A Principled Approach to the Worship of God: The Internal Principle


We have said that the Vertical Principle answers the who question of worship. The Regulative Principle answers the what question. The next principle is intended to answer the how question. While the VPW and the RPW are critically necessary to get the external acts of worship in line with God’s will, it is not enough to have these two principles in Biblical order. We must now also give careful consideration to the Internal Principle of Worship.

Jesus quoted Isaiah and said:

This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me (Matthew 15:8)

God has always cared that those who worship Him not just be going through external motions, but that rather those external motions are intended to be the means through which actual internal realities are expressed. David said:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;

you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17, ESV)

Here’s the Internal Principle of Worship (IPW) as we may derive it from Scripture:

The external act of worship must be an expression of true internal realities.

God does not want your hypocrisy; he wants your heart. He has called us not to simply offer empty rituals, He has called us to personally and truly exult in the worship of Him! Remember the basic definition of worship: worship is the act of giving honor and adoration to our God. Honor and adoration both spring from the internal places within. Without those vital internal realities, you may offer something to God, but it will never be true worship.

Let me illustrate this. The use of the RPW to develop a carful and Biblical approach to the worship of the church can be compared to the crafting of a beautiful musical instrument; for example, a clarinet. A clarinet is in and of itself a beautiful work of art. It is precise. It is carefully planned. It is not thrown together casually, and if the specifications for its design are not followed, it will never work properly. All of that is true of our worship as well. The acts, the elements, all the things we do have to be precisely and Biblically designed and carefully developed.

But do you know what a clarinet sounds like? If you’re in a quiet place, you’re hearing it right now. A clarinet sounds like nothing! If left by itself, it just sits before you and never makes a sound. But when someone picks it up and provides it with breath and life, it can never make the beautiful music it was intended for. The external forms of what we do as a church are like that instrument. On it’s own, it doesn’t make a sound. But when the internal is honestly expressed through the external, then our hearts play the music of worship they were designed for.

I love this illustration, because it says two true things. Without the clarinet, we can’t make the music. We’re just a bunch of people blowing air! So too, the best of internal intentions will just be useless hot air if we ignore God’s instrument of the RPW. Yet without the IPW, we’re like a man who builds a beautiful clarinet but never uses it to make the melody it was made it for. It tragically never fulfills its intended purpose.

May neither of those things ever be true of our worship. May we never be guilty of having a finely tuned instrument, with no one really playing it. And may we also never be guilty of just blowing wind while we ignore God’s design for how we are to worship Him.

Allow me to reinforce two important points. First, I want to be explicit that the IPW does not in any way diminish the importance of the external forms of worship. The internal realities and commanded external forms must come together in a sweet harmony of Biblical faithfulness. Second, the IPW should not be understood as a romantic fiction that puts true worship beyond the reach of our sinful hands. We should be principled, not perfectionist. Don’t take what I’m saying to mean that if we don’t feel just a certain way, or if we are struggling with doubts and discouragement it would somehow be impure worship because it comes from a fragile heart of flickering faith. Introspection is good, but be carful not to fall into what a godly man once called gospel-forgetful introspection. On this side of glory, you will always find sin when you take an honest inventory of your heart. Being weak and desperately in need of sustaining grace is not the sort of hypocrisy that the IPW is intended to dispel. Remember that in the VPW, we already saw that God has provided real means of grace for his children who approach him in worship. He is the God who wipes away our tears, and we must never forget that precious fact.

Sometimes people think that if they don’t feel a certain way in worship they are some sort of imposter. It is true that hypocrisy has no place, but being a struggler doesn’t make you a hypocrite. We all struggle. Psalm 51, which was quoted above, arose from a place of deep remorse and desperate need for grace. Such a situation was not the enemy of a truly broken and contrite heart; it was the very context of it. We need to meet with our Covenant Lord in worship, not because we have attained such great heights, and not just because he has required it of us; but also because our great need for it as well. We need his grace as we continue our pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world, and one of the primary ways he gives it to us in through the beauty, joy, and gravity of the church at worship.

