The Rule of Puritan Worship: Scriptures’ Regulative Principle
When we build on the foundation of the gospel, what rule should govern what we build upon it? By rule I mean what controls, regulates, and fills what we say and do in worship. For the Puritans, the answer to this question was easy: since they strove to order all of life by Scripture, it was natural for them to be convicted that all of worship must be ordered by Scripture. Since worship is service given to the King of kings for His pleasure and honour, and that King is Christ who supremely honours His Word, all our worship, the Puritans said, must be in obedience to His Word. Calvin taught that the church has one King, our Savior Jesus Christ, and He is “the sole lawgiver of his own worship.”20 For the Puritans, too, cleaving to Christ as our Lord means submitting to the rule of His Word in our worship, and opposing humanly-devised worship.21
This idea today is called the regulative principle. Robert Godfrey writes, “In its simplest terms the regulative principle holds that the Word of God alone regulates, directs, and warrants all elements of worship…. We may worship God only as he has commanded us to do in the Bible.”22 As the Puritans saw it, the basic form of biblical worship was three-fold: Word, sacraments, and prayer. Each of the three elements can be divided into two parts: the Word (read and preached), the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer (spoken and sung).23
The Puritans found the regulative principle taught throughout Scripture. Christ said to the Samaritans in John 4:22, “Ye worship ye know not what.” God repeatedly told Moses that he must build the tabernacle according to the pattern revealed to him (Ex. 25:9; etc.). Hildersham concluded that no one can know or serve God rightly “without the direction of his Word.”24 Burroughs similarly noted how in Exodus 39 the text repeatedly says that they built the tabernacle exactly as God commanded.25 Hildersham concluded, “See how precise God would have us to be in sticking close to the direction of his Word, in the matter of his worship. Yea it is certain, when we do him any service that he hath not appointed us in his Word, we serve not him, but we serve an idol.”26 Perkins quoted Deuteronomy 12:32, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” To add or subtract from God’s instructions for worship, Perkins said, is to deny that the Holy Scriptures are “all sufficient” for doctrine and obedience.27 Numbers 15:39 and Ezekiel 20:18 warn us that in our worship we must not follow our own hearts or the ways of our fathers. Our Lord Jesus, in Matthew 15:9, quoted the words of Isaiah 29:13, to admonish us, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Paul taught us in Romans 12:12 that reasonable worship requires knowing God’s will.28
At the bottom of the regulative principle is a profound sense of the holiness of God. The Lord killed two of Aaron’s sons for offering Him incense in a way He had not authorized. God’s word of explanation for their surprising death appears in Leviticus 10:3, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” The Lord was saying that those who worship Him must do so in a manner that lets people know He is the holy God, indeed a consuming fire.29 God’s holiness implies that we cannot approach Him in any way that we please. We must offer up to God only what He commanded.30 As John Owen (1618–1683), one of the greatest Puritan theologians, said, only God is the Judge of what pleases God.31
So we might summarize the rule of Puritan worship in these words adapted from Owen’s writings:
What does God require of us so that by faith we glorify Him and He accepts us?
He requires that we worship Him in the ways that He appointed.
How does God make known to us these ways and means of worship?
He makes them known by the written Word of God alone, which is the full and perfect revelation of the will of God for His whole worship.
May the church add religious activities or images that help people worship?
No, because all acceptable worship is by faith, and faith always looks to the promises and laws God has given us through Jesus Christ.32
Someone might object that if “there be an intention to honour God, it is the worship of God” even if our worship consists of something God has not commanded. Perkins replied, “It is false.” Worship must be done with good intentions, but it must also be done in obedience to God’s commands. He said, “Love keeps itself to the Word, and will of God: and things done without a Word from God, are not of love, for ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’” (Rom. 13:10).33
The Reformers and Puritans said we must not add to nor subtract from God’s Word, but simply and joyfully obey it. Their regulative principle produced reverence and simplicity in Puritan worship. It also enabled them to focus on Christ instead of ceremonies and physical objects. Charnock said, “There is no need of a candle when the sun spreads its beams in the air; no need of those ceremonies when the Sun of righteousness appeared.”34
For the Puritans, worship is not only governed by the Word, but it is also saturated with the Word. Thus the Scriptures were central not only in regulating worship but also in forming its very substance. In worship, the Puritans prayed the Word, sang the Word, read the Word, preached the Word, and saw the Word in the sacraments. And so, regarding the mechanics of Puritan worship, we will limit ourselves to considering the Word sung, the Word preached, and the Word spoken about in conversation.
20 Calvin, Institutes, 4.10.23; cf. 4.10.1.
21 Perkins, Divine Worship, 179; Horton Davies, The Worship of the American Puritans, 1629–1730 (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), 29.
22 W. Robert Godfrey, “Calvin, Worship, and the Sacraments,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2008), 371.
23 William Perkins, A Golden Chaine, or The Description of Theologie, Containing the Order of the Causes of Salvation and Damnation, according to Gods Word (London: John Legate, 1597), 66–67; Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 161; Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety, 93.
24 Hildersam, Lectures upon the Fourth of John, 154.
25 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 86.
26 Hildersam, Lectures upon the Fourth of John, 155.
27 Perkins, A Golden Chaine, 62.
28 Perkins, Divine Worship, 180.
29 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 5–6, 18.
30 Burroughs, Gospel-Worship, 8.
31 John Owen, “The Nature and Beauty of Gospel Worship,” in Works, 9:72.
32 Paraphrased from John Owen, A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God, Q. 1, 3, 14, in The Works of John Owen (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 14:447–50, 467.
33 Perkins, Divine Worship, 181. Perkins cited Gal. 5:14.
34 Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:283.