The Normative Principle of Worship
The first thing I want to say is that we will take several weeks to look at this verse, as there is much to consider within it. I believe that it will be necessary to take an even finer look at what we see among the church here in Acts, as the truths we see have significant implications upon our individual lives, but especially as a body of blood bought followers of Christ.
Today, we will begin with something we do not usually start with, and that is a humorous story about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic characters Holmes and Watson. The story goes like this:
“Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night, and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. ‘Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.’ Watson replied, ‘I see millions and millions of stars.’ ‘What does that tell you?’ Holmes asked. Watson pondered for a minute. ‘Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all‐powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?’ Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. ‘Watson, you idiot. Somebody has stolen our tent!’”
If we are honest, we are often all like Watson complicating that which is plain and right before us. We frequently confound that which is simple. I believe this is especially true when it comes to the church. Particularly when considering the marks of a healthy church that worships the Living God in spirit and in truth.
If we are truthful, and we really apply our minds to what we see among the visible church today, we will realize that what we frequently see is not the worship of God but a subtle worship of self. The church at large is plagued with self-devotion. People are devoted to making certain that a church meets their demands. Does it have programs I want? Does it sing music I like? Does the Pastor’s speaking style satisfy me? Does it offer things I find enjoyable? The standard for whether a church is good is a self-focused one, and pragmatism is the perpetrator.
Do we understand the seriousness of what pragmatism does within the church? Pragmatism wants to give people the programs they prefer, and the music that amuses them, and the speaking style that satisfies them, and the things they enjoy. Pragmatism, therefore, makes it so that either infantile and spiritually immature Christians define and direct the churches supposed “worship” of God; or worse, it prompts a church to look to the unbelieving community to dictate and define what the worship of God should look like. In other words, it has the unbelieving community usurp the headship of Christ over His body, and function as its sovereign. God’s people, the only one’s capable of true worship, give the reigns of worship to those who are incapable of it.
I personally believe that the normative principle of corporate worship is the proverbial key to Pandora’s box that allows the poison of pragmatism to permeate throughout the church and corrupt the worship of God within it. The normative principle of worship is essentially this, “We can do it, so long as God does not strictly forbid it and a majority are on board with it.” In other words, if God does not explicitly say no, the church can incorporate it in their worship on Sunday’s. This sounds nice, but it traverses over dangerous water. The normative principle makes it so that people begin to look at worship as something that is fluid. It strips worship of its objective standard and opens it up to subjectivity and personal preference. It is a postmodernist’s playground. A postmodernist by the way, is a person who denies object truth believing it to be whatever you make it to be. When the normative principle is utilized as the rule of worship, personal preference becomes the chief standard. Such thinkers say things like, “That may be how your church does things, but that is not how we do things. We prefer to do things this way.” Either one of them is wrong in how they do things, or both are, and the determining factor is this, “What is the definition of true worship?”
The answer to this question can only be found in an objective understanding of worship, which is impossible to come to from a principle of worship that permits things to take place in a corporate setting on Sunday’s so long as the Scripture does not strictly forbid it. If the Scripture is silent on it, one is at liberty to do it. Realize that if the Scripture says nothing on whatever it is you want to do, you cannot know if it is pleasing to God in worship, because there is nothing telling you that is. It is dangerous to assume that God’s lack of speaking on a matter is therefore a license to do it. You have no standard, but yourself, and this is exactly what the normative principle has done. It permits people to come to God the way they want to come Him, and has confounded true worship because everyone does that which is right in their own eyes. They make the dangerous mistake of thinking God is just like them, so they therefore do what they want to do. They make the same mistake that a man by the name of Erasmus made many years ago, which the Reformer, Martin Luther, pointed out by saying, “Your thoughts about God are all too human.”
It is no surprise that the normative principle is the popular principle to hold. This is why the typical response today to the question, “What do you look for in a church?”, is rarely, “I look for what God wants and desires, and defines and demands.” It is rather, “I look for what I want and desire, and what I define and demand. Does it have programs I want? Does it sing music I like? Does the Pastor’s speaking style satisfy me? Does it offer things I find enjoyable? Will it entertain me?” In the end it all subtly boils down to, “What do I look for in a church? I look for things that satisfy me! The church should be devoted to me! Why? Because. I’m. Worthy. To. Be. Served.” No. You. Are. Not.
