True and False Worship

Introductory Essay by Kevin Reed

The Protestant Reformation was a conflict over many critical issues. Of all the issues contested between Romanists and Reformers, no issue was more crucial than the question of true worship.

John Knox displayed a preeminent concern for worship. Throughout his ministry, the Reformer proclaimed the scriptural law of worship: all forms of worship (and all religious ceremonies) must possess clear scriptural warrant, if they are to be admitted as valid means of worship. This concept has subsequently been called the regulative principle of worship, because it regulates our approach to God in worship.

The Beginning of Knox’s Ministry

After Knox’s first sermon, he and John Rough were called before a convention of papal clerics to answer for certain doctrines which the Protestants had espoused. Among the doctrines in dispute were Protestant claims that “the pope is an Antichrist,” and “the Mass is abominable idolatry.” A key point of contention was the Reformer’s position that “man may neither make nor devise a religion that is acceptable to God; but man is bound to observe and keep the religion that from God is received, without chopping or changing thereof.”[1]

This last point hit at the central issue by asserting the limits of church power. The issue soon became the focal point of the discussion. The subprior asked Knox, “Why may not the church, for good causes, devise ceremonies to decor the sacraments, and others [of] God’s services?”

Knox replied, “Because the kirk ought to do nothing but in faith: and ought not to go before, but is bound to follow the voice of the true Pastor.” Later during the exchange, Knox added:

It is not enough that man invents a ceremony, and then gives it a signification, according to his pleasure. But if anything proceeds from faith, it must have the word of God for the assurance; for you are not ignorant that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Now, if you will prove that your ceremonies proceed from faith, and do please God, you must prove that God in expressed words has commanded them; or else you shall never prove that they proceed from faith, nor yet that they please God; but they are sin, and do displease him, according to the words of the apostle, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.”[2]

When the subprior attempted to divert the discussion from the main issue, Knox responded with a scriptural rebuttal. Says Knox, “May we cast away what we please, and retain what we please? If it be well remembered, Moses, in the name of God, says to the people of Israel, ‘All that the Lord thy God commands you to do, that do thou to the Lord thy God: add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it.’ By this rule think I that the kirk of Christ will measure God’s religion, and not by that which seems good in their own eyes.”[3]

A friar then sought to establish the validity of papal ceremonies by alluding to 1 Cor. 3:11-12, claiming that the ceremonies had withstood the refiner’s fire, because they had endured for such a long time. Knox seized the same text and used it to disarm his opponents. Knox proved from scripture that the things which pass through the refiner’s fire are those which are established by the written word of God; and, further, the written word actually militates against the ceremonies.

“God’s word condemns your ceremonies; therefore they do not abide the trial thereof,” asserted Knox. He then provided a paraphrased reference to Deuteronomy 4:

That God’s word damns your ceremonies it is evident; for the plain and straight commandment of God is, “Not that thing which appears good in thy eyes shalt thou do to the Lord thy God, but what the Lord thy God has commanded thee; that do thou; add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it.” Now unless you are able to prove that God has commanded your ceremonies, this his former commandment will damn both you and them.[4]

Knox’s understanding of worship is thereby founded upon the abiding validity of the law of God. It also guards the prerogative of Christ, as Head of the church, to govern the church strictly by his word.

The Idolatry of the Mass

In 1550, Knox produced A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry. As Knox unfolds his arguments against the Mass, he provides an enlarged defence of the regulative principle.

At the beginning of his presentation, the Reformer states a syllogism which undergirds his whole discussion: “All worshipping, honouring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without his own express commandment, is idolatry. The Mass is invented by the brain of man, without any commandment of God. Therefore, it is idolatry.”[5]

Of course, the conclusion of the syllogism is dependent upon the validity of the major premise, and that premise is a statement of the regulative principle of worship. Therefore, the Reformer devotes great energy to providing proofs for the major premise.

