The Principles Of Reformed Worship


In preparation for the invasion of Canaan, our covenant God promised to destroy the nations before us (Deut. 12:29). His chief complaint against the nations was their pagan worship. He warned,

…and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods (Deut. 12:30-31).

Here Scripture connects two essential Biblical principles, antithesis and worship. Antithesis means that God’s people are to be clearly distinct from the surrounding pagan culture and that difference is to be expressed in worship. Not only are we not to worship the pagan gods, we are to worship the true God truly. It is significant then, that to this warning he added, ” See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.”

This principle is not confined to the Old Covenant Scriptures. Our Lord Jesus taught the same doctrine in Revelation 22:18-19. This is so because God’s covenantal Word is united by one covenant of Grace: I will be your God, you will be my people (Gen 17:1-14; Ex 6:7; Jer 7:23; 31;31-34.). There is only one Lord, one faith and one baptism, i.e., one covenant of grace under different administrations (Ephesians 4:5; see also ). Under Moses, this covenant was expressed in types and shadows (Col 2:17; Hebrews 10:1; Rom 5:14). In Jesus Christ we have the reality of what was promised.

Always in the history of salvation, God comes to his people, announces our redemption and then declares the terms of his covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other God’s before me.” (Exodus 20:2). Indeed the first four commandments speak directly to worship, “You shall not make for yourself and idol”; “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord” and “Remember the Sabbath day.”

Thus his covenant word, including his teaching on worship is sacred and inviolable. The circumstances in which we worship have changed, but the nature of the God whom we worship has not changed.

These passages reveal another fundamental principle which continues to guide worship which is Reformed according to the Scriptures. We may do that and only that in worship which is required explicitly or implicitly in God’s Word. In other words, the question is not, “May we do this?” but rather, “What must we do?”

We are to worship intelligibly and in a way which edifies God’s people, not babbling vainly (Matthew 6:7). We are to worship in spirit and truth. Where the woman at the well was concerned about circumstances, our Lord was concerned about attitude and object (the Triune God) of worship. Our attitude is to be one of joyful reverence and the triune God is the only object and audience of true, spiritual worship (John 4:23-24).

God established a dialogic pattern of worship in the history of salvation. God speaks, and his people respond with praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 18 is a classic example of this pattern, in which the Psalmist recounts God’s mighty saving acts for his king and people and then responds with joyful, submissive reverence in v. 50, “Therefore I will praise you among the nations, O LORD; I will sing praises to your name.” This dialogic pattern is fundamental to Biblical Worship.

The other foundational Biblical principle of worship is the nature of the Biblical message itself. God’s Word distinguishes clearly between Law, i.e., what God demands of us, and Gospel, i.e., what Christ has done for us. Paul makes this distinction in Romans 3:20-21:

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The function of Law is to teach us our sin and drive us to Christ. Thus, immediately in the next verses he declares:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

The Good News is that Christ has done for us, what we could not do for ourselves. Reformed worship must express this great truth.

Our Confession

This Biblical principle has come to be summarized as the regulative principle of worship. In the United Reformed Churches in North America we confess that Biblical principle in the Belgic Confession (1561) and Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Because we regard the teaching of our confessions to be a summary of God’s Word it is binding upon all confessing members. Belgic Confession Art. 7 says in part,

For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures….

Because we regard the Scriptures as the sufficient rule for faith and life (sola Scriptura) the Reformed regulative principle is that we do that in worship and only that which is taught explicitly or required implicitly in God’s Word. The exact same doctrine is taught in Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 96:

96. What does God require in the second Commandment?

That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.

This principle is in contrast to the Lutheran and evangelical approach which holds that we may do in worship whatever is not forbidden. The primary reason we worship as we do is not because it is pleasing to us, but because God has revealed his will for worship in his Word.

Belgic Confession Art. 32 also says in part,

Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.

Since the fall, the unbridled worship has been playground of the sinful human imagination. The tyranny of the human will and imagination is not, as some believe, the way of freedom but of slavery. Worship is not an optional assembly for the Christian. When God’s people are gathered on the Christian Sabbath, the day of “sacred assembly” (Leviticus 23:3), the Word and Sacraments administered, the Christian must attend.