Dr. Watson got it right as he investigated the sky and theologically deduced “that God is all‐powerful and that we are small and insignificant.” We are not worthy to be served. We are not even worthy of life itself. Yes, we have intrinsic value by virtue of the fact we are made in the Imago Dei, the Image of God, but Adam’s sin brought a curse upon us, thus marring the image in which we are made and thrusting the creation into death.
In Adam we all die. Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, so death has spread to all people. In sin our mothers conceived us. We are, therefore, by nature children of wrath, as well as by choice. There is none righteous, not even one. According to the holy standard, which is God Himself who not only dwells in unapproachable light, but is light in whom there is no darkness at all; when we are held up to Him, there is none who does good, there is not even one. We are left wanting. We are spiritually bankrupt and in need of another righteousness, because we have all sinned and fallen short of His glory. Our sin, therefore, deservers our death for all of eternity under the just wrath of the good, loving, and Holy God.
Again, we are not worthy to be served. We are not even worthy of life itself. This is what makes the gospel so astounding. We are but small and insignificant, cursed, and worthy of divine wrath for our sin against a Being of eternal worth:
“4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5 so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
Jesus Christ, God the Son eternal:
“Gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time.”
Although He had always been God by nature, He did not cling to His prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped Himself of all privilege by willingly becoming a Man; and having become a Man, He humbled Himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death He died was the death of a common criminal upon a cross. For the joy set before Him, He endured this cross, for upon it He became a curse for us by becoming our sin and bearing it on His body upon it so that He might suffer and die under the wrath we are worthy of to ensure that we may never taste of it. He satisfied upon Himself the just wrath we rightly deserve for our sin and shed His precious blood to atone for it. Christ died for our sins, the just for the unjust so that He might bring us to God. He was delivered over for our transgressions, and He was raised back to life on the third day never to die again for of our justification. God is, therefore, just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. He became what we are so that we might become what He is. He became our sin so that by faith in Him we would become the righteousness of God in Him. All, therefore, who turn from themselves and to Christ through faith, understand who He is and what He has done in their place, will be freely forgiven their sins and given the hope of life forever in Him. As Romans 4:5 says:
“To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
In Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
We do not gather to be served, for the very Being we gather to worship did not come to be served, but to serve by giving His life as a ransom for many. Our gatherings are to have nothing to do with us, and everything to do with Him. We, therefore, do not get to determine how we worship this God who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. He does. He wants it, and desires, and defines it, and demands that His wants and desires be met according to what He defines. He deserves to be worshipped in accordance with what He defines and demands. He is worthy of it!
The Regulative Principle of Worship
If we believe this, we must, therefore, rejective normative thinking and apply the regulative principle of corporate worship. As Derek Thomas puts it:
“The regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture.”
In other words, “On the Lord’s Day, we will do only that which God tells us to do.” To apply the regulative principle is to do, as MacArthur says, “Worship God the way He wants to be worshipped.” This means that the form and content of true, genuine worship is to be solely regulated by the Scripture alone. God accepts corporate worship that is done only in accordance with what He has said to be done.
After a thorough search of the Scripture one will conclude, as John Calvin did many years ago, that:
“God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word.”
To come to a different conclusion is an impossibility. This is evident with Cain who attempted to come to God with what he saw fit, yet God had no regard for his offering. This is seen in the construction of the tabernacle where God would dwell among His people. God warned Moses as he was about to set up the tabernacle saying, “See that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” Exodus 39:42-43 says:
“42 So the sons of Israel did all the work according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses. 43 And Moses examined all the work and behold, they had done it; just as the Lord had commanded, this they had done. So Moses blessed them.”
It is worth noting that in the last two chapters of Exodus as the children of Israel are preparing the place for the worship of God that is says 18 times that they had done “just as the Lord had commanded.” That is just the final two chapters. Does God disapprove of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His word? Absolutely! He warned Moses not to stray from what He had said. What happened to Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, when they strayed from what God said and “offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them?” He killed them, and said to Moses and Aaron:
“By those who come near to Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.”