After demonstrating the idolatry of the Mass by his first syllogism, Knox proceeds to a second syllogism: “All honouring or service of God whereunto is added a wicked opinion is abomination. Unto the Mass is added a wicked opinion. Therefore it is abomination.” After proving this second syllogism, the Reformer produces even further arguments against the Mass.[6]

Knox never retreats from his view that Roman Catholic worship is idolatry. The Mass is the preeminent expression of Rome’s false worship. Nevertheless, the Reformer does not restrict his comments to the Mass alone. Indeed, he contends, “All the glistering ceremonies of the Papists are very dung, and abomination before God.”[7]

The entire Romish system is corrupt precisely because it constructs its worship upon a faulty foundation: human traditions and the inventions of men. In contrast, Knox always stresses the necessity of scriptural warrant for worship which is acceptable to God:

And the same we affirm of religion, which, if it be pleasing and acceptable unto God, must have his own commandment and approbation for a warrant. Otherwise, it cannot be but odious in his presence, as a thing repugnant to his express commandment, saying, “Not that thing which appears good in thy own eyes shall thou do to the Lord thy God, but what the Lord thy God had commanded thee, that do thou: add nothing to it, diminish nothing from it.”

By this precept of that eternal God—who is immutable, and can command nothing but that which is just—are all people, realms, and nations (that will avow themselves to be the inheritance of the Lord) bound and obliged to measure their religion; not by the example of other realms, neither yet by their own good intention, nor determination of men, but only by the expressed word of God. So that what therein is commanded, ought to be done by the people of God, what appearance or external show of holiness ever it has. And, therefore, have we most justly rejected the rabble of ceremonies which the Papists held for the chief exercise of their religion, as things having no better ground than the invention and consent of men.[8]

Purging Protestant Worship

Roman Catholics were not the only persons to whom Knox addressed admonitions concerning purity of worship. Several times during his life, Knox was also compelled to issue warnings against the Anglican order of worship.

During the reign of Edward VI, Knox served as one of the king’s chaplains. In the autumn of 1552, the English prayer book was undergoing revision, and a controversy developed over the manner of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Prior to the publication of the revised prayer book, the English church had a traditional practice of observing the Lord’s Supper with communicants in a kneeling position. Yet, due to the influence of several Protestant Reformers, there was a growing opinion in favour of changing to “table gesture”—that is, a celebration of the sacrament around a table, with participants sitting as they normally would to receive a meal.

Thomas Cranmer and other bishops preferred the older usage, and therefore a note was added in the new prayer book to mandate a kneeling position. Knox opposed the view of the bishops, since he advocated table gesture. He also declined an appointment as regular minister in the Anglican church. In April 1553, Knox was called before the privy council to explain himself. Among the questions posed to the Reformer was, “If kneeling at the Lord’s Table was not indifferent?”

Of course, kneeling at the Lord’s Supper smacks of Popery, as though recipients are rendering reverence to the elements. In response to the inquiry of the privy council, Knox stated, “That Christ’s action in itself was most perfect, and Christ’s action was done without kneeling; that kneeling was man’s addition or imagination; that it was most sure to follow the example of Christ, whose action was done sitting and not kneeling.”

The lords of the English council engaged in a dispute with Knox over the matter. Finally, they concluded that Knox “was not called of any evil mind; ” but “they were sorry to know him of a contrary mind to the common order. ” Knox answered that “he was more sorry that a common order should be contrary to Christ’s institution.”[9]

The English order again became the subject of conflict during Knox’s pastorate among the English exiles in Frankfurt. The congregation in Frankfurt was formed in the summer of 1554 by Protestant exiles who fled their native country during the reign of Bloody Mary. Knox began his ministry there in the autumn of that year.

When advocates for an Anglican order disrupted Knox’s congregation in Frankfurt, he again invoked the regulative principle to dispel their liturgical claims. The Anglican order included many objectionable elements: the minister’s surplice, appointed lessons, prescribed prayers and fastings, ecclesiastical holidays, observance of communion in a kneeling posture, allowance for private administration of the Lord’s Supper, the use of the sign of the cross in baptism, godfathers making vows in the name of the child at the time of baptism, and the purification of women after childbirth.

