Westminster XXI: Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day

1. The light of nature sheweth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might (Rom. 1:20; Acts 17:24; Ps. 119:68; Jer. 10:7; Ps. 31:23; 18:3; Rom. 10:12; Ps. 62:8; Josh. 24:14; Mark 12:33). 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 imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture (Deut. 12:32; Matt. 15:9; Acts 17:25; Matt. 4:9–10; Deut. 15:1–20; Exod. 20:4–6; Col. 2:23).

Natural revelation tells us that there is a God, and that He is good. Not only is He good, but His Deity is beyond all majesty, and He is worthy of all worship. The greatest commandment found in Scripture (to love God with all that we have and are) is also found in the stars and forests. Natural revelation tells us of our duty to worship God, but is silent on the manner of worship which is acceptable to Him. God Himself is the One who must tell us how to worship Him, and so this excludes worship according to the inventions of men, or the lies of the devil. Particularly excluded would be worship through idolatrous images, or rites not prescribed in the Bible.

But as you must discover, a great deal rides on what we mean by “prescribed.” Of course, all Protestants must be regulativists of some stripe, worshiping only as God has taught us, but our hermeneutic will determine what and how we are taught. Do we require “express warrant” from the Scriptures, or do we look for direction that goes beyond express warrant? The dangers of an “express warrant” regulativism should become apparent shortly.

2. Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to Him alone (Matt. 4:10; John 5:23; 2 Cor. 13:14); not to angels, saints, or any other creature (Col. 2:18; Rev. 19:10; Rom. 1:25): and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone (John 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Eph. 2:18; Col. 3:17).

First we must settle whom we worship. The biblical answer is that we worship the triune God, and only the triune God. We must not worship angels or saints, or anyone else who is not God. Further, since the Fall, we must worship by means of a (priestly) mediator. The Son of God would have been the visible image of the invisible Father, fall or no fall, but the presence of sin required the presence of a priest who would deal with the sin. But that mediator (ultimately) cannot be anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ. The priests under the Old Covenant were not substitutes for Christ, but rather types of Him.

3. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship (Phil. 4:6), is by God required of all men (Ps. 65:2): and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son (John 14:13–14; 1 Pet. 2:5), by the help of His Spirit (Rom. 8:26), according to His will (1 John 5:14), with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love and perseverance (Ps. 47:7; Eccl. 5:1–2; Heb. 12:28; Gen. 18:27; James 5:16; 1:6–7; Mark 11:24; Matt. 6:12, 14–15; Col. 4:2; Eph. 6:18); and, if vocal, in a known tongue (1 Cor. 14:14).

Gratitude is one of the first duties of men. God requires it to accompany all prayers and we must take care to offer our prayers in a way that will be accepted. This means they must be offered up in the name of the Son, with the Spirit enabling and empowering the offering. We must seek to pray in His will, and with all appropriate understanding. We are not to pray in blind faith. Nor are we to pray without reverence, humility, zeal, faith, love and steadfastness. We must always remember who we are in prayer, and who God is. If we speak aloud in prayer, then we must understand what we say, for we are responsible for it.

4. Prayer is to be made for things lawful (1 John 5:14); and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter (1 Tim. 2:1–2; John 17:20; 2 Sam. 7:29; Ruth 4:12): but not for the dead (2 Sam. 12:21–23; Luke 16:25–26; Rev. 14:13), nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death (1 John 5:16).

We may not pray that God’s law would be set aside. We may pray for men living, or men who will come to live after us. We may not pray for the dead, as though we are capable of altering their state, or for those known to be reprobate.

5. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear (Acts 15:21; Rev. 1:3), the sound preaching (2 Tim. 4:2) and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence (James 1:22; Acts 10:33; Matt. 13:19; Heb. 4:2; Isa. 66:2), singing of psalms with grace in the heart (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19; James 5:13); as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:23–29; Acts 2:42): beside religious oaths (Deut 6:13; Neh. 10:29), vows (Isa. 19:21; Eccl. 5:4–5), solemn fastings (Joel 2:12; Esth. 4:16; Matt. 9:15; 1 Cor. 7:5), and thanksgivings upon special occasions (Ps. 107; Esth. 9:22), which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner (Heb. 12:28).