If he must attend, then the church must not burden his conscience with any ceremony, rite or element (music, prayer, sermon, sacrament etc) which God has not ordained. Thus the principle at stake here is the freedom of the Christian to worship only as God has revealed.

Church Order

For these reasons, the Church Order of the URCs (based on the Church Order of the Synod of Dort [1619]) teaches that God’s Word authorizes the elders and minister to call the congregation to worship twice each Lord’s Day as well as on other days (H.C. Q. 103; C.O. Art. 37). When the congregation is gathered worship “shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word” (C. O. Art. 38).

That is, there are certain essential elements which are necessary to worship according to Scripture. The preaching of the Word has the “central place”. Preaching has this centrality because it is through the “preaching of the Holy Gospel” by which the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts (HC Q. 65).

Because the administration of the Word (Law and Gospel) in the sermon is the chief means of grace through which God has promised to work faith, we make available the means of grace to God’s people twice each Lord’s Day and the second sermon ought to “preach the Word as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity, with special attention given to the Heidelberg Catechism by treating its Lord’s Days in sequence.” (C.O. Art. 40).

The sacraments are the other divinely instituted means of grace because it is through the administration of the Holy Sacraments by which he confirms our faith (HC Q. 65; CO Art. 41-46). Baptism, as the sign and seal of initiation into the covenant is celebrated as often as necessary. Our present practice is that the Lord’s Supper as the sign and seal of covenant renewal is administered 8 times a year.

Our Liturgy

Scripture requires that in worship everything must be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). That is, worship must be intelligible and edifying. Following the teaching of Scripture, its summary in the confession and catechism and its application in the Church order, we follow in our worship services an historic Reformed liturgy which we believe reflects these Biblical and confessional priorities.

Because it is God who made and redeemed us, he has the first word so our services begin with a call to worship from God’s Word, an invocation and Greeting from God, followed by a response by God’s people.

We read God’s Law, confess our sins, and rejoice in the declaration of God’s grace toward his people (CO Art. 38)

Out of gratitude we give tithes and offerings and. since prayer is the chief part of thankfulness (HC Q. 116), we offer our hearts in thankful prayer in morning and evening worship (CO Art. 38).

Continuing the dialogic pattern, God speaks to us in the sermon and we respond in worship and praise.

God has the last word as the minister pronounces God’s benediction upon his covenant people. Just as the service begins formally with the call to worship so it ends formally at this point. The doxology may be sung in response, but this has the same standing liturgically as a song service before the call to worship.

Seeker-Sensitive Worship and the Worship Wars

We want to be seeker-sensitive, but we must identify the true seeker in worship. Scripture teaches that “no man seeks God,” certainly not the unregenerate, rather it is God who seeks us (Romans 3:11). Our Lord taught us that the Father seeks those who will worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23). Therefore the primary focus in Reformed worship is our living, holy, righteous, awesome Triune God. Thus when we gather before his face (Hebrews 12:18-20) we are in a sacred assembly where he has promised to give us an audience. More than that God has promised to be with us as our covenant God (Genesis 17:7-10; John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Matthew 28:20), to make us a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5) It is our earnest prayer that it will be so obvious that God is in our midst, that when an unbeliever enters the assembly he will be convicted of his sin, fall down and worship God exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:25).

Because we live in the era of so-called worship wars, the matter of “praise…in song” (Art. 38) has become hotly controversial. One side wants “traditional hymns” and the other side calls for “contemporary songs.” Speaking strictly, however, Reformed worship is neither, “traditional” nor “contemporary.” Rather we operate on revealed principles which must be applied in every age. C. O. Art. 39 says,

The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.

It is our conviction that the Psalms are both traditional and contemporary. Though written a millennium before Christ, they are as timeless and as relevant as the Word of God. The Psalter is a “Bible in miniature,” teaching God’s Law as well as his Gospel, pointing us to Christ’s work on behalf of sinners and the Spirit’s ongoing gracious work in his people in justification and sanctification. We believe that the Psalter is Christ’s principal songbook for his people and that it is rightly given the “principal place in the singing of the churches.”

