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The Regulative Principle of the Church 11: Its Necessary Clarification—Parts and Circumstances

Chapter 1, paragraph 6 of the 1689 Confession provides an important clarification of the regulative principle.

…there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

When the Confessions says, therefore, that what is not commanded in public worship is forbidden, we are speaking of the substance and parts of worship, not its circumstances…..

 
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The Regulative Principle of the Church 10: Its Biblical Support—Fourth Argument

April 29, 2014 1 comment

The fourth argument for the regulative principle of the church is found in the explicit testimony of Scripture. The Bible explicitly condemns all worship that is not commanded by God (Lev. 10:1-3; Deut. 17:3; Deut. 4:2; 12:29-32; Josh 1:7; 23:6-8; Matt. 15:13; Col. 2:20-23).

Three of these passages deserve special comment. Deut. 12:29-32 in its original context is addressed precisely to the question of how God should be worshipped (v. 30). The rule given here in answer to this issue is very clear. “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it” (v. 32). This clearly implies that it is a great temptation for God’s people to see how the world worships and to allow that to have a formative impact on our attitudes about worship. Such an attitude is explicitly forbidden of God’s people.

 
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The Regulative Principle of the Church 9: Its Biblical Support—Third Argument

April 22, 2014 2 comments

A third argument for the regulative principle of the church is grounded on the sufficiency of the Scriptures. The wisdom of Christ and the sufficiency of the Scriptures is called into question by the addition of un-appointed elements into worship.

The reasoning behind the addition of un-appointed elements in worship illustrates how this happens. John Owen remarks:

“Three things are usually pleaded in the justification of the observance of such rites and ceremonies in the worship of God:-First, That they tend unto the furtherance of the devotion of the worshippers; secondly, That they render the worship itself comely and beautiful; thirdly, that they are the preservers of order in the celebration thereof. And therefore on these accounts they may be instituted or appointed by some, and observed by all.1”

Reasoning such as Owen describes impugns the wisdom of Christ. With all our weakness, sin, and folly, will Christ leave us without an adequate guide in the most important matter of worship? Has He left us who are in such a spiritual condition without a sufficiently devotional, beautiful and orderly worship of God? Says another Puritan, “For he that is the wisdom of the Father, the brightness of his glory, the true light, the word of life, yea truth and life itself, can he give unto his Church (for the which he paid the ransom of his blood) that which should not be a sufficient assurance for the same?”2

 

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The Regulative Principle of the Church 8: Its Biblical Support—Second Argument

The second argument for the regulative principle of the church has to do with the inevitable tendency of human tradition. The introduction of extra-biblical practices into worship inevitably tends to nullify and undermine God’s appointed worship (Matt. 15:3, 8, 9; 2 Kings 16:10-18).

Matthew 15:3 suggests the inevitable tendency of following human traditions: “And He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’” Human traditions when incorporated into the holy church of God inevitably tendency to lead to the transgression of the divine ordinances.

2 Kings 16:10-18 is a penetrating moral tale and striking illustration of what happens to the ordinances when human invention intrudes itself into the ordained worship of God.

 
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The Regulative Principle of the Church 7: Its Biblical Support—First Argument

Four biblical arguments for the Puritan regulative principle of the church and its worship must now be presented. Here is the first one. It is the prerogative of God alone to determine the terms on which sinners may approach him in worship.
Bannerman eloquently states this first argument.

“The fundamental principle that lies at the basis of the whole argument is this, that in regard to the ordinance of public worship it is the province of God, and not the province of man, to determine both the terms and the manner of such worship… The path of approach to God was shut and barred in consequence of man’s sin: it was impossible for man himself to renew the intercourse which had been so solemnly closed by the judicial sentence which excluded him from the presence and favour of his God. Could that path ever again be opened up, and the communion of God with man and of man with God ever again be renewed? This was a question for God alone to determine. If it could, on what terms was the renewal of intercourse to take place, and in what manner was fellowship of the creature with his Creator again to be maintained? This, too, was a question no less than the former for God alone to resolve.1”

But not only does God possess this prerogative, the Bible shows that He exercises it. Contrary to the many unjustifiable assertions of various commentators, God does not just object to Cain in Genesis 4:1-5, but to Cain and his offering. Similarly, he does not merely accept Abel, but Abel and his offering. Again in Exodus 20:4-6 God exercises His right to regulate the way in which worship is brought to him by forbidding the making of any image of Himself as a “help” to worship. Should God decree that He will be worshipped only by those wearing orange shirts and green ties, He would have the right to do so. What arrogance for man to think that he has any business in determining how God will be worshipped!

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The Regulative Principle of the Church 6: Its Ecclesiastical Framework (Part 3)

The Distinctive Regulation of the Church of God as the Place of His Special Presence—1 Tim. 3:15

1 Timothy 3:15 is, of course, a key text for the doctrine of the church, but I had never realized its full implications for the regulative principle till I was doing the preparations for a conference I was asked to do some years ago in South Africa. You will notice that in this text the special character or unique identity of the church is emphasized by means of three descriptions. It is “the house of God, the church of the living God, and the pillar and support of the truth.” Our particular interest is in the first two of these three descriptions.

