Reformed Worship and the Regulative Principle of Worship

Reformed Worship and the Regulative Principle of Worship

Written by Larry C. Roff |
Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (and also in the Directory for Worship) is the fact that worship is so important to the Lord that He has regulated it in His Word so that we might render worship to Him in a way, both in the elements and attitudes of worship, that it is acceptable and not offensive to Him, and therefore also beneficial to His people as they gather in corporate worship. 

It takes more than Reformed doctrine preached from the pulpit to make a church “Reformed.”  At the time of the Reformation, the first thing that people saw and heard that alerted them to the reality that something had changed was the worship service, its structure and contents as well as its “feel.”  It was conducted in their language, it included doctrinal preaching, they were taught to sing, and the worship order was re-formed based on a biblical pattern rather than on the traditional (unbiblical) Roman Mass.

Is there something lastingly and recognizably unique about Reformed worship today? It is not unusual that in our day we find worship practices that demonstrate surprising diversity, often incredibly different from one another.  Too many seem driven not by a desire to discern from Scripture what God desires and delights in with our worship, but rather either thought-less tradition, or to do what we find most satisfying in achieving our goals of enrichment, enlightenment, outreach, and sadly, even entertainment.  And with so many denominational as well as theological and cultural varieties offered on the smorgasbord of worship possibilities, is it fair to ask the question, “What is unique to and recognizable about Reformed worship?”  I ask these questions out of decades of first-hand exposure to and participation in worship practices in countless churches across the nation in our denomination, as well as from teaching Reformed worship in a seminary.

Enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (and also in the Directory for Worship) is the fact that worship is so important to the Lord that He has regulated it in His Word so that we might render worship to Him in a way, both in the elements and attitudes of worship, that it is acceptable and not offensive to Him, and therefore also beneficial to His people as they gather in corporate worship.

Here are brief descriptions of the widely recognized “Elements of Worship” which we find in His Word.  All of these, and nothing in addition to these, are biblically legitimate.  While we have great freedom in the details of how we implement these elements in our services, we may not add to these in our worship, or omit any of these from our worship, if we truly desire to please Him.

Reading Scripture

Not just a short passage as the text for the sermon, but substantial and multiple portions of Scripture at appropriate places in the worship service.  Readings from all parts of Scripture should regularly include OT historical books, Psalms and prophets, as well as Gospels and Epistles. This need not follow a lectionary, should assure that God’s Word is heard prominently in our services.

Preaching His Word

Expository proclamation of His inspired Word, with explanation of the context and theme, elucidation of the doctrines included, and helpful application for the hearer’s benefit.  It is important that these be gospel-focused, Christ-centered, aimed to both mind and heart, and not merely running commentary or simplistic moralistic lessons or group therapy sessions.

Profession of Faith

Publicly reaffirming our faith is virtually like a pledge of allegiance.  Most churches use the Apostles’ Creed for this purpose, but there are many other resources available, such as Nicene, Westminster, and Heidelberg.  It has been historically done with the Gloria Patri immediately following as a doxological conclusion. In Anglican worship, the Gloria typically follows a Psalm.


In a Reformed (or any!) church, this should not just be a brief opening prayer, but substantial prayers throughout the service, such as invocation, confession of sin, pastoral prayer, thankfulness and intercession, dedication of offerings, etc.  The importance of these prayers suggests that just as time is spent in preparing the theme, structure, and content of the sermon, so should time be spent by the worship leader to plan at least the outline, if not the very words of these prayers.


Congregational singing of Psalms (especially!) and hymns should give everyone present the opportunity to participate with doctrinally sound texts and musically singable compositions at numerous places in the service.  While this element may include instrumental music and choral anthems, these should never replace the singing of the entire congregation.  Rubrics spoken before the hymn, communicating something about the text or background of the song (including author and composer), can add substantially to people’s understanding and enthusiasm in singing.


As an act of worship, people actually present their tithes and offerings, either by collection in the pews or by deposit in a box.  They must understand it as giving to the work of the gospel out of obedience to and love for the Lord, not as mechanically paying church bills!  Carefully planned rubrics can regularly re-establish the biblical basis and mandate (and blessing!) of tithing.  Sometimes this act of worship precedes the sermon; sometimes it becomes one of the final acts of worship before people depart.


While not necessarily present in every service, these are conducted as part of the service for all the people, not in private rituals apart from the corporate worship of the entire church (other than with shut-ins and elderly, and then along with at least one ruling elder).  While baptism will be administered only when there are candidates, the Lord’s Supper should be observed frequently, if not weekly.  The right administration of the sacraments has become widely recognized as one of the marks of a true church since the time of the Reformation.


The biblical pattern of taking solemn vows is always done with great solemnity.  This will most often take place on occasions such as baptisms, reception of new members, ordination of officers, and occasionally with weddings (which are also worship services).