Nevertheless, we also recognize that there are other songs which may be sung in Christian worship. The elders have approved the use of the 1959 CRC Psalter-Hymnal. Other songs to be used in worship which not contained in the Psalter are to be approved by the Consistory. Thus what is sung in worship is not a matter of private preference but publicly stated principles administered by authorized office bearers.

The age of a tune is morally indifferent. Tunes from many eras may be used so long as they are express the mood of the text and are appropriate and conducive to corporate worship. There are older tunes which are now considered traditional which are just as inappropriate as some of the contemporary praise songs and contemporary tunes which are quite suitable to be used in reverently joyful public worship.

Much of the modern confusion about worship is due to the confusion of public and private piety. Reformed worship is not a concert, revival meeting, nor a private prayer circle. In Biblical worship, God speaks to his gathered people and they reply corporately. Therefore what is done must be appropriate to corporate public worship (1 Corinthians 11:10). Therefore there are certain music forms which, while perfectly appropriate to private settings are inappropriate in public worship in which all God’s people, of all ages and backgrounds are gathered (1 Corinthians 11: 22; chapter 14).

Having lost confidence in the preached Word of God as a means of grace, many evangelical congregations and even some Reformed congregations have added elements to the liturgy, namely liturgical dance and drama. It is our conviction that such additions are contrary to God’s Word and are the moral equivalent of the “strange fire” condemned in Leviticus 10:1-2. Scripture not only forbids false gods, but also human innovation in Christian worship, even that which is well intentioned (e.g., 2 Sam 6). The sacraments are the only divinely sanctioned visible Words of God to his people.


It is our conviction that the fundamental principle at stake is that God’s Word, not our own desires nor the culture around us, must shape our worship. Therefore we shall continue to worship in way which is as ancient as the Psalter and as relevant as the Gospel of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, ever seeking to worship in a way which pleases God and edifies his people.


[Adopted September 19. 2000 by the Consistory of the Escondido United Reformed Church]

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  1. Been memorizing 1 Pe 4:17 and pondering a question: while I see God’s judgment on the world, I haven’t been sure how God is judging the Church, which should be first. Your essay (disguised as a post) seems to suggest that the worship of the Western Church may be the focal point of the judgement. Since the 50s or so, perhaps sooner (with the revivalists), the western church worship has moved further and further away from any kind of Biblical basis. Is this where we are seeing the church being judged as God lifts His restraining hand and lets all the goats worship as they see fit, light incense at every street corner. and worship idols under every tree? So the western church becomes little more than a macabre celebration of Man’s ascendancy? If so, should believers be even more adamant about demanding solid reformed worship and even intolerant of blended worship?

  2. The RPW was a majority view throughout the Reformation but now a minority view among Protestants, and an alarming relic of the past in many P&R churches today (I don’t think I can say “most” yet, thankfully).

    The devaluing of the simple prescribed means of grace (outline in the post) for the Lord’s Day gathering of God’s people is disheartening, to put it mildly.

    I belong to a PCA congregation and apart from our corporate recitation of the historic and Reformed creeds and confessions, they appear to simply be confessed and not followed.

    Beyond a distorted gospel, pragmatism combined with human ingenuity is surely one of the greatest enemies to the proper Lord’s Day worship of the gathered church.

    So to all my confessionally Reformed brothers and sisters our there, let’s pray for a realignment to occur where we’ve drifted and seek out wise ways to share our concerns with the pastors and elders God had graciously given us.

    • Please excuse the typos above.

      Also, I would like to mention that the PCA church I belong to does have a traditionally Reformed dialogical liturgy. So my characterization above wasn’t entirely accurate. My apologies!

  3. What does the RPW have to say about masks? I see a lot of pastors arguing that because Scripture doesn’t explicitly forbid them, there’s no basis for objection to using, even requiring, them in public worship. Which is, of course, the Lutheran view, not the RPW.


    • Hi Ryan,

      I think I’ve addressed this question in one of the many Covid-related posts.

