True versus False Worship (John Knox and John Calvin)

In this study, we consider some reflections from John Knox and John Calvin, two of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation and founders of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  What is true worship?  And what does it mean to believe in Scripture alone?

John Knox
, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, provides these insights:

    Here is the test for a true versus a manmade religion.  Knox said, “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 it.”[2]

We must neither add to nor subtract from what God has commanded in His Word.  Knox said,

    May we cast away what we please and retain what we please?  If it be well remembered, Moses, in the name of God (speaking the word of God), says to the people of Israel, “All that the Lord your God commands you to do, that do to the Lord your God: add nothing to it nor take away from it.” (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:8, 30-32).  By this rule I think that the church of Christ will measure God’s religion, and not by that which seems good in their own eyes.[3]

What does God think of manmade ceremonies and traditions not found in God’s Word?  Knox declared with boldness:

      God’s word condemns your ceremonies . . . .  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 your eyes shall you do to the Lord your God, but what the Lord your God has commanded you; that do; add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it” (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:8, 30-32).  Now unless you are able to prove that God has commanded your ceremonies, this his former commandment will damn both you and them.[4]

According to John Knox, all manmade or humanly devised worship, all “self-made worship,” (Col. 2:23) is idolatry: “All worshiping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own express commandment, is idolatry.”[5]

Knox believed strongly that Roman Catholic worship, with all its manmade tradition, was idolatry: “All the glistening ceremonies of the Papists are very dung and abomination before God.”[6]

True worship, worship which is acceptable to God, must be founded on what God has commanded in His Word:

     [R]eligion, if it be pleasing and acceptable to God, must have His own commandment and official approval 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 your own eyes shall you do to the Lord your God, but what the Lord your God has commanded you, that do: add nothing to it, diminish nothing from it” (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:8, 30-32).

By this precept of that eternal God who is immutable [unchangeable] 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 peoples, neither yet by their own good intention [Col. 2:23], nor determination of men, but only by the expressed word of God.  So that what is commanded in God’s Word ought to be done by the people of God . . . .  And, therefore, we have most justly rejected the rabble of ceremonies which the Papists held for the chief exercise of their religion, as things which have no better ground than the invention and consent of men.[7]

For John Knox, the issue of true worship ought to be a chief concern of every true Christian:

     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.  With their mouths, all [professing Christians] 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 methods, have defaced God’s holy ordinance, men fear not to follow what laws and common consent (mother to all mischief and nurse most favorable to superstition) have established and commended.  But thus continually I can do nothing but hold and affirm all things polluted, yes, execrable and accursed, which God by His Word has not sanctified [set apart as holy] in His religion.  God grant you His Holy Spirit rightly to judge.[8]

What did John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed churches in Europe, teach about true worship?

In his tract “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,”[9] Calvin argues that true worship and the true doctrine of salvation are the two chief elements of the Christian religion. 

Calvin says that justly and “in order to assert his full right of dominion,” the Lord strictly enjoins “what he wishes us to do, and at once reject[s] all human devices which are at variance with his command.  Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us.” 

He continues:

      I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word.
 The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God.  But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if at variance with his command, what do we gain by a contrary course?  The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”  “In vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Samuel 15:22; Matthew 15:9).  Every addition to his Word, especially in this matter, is a lie.  Mere “will worship” [self-made worship, Colossians 2:23] is vanity.  This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate. (emphasis added)

Calvin believed that the manmade ceremonies observed throughout the churches were “a mere mockery of God.  A new Judaism, as a substitute for that which God had distinctly abrogated, has again been reared up by means of numerous puerile extravagancies, collected from different quarters; and with these have been mixed up certain impious rites, partly borrowed from the heathen, and more adapted to some theatrical show than to the dignity of our religion.” 

How do we determine if worship is true or false?  Calvin says, “. . . the Word of God is the test which discriminates between his true worship and that which is false and vitiated [corrupt].” 

What does God think of manmade traditions and self-made worship?