In our next and final post, we’ll seek to bring these principles together and see how they harmonize to form a symphony of praise to our God.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

Untitled design

A Principled Approach to the Worship of God: The Regulative Principle


In this post we come to the principle most traditionally thought of when considering a principled approach to worship, namely the Regulative Principle of Worship. If the Vertical Principle of Worship helps us to answer the question of who our worship is oriented toward, the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) helps us to answer the pressing question of what we are to actually do in the worship of our God.

The RPW Defined and Defended

The examples of worship in Scripture are not chaotic; there is structure and order to what is done. Furthermore, God always takes an active interest in the worship that is offered to Him, even giving exacting instruction and punishing those who deviate from his expressed commands. If worship is the act of giving honor and adoration to our God, then it is critical that we understand our God’s blueprint for His own exaltation.

The RPW shows us how the Bible functions as our guidebook for worship. It would probably be difficult to find a Bible believing Christian who would disagree that the Bible is our guide to worship, but there is in our modern context widespread misunderstanding concerning how the Bible is to function as our guide. There are essentially two possible approaches to this issue. On the one hand, we can approach the Bible and ask the question, show me where it says we can’t. In this view, while the Scriptures function as a convenient point of reference, and they may give us many good ideas and general boundary markers, we are basically free to worship God in any manner that is not forbidden by the Bible. This is the mentality that prompts someone, when challenged on some aspect of their church worship, to respond by putting the burden of proof on God and say “show we where the Bible says I can’t do this.”

This approach opens wide the doors of the church to bring into the worship of God virtually any activity or idea which is not specifically banned by a literal prohibition in the Bible. As this study was being prepared, a very illustrative contemporary example presented itself. A church in Ohio rearranged their sanctuary for a week and built a fully functional horse corral. Their pastor (who just happened to be a former rodeo cowboy, how convenient) managed to mount a bucking bronco during the service as an illustration of “taming the beast of sin within our hearts.” I’m not using this example to mock fellow believers, nor to say that every church that doesn’t hold to the RPW will soon have a rodeo in the sanctuary, but it is an extremely clarifying test case. If we are to object to such activities, we must have a better argument than putting the burden of proof on the Bible. It is true, after all, there is no direct command against worship via rodeo in the Bible.

Thankfully, the RPW furnishes us with a much better approach to worship, one that it will be demonstrated is actually a binding Biblical principle. If the approach described above (which is sometimes call the Normative Principle of Worship) can be summarized as the show me where it says we can’t approach to worship, the RPW is the search for where it says we must approach. The RPW can be simply summarized as follows:

We must worship God in all the ways and only the ways he has commanded in His Word.

This can be well illustrated by a familiar oath taken in our courtrooms. In our courts we lay our hands upon a Bible and solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Similarly, in the RPW I lay my heart upon the Word of God and swear to worship God as he has commanded, in all the ways he has commanded, and in nothing but the ways he has commanded, so help me God.

The Word of God must rule the Worship of God. If we are truly committed to that maxim, what it practically means is that elements of worship (the basic things we do) must be those things commanded by God, and we do not have the right to add new elements he has not commanded. We don’t get to add rodeos, or labyrinth walks,[1] or even something like dramatic skits to the worship of God.[2] We don’t have the right to do that. Equal in weight to this, the practical implication of the RPW is that if God has commanded it, we must do it. We don’t get to decide to eliminate preaching, singing, the sacraments, or any other commanded element of worship. We simply don’t have the right to either add or subtract from God’s plan for His own worship.

Before any nuance is offered to what has been said (and there is certainly nuance to offer), we must back up these bold assertions with Scripture. Because, as has been asserted, the Word is king.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

This is the classic text proving the RPW. Note that Nadab and Abihu were not struck down for offering praise to Baal and Ashtoreth. They were actually engaged in the worship of the true and living God, but they were going beyond the bounds of God’s expressed command for how he is to be worshiped. They were worshiping the true God in a false manner, and the result was a stunning judgment.

It is critical to understand that the standard is that which is authorized. The offered unauthorized fire and from their example we learn that that which is unauthorized by God is forbidden by God. This text alone is probably sufficient to establish the RPW, but the objection could be made that perhaps this standard was peculiar to the Old Covenant. Might not a part of the blessed liberty of the New Covenant be an easing of the RPW? The following three citations from the New Testament will show that the RPW is never overturned, and continues to be a binding principle in this current age of the Christian church.

“‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:8-9)

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 as a part of His stinging rebuke against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Note that he explicitly connects their illegitimate religion to their worship! It is always wrong to introduce that which originated in the minds of men into the worship of God, as though it were his idea all along. We must teach God’s Law as God’s Law and keep our law out of it.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23, ESV)

 Although the context of this quotation is dealing directly with a religious legalism that obscures the free grace of the gospel, there is an application to be made to the RPW. The point made by Christ in Matthew 15 is made here by Paul and applied to a specific situation. Again, the practice of teaching that which is man-made as though it is divinely binding upon the conscience is condemned. This has reference to the paradoxical liberty that was described at the beginning of this study of worship principles. Bringing practices and pursuits into the worship of God makes them binding on all those assembled in the church. In the RPW God has set his children free from the imposition of worship practices which are not commanded and are therefore unauthorized fire upon the spiritual altar of the church at worship.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Although the great commission is not often thought of regarding the RPW, it is actually a rich text in that regard. The church’s mission is to make disciples of all nations, and that discipleship is given a carefully delineated scope. It is the commandments of Christ that are to be imparted, not novel approaches to life, doctrine, and worship. Furthermore, we are commanded to teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded. When considered in that light, the great commission sounds a lot like the RPW:

We must worship God in all the ways and only the ways he has commanded in His Word.

The RPW is all over Scripture; sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Just think of all the times we are told to do all the Lord commands, and take nothing away. It is an extremely helpful guide in thinking through what we do in worship. However, there are carefully nuanced distinctions to keep in mind. Some have heard a presentation of the RPW and immediately responded with a reducto absurdum– that is an attempt to reduce the RPW to absurdity and therefore discredit it. They try and impose a rigid literalness to it, asking questions about where we see things like pews, hymnals, and pulpits explicitly commanded in Scripture. Thankfully, this objection has an answer.

Circumstances and Elements

Those who adhere to the RPW make a distinction between those things which are elements of worship and those things which are circumstances. That which is elemental is the essence of the command, the basic function God requires of us. An easy example of this is congregational singing, which is commanded in both of the following texts:

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;

let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:1-2)

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. (Colossians 3:16)

So the commanded element is congregational singing. This element is nonnegotiable and must be present in church worship. But elements will always be surrounded by a whole cloud of details that are purely circumstantial. In these circumstances, there is much more liberty. To continue the example of singing, examples of circumstances include what instruments are used (if any), what particular songs are sung, how many are included in the worship service, and even the particular style of music. It’s possible that two different churches might work out these circumstances in pretty different ways, but both still be faithful to the RPW. In these circumstantial issues, we simply apply wisdom, Biblical principle, and make sure that they highlight rather than obscure the element they serve.

At this point a real challenge should be acknowledged. Sadly, the RPW is sometimes misunderstood to apply to circumstances as well as elements. In these situations the proponents of the RPW do their own cause no favors, and actually end up ironically going against the very principle they are so zealous to apply. If we take away liberty in matters purely circumstantial we go beyond the RPW and begin to teach as doctrines the commandments of men. We can tweak that phrase a bit and say that a misapplied RPW teaches as elements the circumstances of men.

The point of the RPW is not to enshrine our traditions, culture, or preferences as universal binding law. All of those considerations are very important, but the RPW is weakened and becomes hard to defend when it is applied to things it isn’t actually concerned with. Yet we must not allow ourselves to overreact and think that God doesn’t care about our circumstances! As it was stated above, circumstances must always serve to highlight rather than obscure an element. This is admittedly somewhat subjective, but so are circumstances. No one said this was easy.

Considering briefly the first two principles we have examined, we can already see how a thoughtful application of the VPW and the RPW can do wonders to shape our worship along Biblical lines. When we realize that the fundamentally vertical orientation of worship centers us on the desires of the Lord in heaven, not the man on the street; and when we see that God requires of us that we worship him in all the ways and only the ways He has commanded in His Word, then we can begin to truly conform our worship more and more to the desires of our holy God. These two principles are absolutely essential, and so my next statement may come as a surprise. They’re not enough. To the VPW and the RPW, we must still add one more essential principle of Biblical worship, which we will do in our next post.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] Walking a “labyrinth” (a sort of intricate pattern drawn on the ground) is an increasingly popular “worship art,” and this author has personally observed an installed “prayer labyrinth” on the grounds of a Protestant church.