What of King Saul when he acted foolishly and assumed the priestly office to offer a burnt offering when Samuel did not arrive on time? He was told that his kingdom would not endure because he had not “kept the commandment of the Lord.” What of Uzzah who disregarded what God had said and touched the ark only to be killed by Him; or the Pharisees and Sadducees who honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him as they neglected what He had commanded in order to hold to their tradition. God said:
“In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”
People do not get to determine how they worship God. May we see that He does not find pleasure in modes of worship that He has not sanctioned. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith states:
“The light of nature demonstrates that there is a God who has lordship and sovereignty over all. He is just and good and does good to everyone. Therefore, he should be feared, loved, praised, called on, trusted in, and served—with all the heart and all the soul and all the strength. But the acceptable way to worship the true God is instituted by him, and it is delimited by his own revealed will. Thus, he may not be worshipped according to human imagination or inventions or the suggestions of Satan, nor through any visible representations, nor in any other way that is not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”
If during the construction of the tabernacle, Moses was warned by God to do just as He had commanded in building the place where He would dwell among them to be worshipped by them, what are we to do, who according to Ephesians 2, have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ and:
“19 Are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”
If we are of God’s household, a body of people that is being fitted together into a building with Christ as it’s cornerstone, growing into a Holy Temple in the Lord, a dwelling of God in the Spirit, what then are we to do? We are to worship Him in spirit and truth doing just as He instructs us to do.
The elements of worship that God has regulated to take place on the Lord’s Day among His church are:
- The Reading of the Scriptures.
- The Preaching and Hearing of the Word.
- The Teaching and Admonishing of one another in psalms, and Hymns, and spiritual songs.
- The observance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- The Prayer of His people to Him in Christ by the Spirit.
When a local body of believers in Christ are gathered together in fellowship, these elements are to define their corporate worship.
Simple Devotion, True Worship
This is what we see in Acts 2:41-42 after Peter preaches the message of life in Christ and pleads for his hearers to turn from themselves and to turn to Christ the Lord for salvation. The text says:
“41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
What were they doing? They were continually devoting themselves to worshipping God the way He wants to be worshipped.
What we should see here is the simplicity of true worship. What does God require of us? Simple devotion. The marks of a healthy church are not vibrant programs, entertaining events, moving music, energetic personalities, or skilled orators, but sincere and simple devotion to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. It is when all those whom the Lord has called to Himself, receive His word and are gifted with His Spirit, who immerses them into His body and He indwells theirs, and they begin to worship Him by identifying with Him through water baptism and by further devoting themselves to the simple ways by which He is to be adored.
This is the blessed simplicity of the worship of God. A worshipful heart is what drives such devotion to what God has commanded to occur in the corporate worship of Himself. We see simple devotion, and true worship. It is true that what we are reading are not explicit commands to the church, but a description of what the church did. A careful consideration of the Scripture, however, reveals that what we are seeing among this body of believers on Pentecost is perseverance in the things that God has commanded His church to do in adoration of Him. We will briefly touch upon these four categories today, and throughout the next several weeks we will look at each one individually to deepen our understanding of them.
How are we to worship God each time we assemble? We are to worship Him by:
- We are to worship Him by devoting ourselves to the apostles teaching. This is sound doctrine. This is devotion to the Scripture. In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul describes to young Timothy the church of the living God, which He refers to as the household of God and describes as “the pillar and support of the truth.” Jesus prayed for His church to His Father in His high priestly prayer in John 17:17 saying:
“Sanctify them in the truth, Thy word is truth.”
In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul instructed Timothy prioritize the truth saying:
“13 Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.”
He said to Timothy to “Preach the word!” He said to Titus that a pastor of Christ’s bride must be:
“9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”
Paul wrote these things so that Timothy and Titus might know how the church should conduct itself. It is to be devoted to the Scripture for it is the means of salvation and sanctification. As Peter said:
“23 for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For, ‘All flesh is like grass, And all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, And the flower falls off, 25 But the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word which was preached to you… 2:2 like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, 3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”
- We are to worship Him by devoting ourselves to fellowship. This is partnership or sharing. MacArthur says it:
“Is the spiritual duty of believers to stimulate each other to holiness and faithfulness…Those who receive Jesus Christ become partners with Him and with all other believers…For a Christian to fail to participate in the life of the local church is inexcusable…The Bible does not envision the Christian life as one lived apart from other believers. All members of the universal church , the body of Christ, are to be actively and intimately involved in local assemblies.”
There are numerous portions of Scripture known as the “one another’s” that characterize the duty of fellowship among the church body. Singing praises to God is an aspect of this. Colossians 3:16:
“16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Ephesians 5:19 says that we are to be:
“19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”
Our time of music together is to encourage one another in the deep truths of the character, nature, and will of God who is perfectly explained in the Person of Jesus Christ.
We are called by God to such fellowship, meaning that a believer that refuses to gather with a local church is directly defying the one they claim to serve and love. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.” If Christ said to Saul as he was ravaging the church, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”, what will He say to the person who refuses to be among the church? Hebrews 10:24-25 says:
“Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.”
1 Peter 1:22 says:
“22 Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart.”
