Most people know about the Ten Commandments. But most people don’t understand the difference between the first and the second commandments. Learn the difference between the first and second commandments and how that relates to worship.
The first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3).
And the second commandment is “You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Exod 20:4).
Aren’t these two commandments telling us basically the same thing–that we are only to worship the one true God and not worship idols? The answer is no. These are very different commandments.
The first commandment clearly rules out worshiping a false God. But the second commandment addresses a different issue. It forbids the worship of the one true God in a false way, through the use of images.
Soon after God gave the Ten Commandments, Aaron, the high priest, was guilty of violating the second commandment by making a golden calf for Israel’s worship. Aaron told the people to use the golden calf to worship the LORD, the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt (Exod 32:4b-5).
Aaron did not tell Israel to worship “other gods,” but to worship the one true God, LORD (Yahweh), in a false way. Likewise, when most people throughout history use graven images to worship God, they are not usually worshiping the graven image, but the god the image represents.
So the second commandment calls us to worship the one and only true God only as he commands us to worship him. This raises the question:
“How are we to worship God?”
We could invent all kinds of interesting ways we think God should be worshiped. But in the Bible God tells us what pleases and honors him in worship.
The understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) and not church traditions to direct our worship helped spark the flame of the Reformation. The application of the principle of sola Scriptura to worship is called the “regulative principle.” The Westminster Confession of Faith says:
But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture. (21.1; cf. 1.6, 20.2)
The regulative principle teaches that everything we do in worship must be biblical. It must be prescribed, warranted, and required by Scripture through explicit commands, approved examples, or theological inference. Some examples include:
• The object of worship (Exodus 20:1-3) The 1st Commandment: No other gods
• The way of worship (Exodus 20:4-6) The 2nd Commandment: No graven images of God (LORD)
• The focus of worship (Exodus 20:7) The 3rd Commandment: Honor the Name
• The day of worship (Exodus 20:8-11) The 4th Commandment: Honor the Sabbath (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2, the Lord’s Day, Rev 1:10)
• Prayer, lifting up hands, etc. (Gen 18:16-33, Acts 2:42, Acts 4:23-31, 12:12, Heb. 13:15, Hos. 14:2, Luke 1:10, Rev. 5:8, 8:3-4, 1 Tim. 2:1-2, 8)
• Teaching Scripture (Ezra 8, 1 Cor. 14:26, 2 Tim. 3:16, 4:2ff, Heb. 4:12)
• Reading Scripture (Acts 13:15, Col. 4:16, 1 Tim 4:14)
• Observing the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42, 20:7, 1 Cor 11:17ff)
• Singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (1 Cor 14:26, Eph 5:18-19, Col 3:16)
• Offering tithes and gifts (Gen 14:18-20, 1 Cor. 16:1, 2 Cor 8, Phil. 4:18)
• Properly exercising tongues, prophecy, and interpretation (1 Cor. 14:26)
• Encouraging one another (1 Cor. 14, Heb. 10:24-25, Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20)
Just as we are to worship God in all of life according to the rule of Scripture, so we are to worship God in all our public worship services in obedience to God’s word.
The regulative principle helps protect the church from improper and unbiblical practices in worship. However, it doesn’t answer all our questions about how to apply biblical principles in worship, particularly in our own time. Consequently, the regulative principle should not be used to determine whether traditional or contemporary songs should be used in worship or whether the Lord’s Supper should be observed with real wine or grape juice, etc.
What is often neglected in these discussions is the important role of the sufficiency of the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) and the principle of conscience. We must be on our guard against clergy and Bible scholars who use their expertise in theology to teach for or against certain elements in worship that cannot be clearly affirmed or denied by the plain meaning of Scripture.
What is the proper response to church leaders who accuse you of displeasing God if you don’t worship according to their practices, when you can’t see these practices condemned or required in the Bible?
The victims of such bullies should embrace the words of Martin Luther:
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
Registration closes January 15