Knox decried the Anglican order, saying, “By the word of God we must seek our warrant for the establishing of religion, and without that to thrust nothing into any Christian congregation.” He continued with this rebuke:

Forasmuch as in the English Book were things both superstitious, impure, and imperfect (which he offered to prove before all men), he would not consent that of that church it should be received; and that in case men would go about to burden that free congregation therewith, so oft as he should come in that place (the text offering occasion) he would not fail to speak against it.

Further, Knox affirmed his view that a slackness to reform religion was one reason why God’s anger had been provoked against England.[10]

The issue was not simply a dispute over a few outward ceremonies and forms of worship. Rather, it was a battle between two radically different underlying conceptions of worship. One view contains the very seed of idolatry, because it allows men to fashion worship in a manner of their own choosing. The other view jealously strives to preserve the purity of God’s worship, by admitting only those practices established in scripture.

The Reformation in Scotland

The regulative principle governed Knox’s entire perspective on worship. Consequently, when he had the opportunity to engage in tasks of Reformation, the regulative principle also provided the foundation for building many public standards of Reformed worship.

Knox returned to Scotland in 1559; he was finally able to lead in the work of Reformation in his homeland. First and foremost, the Scottish Reformation was characterized by a purification of worship. Knox continually sought to cleanse the church and the nation from the corruptions of false religion.

Throughout his labours, Knox was fearless in preaching the word of God. In June 1559, Knox headed toward St. Andrews, planning to preach “for reformation to be made there.” When the local papal bishop heard about these plans, he took measures to stop Knox. The bishop’s design was simple: if Knox presented himself to preach at St. Andrews, the Reformer would be saluted with a dozen guns, “whereof the most part should light upon his nose.”[11]

Fully aware of the bishop’s “good mind” toward him, Knox proceeded with his plans to preach, refusing to be intimidated in the slightest way. The Reformer took as his text selections from Matthew and John—passages which describe Christ’s cleansing of the temple. Knox drew parallels between the corruptions in the temple and the contemporary corruptions of Popery. He noted Christ’s actions in order to stress the responsibility of reformation by “those to whom God gives the power and zeal thereto.” Knox’s message was so effective that “the magistrates, the provost and bailies, [as well] as the commonalty for the most part, within the town, did agree to remove all monuments of idolatry, which also they did with expedition.” During the process, the papal priests remained stupefied, “even as dumb as their idols who were burnt in their presence.”[12]

This pattern of Reformation became widespread in Scotland. The word of God was preached in boldness; the people were seriously impressed with their responsibility to purify their worship and service unto the Lord; public manifestations of corrupt worship were removed.

Knox described the conquest of the land with great vigour. “The images were stolen away in all parts of the country; and in Edinburgh was that great idol called St. Giles first drowned in the North Loch, [and] after burnt, which raised no small trouble in the town.” Of course, the Papists did not take too kindly to these activities. “For the friars rowping [croaking] like ravens upon the bishops, the bishops ran upon the queen, who to them was favourable enough, but that she thought it could not stand with her advantage to offend such a multitude as then took upon them the defence of the evangel, and the name Protestants.”[13]

Knox recorded the reformation of St. Johnston: “the places of idolatry of gray and black friars, and of the charterhouse monks, were made equal with the ground; all monuments of idolatry, that could be apprehended, consumed with fire; and priests commanded, under pain of death, to desist from their blasphemous Mass.” An Abbey, 12 miles from St. Andrews, “was reformed, their altars overthrown, their idols, vestments of idolatry, and Mass books, were burnt in their own presence, and they commanded to cast away their monkish [habits].”[14]

The dead idols of Popery were replaced by the living word of God, as true knowledge and pure worship began to flourish. Public services and family devotions exhibited those elements of worship found in scripture: prayer, the reading and preaching of the word, singing of psalms, and the proper administration of the sacraments.

In order to promote true religion, a new Confession of Faith (1560) and Book of Discipline were drawn up. The Book of Discipline asserts the authority of scripture, and it demonstrates that the regulative principle is merely a natural application of the sola scriptura rule of Protestant theology. The explication of the First Head of Doctrine states:

By preaching of the evangel, we understand not only the scriptures of the New Testament, but also of the Old: to wit, the law, prophets, and histories, in which Christ Jesus is no less contained in figure, than we have him now expressed in verity. And, therefore, with the apostle, we affirm that “All scripture inspired of God is profitable to instruct, to reprove, and to exhort.” In which books of Old and New Testaments we affirm that all things necessary for the instruction of the kirk, and to make the man of God perfect, are contained and sufficiently expressed.