      The short answer is this:

      I don’t think the rule of worship or the RPW has anything to do with it. We’re not talking about elements here. We’re talking about circumstances.

      Circumstances are determined by nature: We have to meet somewhere, at sometime, under some circumstances (indoors, outdoors, in a civil society etc). Circumstances are those things required by nature. When the magistrate says, “you must have a fire extinguisher” no one says, “The magistrate has no authority to institute fire extinguishers! God has not authorized fire extinguishers.” No, but he has authorized the magistrate and he has commanded us to submit to him. When the magistrate institutes masks, social distancing etc because of a pandemic, we must comply. He has that authority.

      Were the magistrate to say, “you may not preach the Word” or “you may not administer the holy sacraments, or something on that order, then we have a problem and a potential Acts 5:29 case.

    • I’m having trouble with that line of argument.

      For one thing, the distinction between “elements” and “circumstances” doesn’t seem nearly as clear-cut as you make it out to be. And surely, there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between fire extinguishers and face masks. No one tends to even notice the former unless they’re actively looking for one. The latter are impossible to ignore and drastically interfere with relationship and communication. Whether or not there is a fire extinguisher in the building has zero effect whatever on public worship. The same cannot be said of masks.

      More than that, you seem to be saying that we submit to the civil magistrate, even when it comes to the physical conduct of public worship, as long as the magistrate claims to be acting in furtherance of public health/safety. The problem with that, as any lawyer will tell you, is that the authority to regulate is the authority to ban. The experience of California, Canada, etc., over the past year seems to demonstrate that quite adequately. Because those governments have effectively banned the preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments in the name of “public health”.

      I read your Acts 5 post. I think you’ve got Acts 5 wrong. Peter didn’t say “Well, you generally have the authority to regulate on the basis of public safety, but this time you’re asking us to directly disobey God, so we’re going to have to refuse.” Peter said “You don’t have the authority to tell us anything about when, how, or what we preach.” In short, he wasn’t subordinating the Council’s authority to Christ’s, he was rejecting the Council’s authority over matters of preaching entirely. He calls Jesus “archegon,” setting him up as a countervailing authority.

      That said, as both his and Paul’s conduct would demonstrate, they had no problem whatever complying with civil authorities when doing so would advance the gospel. They certainly didn’t go out of their way to annoy the magistrates. Quite the opposite, if anything. But as far as I can tell, there is no example in the New Testament of the apostles ever changing anything about public worship as a matter of submission to the civil magistrate.

      Doing what the magistrate says does not necessarily involve recognizing the magistrate’s authority. So, while I don’t like the fire extinguisher example for reasons discussed above, in that case, the church’s response should be “Huh. That sounds like a really good idea. We should do that.” Because fire extinguishers are a good idea. Obviously. And we can still order our public worship exactly as we would wish.

      So, in the case of masks, shouldn’t the answer be that the magistrate doesn’t get a say in the way we run our worship services, but if what the magistrate is saying turns out to be a good idea, then there’s no problem doing it? Of course, that would involve church leaders doing the work to convince themselves (and their congregations!) that the benefits of masks do, in fact, outweigh the costs they impose, both material and spiritual. Just like they would anything else.

      • Ryan,

        The magistrate he’s not telling you how to run your worship service. He is telling you how to stop disease.

        Your argument boils down to: it is inconvenient. [Edited—I was wrong about churches & ADA]

        The distinction between elements and circumstances is quite clear and not very complicated. It works in this case. You just don’t like it. I understand that. I don’t particularly like masks either. That, however, is beside the point.

        We are required by the Word of God to honor the magistrate and recognize his authority in his sphere. public health is in his sphere.

        The early Christians were not asked by the magistrate to alter their practice of worship on the base is a public health. They mostly met in secret.

        When the magistrate demanded that the apostles stop preaching, they said we must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). I don’t think masks are on that order. When, in the early second century, the magistrate demanded that Christians acknowledge Caesar as a god and renounce Christ the faithful refused. Those who refused paid for their fidelity with their lives. I have read no account of them whining about minor inconveniences. I have, however, read about them being set on fire and torn apart by lions. Let us have a little perspective here.

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