The church is the house or household of God. The term, house, used here may refer to the church as God’s family (1 Tim. 3:5, 12) or the church as God’s temple (1 Pet. 2:5). In either case the special and close relation of the church to God is emphasized.

The house of God is identified in this text as “the church of the living God.” The term, church, identifies the New Covenant people of God as an organized and governed assembly. This word in Greek culture was used of the official assembly of the Greek city-state. This word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament was used to describe the QAHAL of Israel, the official civil and religious assembly of the nation of Israel. Both of these backgrounds serve to emphasize the formal, official, or organized nature of the assembly to which reference is made.

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The Regulative Principle of the Church 5: Its Ecclesiastical Framework (Part 2)

The Special Character of the Church of God as the Place of His Special Presence—Matthew 18:20

 

Matthew 18:15-20 is one of the first two passages in the New Testament where the term church is used, and it contains the first explicit mention of the local church in the New Testament. It culminates in the great promise of v. 20. Very obviously this is a promise of the special presence of Christ. Please notice three things about this promise.

Its Specified Limitation

The promise of v. 20 comes attached to a very plain condition or limitation, “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.” The stated limitation found in these words is the assembling of the local church, the formal or public gathering of the people of God. Upon what grounds do I assert that these words specify the assembling of the local church? Let me set three grounds for this assertion before you.

The first is the context assumed in v. 20a. The passage from verse 17 on deals with the local church. The “two or three” mentioned in v. 20, then, is simply a graphic way of emphasizing that even the smallest conceivable local church possesses this great promise of Christ.

 

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The Regulative Principle of the Church 4: Its Ecclesiastical Framework (Part 1)

In speaking of the ecclesiastical framework of the regulative principle I come to one of the matters in the Reformed tradition with regard to the regulative principle which I believe is in need of some clarification. The clarification which follows will, I think, help defenders of the regulative principle better to defend and apply it. At the same time, it will expose an affirmation of the regulative principle which is quite controversial.

The common name given to the principle under discussion is “the regulative principle of worship.” I propose to clarify this principle by calling it the regulative principle of the church. Implicit in historical discussions of the regulative principle is a distinction between worship and the rest of life. This distinction is given acute expression in Williamson’s description of the principle cited above: “What is commanded is right, and what is not commanded is wrong.” If this is an apt description of the regulative principle, and I think it is, it underscores the idea that God regulates His worship in a way which differs from the way in which He regulates the rest of life. In the rest of life God gives men the great precepts and general principles of His Word and within the bounds of these directions allows them to order their lives as seems best to them. He does not give them minute directions as to how they shall build their houses or pursue their secular vocations. The regulative principle, on the other hand, involves a limitation on human initiative and freedom not characteristic of the rest of life. It says of a certain slice of life called worship that it is regulated in a more restrictive and defined way than the rest of life.

 

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The Regulative Principle of the Church 3: Its Historical Meaning (Part 2)

This principle articulated by Calvin and the Reformed against Luther and the Roman Catholics was given sharp focus in the debates between the Puritans and Anglicans in late 16th and 17th Century England. It was given its classic and definitive statement in Reformed confessions formulated in the 17th century in Britain. It is stated in identical language at Chapter 21, Paragraph 1 in both the Westminster Confession and at Chapter 22, Paragraph 1 in the 1689 London Baptist Confession.

The light of nature shews that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is just, good and doth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart and all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.

This Puritan statement may best be understood by contrasting it with the statement of the Church of England found in the 39 Articles. The Twentieth Article of the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles states: “The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies and authority in the controversies of the Faith. And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written.”1

 

 

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The Regulative Principle of the Church 2: Its Historical Meaning (Part 1)

There are certain theological words and phrases which gain such a clear and defined meaning in the history of theology that to affirm that one holds to them is tantamount to affirming their meaning in that history. To affirm such words and phrases and not hold to their historical meaning is simply to mislead both ourselves and others as to our real theological convictions. For instance, to affirm the Trinity, but to hold views which have more in common with historic Modalism than with Trinitarianism (as some contemporary Modalists do) is to deceive ourselves and mislead others.1 Again, to affirm sola fide, but hold views which are parallel to those of Rome (as do some modern evangelicals and devotees of the new perspective on Paul) is frankly deceptive.2 Similarly, to affirm the regulative principle of worship, and yet hold views which are more like the normative principle held by the opponents of the regulative principle is simply misleading.

The backdrop of the debates over the regulative principle among Protestants must, of course, be found in the debates over sola scriptura which came to light at the time of the Reformation. The conflict between the two viewpoints which at the Reformation became characteristic of Romanism and Protestantism respectively had in the centuries prior to the Reformation been crystallizing in Medieval theology.3 When the Reformation churches affirmed sola scriptura, the question had to be asked whether the Scriptures alone were sufficient to regulate the worship of the church or whether, on the other hand, tradition might have a place in ordering the government and worship of the church. This question gave rise to two answers on the part of the churches of the Reformation. Some gave tradition substantially no part in this construction process. This view became known as the regulative principle. Others regarded tradition as having a part to play in constructing the worship and government of the church. This became known as the normative principle.

 

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