Q: Which is required in the second commandment?
A: The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.
Deuteronomy 12:32 Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.
The verse for this week's catechism comes from a section of Deuteronomy that is full of instruction for the Israelites to guide them in their worship of Yahweh, particularly as it concerns their lives in the Promise Land. If you take the time to read through the 12th chapter of Deuteronomy, you'll notice a few phrases that are repeated. First, the phrase, “you shall not worship the LORD your God in that way” is repeated twice in the chapter, and both times it is in reference to adopting cultural methods for worshiping Yahweh. The first time it is stated is in 12:4. This comes upon the heals of a command by God that when the Israelites go into the promised land, they are to destroy the Canaanites' places of worship, their altars, and their carved images representing their gods. Yahweh is very clear to the Israelites, they are not to attempt to worship Yahweh using these pagan places, altars, or symbols in their worship of the true and living God, even if they are adapting those things as a way to worship Yahweh. The second time this phrase is used is in 12:31. Again, the command is given in response to the idea of adapting pagan methods for worshiping Yahweh, “take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods saying 'How did these nations serve their gods?-that I also may do the same.' You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.” What is God commanding here? What he is commanding is that his people worship God as he has commanded. The pagan worship belonging to the inhabitants of the Promise Land were not to be contextualized so as to be used in the Israelite worship of Yahweh. This is not how God desires to be worshiped, and this prohibition leads us to the second phrase that we see repeated throughout this chapter. The phrase, “You shall do all that I am commanding you”, or some sort of variation of this command, is given at least four times in this chapter. Not only is Yahweh giving a prohibition to the Israelites concerning their worship, he is giving them instruction on how they are to worship him.
These two commands, to “not worship the LORD your God in that way”, and “You shall do all I am commanding you” highlight a very important truth concerning the worship of God. They show that we are not free to invent ways of worshiping God. God alone knows how he is to be worshiped, and we are not free to adopt new methods of worship or adapt cultural practices in our worship, nor are we free to neglect elements or methods of worship that God has specifically commanded. This is what the Reformed tradition calls the “Regulative Principle” of worship. To understand this better, it's important to contrast this with other views of worship. Many Christians, for example, believe that when it comes to worship, unless the Bible specifically forbids something, we are free to, in all practicality, use it in our worshiping of God. In other words, we can invent how we worship God so long as it does not violate a prohibition of Scripture. However, the Regulative Principle says just the opposite. The Regulative Principle states that unless something is clearly exhibited or commanded by God in Scripture as being appropriate for use in our worship of God, we are not to free to make use of it. In other words, when it comes to worshiping God, we can do only that which God tells us to do. Nothing more and nothing less.
This week's catechism is essentially a summary, then, of the Regulative Principle of worship. Now, it may be difficult for us in the 21st century to connect this to the second commandment as it concerns the use of graven images, but we must put ourselves in the shoes of the Reformers to understand how this all connects. The Reformers were thinking specifically of the worship practices of the Roman Catholic churches of their day. The problem with Roman Catholic worship was not that it was too liturgical, or that it was too traditional, it was that it was, in the minds of the Reformers, full of man-made inventions which led to idolatry. The use of icons, the veneration of saints, the use of rosaries, etc. were all extra-biblical, man-made methods of worshiping God. And for the Reformers, all of these man-made methods of worship led to idolatry, usually in the form of breaking the second commandment, the command not to use images and other visible representations of the Triune God. So this is why the Westminster Divines, when writing the confession and catechism, connect the Regulative Principle to the second commandment.
Certainly in our day and age, we can see the connections here as well between the second commandment and the Regulative Principle of worship. Even in the Evangelical camp, a camp made up of Christians who state a devotion to the Bible as the inspired, infallible, authoritative word of God, we can see how this understanding of the second commandment has gone by the wayside. Abandoned are the God-ordained methods of worship. They've been cast aside as being dusty, old, and irrelevant. The pulpit and Lord's Table have been moved to the side, or removed all together, no longer the centerpiece of our worship. They've been replaced with rock bands, loud sound systems, and stunning light shows. This is not merely coincidental. It highlights a shift in our thinking of worship. The Word and the sacraments are no longer central to the gathered worship of God's people. Exegetical, Christ centered preaching like what we see in the sermons of Peter or Paul in the book of Acts have been replaced with warm, fuzzy, topical sermons which reduce the gospel to a means to living our “best lives now”. The Lord's Supper, which stood as the climax of Christian worship for two millennium, has been relegated to a rare occurrence. We have, in many ways, done exactly what God had commanded the Israelites not to do. We looked at how culture worships their gods, and we attempt to worship the true and living God in the same manor, forgetting his words to Israel, “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way”. We haven't torn down the altars and idols of our culture, we have simply moved them to inside the church walls and have attempted to contextualize them to the worship of Yahweh. The challenge for us in this age then is whether or not we will cast off our idols and return to the LORD. Brothers and sisters, we are NOT free to invent ways of worshiping God. When we do, we will inevitably fall into idolatry. We will inevitably build up graven images, either literally or in our minds. Instead of remembering we are made after God's own image, we will make God after our own image. The truth is, God alone knows how he should be worshiped and glorified, and he has not left us to guess. His holy Word will teach us how to worship him, and his holy Word will guard our hearts against idolatry. We don't need to rely on pragmatism, our own creativity, or cultural technique when it comes to worship. Let us look to the Bible, cast aside our idols, our graven images, our concern to be hip and cool (besides, those efforts aren't really effective. In the infamous words of Hank Hill from the TV show King of the Hill, "Can't you see you're not making Christianity better? You're just making rock and roll worse!"), and instead, let us trust the eternal, living Word of God to guide us in our worship and praise of the great and holy Triune God.