Wrong Worship Is Idolatry


“All worshiping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own express commandment, is idolatry” (John Knox, Works, Vol. III, pg. 34).

“For inasmuch as it was easy for the people to lapse into the imitation of the Gentiles, and to worship their false gods, under whose protection the inhabitants boasted their land to be, all inquiry respecting them is also strictly forbidden. For this is the origin of idolatry, when the genuine simplicity of God’s worship is known, that people begin to be dissatisfied with it, and curiously to inquire whether there is anything worthy of belief in the figments of men; for men’s minds are soon attracted by the snares of novelty, so as to pollute, with various kinds of leaven, what has been delivered in God’s word.” (John Calvin, Harmony of The Law)

“The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever . . . corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever . . . all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.” (Westminster Larger Catechism, 109)

Recently I posted an article that had to deal with worship. I dealt (generally and briefly) with the concept of the Regulative Principle. God limits us in worship by limiting what we do in our songs, sacraments and sermons. We label this the Regulative Principle because God regulates His worship. This could be shown throughout Holy Writ, but Deuteronomy 12:32 hits the target: “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.”

Worship is not something we do in light of our culture or the people who attend. When we worship, or when we look at doing worship, we have to understand our target audience. We read about, study and focus on our target audience. Understanding our audience is paramount to the way we worship. Let it not be mistaken: our target audience is an audience of One. It sounds simple, but we are to understand our worship method, mode, and regulations in light of Who we are worshiping. If God, the One we worship, has limited His worship (which He has) then as the people who love God we must obey Him. Christ said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The one (out of many) ideas pulled from this text is based upon obedience from the heart. Paul reiterates this idea in Romans: “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17). This idea is simple and profound. If you truly have an affection, love, adoration for Christ, then you will show your love to Christ through obedience to Him. If you do not obey Christ, you do not love Him.

The Golden Calf

The trouble many churches deal with today has to do with something like a golden calf method. Looking at the passage of Exodus 32, we immediately see the people wanted to have “a god who will go before us” (Ex. 32:1). You might automatically think they are worshiping some sort of false god like the pagans. However, we see a couple verses later that is not the case. The people, for whom Aaron made the calf, say “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). They were presenting this golden image as the true God who saved them from bondage. Israel was trying to worship God by a means other then what He has commanded. Further we conclude that they equated the two (the calf and the true God) when Aaron built an altar (v.5), the people gave burnt and peace offerings (v.6), and had a feast (v.6) in honor of this god who took them out of Egypt. Likewise, they were also singing to this god who saved them from the land of Egypt (v.18). These are all elements of worship. Everything that the people of God did with this image was all part of worship which was previously commanded by God for Him alone. Since Israel violated God’s commandments, (v.8) God required that they should be destroyed (v.10). We know that not all of Israel was destroyed by God (v.14), but He did kill many of them through Moses (v.27-28) and God Himself (v.35).

In our present day, churches want something different in worship. They want something other then what God has commanded. They want something cool, hip, showy, or mystical – anything that makes them feel good or culturally relevant. Churches would rather have videos or objects to show their relevance in the world. Instead of obeying God and His commandments “every man [does] what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Are you still wondering how serious worship is to God? Deathly serious.

Heart, Law, and Sufficiency

The issue of worship is not to be taken lightly. It’s not a matter of preference. Worship is a matter of obedience from the heart and according to the letter of the Law. When they worshiped the calf they were worshiping contrary to God’s Law (sinning) and provoked God to anger (Deut. 10:18).

Christ quotes Isaiah in Matthew 5 saying, “‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. ‘But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” Christ points out that the Jews were worshiping according to the worship of men and not of God. This is also known as “will worship”. Make no mistake: you are not free to worship how you please.

Scripture is all sufficient. It tells us everything we need to know and how to practice what we know. Adding anything to or taking away from scripture, especially when it comes to worship, is sin. Greg Price says it well:

Question: Is God’s Word adequate and complete in giving to man all that man needs to know as to how he must please God? Absolutely, for God declares through the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine (i.e. teaching), for reproof (i.e. conviction of sin), for correction (i.e. setting one straight in the truth), for instruction in righteousness (i.e. training him in all that God requires of him).” Now that is quite comprehensive. But note the purpose or end God has in view in giving to you the Scripture, “that the man of God may be complete (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich’s Lexicon states concerning the Greek word used here for complete, “Complete, capable proficient = able to meet all demands.”) thoroughly equipped for every good work” (including how to worship God). Since the apostle Paul addressed these words to a young evangelist (Timothy is a “man of God” in the narrow sense of a minister of God), all ministers and elders are herein specifically addressed. The principle of worship that man can add to worship what God does not specifically prohibit teaches that Scripture is not sufficient for worship, worship needs man’s innovative ideas in order to aid us in our worship of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith denies that we need anything beside Scripture in our worship of God: “God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines or commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship” (20:2).


Calvin, John. Harmony of The Law. CCEL.org. 2015. Web.

Price, Greg. Foundation for Reformation: The Regulative Principle of Worship. SWRB.com. 2015. Web.

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