People say that Christian worship is under trouble. I agree. But what I don’t usually agree with is the diagnosis; many people discuss our ignorance on “how” a worship service is to be conducted and relatively few discuss (if it is ever done) our ignorance on “what” worship is. The way I see it, the unbiblical definition of worship is the root of all problems related to worship.1

Am I against the Regulative Principle of Worship? On the contrary! God’s written revelation teaches not only “what worship is” but also “how” I should worship my Lord. But the answer for “how” almost naturally follows from the answer of “what”, and this is exactly the approach taken by Jesus when He answered the question of the Samaritan woman, “Shall we worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem?” Yet, it is regrettable to see, even among the people who propose the Regulative Principle, the confusion in the definition of worship.

For instance, read the huge discussion triggered in Heidelblog [a,b] concerning whether one can use musical instruments in worship. If you read the comments there, you will notice the following reality that is present in the background:

10 people use 11 different definitions of worship.

Having a wrong or vague definition of a term is a guarantee to various confusions, misunderstandings, and wrong conclusions. On the other hand, a good definition could sometimes solve a hard problem almost trivially.

## Trouble Defining Worship

Many important concepts or notions in bible can be given a concise definition (I have written in parentheses the different forms they can take):

• Prayer: Talking to God (eyes closed or open; hands up or holding together; speaking it out loud or quietly with mouth closed; lying down or standing up)
• Praise: Exalting God (with tunes or without)
• Offering: A token that our entire existence is God’s and that we offer everything to Him. (One can use money, crops, etc.)
• Sacraments: Lord’s Supper and Baptism, sign and seal of our covenant membership by faith. (Lord’s Supper: use wine or grape juice; leavened or unleavened bread, cut or whole. Baptism: use water; sprinkle or immerse, etc.)

What about worship? What is worship?

‘Worship’ literally means ‘bow ones head down to the ground’ in Hebrew. It is almost always used in this sense in the Scripture. At the same time, the Scripture teaches us, and our Lord commands us, that physical bowing is only an external expression of the internal reality and one must bow down in spirit and in truth. (If you are interested in what Calvin has to say on this, see the end note2.)

These days, however, the most common answer one can find when explaining worship is the following:

Worship $\overset{?}{=}$ reading of scripture+ sermon + prayer + praise + (whatever you think that should be here)

Somewhat similar to the above is

Old Testament Worship $\overset{?}{=}$ The Sacrificial System

(Some claim that this later equation was Calvin’s view but that is not correct. See3 where he claims that there is only one method of worship regardless of ages.) An example of such approach, trying to define worship by external means, can be found in McKay’s book:

“[The] people of God are to gather in His presence for particular activities that may be designated worship’, such as singing praise, praying corporately, hearing the word of God read and expounded, and partaking of the sacraments.” (McKay, The Bond of Love, p.229)

Another example is from Dr. Clark’s blog:

“An element is that thing without which there is no worship. The elements of worship are Word, sacrament, and prayer. No one is authorized by God to add to these elements, i.e. we’re not authorized to add new elements or to substitute a new element for a divinely authorized element.” (R. Scott Clark, Is the Offering an Element, a Circumstance, or Neither?)

The brothers quoted above are respectable men, and surely this article is not to dishonor them. But it is our conclusion that the approach above fails to distinguish the true elements of worship, which is spiritual, from the worship ceremonies — borrowing Calvin’s words, “ceremonies are subservient, as helps or instruments, in order that, in the performance of divine worship, the body may be exercised at the same time with the soul”4 (notice his emphasis on what we do with our soul). We will also see that this kind of error is essentially due to the lack of sound and solid definition of worship. So let us consider the following points:

1. We have already pointed out that the Scripture uses the word ‘worship’ to mean exactly bowing one’s head down to the ground‘. (For examples, see end note5 )
2. Hence, the Scripture treats worship (bowing down) as an activity with unique meaning attached to it, and distinguishes it from being some collection of other religious activities or ceremonies. Indeed, we find various instances in the Scripture where a person or a group of people worship God without accompanying external form of reading of scripture, prayer, or praise (or whatever you think that should be here). (For examples, see end note6 )
3. Unfortunately, it is a human inclination to understand this “bowing down” as a physical activity and put any merit or even a slightest weight on the external show. Hence comes the rebuke, “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.” (Isa 1:12–13) The equations we saw earlier are trying to define worship using external forms, but worship is essentially a spiritual activity: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.” (Ps 51:16) Indeed, our Lord told us that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (Jn 4:23) Note that our Lord is not just talking about the “attitude” here; He’s talking about the “method”. See what Calvin says about this in the end note7.
4. It is a mistake to understand the sacrificial system in the Mosaic Institution as the only Old Testament form of worship; this is because, again, we see in the Scripture where Old Testament believers worshiped God without using the sacrificial system8, and the Scripture distinguishes ‘sacrifice’ and ‘worship’ (even ‘singing of praises’) and treats them as distinct activities9. Calvin’s10 words are helpful again.

