Question 14 May not the church find out, and appoint to be observed, such religious rites as, being adjoined unto the celebration of God’s instituted worship, may further the devotion of the worshippers, and render the worship itself in its performance more decent, beautiful, and orderly, as the appointing of images, and the like?

Answer All acceptable devotion in them that worship God is the effect of faith, which respects the precepts and promises of God alone. And the comeliness and beauty of gospel worship consisteth in its relation unto God by Jesus Christ, as the merciful high priest over his house, with the glorious administration of the Spirit therein. The order also of it lieth in the due and regular observation of all that Christ hath appointed. And therefore all such inventions are in themselves needless and useless, and, because forbidden, unlawful to be observed.

Rom. 1:21,14:23; Heb. 4:2,11:4,6; Deut. 13:4,27:10,30:2,8,20,11:27; Matt. 17:5; Isa. 29:13; Eph. 2:18; 2 Cor. 3:7-11; Heb. 10:19-22; John 4:21-23; 1 Cor. 14:25; Matt. 28:20; Exod. 20:4; Deut. 4:2; Matt. 15:13; Deut. 12:32, 17:3.

Explication — Three things are usually pleaded in the justification of the observance of such rites and ceremonies in the worship of God: —

First, That they tend unto the furtherance of the devotion of the worshippers; secondly, That they render the worship itself comely and beautiful; thirdly, That they are the great preservers of order in the celebration thereof. And therefore on these accounts they may be instituted or appointed by some, and observed by all.

But things are indeed quite otherwise: “God is a Spirit, and will be worshipped in spirit and in truth,” John 4:24. And no devotion is acceptable unto him, but what proceedeth from and is an effect of faith; for “without faith it is impossible to please God,” Heb. 11:6. And faith in all things respects the commands and authority of God; for saith he, “In vain do they worship me, who teach for doctrines the commandments of men,” Matt. 15:9; and he rejecteth all that honour which is given him by those whose fear towards him or worship of him is “taught by the precepts of men,” Isa. 29:13.

These things, therefore, being utterly destitute of divine authority, they can no way further or promote the devotion of the worshippers.

What natural or carnal affections may be excited by them, — as men may “inflame themselves with idols,” Isa. 57:5, — or what outward, outside devotion they may direct unto or excite, is uncertain; but that they are no means of stirring up the grace of God in the hearts of believers, or of the increase or strengthening of their faith, — which things alone God accepts in gospel worship, — seeing they are not appointed by him for any such purpose, is most certain: for to say that any thing will effectually stir up devotion, — that is, excite, strengthen, or increase grace in the heart towards God, — that is not of his own appointment, is on the one hand to reflect on his wisdom and care towards his church, as if he had been wanting towards it in things so necessary, which he declares against, Isa. 5:4, “What,” saith he, “could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” — so on the other, it extols the wisdom of men above what is meet to ascribe unto it.

Shall men find out that which God would not, or could not, in matters of so great importance unto his glory and the souls that obey him?  Yea, and it cannot be but that attendance unto them and their effects must needs divert the mind from those proper spiritual actings of faith and grace which is its duty to attend unto. And this is evidently seen in them who, indulging to themselves in their observation in multiplied instances, as in the church of Rome, have changed the whole spiritual worship of the church into a theatrical, pompous show of carnal devotion.

Secondly, The comeliness and beauty of gospel worship doth not in the least depend upon them nor their observation. The apostle doth in sundry places expressly compare the spiritual worship of the gospel with that of the law, whilst the church had a worldly sanctuary and carnal ordinances, Heb. 9:1. And although it be most evident that the worship of the Old Testament did, for the glory and ornaments of outward ceremonies, and the splendour of their observation, far exceed and excel that worship which God commands now, as suitable unto the simplicity of the gospel, yet doth the apostle prefer this, for glory, comeliness, and beauty, unspeakably above the other; which manifests that these things can have no respect unto outward rites and ceremonies, wherein the chief admirers of them can no way vie for glory with the old worship of the temple. So the apostle, 2 Cor. 3:7-11, “If the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: how shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.  For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.”

