“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”
The first command dealt with the object of worship, and this command deals with the means of worship.
The scope of this command is directed at all acts of worship, from the directed and formal acts done corporately, to the worshipful ones done throughout the week. We must not approach God presumptuously, but we must worship Him on His terms for it to be legitimate worship. There are many examples in Scripture of people approaching God inappropriately: we can think of Cain’s offering to God, Nadab and Abihu burning unauthorized incense (Num. 3:2-4), Saul hastily burning an offering (1 Samuel 13:11-14), and numerous other accounts of defective worship (Is. 29:13, Col. 2:23, Ez. 20, 2 Kings 18:4, and many more).
So, it is as if He is saying, “If you want to enjoy Me, here is how and by these lines are you to do so- any other approach is impermissible.” These acts of worship are not indifferent matters to Him, but He wishes to be served according to His dictates. We ought not “be of the opinion that he will be pleased just so long as he is served,” (Brakel, 3:105; Hosea 6:6).
The thing most obviously prohibited here is using images as a means of worship or as representing God. It is not in the strict sense of God forbidding the making of images period- God commanded images to be placed within the Temple that resembled the Garden of Eden, the Cherubim upon the Ark of the Covenant, and the brazen serpents upon a pole to heal the Israelites, etc. Nor is it a prohibition for a common use of images in society- like printing a President’s face on a bill, or making art to decorate the walls of a house. So what is in view here is the worshipping of God through the instrument/channel of an image, or to create an image that we would see as representing Him.
The reason for this is because our worship forms our ideas of who God is, and if we approach Him through improper means we will come to false and reckless conceptions of Him. It could be argued that approaching Him through an improper way may suggest that one already has a false conception of who He is, which would make sense given man’s fallen nature. The natural man attempts to worship what they perceive to be God (or god with a little “g,” or the ultimate, see my blog on the first command) through their idols anyway, but the true God has revealed Himself here.
Therefore, God’s aim in this command is to bring us to the right and correct form of worship which we as His creatures owe Him, to have a spiritual worship of Him by His truth (because He is Spirit and Truth) that is not guided by the material, idolatrous, and carnal approaches by which we are so prone to follow and which profanes His worship.
Calvin, commenting on this command, said, “we dishonour him when we liken his infinite essence to a small piece of wood, stone or silver (Isa. 40:18-20; 41:7; 45:20; 46:5-7). Paul reasons similarly in his sermon to the Athenians. ‘Since we are God’s offspring,’ he says, ‘we ought not to think that his divinity is like gold, silver, sculpted stone or anything which is made by the art of man (Acts 17:29). It is clear from this that every statue [or drawing, or painting] made to represent God is repugnant to him, being an affront to his majesty,” (1541 Institutes, p. 124-5).
Isaiah 40:18 says, “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto Him?” And a’Brakel expands upon this argument by drawing from Romans 1:23: “And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.” The true image of God is not to be found in the world.
We are simply to study and to learn, to think upon His Word, and to worship within His terms. All images are speculative, assumptive, and presumptuous. It is an authorial act to fill in what is not in the Book, and its meaning is significant. The Bible does not give us a description of Christ’s physical form, nor of the Father because he is immaterial, and when we draw Jesus or God, we use a presumptuous and assumptive approach, and we will falsify it every time. It communicates all kinds of things that the Bible does not.
God does have images- we are His images. The call is to you, not a painting or sculpture, only God can point to images of Himself. God has not given us the prerogative to make images, but if we want an image of God, be godly.
So, how is it that God gives Himself to us? What manner are we to approach Him?
All the ceremonies that God provided in the Old Testament that followed the giving of the 10 Commandments in Exodus and Leviticus, like: the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy seat, the altar, incense burning, showbread, the priests, etc., were mediatorial (something in between God and man) provisions of approaching God that represented and foreshadowed Christ. All of it was a ceremonial order to present Christ, the true Mediator- He is the fulfillment of all the ceremonial worship, and it is through Christ where God meets with His people. All worship of God is only acceptable through the Mediator, even in the Old Testament because those ceremonial provisions pointed to the Messiah; any impulse to approach Him through a manner that we manufacture or any other means that He’s provided is an anti-Christ and anti-grace manner because Christ Himself is that provision. The dynamic is always God-to-us. He is the one who provides, condescends, and appoints.
The Regulative Principle
We cannot devise a way to reach God, He has given it to us, and it is now presented to us by the order that Scripture has laid out for us. This leads us to a thing called the “regulative principle” of worship. The regulative principle basically states that whatever is not prescribed in Scripture for worship is not permitted.