Contemplating these, we are inevitably led to conclude that worship cannot be thought as a collection of certain religious activities; mere participation in a worship service does not make one a worshiper; moreover, one may even pray earnestly, sing praises, give offering sincerely, but yet, not have worshiped God11. We read God’s word, give prayer and praise in public (or personal) worship because they are worshipers response as one kneels down before God, not because they are the ingredients of a worship.12

We can sing or pray or read the scripture in a worshipping manner; but it is not correct to say that such activities are what constitute a worship. To prevent any unwarranted merit in the physical ceremonies—no matter how sincerely one participates in it—let me quote the words of Pink:

People imagine that if they attend a religious service, are reverent in their demeanor, join in the singing of the hymns, listen respectfully to the preacher, and contribute to the collection, they have really worshipped God. Poor deluded souls, a delusion which is helped forward by the priest-craft and preacher-graft of the day. Over against this delusion are the words of Christ in John 4:24, which are startling in their plainness and pungency: “God is Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” (Arthur Pink, Worship)

## Proper Definition of Worship

Based on our observation and argument made above, I think Arthur Pink’s13) definition of worship is most biblical, concise, and unbeatable (which is, by the way, consistent with Calvin’s view14:

Worship is our soul bowing before God in adoring contemplation of Him.15

Together with Calvin16, we claim that the Scripture declares that this is the only method of worship. Arthur Pink writes,

“God is Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). This “must” is final; there is no alternative, no choice in the matter. — Arthur Pink, Worship

We have already pointed out that this is not just about “attitude”, but about the only “method” of worship17 18.

One can not emphasize enough that worship is not a collection of prayer, reading of the Scripture, praise; it is a unique activity distinct from prayer or reading of the Scripture, and it is chiefly a spiritual activity. One may pray or praise or bring offering with a worshiping soul, and listen to sermons while worshiping, but one cannot say that prayer, singing, reading the bible is what constitute a worship19.

So with this sound biblical definition at hand now it becomes meaningful, the question of “how to appropriately express externally of our soul bowing before Him”20 and all those discussions regarding the Regulative Principle.

It is beyond the scope of this posting to discuss the details of the Regulative Principle; but I would like to close by mentioning one thing. It is my strong belief that, just as Calvin saw the reformation of worship as the primary goal of his time, the church of our day are in need of reformation of worship again, especially in understanding “what” worship is. From the convoluted definition so wide spread, we need to restore the biblical definition of worship, the true bowing down in spirit and in truth. Once that is done, “how” to conduct a public worship service (or ceremony) will follow quite naturally.

Unfortunately, some very few modern Regulative Principle proponents raise voices that the 2nd Commandment commands us to use the external form of worship dictated by the Word of God. But we have shown that the premise that worship consists of certain external form is incorrect. The reason that God prohibited bowing to images in the 2nd Commandment is because He is a spirit and, as our Lord told us, bowing “in spirit and in truth” is what God asks; not because there is another external method of worship; the only method is the spiritual method — again, borrowing the words of Calvin, “Nor from the beginning was there any other method of worshipping God”.21

So do I think, say, “watching a biblical skit can be a worship”? No! Not because it has the wrong external form, but because worship is what you do with your soul, not with your eyes.

True reformation of worship is to bring back biblical definition and method of worship, and that is what the Regulative Principle is about, not to come up with a radical and different regulations for worship ceremonies. Let us give our true bow, our spiritual worship, to our God with gratitude.

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. (Jn 4:23)

1. Isn’t this so true for other problems? For instance, “how” to live a “gospel driven life” can all go wrong if one doesn’t understand “what” gospel is. Another example: people say we have problem with marriage these days. The root of the problem is that there is ignorance in “what” marriage is. That’s why people think same sex marriage is of no problem. “How” to have a good marriage is meaningful only if you know “what” marriage is all about.

2. ref:8

3. Calvin’s view on worship is carefully written in his letter The Necessity of Reforming the Church. All the quote below are from that letter. What he says there is that worship cannot be defined in terms of external forms; and that the only method of worship God commands us is “bowing down” (the true meaning of the Hebrew word ‘schacah’ for worship) in spirit and in truth. He writes,

God requires us to worship Him in a spiritual manner,

To emphasize that biblical worship is a “spiritual bow”, not a physical activity, Calvin again writes (words in brackets added by myself for clarity),

[The] ceremonies are subservient, as helps or instruments, in order that, in the performance of divine worship, the body may be exercised at the same time with the soul.”

He also writes (words in brackets added by myself for clarity),

[In these spiritual bow] consists the true and sincere worship which alone God approves, and in which alone He delights, is both taught by the Holy Spirit throughout the Scriptures and is also, antecedent to discussion, the obvious dictate of piety. Nor from the beginning was there any other method of worshipping God, the only difference being, that this spiritual truth, which with us is naked and simple, was under the former dispensation wrapt up in figures. And this is the meaning of our Savior’s words, “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:23.) For by these words he meant not to declare that God was not worshipped by the fathers in this spiritual manner, but only to point out a distinction in the external form, viz., That while they had the Spirit shadowed forth by many figures, we have it in simplicity. But it has always been an acknowledged point, that God, who is a Spirit, must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.