[2] I am familiar with the arguments that drama can be considered a subset of preaching, but remain unconvinced.

Untitled design

A Principled Approach to the Worship of God: The Vertical Principle


The Vertical Principle concerns both the orientation and the impact of the church at worship. It is important to note that those are two distinct yet united concepts. Because of what worship is, it should be thought of a fundamentally vertical act in its orientation; yet it is a vertical act with real horizontal impact. Worship can be defined as the act of giving honor and adoration to our God. This definition and the Biblical concepts behind it drive us to say that worship’s orientation is always fundamentally vertical. It is an act from us, to God. Therefore, the priorities in worship are not really my ideas, desires, expectations, and preferences. And they are not really the ideas, desires, expectations, and preferences of the world, culture, or traditions around me. The fundamental priorities of worship are God’s ideas, God’s desires, God’s expectations, and God’s preferences. One book on the topic states that:

Worship is for God and not for us. God is the audience of our worship, not unchurched seekers or even fellow believers. He alone is the one whom we are to please in our worship. Worship, then, is not chiefly about evangelism, nor is it a concert, lecture, or counseling session. All of those activities may be legitimate and worthwhile for Christians. But none of them constitutes public worship.”[1]

We need to have it completely clear that worship by definition orients toward God and God alone. Yet the fact that worship is a fundamentally vertical act should never be taken to mean that horizontal impact is irrelevant. The Vertical Principle of Worship (VPW), simply stated, is this:

Worship is a fundamentally vertical act with relevant horizontal impact.

So the first truth of the Vertical Principle is that the fundamental orientation of our worship is aimed, from earth, heavenward. The covenant people offer to their covenant God the vertical act of worship. It proceeds from us to Him as a vertical offering of praise. This is always our fundamental priority, but that doesn’t mean that there are no other legitimate realities or concerns when we worship.

The object of our worship is not a deaf and dumb deity in the silent heavens. He is not a mere Receiver, he is also a Giver. He has condescended to bind Himself to us in covenantal relationship. The concept of covenant is extensive and complex in the Scriptures, but it always presupposes some sort of interactive contact between the covenanted parties.

Something truly amazing happens when we show up to worship God in New Covenant Church worship. In an unexpected and astounding manner we find that the God to whom we offer up our worship unexpectedly has something to give to us as well. Contrary to all expectation, and by grace alone, the worship encounter is not a one-way street! God calls us to not only give worship to Him, but to also receive grace and blessing from His own sovereign hand. Here we begin to see more clearly why in the last post I called Church Worship the epicenter of worship on earth. God has uniquely (although not exclusively) promised to bless His Covenant people when they assemble together in corporate times of worship. God loves his people one by one, but he has a special love for his church assembled. It is not insignificant that this is the church which is called both the Body and Bride of Jesus Christ.

In the church, God has established a promised delivery system of spiritual blessing for his people. Think of Psalm 73, how Asaph was wandering listlessly and even despairing over the state of the world around him. But then, Asaph goes into the sanctuary of God, that place of covenant worship and he is, as it were, transported to a place of heavenly blessing. It is there that he learns to utter those immortal words,

Whom have I in heaven but you? And in earth there is nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26)

Asaph not only gave in worship, he received something as well! Remember, our Covenant God is the one who wipes away the tears from the eyes of those who draw near to Him in worship (Isaiah 25:8.). It is a beautiful and gracious truth that our God has ordained a sort of worship encounter wherein he also has blessings for us as well. The praises we offer to Him are amazingly means of his grace flowing to us. We may think of prayer. Prayer is, of course, fundamentally oriented to God. But consider all that prayer does for you, and thank God for this means of grace. The authors of the above quote also comment

The means of grace God provides in worship are sustenance for believers. They are what keep us going through the wilderness of our pilgrimage and warfare. If we avoid them or take them for granted, we foolishly ignore God’s gracious and wise provision.[2]

Praise God! But let me now introduce another element of the VPW. I want to quickly add two more dimensions concerning the horizontal impact of this vertical act. The first is that in the act of New Covenant Church Worship, we actually have a role to play to one another as well.. This horizontal ministry of mutual edification, in which all worshipers have a role to play, is described in Colossians 3:16:

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.

