In an important sense, nearly all of the major theological controversies that have engulfed the church in its history have been arguments over how God is to be worshiped. The heart of the fourth-century Arian controversy had to do with the worship of Christ. The question was, is Christ the incarnate God and thus worthy of worship, or is He a mere creature and thus should not be worshiped? During the Reformation, one of the central questions was whether Mary and the saints are individuals to whom we can pray. Although the Roman Catholic Church denied then and denies today that Mary and the saints are to be worshiped as God is worshiped, the Reformers saw the veneration of the saints as idolatry.
Human beings, we have seen, are worshipers by nature. However, our fallenness means that not every idea we have about worship is going to be a sound one. Our natural propensity apart from divine grace, as seen in Romans 1:18–23, is to engage in explicit idolatry. Yet, passages such as 1 John 5:21 that warn Christians to keep themselves from idols show us that it is at least possible for believers to introduce idolatrous practices into the worship of the one true God. Clearly, we need guidance on how to worship the Lord rightly.
Thankfully, our Lord provides such direction in His Word. In summarizing the key Reformed teaching on worship, Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 states, “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself.” When we look for guidance as to how we are to worship God, we turn to Scripture, for the Word of God is our only infallible guide to faith and life, and in His Word, God has given us the key principles that reveal what is pleasing to Him in worship.
Where do we find these principles in Scripture? Of course, nearly every book in the Bible touches on what it means to worship the Lord properly, but books such as Exodus, Leviticus, and Psalms in particular give us much guidance for what God-honoring worship looks like. Now, at this point we should note that applying the principles found in Scripture is not always easy, and there have been disagreements over how these principles should be applied even within the Reformed tradition. Nevertheless, we cannot go far wrong if we seek to do in worship only that which has biblical warrant or what by good and necessary consequence can be deduced as being in harmony with Scriptural principles.