Calvin Contra Sadoleto On the Regulative Principle Of Worship

I have also no difficulty in conceding to you that there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a distorted and perverse worship of God. The primary rudiments by which we are wont to train to piety those whom we wish to win as disciples to Christ, are these: not to frame any new worship of God for themselves at random and their own pleasure, but to know that the only legitimate worship is that which he himself approved from the beginning. For we maintain, what the sacred oracle declared, that obedience is more excellent than any sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22). In short, we train them by every means to keep within the one rule of worship which they have received from his mouth, and bid farewell to all fictitious worship.

—Calvin’s Reply To Sadoleto (1539) in J. K. S. Reid ed., Calvin: Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), 229.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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9 comments

    • Mary (or Luke recording it) spoke under the inspiration of the Spirit. We don’t live in an age of canonical revelation. Hence the Reformation principle, sola scriptura. Scripture is sufficient for worship.

  1. This is nothing more or less than the application of Sola Scriptura to Worship!

    The first 4 Commandments basically teach us to Believe, Worship & Obey the
    Right God, in the Right Way, in the Right Time.

  2. looking forward to this regulated corporate worship:
    something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder and like the sound of harpists playing on their harps singing “Hallelujah! for the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns ,coming from the throne – every created thing saying, To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” – and all falling on their faces in worship to the Lord!

  3. Well there’s no command to sing the “magnificat”, or any other “song” in the NT or song found in the OT (but not in the Psalms). The record of what Mary said is inspired, but even if it is a song (which is not what it says in the text), there is no command or example of such songs being sung in worship. There is only the command and example of singing those songs contained in the Psalter being sung. Otherwise we’d have as much liberty- and obligation- to dance in the manner that David danced around the Ark.

  4. I’m a Lutheran (after leaving the nonsensical “Reformed” Baptist movement). Obviously, we don’t hold to the RPW. Where in scripture would you turn to support the RPW?

    I love the historic liturgies and creeds and I think stained glass is beautiful! I cross myself every night as a reminder of my baptism and God’s name by which he has marked me. I teach my boys to do the same before we recite the Apostle’s Creed. I think adiophora can be very helpful and encouraging.

    Anyways, just curious where the idea of the RPW comes from.

    Thanks!

    • Ken,

      The short story is that the “rule of worship,” which is how the 16th and 17th century Reformed spoke, was essentially an application of the 2nd commandment and sola Scriptura to worship. The early Christian fathers spoke of the “rule of faith” (regula fidei), which referred to the beginnings of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. It also referred, however, to Christian practice, i.e., the notion that the Christians did nothing that they did not receive from the Apostles or from Scripture. The earliest Christian worship services had no musical instruments. Indeed the church rejected musical instruments, on principle, until the 7th or 8th centuries. Even then they were not widely used. Thomas Aquinas condemned them in the 13th century ad Judaizing. The Reformed applied the “rule of faith” to worship, i.e., if it is not commanded, it is not done. They returned the services to the Apostolic and earliest Christian practice (a cappella singing of Scripture, mainly Psalms).

      Most of the practices to which you refer e.g., (crossing one’s self) are entirely medieval in origin.The argument that they are adiaphora goes back to the Leipzig Interim (1549), which Calvin derided as the “Adultero-Interim,” because it imposed upon Christian consciences in worship man-man practices. This, of course, impinges upon the doctrine of the “Freedom of the Christian Man,” which was wonderfully articulated by Luther. He rightly complained there and elsewhere about the unbiblical, man-made practices that Rome had imposed upon Christian consciences.

      Sola scriptura says that Scripture is sufficient for Christian teaching and practice. Scripture is certainly sufficient for Christian worship. Unfortunately, Melanchthon and others,for purely political and pragmatic reasons, argued that since x (e.g., crossing one’s self) is not forbidden, it is permitted. In contrast, the Reformed argued that the 2nd commandment not only says whom we must worship but also how God will be worshiped. The only things that are adiaphora (morally indifferent) are those things that are, as the Westminster Confession says, are determined by the light of nature (e.g., time, place, language) but the elements of worship (e.g., the Word and prayer) are regulated by Scripture. That said, most Reformed folk distinguish between public and private worship. Calvin’s chief concern was what transpires in public, congregational worship. What you do at home does not bind a conscience. What a church requires of its members, in pubic worship, is another matter.

      There are many articles on the rule of worship (since the mid-20th century known as the Regulative Principle of Worship) here:

      Regulative Principle

      and a detailed discussion in:

      Recovering the Reformed Confession.

    • Thanks for the relpy, Dr. Clark. It’s always good to know where our brothers and sisters in Christ are coming from, even if we disagree. May the Lord bless and keep you, brother!

  5. Alexander,

    There is are several obvious differences between private and public worship.

    1) In private worship unordained people read scripture aloud, pray, and explain Scripture to their children. They are not called to those tasks in public worship.

    2) In public worship the sacraments are administered. In private worship they are not.

    3) In public worship there is a call to worship, a greeting, the declaration of pardon (absolution), and a benediction which are authoritative words spoken by ordained officers. Those are not authorized for private worship.

    4) In public worship sentences of discipline are announced. This does not happen in private worship.

    5) In public worship new members are admitted to the church. This does not happen in private worship.

    6) In public worship the law and gospel are officially and authoritatively proclaimed. This does not happen in private worship or devotions.

    7) Members who absent themselves from public worship, the divinely ordained means of grace, face church discipline. The same is not true for private devotions.

    8) In reality, when we use “worship” for private devotions and “worship” for the public gathering of the visible church, we are equivocating. We should probably use two different terms to recognize the distinction.

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