By contrary doctrine, we understand whatsoever men, by laws, councils, or constitutions have imposed upon the consciences of men, without the expressed commandment of God’s word: such as be vows of chastity, forswearing of marriage, binding of men and women to several and disguised apparels, to the superstitious observation of fasting days, difference of meat for conscience sake, prayer for the dead; and keeping of holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.[15]

With this concern for purity of worship, it is no wonder that the Scottish Reformation was the most thorough among any of the Protestant nations. Knox lauds this fact: “in how great purity God did establish amongst us his true religion, as well in doctrine as in ceremonies!” Knox extols God’s work among the Scots:

For as touching the doctrine taught by our ministers, and as touching the administration of sacraments used in our churches, we are bold to affirm that there is no realm this day upon the face of the earth that has them in greater purity; yea (we must speak the truth whomsoever we offend), there is none (no realm, we mean) that has them in the like purity. For all others (how sincere ever the doctrine be, that by some is taught) retain in their churches, and the ministers thereof, some footsteps of Antichrist, and some dregs of Papistry. But we (all praise to God alone) have nothing within our churches that ever flowed from that man of sin.[16]

In these last comments, Knox points out an extremely important concept in the work of Reformation. It is not simply a Reformed doctrinal statement that constitutes a Reformed church. Rather, the litmus test is whether these Reformed principles are applied in the practices of the church. The corporate worship of a church is a decisive indicator of its spiritual condition.


The example of Knox stands as a sharp rebuke to Christians in the present day. It illustrates the need to think about our worship.

The church needs to reaffirm the regulative principle of worship. Nothing should be admitted into the worship of God, unless it possesses clear scriptural warrant. This principle is merely an extension of the sola scriptura rule of Protestant theology, as applied in the realm of worship. If we wish to worship God “in spirit, ” then we must worship him “in truth:” that is, in conformity to the truths contained in his word. And it is a fundamental principle of scripture that the Lord is rightly approached in worship only in accordance with his directions for exercises of devotion.

It follows from this principle that the church has some serious housecleaning to do. Protestant churches are presently full of unscriptural devices. Some corruptions have their origin in the practices of Popery: graven images (including those “pictures of Jesus” in educational literature), ecclesiastical holidays, ornate clerical attire, and a growing fascination with elaborate liturgies.

In addition to the corruptions from Rome, Protestants have added a few novelties of their own: altar calls, hymns of dubious origin, grandiose musical concerts and solo performances (plus other forms of entertainment)—even puppet shows have been known to find a place in worship services! And these are simply some of the more obvious violations of the scriptural law of worship.

In addition to purging the church of false worship, there is a need to promote the ordinary elements of true worship which will glorify God and edify the congregation. The Westminster Confession (21:5) mentions these elements: prayer, the reading of the scriptures, sound preaching, singing of psalms, and the proper administration of the sacraments. In contemporary churches, prayer meetings have become mere social gatherings; the reading of the scriptures and preaching are often performed in a sullen and drab manner; scriptural psalms, in praise of God, have virtually disappeared; and the sacraments are sometimes treated as a mere afterthought to the “ regular” service. How tragic! The church has spurned the precious ordinances of God. It is time to rebuild the walls of Zion.

Typically, a fascination with religious ceremonies is an indication of a decline in gospel preaching. Conversely, sound preaching is a powerful instrument in the cause of Reformation. Pastors need to confront their congregations with lively preaching; and church members need to approach the services in a prepared and attentive manner.

Finally, it is important to realize the primacy of pure worship. On an individual level, there is nothing more important. Knox saw that human innovation in worship is the very seed of idolatry. He took it very seriously because idolatry “separates man altogether from God.”[17]

In the modern pluralistic age, the church has lost a sense of the immorality of false worship. False religious beliefs and practices are not simply academic differences; they are moral corruptions which destroy the souls of men. This truth should pro vide the church with a sense of urgency to confront men, and call them to repent from their false worship.

