Category Archives: Church/Ecclesiology

Ligon Duncan on the Regulative Principle


Recently, I’ve been thinking alot about the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) and this has spilled over considerably into the blogs that I’ve been writing and thinking of writing.  My journey towards this crucial doctrine began around 2012, when I learned of the relationship between Martin Luther and John Calvin, as it related to their views on worship.  It was further refined through some group bible studies around the same time, but did not begin to permeate my own thoughts on worship until 2014.  Since then it has become evident that to assume to be “reformed” in any way, other than by name only, necessitates understanding and applying the Regulative Principle of Worship.

In the video below, Ligon Duncan provides an overview of what this doctrine means.  It’s a good introduction, but my question for him would be how he applies the definition that he gives.  Duncan is pastor as First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss.  While I haven’t attended his church, I’m certain that they follow a fairly consistent order of Protestant liturgy, as so many other churches do.  (see FPC here) I have no doubt that he desires to honor the Lord in how his congregation worships God, but the problem is that a set order of liturgy altogether is in itself a violation of the Regulative Principle, simply because God has not commanded it, nor has God commanded “worship services”.  There is not one single passage in Scripture that provides it either as an example or a command.

Nevertheless, the brief video is a valuable tool for further understanding RPW.  Below the video, I’ve included links to some posts where I discuss and apply the RPW.


Beware of Leaven


At the conclusion of the Book of Revelation, our Lord Jesus Christ offers a strong warning against all who would add or subtract from His words of prophecy just given to the Apostle John.  This warning promises that should one venture to add, then the accompanying plagues of the prophecy will be added to them.  If one ventures to subtract, then God will ‘subtract’ his share in the tree of life and the holy city.

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. Rev. 22:18-19

An equally forceful warning  accompanies the Law or Torah section (First 5 Books) of the Old Testament, specifically in Deuteronomy 4:2.  Here Moses is reviewing the details of God’s giving His law to Israel and precedes it with this sharp warning,  You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.”

A similar warning is given in Deuteronomy 12:32, as Moses recounts God’s commands for worship and against idolatry, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”

One final passage, similar in nature by establishing the sufficiency of Scripture against the errors of adding to and subtracting from the Word of God, occurs in the Wisdom portion of Scripture,

Every word of God proves true;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
    lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.” Proverbs 30:5-6

Collectively, these passages (and others) offer strict prohibition and warning against tampering with the Word of God regardless of the book.  While the warning occurs in specific books and historical contexts, due to the pervasiveness of the warning it establishes a principal to guard against adding or subtracting from any of God’s Word.

Sometimes we weigh this warning more heavily against adding to God’s Word, as in the case of those who believe God’s revelation continues in the form charismatic gifts.  However, we must remember that equally important is that we do not subtract from it either, as with those who pick and choose what they want to believe.

This biblical principle establishes Scripture’s divine authority, it’s sufficiency, and it’s completeness.  It is simply not an option to add to or subtract from God’s Word.

In practice, we not only are guilty of violating this when we pick and choose doctrines to believe, but also when we allow tradition or preferences to supersede the Word of God.

In the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry, we find two clear examples for the violation of this biblical prohibition, the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Two distinct religious groups existing in first century Israel, each guilty of adding and subtracting to the Word of God, respectively.  The Pharisees were well known for the addition of tradition and their own additional commandments to the Word of God.  Conversely, the Sadducees were well known for the subtraction of God’s Word, holding only to the Torah, while denying such crucial doctrines as the resurrection, angels, and spirit (Acts 23:8).  Though they were often antagonistic against each other, we need to be reminded that they found a common enemy in Christ our Lord and conspired to murder Him.

With the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry we are introduced to these two groups with the familiar, stinging rebuke, But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Matthew 3:7-10

While John paves the way for the hostility that pure and undefiled religion would have towards the false systems of the Pharisees and Sadducees, throughout Christ’s earthly ministry, these two groups, along with the scribes, also draw His ire and attention.  Passage after passage we see them continually attempting to provoke and question Christ while He limits their understanding and often follows up discussions with them with a rebuke.  One such rebuke occurs in chapter 16 of Matthew.  While the latter half of the chapter often garners the most attention, its the first half that sets the context out of which Peter’s confession and our Lord’s pronouncement to build the church becomes striking.

In the opening verses of the chapter, once again the Pharisees and Sadducees come together in order to test Jesus.  As was His custom, Jesus rebukes them with a piercing indictment, An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.” Matthew 16:4

As He and His disciples arrive on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples realize that they have forgotten to bring bread.  This simple statement in Matthew 16:5 is profound.  First, because Jesus had literally just fed the four thousand and the five thousand before them (Matt. 16:9-10).  Second, because Jesus would take their lack of bread and use it for an analogy to warn against the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6).  Third, because they actually did forget the bread and were showing their lack of faith (Matt. 16:8).  Fourth, leaven has a significant meaning in the history of Israel (Exodus 12:7-12).