He compareth the two ministrations and the several worships of the law and gospel, preferring this unspeakably above the other, sufficiently manifesting that the glory of it consisteth not in any pompous observance of outward ceremonies.

And elsewhere he declareth that indeed it doth consist in its relation to God in Christ, with the liberty and boldness of the worshippers to enter into the holy place, unto the throne of grace, under the ministry of their merciful and faithful high priest, being enabled thereunto by the Spirit of adoption and supplications; for therein, “through Christ, we have access by one Spirit unto the Father,” Eph. 2:18; as it is expressed, Heb. 10:19-21, “Having therefore boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the vail, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”

This is the glory of gospel worship and the beauty of it; whose consideration whilst the minds of men are diverted from, to look for beauty in the outward preparation of ceremonies, they lose the privilege purchased for believers by the blood of Christ.

Instead, then, of furthering the beauty and comeliness of gospel worship, they are apt to lead men into a dangerous error and mistake, — as, upon a due consideration, will appear to be mean and carnal, and far beneath those ceremonies and ordinances of the Old Testament, which yet, in comparison of the worship of the gospel, are called “worldly, carnal, beggarly,” and are said to have “no glory.”

Thirdly, They do not in the least tend unto the preservation of due order in the celebration of divine worship. All order consists in the due observation of rule. The rules of actions are either natural or of his special appointment.

Both these take place in religious worship; the institutions or commands of Christ containing the substance thereof, in their observation principally consists the order of it.

Whatever is of circumstance in the manner of its performance, not capable of especial determination, as emerging or arising only occasionally, upon the doing of that which is appointed at this or that time, in this or that place, and the like, is left unto the rule of moral prudence, in whose observation their order doth consist.

But the superaddition of ceremonies necessarily belonging neither to the institutions of worship nor unto those circumstances whose disposal falls under the rule of moral prudence, neither doth nor can add any thing unto the due order of gospel worship; so that they are altogether needless and useless in the worship of God.

Neither is this the whole of the inconvenience wherewith their observance is attended; for although they are not in particular and expressly in the Scripture forbidden, — for it was simply impossible that all instances wherein the wit of man might exercise its invention in such things should be reckoned up and condemned, — yet they fall directly under those severe prohibitions which God hath recorded to secure his worship from all such additions unto it, of what sort soever.

Yea, the main design of the second precept is to forbid all making unto ourselves any such things in the worship of God, to add unto what he hath appointed; whereof an instance is given in that of making and worshipping images, the most common way that the sons of men were then prone to transgress by against the institutions of God.

And this sense and understanding of the commandment is secured by those ensuing prohibitions against the adding any thing at all unto the commands of God in his worship: Deut. 4:2, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God.” Deut. 12:32, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it;” Deut. 17:3.

To the same purpose were the places before mentioned, Matt. 15:9, etc.; as also that severe rule applied by our Saviour unto the additions of the Pharisees, verse 13, “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.”

And there is yet farther evidence contributed unto this intention of the command, from those places where such evils and corruptions as were particularly forbidden in the worship of God are condemned, not on the special account of their being so forbidden, but on that more general, of being introduced without warrant from God’s institutions or commands: Jer. 7:31, “They have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and daughters in the fire;  which I commanded not, neither came it into my heart.” Jer. 19:5, “They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind.”

These things were particularly forbidden; but yet God here condemns them as coming under the general evil of making additions unto his commands, — doing that which he commanded not, nor did it ever enter into his heart.

The papists say, indeed, that all additions corrupting the worship of God are forbidden, but such as further, adorn, and preserve it are not so; which implies a contradiction, for whereas every addition is principally a corruption because it is an addition, under which notion it is forbidden (and that in the worship of God which is forbidden is a corruption of it), there can be no such preserving, adorning addition, unless we allow a preserving and adorning corruption.

Neither is it of more force which is pleaded by them, that the additions which they make belong not unto the substance of the worship of God, but unto the circumstances of it; for every circumstance observed religiously, or to be observed in the worship of God, is of the substance of it, as were all those ceremonious observances of the law, which had the same respect in the prohibitions of adding with the most weighty things whatsoever.

The Life and Works of John Owen Vol.15