I enjoyed Rory Shiner’s recent TGC article reflecting on worship and “the regulative principle”. Surely, he is right that we worship in Christ, in Spirit and truth, recognising that the people of God are his holy temple.

I want to highlight the ongoing value of the Westminster approach to worship.

Yet, I thought his account of the Westminster Confession’s view of worship rather sells it short. I am not challenging his piece but want to highlight the ongoing value of the Westminster approach to worship, something I have found myself growing in appreciation for in the last few years.

Recent Terminology

It is worth noting that the terms “regulative principle” and “normative principle” were not used in the 16th or 17th century (they seem to come from the 20th century).

Some in the Church of England defended a more ceremonial pattern of worship, arguing that the church could determine forms of worship provided they were not contrary to the Scriptures and were edifying for God’s people. Most Puritans insisted that the elements of worship should consist of only those things which God commanded in Scripture. We can describe these as two “principles” but should remember that in the post-Reformation debates, those positions were complex.

The Importance of Worship

The Westminster view recognises the central and formative significance of gathered worship. When God’s people meet—called by the Lord in his gospel, to pray, praise him and hear his word—they live out the great reality of redemption. God is forming a people who glorify him and enjoy a relationship with him together. Church life is more than gathered worship, but Christians through the ages have recognised it is central. Other aspects of church life flow from gathered worship. And Christian living is more than church life, but again, who we are as God’s people individually flows from our life as God’s church. So, what we do in gathered worship needs to be protected from distortion. If things go wrong in our worship, that will distort the rest.

For these reasons, although the Confession highlights the importance of family and private worship (WCF 21.6) and that God is glorified by good works in every part of life (WCF 16.2), its discussion of worship is focussed on public worship.

God’s Sovereign Initiative in Worship

As Rory notes, the Westminster Confession recognises that God determines how he is to be worshipped (WCF 21.1). God makes worship possible by revealing himself and redeeming his people, opening the way for sinners to approach him in his holiness (Ex 25:8-9; Dt 12:11-14; 2 Chron 7:16; Eph. 2:18–22; Heb. 9:23–26). He also calls his people to worship him (Deut. 6:13; 2 Kings 17:36; 1 Chr. 16:29; Psa. 29:2; 68:26; 1 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 14:7). Worship is initiated and enabled by God, and he provides the means by which we worship.

The Danger of Idolatry

The members of the Westminster Assembly were deeply aware that human sin easily leads to false worship. Left to ourselves, we would break the first and second commandments by worshipping other gods or worshipping the true God in false ways. Because worship is the central act of church life (and human life), it is in it and doctrine that we are most likely to be led astray.

Left to ourselves, we would break the first and second commandments by worshipping other gods or worshipping the true God in false ways.

Only a few generations before Westminster, the Church of England had been captive to superstition and idolatry. Medieval and Roman Catholic worship was, from their point of view, a shocking corruption of true worship:

  • The doctrine of transubstantiation demanded worshippers adore the bread and wine in the mass;
  • The church was filled with images of Christ and of the saints to which prayer was offered;
  • The service involved formulaic prayers, bowing, kissing the altar, spraying holy water and making the sign of the cross;
  • The priest was dressed in impressive vestments to play the sacerdotal role of repeating the sacrifice of the cross — actions which were hidden from the congregation behind a rood screen.

All of this was conducted in Latin which few of the people comprehended, and some of the priests did not understand. Yet priests and people were sure that through this they received God’s grace.

Since the Reformation, reformed Christians have seen an urgent need to bring biblical reform to worship. Back in 1541, Calvin set out his agenda in The Necessity of Reforming the Church explaining that the two urgent tasks were to reform worship and to correct doctrine so that the message of salvation would be clear. These, Calvin says, “comprehend” the whole substance of Christianity. Westminster continues in the same vein.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

The Westminster view of worship is also an application of a conviction about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture alone is God’s authoritative word. In it, God has revealed all we need for “his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” (WCF 1.6). Since worship is clearly covered in this, then we can be confident that Scripture provides all we need for proper worship.

Freedom of Conscience

The Westminster view of worship was necessarily political. The Church of England was the only church in the nation. There was no other worship “option”. Since Elizabeth’s reign, there had been tension over the imposition of forms of worship through the Book of Common Prayer. When William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, stronger measures were enforced more strictly. The communion table was to be replaced by an “altar”. Incense and choirs appeared. Preaching on predestination was prohibited, and Puritan lectureships were suppressed.

In response, Westminster asserted that no one was to be required to worship in a way that is not commanded by Scripture.

Old Testament Worship Fulfilled

Rory’s article comments that the regulative principle of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus and is “not applied to what we do in church.” The Westminster view agrees that Old Testament worship is fulfilled in Jesus. The way they put it is that the “ceremonial law” included aspects of worship “prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits.”

Because these are fulfilled in Christ, they are not part of Christian worship (WCF 19.3). So after the coming of Christ the “ordinances” (that is the elements of worship) are “fewer” and are “administered with more simplicity and less outward glory”, but Christ and his salvation are “held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy” (WCF 7.6).

Christian worship should be simple … we no longer try to replicate heaven here.

Puritan worship is famously (or infamously) plain and simple. That is to avoid superstition and invalid ceremonies, but the theological basis is deeper. Old Testament worship offered an imposing picture of the glories of worship in God’s heavenly presence and impressed on worshippers their desperate need for cleansing by sacrifice. Christ has now offered the once for all sacrifice and cleansed believers fully (Heb 10:14-22), he is exalted to the heavenly sanctuary and has brought us there (Heb 12:22-24). On that basis, Christian worship should be simple as we listen to the word of Christ who speaks to us from heaven. We no longer try to replicate heaven here; the temple and all its ceremonies are fulfilled in Christ.

The Elements of Worship

So what should we “do in church”? The Westminster answer is straightforward. Foundationally, we only worship the true God through the mediation of Christ by the help of the Spirit (WCF 21:2-3).

Prayer is the basic form of worship and receives first and fullest attention (21:3-4). The other elements of ordinary worship are reading Scripture, preaching, singing psalms, and the sacraments. There is also space for “oaths and vows, solemn fastings and thanksgivings” on occasions and “in a holy and religious manner” (not with the superstition and revelry of saints days and holy days).

Westminster does not seek to be any more prescriptive than listing the elements and urging that worship should be heartfelt, reverent and understood. There is no attempt to spell out detailed forms. Before publishing the Confession, the Assembly produced a Directory of Public Worship to replace the Book of Common Prayer. It was clear that this was to show “the sense and scope of the prayers, and other parts of public worship” and was not a required form.

The Ongoing Value of Westminster on Worship

While the politics of worship is very different for us, Westminster still helps with worship. It shows us the solemn importance of worship for the glory of God and the good of the church. It assures us that God has opened the way for us to worship him and told us all we need to do that. It warns that innovation in worship is more likely to trivialise it or turn it into an empty ritual or superstition. It protects consciences and leaves us with great freedom. Worship is prayer, Bible reading, preaching, spiritual songs, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Their formula is to stick with those and exercise prayerful wisdom about the circumstances.