It’s this second (and fourth) point that we want to draw our focus to.  In Matthew 16:6 we read of the warning to watch or beware of the Pharisees and Sadducees leaven,

Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 

The key to understanding this verse is determining what Jesus is referring to as “leaven”. 

Using His analogy of bread, along with the historical significance of leaven, we can piece together what the implications of this strong warning are.  Historically, Israel was commanded by God to eat unleavened bread as part of the inaugural Passover meal.  Partaking in leavened bread was serious enough to warrant being cut off from the community of Israel (Exodus 12:19).  During the Exodus, later in chapter 12, we see that their escape from Egypt was so abrupt that their bread by necessity was without leaven.  Maintaining the Feast of Unleavened Bread was a reminder of God’s mercy and the haste of escaping Egypt, without delay for even bread to rise.

In the New Testament, certainly this meaning was understood, but also the principle of unleavened bread took on a spiritual component.  Sometimes, as in Matthew 13 it is used positively to  refer to the spreading and enlargement of God’s Kingdom from such a small amount.  Other times it is used negatively, as in our verse from above.  1 Corinthians 5 informs us that a little leaven, leavens the whole lump, speaking to its pervasiveness and that it’s indistinguishable from the dough.

Having seen the meaning and use of leaven, we turn now to how our Lord is applying it in the case of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Remember that both were guilty of violating the principle of adding or subtracting to and from God’s Word.  Both had influential, public ministries, and both claimed to represent true Judaism.  Herein lies the application.  Leaven refers to the doctrine of either group, or anyone really, which departs from Scripture, while on the other hand claiming to represent truth.  In doing so, it has a profoundly negative effect on the genuine truth, as leaven would to dough.  In other words, this is the height of hypocrisy (Luke 12:1-3).  There is little more dangerous than error that masks itself as truth, or half-truths.

Writing in his helpful commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry asserts that the Sadducees leaven in his day was Deism and Atheism, while the Pharisees leaven was Popery.  It may well be true that these were critical issues of the Puritanical Period, but the principle, to the heart of what leaven means, is those things which creep into orthodoxy and distort it.  In other words, our Lord’s warning to His disciples is not to be on guard against leaven from the outside, for instance the world, or false religions, but precisely how leaven functions, when its inside and joined with the true dough.  It then may spread and infect the whole lump, overtime, going virtually unnoticed.

What areas has leaven made its influence on you personally?  What about in the “church” today?  If leaven has made it in, would we be able to notice it?  The danger with leaven is that it becomes completely indistinguishable from the dough. If we could notice it, are we willing to do anything about it?

Soli Deo Gloria

Luther’s 3 Divine Services

With the recent celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, many us were focused on the single event of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door (October 1517), which he posted to generate academic debate.  However, caution should be exercised in pinning a single event or day to such a widespread and complex movement.  There was much more to come for Luther and the Reformers, with arguably more significant events.

One area of neglect that I’ve noticed in most studies of the Reformation in general, and Luther in particular, is the significant attention that a reformation of worship garnered.  Yes, it is true that we read of Luther’s (eventual) formula of justification by faith and yes, the authority of the Scriptures under-gird all that Luther did.  Yet once the break with Rome had been made, and the unfortunate marriage with the State had been formed, Luther recognized the need to modify worship in order to break with his perceived errors of Rome and provide an alternative for the people.

In January of 1526, Luther wrote instructions titled “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service”.  Having realized the changes that needed to be made to his earlier 1523 order of worship, Luther writing in the opening Preface of his later work informs readers that his order of worship is not intended to

“make of it a compulsory law, or to ensnare or make captive thereby any man’s conscience, but to use it agreeably to Christian liberty at their good pleasure, as where, when and so long as circumstances favour and demand it.”

Clearly then, though Luther would proceed to make recommendations for the order and liturgy of worship services, his intention is in no way to bind the consciences of men to this order, and most certainly not to allow it to fall back into the trappings of formal rigidity as with Rome.  He even leaves a caveat that should these instructions become unnecessary or outdated, discontinue them.

Additionally, he points out that the Order to follow is not for the “sake of those who are Christians already…but for the sake of those who are to become Christians.  For the sake of such, we must read, sing, preach, write, and compose….”  In other words, the service order that Luther was about to set down was meant strictly for unbelievers, with the goal of evangelizing them.