While many, even ministers, view this as merely a closing prayer, it is not a prayer at all, but rather a pronouncement of God’s blessing (from the Latin “benedictus”) as the minister raises his hands over the heads of the congregation, as done by the patriarchs of the Old Testament with their offspring, with the people’s eyes open to see as they hear words of God’s promise for them.  It is only ordained ministers who are authorized to pronounce this Benediction, not lay worship leaders.  Many will prefer to use a Scriptural passage so that these are actually God’s words, rather than a benediction of their own composing.  And a Benediction is a pronouncement of divine blessing, which differs from an Ascription of Praise, as will often be found near the beginning of the service.

Recognizable Distinctives of Reformed Worship

These are distinctives that would be clearly recognized by anyone visiting the church for the first time.  They will be present regardless of the “style” of worship, whether classical or contemporary, whether formal or informal.  They include the fact that we today are part of “the church militant” (still struggling with sin here in this life) and we are not yet part of “the church triumphant.”  Another way of expressing that is that we are still the church “in the wilderness” and not yet the church “in the promised land.”  Our worship today is to be full of celebration and joy in anticipation of that which is now occurring in heaven, but it is also to be full of the humble, repentant spirit of hearts still dealing with the fall and its consequences in our own souls as well as in our world and culture.

God-centered atmosphere

This ought to be one of the most immediately and repeatedly evident dimensions of our worship to people throughout the service.  In Reformed worship there will be a balanced sense of both God’s transcendence above us and His immanence with us.  People should leave with an attitude, not so much as having been in an informal gathering with friends, as with a majestic and humbling meeting with God.  Our desire is that people should know that God was present in every moment.  This is somewhat intangible as a mood in worship, that while it can be deemed to be more God-centered as a subjective evaluation, is none-the-less real, and certainly ought to be desired.

Historically-informed liturgy

In Reformed worship there will be a logical and biblical structure that organizes the elements in far more than just a few songs and a sermon, strung together one after another as pearls on a necklace.  Historically, and for centuries, a common pattern has evolved that follows the pattern in Isaiah 6 of adoration (“I saw the LORD”) – confession (“Woe is me”) – exposition (“Speak to these people”) – dedication (“Here am I, send me”).  In addition, there will be a clearly recognizable central theme for the service, connecting all parts of the service with the primary focus of the scripture and sermon as much as possible, with prayers and hymns chosen to support that theme.

Continuity between the present and the future

A Reformed church will take seriously our biblical profession of the timelessness of worship, found in such doxological phrases as “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” There are certainly fundamental distinctions between the cultic liturgical acts of Leviticus and the Christological fulfilment we find in Hebrews.  And we have not yet arrived at the perfect worship that is currently being offered to the Lamb by saints and angels before the throne of God in heaven.  But at the same time, Reformed worship will recognize the continuity between all three by finding those timeless principles in each so as to consciously and deliberately incorporate them into our worship today.  This is part of what we believe about the fellowship of (all) the saints.

Confession of Sin

In Reformed worship, the essentials of the gospel will be present in the service, not merely in the sermon.  This means that our need (sin) and God’s grace (pardon) will always be a part of the liturgy, highlighting both law and grace in balanced messure.  That is most often done early in the service with a confession of sin (perhaps offered in unison, and with time for silent personal confession), followed immediately by an assurance of pardon (from a specific scripture verse).  Both of these can be augmented by use of a hymn of confession (such as “Rock of Ages”) and a hymn of forgiveness (such as “Blessed Assurance”).

Worship leadership and rubrics

Constitutional guidelines in most Reformed denominations not only limit ordained office to men of the congregation, they also limit worship leadership (not only preaching) to ordained elders, and primarily the pastor.  Worship leadership includes planning as well as conducting worship in harmony with biblical principles.  In addition, worship leadership becomes much more effective when carefully planned rubrics give information and motivation to people in everything from songs and offering to scripture reading and prayer.  If care is not taken, these can become empty of meaning when the same words are used over and over again every week.

Priesthood of all believers

At the time of the Reformation, this meant that every believer had immediate access into the presence of God, without the need for priests or saints to intercede for them.  It also meant that every believer had the right to study the Scriptures without submitting to the official (and often incorrect) interpretation of the clergy.  In Reformed worship today, it is expanded to include the active participation of every member of the congregation in the worship service (especially in singing), without abandoning the elders’ oversight of worship by having worship planned and led by ministers duly ordained to that office.  Keeping this in balance protects the biblical integrity of the service while avoiding the danger of turning the congregation into passive spectators.

Regular singing of Psalms

In Reformed worship, the Psalms are an invaluable source of worship that points us to God, and in this instance, by praising Him with the very words He has given us in the 150 Psalms.  Since the Psalms contain so much about the character and work and majesty of God as well the weaknesses and longings of the redeemed heart, though we need not be singing exclusive psalmody, at least one Psalm will wisely be used at some point in the service each week.  In recent years, this has become much more accessible with hymnals and psalters that include many (if not all) of the Psalms.  In too many instances, hymnals are selected that have only Psalms 23 and 100 included.