A narrower definition- no element of worship that is not set forth in Scripture should be added as a fundamental or necessity for worship, nor should any added circumstance be presented in a manner that detracts from the fundamentals, nor should any prescribed element of worship as described in Scripture be neglected or subtracted.
The Westminster Larger Catechism answer 109 says, “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God Himself.” The historical, Reformed tradition qualifies this prescription by distinguishing between “elements” of worship and “circumstances.” An element is something that is certainly prescribed in Scripture (like preaching the Word), and a circumstance is the manner in how it is carried out (like what time of day on the Sabbath the people should meet to hear the preaching of the Word).
Some things are clearly prescribed as a necessary element of corporate worship through explicit commands, approved examples, and theological inference, like: preaching the Word, keeping sound doctrine, prayer, singing psalms, administration of the sacraments, offerings, and meeting on a regular basis. Because we are under the same administration of grace, Apostolic precedence can have a prescriptive force if we see it as an example for us to follow or we find ourselves in a similar situation. Other things are more difficult to discern because they are no so clear. The matters of circumstance, as per Westminster Confession 1.6, may be necessary to be discerned by the good and necessary consequence deduced by the prudent use of the light of nature, insofar as it does not contradict Scripture. In other words, human reason within the parameters of Scripture. There are things that are for sure to be carried through the centuries, but thinks like the meeting time, the length, the language, wine v. grape juice, padded seats or not padded seats, color of the carpet, if a bell is to be rung, etc., are up to the light of nature, or sanctified wisdom.
For example, if one were to argue that instrumentation is prescribed, then the type of instrument is circumstantial. However, with sanctified wisdom, we are to determine whether or not the circumstance is conducive to worship. Not all things are conducive to the congregation’s worship, like punk/rock music, or Psalm 2 in the style of Slayer- because, A: this style is not written for a congregation to sing, but it is written for performance and therefore would not translate well, if at all, and B: it brings up the important cultural/contextual notion of “contamination by association” that may be discussed in a later blog.
There are those, like John Frame, who argue that since Scripture is to be our only guide in worship and in life, and all is to be done to the glory of God, then the regulative principle ought to be applied to the entire week, since all of life is essentially worship. Therefore, whatever application of this single, stretched regulative principle we have through the week should be also applied to the Sabbath so that we may be consistent in it (Frame, Doctrine of the Christian life, p. 473-475). In other words, there should not be much of a difference in how the regulative principle is applied throughout the week versus on the day set apart for rest, worship, and reflection.
However, I would have to partly disagree with this notion because it does not take into account the 4th command. Having this view may cause us to be overly relaxed on our Sabbath observance where we ought to give more prudent attention. There is to be a point where the Sabbath day ought to be given more care and attention because not all of life is “worship” in the strict sense, but it is worshipful. If all of life was worship in the strict sense, we would not be able to get anything done throughout the week. The public worship and its day of meeting should be guarded from the intrusions of every day life in order for it to be a day that is truly set apart and taken up with rest and worship/meditation upon God. So, perhaps it could be argued that there are two regulative principles, one for the corporate worship, and the other for the worshipful-ness of life. Or that under the one notion of the regulative principle, there are two stipulations- one for everyday life, and the other for the formal worship of God. Or one could say that this regulative principle only applies to the corporate worship of God.
Wherever that line is drawn, a’Brakel closes us with some virtues that are enjoyed by this command: “The virtues enjoined in this command are, first of all, the full surrender of one’s self to the service of God in all things, with all things, and at all times… Secondly, the serving of God according to His will; that is, our entire conduct is to be governed by the will of God as revealed to us in His Word… Thirdly, the serving of God with the soul; that is, with the spirit, in a spiritual manner, and with the intellect, will, and affections… Fourthly, the serving of God with a perfect heart; that is, without a divided heart, having and seeking something in addition to God… Fifthly, the serving of God with a joyful zeal; that is, it must not be a burden, but a delight, rejoicing in the fact that God as yet wishes to be served by us.. Sixthly, the opposing of false religion and eradication of idols and images. Everyone must do so according to his station,” (3:116-117).
Disclaimer: The content of this series is drawn from much of my notes of Dr. Bruce Baugus’ lectures. The language and arguments are adjusted to fit an easier reading flow, the content is catered to my writing style, and may not always accurately reflect Dr. Baugus’ sentiments or statements. Other sources are also used to draw in information.