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What is the Regulative Principle?

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

For the Love of God:

There is a degree of reverence that is lacking in today’s realm of worship. A kind of honor that forces you to double check your thoughts before bulling through that door. A kind of respect that makes you review your notes twice, or maybe even thrice, before stepping out onto that podium. A kind of dignity that if misrepresented to the slightest degree could cause you to get the taste knocked out of your mouth. And I get it, the New Covenant is about peace, grace, and mercy. Yet don't allow those truisms to cause yourself to misappropriate the God of the Scriptures. Yes, He is gracious! He is also God; the Creator, Sustainer, and Designer of the universe (cf. Gen. 1:1; Col. 1:16-17; Ps. 19:1-9). He holds all things in His hands, and He is worthy of our praise. True reverence is a must; a requirement!

Throughout Scripture there are situations in which the people of God take a less-than-serious posture in their worship of God. In so doing, their approach causes quite a disturbance, death in many cases. One example can be found in Israel’s handling of the Ark of the Covenant to which no one was to physically touch (Num. 4:15). Though his intention was to spare the ark due to the stumbling oxen, Uzzah gripped the sacred artifact and was simultaneously struck down (cf. 2 Sam. 6:1-7; 1 Chron. 13:9-12). By virtue of his disobedience, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah” (2 Sam. 6:7). What could be taken from this narrative is that God will be approached on His own terms and, consequently, His people will be well served to follow accordingly.

A Guiding Principle:

At the heart of the magisterial Reformer, John Calvin, as well as the Puritans themselves was a desire to orchestrate a theology around the institutional display of worship for the gathered assembly.[1] It's renderings were not construed to limit the enjoyment of adoration toward their Creator, but rather was established to maximize those efforts in accords to His divine revelation, the Holy Scriptures. Hence, the regulative principle, according to Samuel Renihan, “sums up the truth that we are not to add to or subtract from God’s institutional worship, because the way in which He is to be worshipped derives only from God’s revelation on the matter.”[2] As follows, we will examine three main aspects of the regulative principle: (1) its anchor, (2) its heart, and (3) its aim.

The Anchor to the Principle. The basis of the regulative principle is rooted in the premise that God has spoken and He has spoken clearly (cf. sola scriptura). Thus, the guiding convention to inform our worship is not built upon cultural trends, subjective preferences, nor innovative spontaneity; but rather upon the inspired Word of God. This notion, then, is built upon Scripture being theopneustos (i.e., God-breathed) which means that its origin is from the Creator God Himself. The biblical text is not solely words about the living God, but rather is in fact the very Words of God themselves. Calvin contends, then, that "Wherever the faithful, who worship Him purely and in due form, according to the appointment of His Word, are assembled together to engage in the solemn acts of religious worship, He is graciously present, and presides in the midst of them."[3] Thus, God has given heed to the corporate gathering and the institutional worship of His Name by and through the covenantal documents themselves, the Scriptures.

The Heart of the Principle. As a result, the Word is not merely the center of worship, rather it becomes the content to our worship.[4] It gives proper rise as to how the assembled saints are to approach corporately the throne of the living God. "Church leaders who have been committed to seeing the church reformed according to God’s Word down through the ages," according to Mark E. Dever and Paul Alexander, "have had a common method: read the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, see the Word (in the ordinances)."[5] The heart of the matter is cemented upon coming before the Lord accordingly, and knowing that He commands and provides the means to appropriate His presence.

The Aim of the Principle. As the people of God, we love our Father, Savior, and Comforter. Thus, "this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 Jn. 5:3). In actuality, His decrees are avenues in showcasing our eager engagement and humble desire to love Him duly. Faithfulness, then, is the aim of proper reverence and affection toward the living God of the universe. Commitment to the decrees of God, consequently, are not channels to hinder joy, but quite the opposite; it feeds the joy which is centered upon God Himself who invites us into covenantal relations by the sacrificial Son through the power of His Spirit.

What is Informing Your Worship?

In an age where worship is driven by the subjective preference of worship leaders, God has spoken clearly and effectively toward our engagement in worshipping the covenantal Lord amid the assembly of saints. He has called His church to "[let] the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:16). He has given a charge for men to "preach the Word" (2 Tim. 4:2). He has decreed that "[if] you abide in Me, and My Words abides in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (Jn. 15:7). He has instituted the ordinance of communion to be done "in remembrance of Me" (Lk. 22:19). The Lord has called the saints to "[baptize] them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).

The covenantal Lord has faithfully given His people His decree to honor and worship Him truly. His Word will never deviate nor will it return void. The saints will be well served, then, to oblige in their approach of honoring and revering the holy throne of God. Soli Deo Gloria!



[1] The regulative principle did not derive from the Puritans, but can be found in seed-form with Calvin himself. See Calvin’s “On the Necessity of Reforming the Church” in Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983), 1:128-129; W. Robert Godfrey, John Calvin, 78n24.

[2] Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2019), 16-17.

[3] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 1:122.

[4] Matthew Barrett, "The Crux of Genuine Reform," Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 60.

[5] Mark E. Dever & Paul Alexander, Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 81.


McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie Yang and the father to McCayden (11), McCoy (10), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5).  He is one of the Teaching Pastors at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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