a hymn.
    “The evidence does not warrant the conclusion that the apostle meant by “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” to designate three distinct groups or types of lyrical compositions. It is significant in this connection that in a few cases in the titles of the Psalms all three of these words occur. In many cases the words “psalm” and “song” occur in the same title. This shows that a lyrical composition may be a psalm, hymn and song at the same time.” (Murray, J.,

    It is evident that the apostle’s use of all three titles is taken from the Greek translation and must apply to the book of Psalms. Paul is saying that Christian praise was to be offered in the words given by the Holy Spirit for this purpose. We are to praise God in the singing of inspired psalms, hymns and songs, for that is what ‘spiritual’ means here.

    The book of psalms is the hymnbook of the Holy Spirit and is therefore eminently suited to be used in the praise of God. Some will respond, if we are only to praise God with the words of inspiration why may we not sing other portions of Scripture, especially from the New Testament?

    The apostle’s exhortation really answers this, for he refers specifically to the OT manual of praise. The Old Testament church did not go beyond this book so neither should we without an explicit warrant, of which there is none.

    One objection raised to the exclusive singing of psalms is that they are not suited to Christian worship. It is argued that the church ‘come of age’ is in need of a songs that speak of Christ. Is it true that the psalms are without Christ? Certainly the name ‘Jesus’ by which we know the second person of the trinity is not to be found therein, but to say that Christ is not in them is a grievous error.

    (Luke 24:27) And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself… 44 And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.

    To those of spiritual discernment Christ is everywhere to be found in these odes of the Spirit. He is ‘the king of glory’, ‘Zion’s king’, ‘the fairest of all men’ from whose lips grace doth flow, and the shepherd of his people. For him the gates have lifted up their heads and he ascends up on high, taking captivity captive.

    He is the one whom David typified and he is David’s Lord. In the psalms we enter into the inner life of the Son of Man as we read there of his prayers and groans, incontrovertibly established by the Saviour’s taking the poignant words of Psalm 22 upon his lips in his dying hour, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

    Another line of reasoning in opposition to exclusive psalm singing is that as we are not limited in our prayers to the words of Scripture or to the prayers given us in Scripture, surely the same freedom is granted in song. Hear what professor Murray says on this;

    “We may not argue thus from the divine warrant respecting one element to the divine warrant respecting another. The question of the divine prescription regarding the songs that may be sung in the public worship of God must be answered, therefore, on the basis of the teaching of Scripture with respect to that specific element of worship.” (ibid)

    Others have tried to build a case for uninspired praise from references in the psalms themselves.
    (Psa 98:1) O sing unto the LORD a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.

    Is this a warrant for innovation in worship, a licence to make new songs of praise? Our response is to recognise that ‘new’ in Scripture can mean a new appreciation of the old.
    (John 13:34) A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

    This commandment is not new for its substance, but for its motive. There is a new compulsion to love one another in the example of the love of Christ for us. So a ‘new song’ can be singing the old songs with a new understanding and appreciation of what cause there is to praise him and from an heart made new by his grace.

    Who cannot see what marvellous things God has done in Christ, ‘the man of his right hand’, ‘’the son of man whom he made strong for himself’, (Ps 80:17) and what a wondrous victory he has won? (Ps 68:18).

    I hope this proves helpful.


  7. But surely, John, the congregation may pray prayers which are not found in Scripture. And bear in mind that in the early church, prayers were chanted (as they were in the worship of Israel). And many hymns are in fact prayers that are chanted, or otherwise set to music.
    So I really don’t see the problem.

    • John,

      Yes, if there are two basic elements to worship, Word and prayer then psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are prayers by the people in response to God’s Word. There is a distinction to be made between the prayers offered by the minister, whose office it is to pray for the congregation and to speak the Word to the congregation, and those prayers offered by the congregation.

      Further, with that distinction, what evidence is there that the early post-apostolic (or the apostolic) congregations prayed or sung uninspired prayers? I’ve often seen it assumed but not proven that the early 2nd century church sang uninspired songs/prayers.

  8. Scott wrote:

    >what evidence is there that the early post-apostolic (or the apostolic) congregations prayed or sung uninspired prayers? I’ve often seen it assumed but not proven that the early 2nd century church sang uninspired songs/prayers.

    Scott, all I’m assuming is that the apostolic/post-apostolic church offered up in her worship prayers -for things like the salvation of friends, the recovery from illness of particular members, invocations of blessings on certain people or groups, etc.- which were not verbatim quotations of Scripture. And I’m conjoining that observation with the fact that worship services were mostly chanted (except for the homily). This is in keeping with the church’s practice inherited from the Old Testament (and may be experienced today in Orthodox Jewish worship, i.e., the role of the cantor).. Don’t you think the burden of proof here lies with you?

    -John Harutunian

  9. To All and Sundry-

    First, a confession. My own theological orientation lies outside of the Reformed tradition: I am an Anglican. However, as someone who holds to the supreme authority of Scripture, and who has taught church music at the seminary level, I feel it appropriate -as best I can- to try to lay to rest the whole notion of exclusive Psalmody. My argument has three main points.
    First: In Old Testament worship, chanted prayers (such as the Psalms) were offered up to Yaweh. The earliest [i.e., Jewish,] Christians continued the practice of chanting prayers in worship (there is no New Testament evidence that the practice ceased). But: their prayers were offered up to Jesus Christ (whom they rightly worshiped as God). What were these chanted prayers? Hymns. (This is surely very straightforward.)
    Second: The offering up of prayers is an essential element in a worship service. (Whether such prayers are sung or spoken, or whether they are offered up by the minister or by the congregation, is beside my point.) Would anyone seriously claim that the offering of all such prayers constitutes idolatry unless the prayers are quotations of Scripture?
    Last: As many readers will know, in Biblical thought great weight was attached to names. A name was not an arbitrary phonetic sound which was pasted onto a person. It was inseparably bound up with the person’s identity. Hence in Matthew 1:21 the angel informs Joseph, “thou shalt call his name Jesus [Salvation] for he shall save his people from their sins.” See also Peter’s witness in Acts chapters 3 and 4 (“And his name, through faith in his name, hath made this man strong [3:16]…”there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved [4:12])”. Hence the name of Jesus Christ is inseparable from His Person. Which in turn means that a Christian’s love of extolling that name in prayer and song cannot be dismissed as mere subjective sentimentality.
    Hence, it is unthinkable that God would forbid His worshiping people to praise that name in prayer -again, whether the prayer be spoken or chanted (i.e., sung as a hymn).
    The final irony is that those who hold to such an application of the Regulative Principle are implicitly imposing upon Christ’s Holy Church “the commandments and traditions of men.”

    Dr. John Harutunian

Comments are closed.