Notice that by “wrapt up in figure” he means that “this spiritual truth” was so, not the worship itself. Worship always had a clear meaning of “bowing down” in Hebrew. Calvin is pointing out that such bow was to be done in spirit and in truth regardless of ages. In the same letter he writes, (again, words in brackets added by myself for clarity)

For, next to idolatry, there is nothing for which they [the prophets] rebuke the people more sharply than for falsely imagining that the worship of God consisted in external show.

Nowhere in the letter Calvin mentions any physical activity to describe biblical worship. To Calvin, reading of scripture or prayer is to aid our worship, that is, our spiritual bowing down; they are not what establish a worship. In the same letter, Calvin sees prayer and praise as an inevitable response of a worshiper as he/she kneels down before God; they are consequences of spiritual worship (bow), not actions that build up a worship:

Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge Him to be, as He is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to Him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in Him alone, and in every want have recourse to Him alone. Hence arises prayer, hence praise and thanksgiving — these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to Him. This is that genuine sanctification of His name which He requires of us above all things.

Calvin clearly distinguishes the worship itself and the worship ceremonies. The more closer the worship ceremonies are to the spiritual reality of worship, the better. This is why Calvin wanted to make worship services or ceremonies as simple as possible; for instance, he didn’t want to use musical instruments when trying to ‘schacah’; not that it somehow corrupts the worship itself, but it can obscure the true meaning of worship, that is, ‘schacah’ (bowing down) in spirit and in truth.

This footnote is mainly from the article Calvin on Worship

4. ref:8

5. Some examples:

• And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God (Rev 11:16)
• He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. (Jn 9:38)
• And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. (Matt 28:9)
6. Some examples:

• When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped. (2 Chr 29:28–30) Notice how Offering, Praise, Worship is distinguished.
• And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt 14:33) Where’s the singing?
• Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to take the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. (Gen 24:48) If blessing or praising is what makes a worship, why mention it redundantly?
• And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Ex 12:27) Where is the prayer?
7. ref:8

8. Some examples:

• As soon as Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped. And he returned to the camp of Israel and said, “Arise, for the Lord has given the host of Midian into your hand.” (Judg 7:15)
• And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Neh 8:6)
9. When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped. (2 Chr 29:28–30) Notice how Offering, Praise, Worship is distinguished. It is very likely they used instruments here in view of verse 25 “And he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres”. Neh 12:27 also shows that singing praises with instruments were not always tied to sacrificial system: “And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres.”

10. ref:8

11. Arthur Pink, in Worship, writes

People imagine that if they attend a religious service, are reverent in their demeanor, join in the singing of the hymns, listen respectfully to the preacher, and contribute to the collection, they have really worshipped God. Poor deluded souls, a delusion which is helped forward by the priest-craft and preacher-graft of the day. Over against this delusion are the words of Christ in John 4:24, which are startling in their plainness and pungency: “God is Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”

12. ref:8

13. “We owe worship to God. It is his due. We owe love to man and obedience to parents, but worship to God. It is our first duty toward him. He is the all holy, all wise, the Almighty, the Infinite, all perfect One, and our rightful attitude toward him is that of bowing before him, or prostrating ourselves before him, in adoring contemplation of his infinite loveliness and glory, of his attributes, of himself. If we do not worship God, we are robbing him of what is his due. It is not enough that we obey him, that we pray to him, that we return thanks to him, that we seek to serve him and do his will. We must worship.” — Arthur Pink, Worship (emphasis mine

14. ref:8

15. “We owe worship to God. It is his due. We owe love to man and obedience to parents, but worship to God. It is our first duty toward him. He is the all holy, all wise, the Almighty, the Infinite, all perfect One, and our rightful attitude toward him is that of bowing before him, or prostrating ourselves before him, in adoring contemplation of his infinite loveliness and glory, of his attributes, of himself. If we do not worship God, we are robbing him of what is his due. It is not enough that we obey him, that we pray to him, that we return thanks to him, that we seek to serve him and do his will. We must worship.” — Arthur Pink, Worship (emphasis mine)

16. ref:8

17. ref:8

18. ref:9

19. Arthur Pink, in Worship, writes

People imagine that if they attend a religious service, are reverent in their demeanor, join in the singing of the hymns, listen respectfully to the preacher, and contribute to the collection, they have really worshipped God. Poor deluded souls, a delusion which is helped forward by the priest-craft and preacher-graft of the day. Over against this delusion are the words of Christ in John 4:24, which are startling in their plainness and pungency: “God is Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”

20. I have written some thoughts on this in the past Worship as Offering

21. ref:8