Many people think it is enough to make the true God the object of our affections and worship, and then all will be well. Modes and methods, often, are not considered at all in this discussion. For example, most music issues within worship services are centered around what sounds good to the listeners. The questions asked are things like, “Do I like the way it sounds? How does it make me feel? Does it make me feel good after hearing it? Will it attract a crowd? Is it entertaining?”
This line of questioning and thinking has led to a great deal of error within worship. The questions that churches should be asking regarding worship have little to do with the individual. Instead, churches must learn to ask, “Does this truly glorify God? Does it express biblical truth? Is this what He has commanded of us? Is this pleasing to Him?”
Here we have in view a principle often referred to as the Regulative Principle of Worship. A summary of this doctrine is simply this: We worship the true God only in the ways that He has prescribed within His Word. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith contains a fuller explanation of this doctrine in the twenty-second chapter (Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day), paragraph one:
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all; is just, good and does good to all; and is, therefore, to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart and all the soul, and with all the might.1 But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself,2 and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. (1 Jer. 10:7; Mark 12:33, 2 Deut. 12:32, 3 Exod. 20:4–6).
Each of those Scripture references provided supports this doctrine. God cares about how He is worshiped, and He has provided for us the modes and methods in which He not only desires but demands to be worshiped.
It is clear, from the Old Testament, that God cares deeply about proper worship. He gives extremely detailed instruction for how His tabernacle and then the temple is to be constructed. There is no room for error in the priest’s ministries. The Lord is very detailed in what He commands of His people. When they fail to worship Him as He commanded, death is often the result. Nadab and Abihu offer strange fire after God has commanded them not to do that very thing, and thus they are struck down (Lev. 10). The Israelites construct a golden calf in the wilderness to represent the Lord, almost immediately after God has commanded the people to have no graven images, and the Lord nearly destroys them all before Moses intercedes on their behalf (Exodus 32). And, lest we imagine this is just an Old Testament problem, Ananias and Saphira are struck dead when they lie to the Holy Spirit about the offering they are bringing to the Apostles (Acts 5).
The problem with worshiping the right God in the wrong way is that it still displays an idolatrous heart because it completely disregards God’s commandments in favor of obeying the heart of the individual. This also, in part, shows that we want God to be what we want Him to be, rather than who He is.
This is clear, for example, in John 6:14-15: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
John Calvin comments on these verses, “If he had permitted himself to be now made a king, his spiritual kingdom would have been ruined, the Gospel would have been stamped with everlasting infamy, and the hope of salvation would have been utterly destroyed. Modes of worship regulated according to our own fancy, and honours rashly contrived by men, have no other advantage than this, that they rob God of his true honour, and pour upon him nothing but reproach.”
Jesus had just fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. At first glance, it seems like a good thing that people recognize Jesus is King. But the people’s faulty perception becomes apparent all too quickly, while the Prophet-King’s perfect perception of Himself also appears.
Moses had prophesied that a prophet greater than himself would arise, and the people in John 6:14-15 are piecing it all together. Just as Moses had spoken from atop a mountain, Jesus speaks now from atop a mountain. Just as Moses had prayed and provided manna in the wilderness, so now Jesus is providing bread for the people. From the testimony of Scripture and Jesus’s works, they now know that He is indeed the Prophet and, though they do not say it here, they seem to understand that He is the Messiah they have waited for. This is why they now want to pronounce Him as their King.
So, then, why does Jesus depart from them and withdraw to the mountain by Himself? After all, were they not right in their desire to make him King? Well, they may have had good intentions, but that does not mean they were correct in wanting to do this, and the fact they want to take him by force or violently against His will, is indicative of this. One sin here is that they want to do what only God can do: Raise up a King. Daniel 2:21, “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding…”
Why does Jesus resist this? The phrase that they would take Him by force indicates that Jesus actually resisted them. Perhaps they had begun to cry out that they would make Him their King, He told them no, and they began to move upon Him violently to declare Him their new King. Why refuse this honor? And how does this relate to improper worship?
First, Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. When I say this, I do not mean to say that Jesus does not rule over all. I do not mean to say that He is not authoritative. As of right now, He is plundering Satan’s domain with each sinner that He saves. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. Yet, He does not physically rule on this earth currently, though He does rule, awaiting the placement of His enemies beneath His feet (Psalm 110:1). Rather, there is a day coming where He will make all things new, all of the Saints will be gathered in His everlasting Kingdom, and we will worship and serve Him eternally.
John 18:36-37 says, “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’ Then Pilate said to him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.’”
The people were wrong to forcefully make Jesus their King because His Kingdom is of a different breed than what they expected or even wanted.
Secondly, Christ’s Kingdom is built upon the gospel. Apart from the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, His Kingdom could never be established because apart from the preaching of the gospel, sinners will never be saved! If Jesus had allowed Himself, then and there, to be made King, then He would not have gone to the Cross. He would not have purchased salvation. If He had not accomplished His purposes, the gates of hell would have prevailed! But Jesus was not, even for a moment, going to entertain the idea of failing to do the very thing the Father had sent Him to accomplish.
In Matthew 16:15-19, we see a great exchange between Jesus and the disciples, “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’”
Calvin’s point above is made clear here: If Jesus had allowed them to make Him King, He never would have gone to the Cross or been resurrected, and the gospel would never have been established. Apart from the preaching of the gospel, no sinners can be saved. If no sinners are saved, no Kingdom is built. But it was upon Peter’s testimony that Jesus is the Christ, that the Church is built. Jesus fulfills His function of the Christ at the Cross. Had the people had their way, they would have stripped Him of His Kingdom by not allowing Him to fulfill His purpose, and there would be no testimony of saving grace to share.
That’s how serious an offense it is to worship the right God in the wrong way.
Reread Calvin’s words, “Modes of worship regulated according to our own fancy, and honours rashly contrived by men, have no other advantage than this, that they rob God of his true honour, and pour upon him nothing but reproach.”
Though we will not, thankfully, ever strip Christ of His Kingdom and glory, we do rob God of the honor He is due when we worship Him in the way we alone desire, rather than in the way He has commanded.