The primacy of worship has tremendous ramifications on the corporate level as well. In America today, from diverse places, we hear cries for revival, church renewal, a new Reformation, and the Christian reconstruction of society. What is often overlooked, amidst these various desires, is an appropriate regard for the primacy of pure worship.

Contemporary social reformers frequently join hands with Papists, Pelagians, Charismatics, Mormons, and other infidels, in an attempt to save the nation. Yet, God’s blessings should not be sought by forging a “conservative” political coalition composed of an assortment of idolaters. Says Knox, “But vain it is to crave reformation in manners where the religion is corrupted. For like as a man cannot do the office of a man, except first he have a being or a life, so to work works pleasant in the sight of God the Father can no man do without the Spirit of the Lord Jesus, which does not abide in the hearts of idolaters.”[18]

In closing, let us hear the words of John Knox, calling us to the preeminent concern for true worship:

The matter is not of so small importance, as some suppose. The question is, whether God or man ought to be obeyed in matters of religion? In mouth, all do confess that only God is worthy of sovereignty. But after many—by the instigation of the devil, and by the presumptuous arrogance of carnal wisdom and worldly policy—have defaced God’s holy ordinance, men fear not to follow what laws and common consent (mother of all mischief) have established and commanded. But thus continually I can do nothing but hold, and affirm all things polluted, yea, execrable and accursed, which God by his word has not sanctified in his religion. God grant you his Holy Spirit rightly to judge.[19]


1. John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland, in The Works of John Knox (Ed. by David Laing; Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895), 1:194.

2. Knox, Works, 1:195-96.

3. Knox, Works, 1:196-97. Cf. Calvin, The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church, in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters (Ed. by Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 3:262-63.

4. Knox, Works, 1:199. Cf. Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, in Tracts, 1:128-29.

5. Knox, Works, 1:34; see pp. 2-16 below.

6. Knox, Works, 3:52; see pp. 17-32 below. Cf. Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, in Tracts, 1:167-69.

7. Knox, Marginal notation to the second edition of A Godly Letter of Warning or Admonition to the Faithful in London, Newcastle, and Berwick (1554), in Works, 3:183.

8. Knox, An Answer to a Letter Written by James Tyrie, A Scottish Jesuit (1572), in Works, 6:488; cf. 6:498.

9. Knox, Works, 3:86-87. For an excellent treatment of Knox’s role in the English Reformation, consult Peter Lorimer, John Knox and the Church of England: His Work in Her Pulpit and His Influence upon Her Liturgy, Articles, and Parties (London: Henry S. King, 1875).

10. A Narrative of the Proceedings and Troubles of the English Congregation at Frankfurt on the Maine (1554-55), in Knox, Works, 4:32-33; cf. 4:161.

11. Knox, History, in Works, 1:348.

12. Knox, History, in Works, 1:348-50; “Letter to Mrs. Anna Locke” (1559), Works, 6:25.

13. Knox, History, in Works, 1:256-57.

14. Knox, Letter to Mrs. Anna Locke (1559), Works, 6:23, 26.

15. Knox, History, in Works, 2:185-86. [The present publisher has produced a new edition of the First and Second Books of Discipline (a loose-leaf publication; Dallas, 1993).] The Scottish Reformation brought a rejection of all ecclesiastical holidays (other than the Lord’s day). In Book 5 of The History of the Reformation in Scotland, Knox’s continuator wrote: “in the keeping of some festival days our church assented not; for only the sabbath-day was kept in Scotland.” (Works, 2:534). In another place, Knox referred to “that day which men call Good Friday,” thereby indicating his disapproval of the significance attached to the day (Works, 6:140).

16. Knox, History, in Works, 2:263-64.

17. Knox, An Epistle to the Inhabitants of Newcastle and Berwick (1558), in Works, 5:487.

18. Knox, A Letter to the Queen Dowager, Regent of Scotland (1556), in Works, 4:81.

19. Knox, “Letter to Mrs. Anna Locke” (1559), in Works, 6:14.

Go to The Mass Is Idolatry by John Knox

Copyright © 1988, 1994 by Kevin Reed
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