Don’t gloss over that, it’ll come back up later.

As Luther begins to outline his recommended order of divine services, he identifies three separate and distinct services.  First, is the Latin Divine Service or Latin Mass, called the Forumla Missae.  This service was a holdover from the services administered by the Roman Catholic Church, with perhaps the lone omission being the Canon of the Mass.  However, in Luther’s own words concerning this divine service, he writes,

“This I do not want to have set aside or changed; but as we have hitherto kept it, so should we be still free to use it where and when we please, or as occasion requires.  I do not want in anywise to let the Latin tongue disappear out of Divine Service; for I am so deeply concerned for the young.”

This service was to have singing and reading on “alternate Sundays in all four languages – German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.”  So with this first service, Luther maintains, at least partially, the worship from the Roman Catholic experience with the purpose of maintaining Latin proficiency and exposure among the public, particularly the youth.  Further justification for keeping this service maybe deduced from its defense written in 1523

I have been hesitant and fearful, partly because of the weak in faith, who cannot suddenly exchange all old and accustomed order of worship for a new and unusual one, and more so because of the fickle and fastidious spirits who rush in like unclean swine without faith or reason, and who delight only in novelty and tire of it as quickly, when it has worn off (Luther’s Works 1965, 53:19).

Remember that prior to Luther’s own translation of the Scriptures in the modern vernacular of German, Latin was the only language the Scriptures were available in and the Roman Catholic services were conducted by the priests solely in Latin.

Luther’s Second Divine Service was the German Mass.  Luther considered this for the “sake of the simple laymen” where both this and the previous divine service should be “held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general.  They are not yet believers or Christians.”  Remember that these divine services are not intended for believers.  They have exclusively unbelievers as their focus, as Luther adds, “So far it is no question yet of a regularly fixed assembly wherein to train Christians according to the Gospel: but rather of a public allurement to faith and Christianity.”

Without question, according to Luther’s own words, these divine services with all of their vestments, singing, preaching, readings of Scripture, celebrations of the Mass, attention on language, etc., were in their entirety meant for the evangelism of unbelievers.

The Third Divine Service, according to Luther, was one in “which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry.”  In the opening description, this service is meant to be in complete contrast with those mentioned earlier as it was considered exclusively for believers.  In this particular service, Luther goes into more specific detail.  Below is an extended quote

“Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize, and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works.  In this Order, those whose conduct was not such as befits Christians could be recognized, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matt. xviii.  Here, too, a general giving of the alms could be imposed on Christians, to be willingly given and divided among the poor, after the example of St. Paul in 2 Cor. ixHere there would not be need of much fine singing.  Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love.”

Now, this particular Divine Service outlined and described by Luther may not strike you at first, but it should, for Luther has often been credited as the designer of the Protestant Order of Worship, as well as credited for the introduction of congregational singing.  The problem is that the modern features of worship, primarily from the German Mass, which we so freely incorporate today, were intended by Luther to be strictly for unbelievers as an aide to evangelism.  The Divine Service for believers was to be private, intimate, sans singing, and centered around the Word, prayer, and love.

We might ask, why then were the evangelistic services of Luther’s copied and not his divine service for believers?  Because it never happened.  Divine service number three, in Luther’s descriptions, never existed.  It was for him, idyllic, but unrealistic.  Why?  Because the quantity and quality or depth of Christians during this time was limited.  In Luther’s own words

“In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself.  But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present.  I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it.  But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can.”

In the meantime, Luther was resolved to proceed with the previous two Divine Services, “until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together.”

It is more than likely that when we read of Luther’s services in his works, post-1526, we are not reading of services designed for believers to worship God.  We are not seeing the celebration of worship music introduced to the congregation and removed from the choirs so that Christians might sing praises to God.  We are seeing divine services designed to reach the masses for the purpose of evangelism.  Luther was ready and willing to use any means necessary to bring them to Christ.

Though we’ve seen how Luther retained much of his Roman Catholic influence and tradition, with of course some obvious objections to the Mass, one additional note that we must mention is in regards to his overall philosophy of worship.  Whereas the Regulative Principle of Worship was advanced by Calvin, a reform upon Luther, Martin Luther advanced what is called the Normative Principle of Worship.  The former restricted worship to only those things which Scripture commands or offers as examples, while the latter broadens worship to include everything not expressly forbidden in Scripture.  This is why we see such wide variety in Luther’s worship services.

Given all this, how then does it impact how we view our present day “divine services” knowing that in many respects Luther’s model was the prototype for Protestantism?  How should this impact the order for believers, in their own divine services?

If God should be willing…more to come.

Soli Deo Gloria.