In the corporate worship of the Church, we should look for those features of religious worship that we find required or described in Scripture. The Bible should be read aloud, with all appropriate reverence. The Word of God should be preached and declared. The hearing of the Word read and preached, with all appropriate understanding, is equally important to sound worship, and shows that the congregation is active in worship, not passive. The Church should sing psalms from the heart, and receive those sacraments which have been offered according to the Word.

Occasional duties also arise in worship. They include oaths and vows, fasts and occasional thanksgivings, which are to be observed with all prudence. It is most interesting to note that in defense of the worship on “special occasions” the Westminster theologians cited Esther 9, which tells of the establishment of Purim, a festival not required by the Mosaic law, and which had no divine authorization from God in the form of express warrant.

6. Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now, under the Gospel, either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed (John 4:21): but God is to be worshipped everywhere (Mal. 1:11; 1 Tim. 2:8), in spirit and truth (John 4:23–24); as, in private families (Jer. 10:25; Deut. 6:6–7; Job 1:5; 2 Sam. 6:18, 20; 1 Pet. 3:7; Acts 10:2), daily (Matt. 6:11), and in secret, each one by himself (Matt. 6:6; Eph. 6:18); so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by His Word or providence, calleth thereunto (Isa. 56:6–7; Heb. 10:25; Prov. 1:20–21, 24; 8:34; Acts 13:42; Luke 4:16; Acts 2:42).

Under the New Covenant, we cannot say that any particular place is holy ground. Strictly speaking, we cannot have “sanctuaries” now that the Church is the Temple of God. As before, God is to be worshipped in all places, with a right heart and spirit. He may be worshipped on a daily basis, in our households and in private.

The solemnity of public worship receives it dignity from the fact that the living stones of the Temple are calling upon God. The sanctity of our surroundings in worship is derived from the fact of the people of God worshiping there, and not the other way around. Our church buildings set the context of worship, but are no longer part of the content of worship.

The assembling together for worship is on no account to be despised or neglected. God has required it.

7. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him (Exod. 20:8, 10–11; Isa. 56:2, 4, 6–7): which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week (Gen. 2:2–3; 1 Cor. 16:1–2; Acts 20:7), which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10), and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath (Exod. 20:8, 10; Matt. 5:17–18).

Natural revelation shows us that a portion of our time must be set aside expressly for the worship of God. Special revelation teaches us that the time necessary for this is one day in seven. Before the coming of Christ, the creation of the world was commemorated, and, under the type of the Exodus, the redemption of God’s people. After the coming of Christ, the commemoration is of the recreation of the world, the restructuring of the heavens and earth, in the resurrection of Christ. The Sabbath was tied to the creation, and nothing would suffice to change the day other than a new creation, a new heavens and earth. And that is what we have in the resurrection of Christ, establishing the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath of the new earth, the Sabbath of the regeneration (Heb. 4:10).

8. This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before–hand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations (Exod. 20:8; 16:23, 25–26, 29–30; 31:15–17; Isa. 58:13; Neh. 13:15–22), but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy (Isa. 58:13; Matt. 12:1–13).

The Sabbath is to be observed just as God has instructed. And this is why we come now to a place where we part company with the teaching of the Confession. We understand the works of piety to be commanded for the Sabbath, and works of necessity and mercy to be permitted, as occasion requires. In other words, these three different kinds of work are certainly permitted on the Lord’s Day. But this is very different from equating these kinds of works with a “holy rest.” The Lord did not say to work for six days in one way, and work hard for one day in another way. The central requirement of the Lord’s Day is that of rest. In other words, we dispute the legitimacy of the phrase “the whole time.” This understanding would exclude resting, which is the heart of the commandment. We may interrupt our rest with worship, or changing an old lady’s flat tire, or fixing sandwiches for the guests we invited over after church. But if we are doing things like this “the whole time” of the Sabbath, we will be working seven days out of seven, and we will have become Sabbath-breakers.

But the central point made by this section remains constant. Right sabbath keeping requires preparation of the heart and house.

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