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Images in Worship

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex. 20:4).

- Exodus 20:4–6

From the time of John Calvin onward, Reformed theology has generally emphasized the Law as the delight of the redeemed heart. Others focus on the contrast between the old and new covenants, but Calvinists typically highlight the continuity between these two dispensations of the one covenant of grace.

This respect for the Law entails an ethic based largely on the Ten Commandments. However, even though all Reformed Christians understand the importance of the Decalogue, there has been debate within our tradition on how to interpret the second commandment, which is found in today’s passage. Puritan thought, embodied in the Westminster Confession of Faith, tends to believe this dictate prohibits all visual depictions of humans, animals, and other things in the sanctuary. On the other hand, Reformed believers of continental European heritage have more often affirmed the propriety of art for use in corporate praise.

Evangelicals can legitimately differ on this issue, but we stand with the continental Reformed for several reasons. First, the law of Moses prohibiting images also commands them to be constructed in the tabernacle (25:17–22). This tells us the second commandment more addresses the worship of images than their existence. Secondly, among the first believers filled with the Holy Spirit were the artists who built the tabernacle (31:1–11). Visual beauty is thus blessed by the Lord for use in worship. Finally, lovely artwork can help us sanctify the time and space of our corporate gatherings. The priestly garments were made with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet dyes (28:6), all costly colors in the ancient world. Including these materials conveyed a deep sense of God’s worth to ancient Israel.

The Lord is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17), and so the divine image cannot be pictured. Yet Scripture allows for images that depict the humanity of Jesus as well as pictures of redemptive events and themes in our churches. These can be idolatrously abused, but the solution is not the disuse of images. Instead, the answer is the right use of beautiful art that bears witness to the loveliness of Christ.

Coram Deo

We have so far briefly discussed the beauty for which the priestly garments were made. These clothes reveal that we should be concerned with how we look and act when we worship the Lord. Of course, God does not require a certain kind of dress, but even those who believe art is not fit for the sanctuary can agree that how we dress reflects what we think of worship. When you go to worship, consider how your clothing reflects your attitude towards God.

Passages for Further Study

Lev. 19:4
Ezek. 41:15b–20
Matt. 21:12–17
Rom. 1:18–23

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.