One of the most noticeable distinctives of the American Presbyterian Church is that we maintain the historic Reformed doctrine of worship. At the time of the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church was steeped in a multitude of traditions of men, many of which were of pagan origin. These unscriptural traditions radically affected the worship conducted by the Church. The Reformers, believing that worship is the highest and most important duty of men, were determined to reestablish the pure and scriptural worship of God. As Christ had foretold in his conversation with the woman at the well, God desires men to worship him in Spirit and in truth.
The Roman Catholic Church to disguise its idolatry had merged the first and second commandments into one and unnaturally split the tenth commandment into two separate commandments. The thrust of this was to limit idolatry to the overt worship of other gods. The second commandment, with its prohibition of worshiping God by means of images and icons, and by inference by any other way not commanded in his word, was totally overlooked. The Reformers rescued the second commandment from its oblivion and based on it developed the “regulative principle of worship”, which taught that in worship only that which God has commanded is allowed. This principle taught that in worship, “whatsoever is not commanded is forbidden.” As a result of applying this principle the church’s worship was radically reformed and brought into conformity with the will of God as revealed in scripture. Not only the Reformed on the continent, following the teachings of Calvin in this regard, but also the Scotch Presbyterians and the English Puritans maintained this principle of worship. In fact the Puritans were called by that name not because of their supposed asceticism as is commonly but mistakenly believed, but because they wanted to purify the Church of England, especially its worship.
The results of applying this test to the worship of Rome was to strip away all the accretions and traditions of men and leave only that which God calls and commands us to do in scripture. The whole ecclesiastical calendar with a multitude of saint’s days and holy days was eliminated. All that was left was the weekly Sabbath, The Lord’s Day, which was set apart for rest and worship. This also eliminated Christmas, Easter, and Lent etc. Unfortunately as the centuries rolled along these principles were forgotten and by the middle of the last century these unscriptural holy days of pagan origin were steadily creeping back into Protestant churches.
Also, since the scriptures command us to sing psalms, and God has given his church the Book of Psalms, as a divinely inspired songbook for its worship, the Reformers restored the Psalms to their rightful place in the worship of God. And since the scriptures nowhere authorize us to compose our own hymns or use such compositions in public worship, (The references to “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in the New Testament refers to the titles of the various selections of the Book of Psalms as used in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament scriptures.) they sang the Psalms exclusively in all public worship services. In fact the first hymn writers were the Gnostics who, rejecting the Psalms, composed their own songs of praise to accompany their heretical doctrines. Similarly since musical instruments were used exclusively in the tabernacle or temple, and were used to accompany the sacrifices, they were also excluded from use in the New Testament Church as there was no scriptural basis for their use with the passing away of the ceremonial law. However by the second half of the last century Robert Lewis Dabney, the famed Southern Presbyterian theologian, was complaining that organs were turning the churches into second rate Sunday theatres. Spurgeon noted that he had no objections to organs in the church as long as they could be neither heard nor seen.
The effect of all this was to leave men with only those spiritual forms of worship that God himself had commanded in his word. Protestant Reformed worship consisted of the reading of the scriptures, the preaching of the scriptures, prayer, singing of psalms, the administration of the only two sacraments given to Christians under the New Covenant, and such days of fasting and thanksgiving as were necessitated by the dispensations of divine providence. This is the only worship that, by the grace of God, you will find in the congregations of the American Presbyterian Church.