Calvin writes, “God rejects, condemns, abominates all fictitious worship, and employs his Word as a bridle to keep us in unqualified obedience.  When shaking off this yoke, we wander after our own fictions, and offer to him a worship, the work of human rashness, how much soever it may delight ourselves, in his sight it is vain trifling, nay, vileness and pollution.  The advocates of human traditions paint them in fair and gaudy colors; and Paul certainly admits that they carry with them a show of wisdom; but as God values obedience more than all sacrifices, it ought to be sufficient for the rejection of any mode of worship, that it is not sanctioned by the command of God” (emphasis added).   

According to Calvin, Reformed churches are God-centered, not man-centered.  No superstitions are allowed:

     Since, therefore, in our [Reformed] churches, only God is adored in pious form without superstition; since his goodness, wisdom, power, truth, and other perfections, are there preached more fully than anywhere else; since he is invoked with true faith in the name of Christ, his mercies celebrated both with heart and tongue, and men constantly urged to a simple and sincere obedience; since, in fine, nothing is heard but what tends to promote the sanctification of his name, what cause have those who call themselves Christians to be so inveterate against us?”

Yet, Calvin warns that religious hypocrites cannot tolerate such a reformation of worship:

     . . . loving darkness rather than light, they cannot tolerate the sharpness with which we, as in duty bound, rebuke the gross idolatry which is everywhere beheld in the world.  When God is worshiped in images, when fictitious worship is instituted in his name, when supplication is made to the images of saints, and divine honors paid to dead men’s bones; against these, and similar abominations, we protest, describing them in their true colors.  For this cause, those who hate our doctrine inveigh against us, and represent us as heretics who have dared to abolish the worship of God, as of old approved by the church.”

   . . . we, who have brought back the worship of the one God to the rule of his word—we, who are blameless in this matter, and have purged our churches, not only of idolatry but of superstition also—are accused of violating the worship of God . . .

Calvin continues to speak regarding true worship:

     . . . since as I have observed, God in many passages forbids any new worship unsanctioned by his word; since he declares that he is grievously offended with the presumption which invents such worship, and threatens it with severe punishment; it is clear that the reformation which we have introduced was demanded by a strong necessity. . . .

      I am not unaware how difficult it is to persuade the world that God rejects and even abominates everything relating to his worship that is devised by human reason.  The delusion on this head is owing to several causes:  “Every one thinks highly of his own,” as the old proverb expresses it.  Hence the offspring of our own brain delights us, and besides, as Paul admits, this fictitious worship often presents some show of wisdom [Colossians 2:23].  Then, as it has for the most part an external splendor which pleases the eye, it is more agreeable to our carnal nature, than that which alone God requires and approves, but which is less ostentatious.  But there is nothing which so blinds the understandings of men, and misleads them in their judgments in this matter, as hypocrisy.  For while it is incumbent on true worshipers to give the heart and mind, men are always desirous to invent a mode of serving God of a totally different description, their object being to perform to him certain bodily observances, and keep the mind to themselves.  Moreover, they imagine that when they intrude upon him external pomp, they have, by this artifice, evaded the necessity of giving themselves.  And this is the reason why they submit to innumerable observances which miserably fatigue them without measure and without end, and why they choose to wander in a perpetual labyrinth, rather than worship God simply in spirit and in truth . . . .  (emphasis added)

Calvin’s work of reformation was accused of causing schism or disunity in the church.  He writes, “The last and principal charge which they bring against us is, that we have made a schism in the church.  And here they boldly maintain against us, that in no case is it lawful to break the unity of the church.”   Yet, he notes that “heresies and schisms . . . arise when a return is not made to the origin of truth, when neither the Head is regarded, nor the doctrine of the heavenly Master preserved.” 


[2] 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.
[3] Ibid., 1:196-197.  Cf. John 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; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983), 3:262-263.
[4] Ibid., 1:199.  Cf. Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, in Tracts, 1:128-129. 
[5] Ibid., 3:34.
[6] John 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, note 3. 
[7] John Knox, An Answer to a Letter Written by James Tyrie, A Scottish Jesuit (1572), in Works, 6:488; cf. 6:498. 
[8] John Knox, “Letter to Mrs. Anna Locke” (1559), in Works, 6:14.
[9] John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (1543), trans. Henry Beveridge (1844).  Reprint, Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press (1995).  Electronically retrieved 30 January 2009 at and

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