Use of spiritual gifts

While spiritual gifts are not the same as talents, they involve the use of Spirit-given abilities when used for the benefit of the church.  We regularly recognize such gifts as teaching and counseling and leadership, but we also find spiritual gifts in the arts, both visual and aural. When it comes to music, a Reformed church will honor those who have vocal and instrumental musical gifts, and will afford opportunities for them to offer those as a sacrifice of praise to God.  Thus, there is a place for choirs and instrumentalists to offer great music in worship, especially music that is beyond the ability of the untrained.  There is no more illegitimacy for one person to sing a solo to God on behalf of others than it is for one person to lead in prayer on behalf of others, not as a performance for the acclaim of people, but of God.

Thoughtful use of hymnody

In Reformed worship the songs chosen for people to sing are “screened” doctrinally, musically, and for literary quality, not just by the music leader, but also by the pastor. In addition, they are selected and placed where they “fit” in the service.  Rather than simply selecting a few songs people enjoy singing, the one who plans the service will choose and place a song or chorus at the appropriate place in the service.  Thus we would not sing “We Come, O Christ, to You” or “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing” at the conclusion, or “Lead On, O King Eternal” nor “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” at the beginning!

Breadth of musical style

While not an essential biblical principle, a use of musical styles of all sorts and multiple historical periods will be found in Reformed churches, a decision that is motivated not so much as a matter of catering to the desires and preferences of the people as it is driven by a desire to honor the God-given spiritual gifts of musical artists of all ages, from baroque to contemporary.  Since different revitalizing themes in hymns will be found in each historical period, it will be wise to use a wide repertoire of hymns from the early church through the Reformation, Great Awakening, Romantic, Folk, and Gospel songs, as well as the best of contemporary hymnody.  With so much music, especially hymnody, available for use today, it is sad to find so many churches using such a narrow body of hymns, frequently almost all from 19th century Gospel Songs.

Excellence in all aspects of music

Sadly, it is not uncommon today to find Reformed churches in which the pastor has introduced a dynamic that suggests that worship is composed of two parts: the “preliminaries” and his sermon.  This sometimes extends to an extreme position that forbids any observance of Christmas or Easter, as well as a refusal to allow choral and instrumental music in the church, apart from an intentionally “plain” style of congregational hymn singing.  If we agree that the Psalms are to be sung in worship, how can we sing Psalm 150 and forbid musical instruments, since in the Psalm God commands the use of every musical instrument known to Israel at that time, from wind to percussion (“let everything that has breath praise the LORD”).  And if we are to play skillfully (Psalm 33:3), surely that encourages musical excellence and variety in everything from hymn accompaniment to choral anthems, as long as these are not replacing but only enhancing congregational singing.

Simplicity in attractive but unadorned building

With many different architectural styles, one common characteristic in Reformed churches will be great caution in avoiding anything that tends toward idolatrous attention to images that would violate the second commandment.  Reformed churches can be beautiful without being ornate. There are also very important acoustical principles that aid in people’s hearing the speaker as well as hearing one another singing by having an acoustically “live” and moderately resonant room, not so “deadened” with excessive seating pads, carpet, curtains, sound-absorbing tiles, etc.

Furnishings that are theologically consistent

This will include a central pulpit, and resources for the sacraments: visible communion table (NOT altar!) with chairs, as well as a baptismal font, both in public view in every service, even when not used that day.   It will also include a well-lit room from either/or natural light from windows and electrical lighting. It will not suggest that the front area is a stage for people to observe performers, all brightly lit but without manipulative concert elements like colored lights and smoke, while the rest of the room is darkened.  A darkened room tends to suggest that the congregation is unimportant; that it is primarily the “up front people” that matter.

Healthy appreciation for beauty

One of the classical dimensions in the triad of transcendental values is beauty, along with truth and goodness.  All three are rooted in the very character of God, from whom all truth, beauty, and goodness flow.  There is nothing in existence whether material or spiritual that is more beautiful than God.  In Reformed worship, as we seek to communicate the character of God, beauty is one of the things for which we aim.  We read in Psalm 96:9 that we are to worship in the beauty of holiness. Since God is a spirit, His beauty is not to be found in material things.  But surely there ought to be a sense of beauty that is recognizable in our worship.  One of the most beautiful things, certainly is the magnificence of redemption. Should we not then also strive to create a service in which there is beauty in what is preached, beauty in the music we hear, beauty in the setting in which we meet, and beauty in the fellowship which we extend to one another?  Sadly, I fear that we who are Reformed can sometimes justifiably be accused of being afraid of beauty.

Centrality of the heart

Finally, and very importantly, in Reformed worship there is the matter of the condition of the heart of the worshiper.  Jesus told the woman at the well, not that God is seeking worship, but rather worshipers, those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth.  He’s more concerned with the heart of the worshiper than He is in the liturgy that we use.  Our God searches hearts.  The last thing we would expect to find in Reformed worship is lifeless, mechanical performance in which the soul is un-engaged with God, and distracted by other things.  To the contrary, Reformed worship exists where humbled sinners come together in His presence to rejoice with reverent exuberance, as a foretaste (and perhaps even rehearsal) for our future eternal heavenly worship.

Dr. Larry C. Roff is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, Editor of the Trinity Hymnal, and Organist for the PCA General Assembly.

Scroll to top