The church is to devote themselves to genuine fellowship.
- We are to worship Him by devoting ourselves to the breaking of bread. This is referring to communion, the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Paul reminded the church what Christ instituted:
“23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25 In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
This ordinance was given to the church until the end of the world for the perpetual remembrance of Christ’s passion for us. God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. It reminds us that He is our sustenance.  Our spiritual development and nourishment are found only in Him. It reminds us that we were bought with a price; therefore, our lives are no longer ours but His. We must, therefore, glorify God with our bodies for His was broken for us. Lastly, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith points out that it is to be a bond and pledge of our communion with Him and with fellow believers. We are to devote ourselves to partaking of this in worship of Christ.
- We are to worship Him be devoting ourselves to prayer. This is that act of worship whereby we acknowledge our own insufficiency and depend upon His being all-sufficient. It is the mechanism through which God proves Himself strong in our lives, and reminds us that He is acutely aware and intimately involved with every area of our lives. It was the beloved 17th century Puritan, Thomas Brooks, that said:
“Prayer is nothing but the breathing that out before the Lord, that was first breathed into us by the Spirit of the Lord.”
John Macarthur refers to prayer as:
“The muscle that activates the arm of omnipotence.”
The church should be characterized by its prayer life. Jesus said of the Temple, “My house will be called a house of prayer.” We are the household of God. We are growing into a Holy temple of the Lord and have become a dwelling of the Spirit. Prayer should be our middle name. Paul told the Romans that they not only needed to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love”, but they also need to be “devoted to prayer.” Colossians 4:2 says to us as a church, “Devote yourselves to prayer.”
These are the ways God desires and demands to be worshipped every time we gather, and He deserves it.
Christ is Worthy
May we not complicate that which is simple. May we, as a church, consider our corporate worship of Him. May we assess ways in which we may be operating according to a principal that permits things incapable of pleasing Him, and may we reform. May we find that which God sanctions, and sincerely devote ourselves to it worshipping Him the way He wants to be worshipped.
Christ is worthy! He is worthy of our devotion to His teaching through the apostles. He is worthy of our devotion to true fellowship with His people whom He has called to Himself. He is worthy of our devotion to His Supper whereby we remember His passion for us on calvary. He is worthy of our devotion to Him through prayer, so that He may prove Himself strong in our lives.
He is worthy for Who He is! Who is He? He is the faithful witness. He is the first-born of the dead. He is the ruler of the kings of the earth. Worship Him for who He is, for He is worthy! He is worthy for what He has done! What has He done? He loves us, and gave Himself for us. He released us from our sins by His blood. He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God. Worship Him for what He has done for us, for He is worthy!
 John 4:24
 1 Corinthians 15:22a
 Romans 5:12
 Psalm 51:5
 Ephesians 2:1-3
 Romans 3:10
 1 Timothy 6:16; 1 John 1:5
 Romans 3:12
 Romans 3:23
 Exodus 34:6-7; Romans 6:23
 Galatians 4:4-5
 1 Timothy 2:6
 Philippians 2:6-8
 Hebrews 12:2
 Romans 3:25; 5:9; 1 Peter 1:18-19
 1 Peter 3:18
 Romans 4:25
 Romans 3:26
 2 Corinthians 5:21
 1 Corinthians 15:22
 Mark 10:45
 1 Peter 2:9
 Genesis 4:1-5
 Exodus 25:40; Cross Reference Hebrews 8:5
 Exodus 39:1,5,7,21,26,29,31,32,42,43; 40:16,19,21,23,25,27,29,32
 Leviticus 10:1
 Leviticus 10:1-3
 1 Samuel 13:1-10
 1 Samuel 13:11-14
 2 Samuel 6:6-7
 Mark 7:6-8
 1 Timothy 4:13
 2 Timothy 4:2
 Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16
 Matthew 28:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:26
 Colossians 4:2
 2 Timothy 4:2
 1 Timothy 3:15
 The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12; John MacArthur; Page 84
 Romans 12:10,16;13:8;14:19;15:57,14;16:16; Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 4:2,25,32;5:21; Philippians 2:3; Colossians 3:9,13,16; 1 Thessalonians 4:9,18;5:11,13; Hebrews 3:13; 1 Peter 4:9,10;5:5; etc.
 John 14:15
 Romans 5:8
 John 6:52-58
 The Baptist Confession of Faith 1689; Article 30. The Lord’s Supper, Section 1
 Matthew 21:14
 Romans 12:12
 Revelation 1:4-5