That text is a masterful expression of both the essential vertical orientation and the real horizontal impact of the church at worship. We offer thankfulness vertically to God, yet at the same time we minister to one another in very real and relevant horizontal ways.

But there is still a missing dimension on the horizontal level. The church at worship is not removed from the mission statement of the church itself, which we often call the Great Commission. Yes, worship is fundamentally a vertical act of honor and adoration to God, but it does also have evangelistic concerns as well. This reality can be defended first by the Great Commission mandate of the church which is at the heart of its very identity, but is also established through the concerns expressed in a text like 1 Corinthians 14:23-25:

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

Leaving aside for the moment the more sticky issue of sorting out the tongues and prophecy described in this text, there is certainly a principle in those verses that transcends those specific circumstances. The principle is that we are to have a concern for unbelievers who walk into our church worship services, and for what we are presenting to them. This is a point that requires delicate nuance. I am not writing in a vacuum, and I am not ashamed to say that the evangelical church in our day has taken a truth in that principle and blown it into something the Bible simply never supports. It is very temping to take a text like that and make it say that the tastes and sensibilities of non-Christians should be determinative in the church’s worship. As well intentioned as such a thought may be, it simply is not true, and would be a complete violation of the VPW.

But the solution to such wrong thinking is not to overreact in the other direction! The church at worship must be reasonably accessible. We must be culturally intelligible. We should strive to be as winsome and charitable as we can be, yet we need to be very careful to not let that horizontal concern grow into a fundamental orientation issue. The fundamental concern of the church at worship is not the man on the street; it is the Lord in heaven.

Worship is giving honor and adoration to our God. If we get this mixed up then we start to be unduly driven by horizontal concerns. That error must be avoided, and yet we must recognize that God in His grace has set this up in such a way that these horizontal impacts, concerns, and benefits are real and also do bear our consideration.

May we all commit to the Vertical Principle of Worship, namely that:

Worship is a fundamentally vertical act with relevant horizontal impact.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] Hart and Muether, Reverence and Awe, p. 133.

[2] Hart and Muether, Reverence and Awe, p. 137.

Untitled design

A Principled Approach to the Worship of God: Series Introduction


The church at worship is the epicenter of our spiritual lives. I have many family members who lived through the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and a year or so after that event I was able to visit the epicenter. It was in the hills outside Santa Cruz, in a densely forested area. The trees were lying about in a jumbled heap as though some giant child had been playing with them and left out his mess. Clearly, the epicenter is where the heart of the action is.

If the church at worship is the epicenter of our spiritual lives then it follows that our God would take a unique interest in what goes one there. He does. In fact, he has given us nonnegotiable Biblical principles to guide us as we think though what we do in worship and why we do it.

We often don’t like the idea of having to submit to laws and guidelines. Many of us never liked to color within the lines, but we must learn to balance the freedom of liberty with the faithfulness of submission. The old Westminster Confession of Faith (as well as the Baptist derivative to which I personally hold, the 1689 Baptist Confession) reflects this balance wonderfully. In the chapter on Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience, it tells us that

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship.

But this same document also says in its chapter on Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day that

…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 imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.

The careful reader will notice that the one section which emphasized liberty and the other which emphasizes submitting all worship to Scripture are actually completely complimentary and dependent on one another. A radically Biblical approach to worship liberates the consciences of Christians from the novel inventions of their fellow men. No mere man has the right to compel a Christian to worship in any way he cannot demonstrate as authorized by the Word of God. Holding tenaciously to Scriptural prescriptions for worship is a cure for the manifold diseases which distract and derail the church at worship.

This does not mean that God has given us an exacting prewritten schedule to follow in our Sunday morning worship service but it does mean that the principles he has ordained for us in his Word are absolutely binding, and therefore paradoxically liberating. In the next three posts, we’re going to look at three essential principles for the worship of God.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

UPDATE: Here’s a page linking to the completed series.

Untitled design