The Regulative Principle of Worship – a short treatise
From the dawn of time God teaches us that there is a correct way to worship Him and an incorrect way. There is true worship and false worship. The consequences are dire otherwise. Adam, before he was cursed, was naturally thankful and able to glorify God (Romans 1:18), simply by looking at God’s creation (Psalm 19:1). Yet, he was given special instruction from God on what he should do and what he shouldn’t do to please God. Adam was to be fruitful and multiply and rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28). He was not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Thus with special revelation, God communicates to us what is good in His sight, what is abhorrent. In this case, Adam sinned and brought in the curse, pronouncing death on all mankind.
Later on (Genesis 4:5-7) Abel and Cain worship God. Here, the appropriate way to worship God was with various firstfruits of their produce, accompanied by a sincere faith. Cain did not have this faith, thus his sacrifice was abhorred. Abel had faith and this pleased God (Hebrews 11:4-6). The consequence of not worshiping God correctly was rampant jealousy, hatred and murder.
True Worship is always instituted by God
If God is holy (divine, separate, high above) and righteous (morally perfect) He will abhor evil and cannot bear to even look on wickedness (Habakkuk 1:13). There ought to be a specific way to approach unto Him which pleases Him. If earthly monarchs required intricate manners of obeisance and precise rituals for approaching them, how much more God? But if God remained silent, then we would not know how to please Him! Praises be to God that He did not withhold Himself, but revealed to us how to worship Him.
Since the human heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9) it is unsurprising that cursed man, even in his ultimate intellectual endeavours cannot gain understanding of the True God (1 Corinthians 1:20-21). Moreover he knows that there is a true God since he is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and the creation bears witness against him (Romans 1:19-21). Yet man perverts the rightful worship of His Creator into foolish worship of created things (Romans 1:21-23). Thus, cursed man cannot please God (Romans 8:8) in anything we do, let alone worship Him correctly. Without the special revelation from God teaching us how we ought to relate to Him, we perish (Proverbs 29:18).
God being rich in mercy did not leave us blinded by our sin. He revealed Himself through prophets in the past, and came to us in flesh as the Lord Jesus in the last days (Hebrews 1:1-2). God spoke to sinful mankind, giving us special revelation. The word of God is what gives us faith in God, and understanding of Him (Romans 10:17). The word of God is what instructs in all things that we may be complete (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Without specific instructions from Him, we simply cannot surmise from our wicked hearts what is pleasing to Him and what is not. This is essentially sola scriptura.
Apart from direct revelation from God, it is true that we have a seared conscience, but its role since the fall is solely to accuse us of sin and prepare us for destruction on the last day. And although there is a secret will of God (Deuteronomy 29:29), God nevertheless reveals to us all that we need to know to worship Him in a way that pleases Him, so that it will be well with us (Deuteronomy 5:33). And whatever He has instructed, we must not add or subtract from it (Deuteronomy 4:2).
Thus the children of Israel were given very specific commandments on how to worship God, from Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These included both positive commands (Exodus 20:12) as well as highly specific prohibitions (Exodus 20:17). Insofar, most evangelical Christians would heartily agree that we ought to worship according to God’s commands and prohibitions. Most would then unknowingly assume that we have a normative principle of worship (NPW). The NPW states that:
a. God is pleased with worship which He has specifically commanded and abhorrent to all that He has prohibited.
b. We should try to do what God has specifically commanded. But some of those things are hard to do or don’t apply to our culture today.
c. What God has not specifically commanded is permissible, so long as it does not infringe on any existing prohibitions.
Some examples of things not prohibited nor specifically commanded, yet are permissible under the NPW:
1. Wednesday night church instead of Sunday
2. A congregational synchronised chewing of apples in the middle of the service in order to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).
3. Incense burnt during congregational prayer, so that there is a visual representation of their ascent.
4. Singing of songs which have theological errors in them
5. Christian interpretive dances
6. Children’s enactments of bible stories
7. Burning of candles
8. Missionary reports, video or lecture
9. Announcements about bible study meetings during the week
Churches applying the NPW would also commonly (but not always) err in:
1. Allowing women to teach, read the scriptures or serve as officers
2. Being seeker-sensitive, making the church more attractive to the world
3. Being less aware of the specific commands of God regarding worship
4. Absence of the singing of psalms
5. Devalue corporate prayer
6. Fail to worship in silence (Eccl 5:2, Habakkuk 2:20), in fear and trembling (Psalm 2:11, 5:7) and hallow His name in our hearts (Leviticus 10:3, Leviticus 22:32, Isaiah 8:13, 1 Peter 3:15, Matthew 6:9, Revelation 4:8, Isaiah 6:3-5)
Interestingly the 9 examples that were permissible according to the NPW, would be prohibited under a regulative principle of worship which the bible teaches.
What is the Regulative principle of Worship? (RPW)
“Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, saying:
‘By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.’”
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.’”
So Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
The context is Leviticus chapters 1 to 9. The various burnt offerings are detailed with instructions both to the general people and to the sons of Aaron. Regarding fire and incense, there were commands given:
1. “The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar, and lay the wood in order on the fire.” (Leviticus 1:7)
2. “Aaron shall burn on it (the altar of incense) sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it.” (Exodus 30:7)
3. “A fire shall always be burning on the altar; it shall never go out.” (Leviticus 6:13)
From the narrative, we also know that a perpetual fire was begun by God one verse preceding this chapter:
“…and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.” (Leviticus 9:24)
This was the fire which was never to extinguish (Lev 6:12-13). The supernatural fire preceding Nadab and Abihu’s profanity could be significant. Possibly in response to the magnificent nature of the fire (from God) and the people’s reaction (they fell back with a great shout!) did Nadab and Abihu invent of their own will a form of worship. Whether this was to capitalise on the supernatural fire to gain favours with God? Or a genuine zeal to get some “super incense” going? Or out of fear that this fire might consume more people if some appeasement wasn’t immediately applied? Who knows.
In Leviticus 8:16 and 9:10 burnt offerings were offered, with the wood likely provided by Aaron’s sons. This means that they knew the commandments of the LORD and were following them. Thus they had not done anything which God had not commanded until now.
So what did they do wrong? They “offered profane fire before the LORD which He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). The explanation for why the fire was profane is quite profound. It was because God had NOT commanded them to offer this particular fire!!! Not because God had specifically prohibited what they did!
Some of the ways they deviated from the positive commands include:
1. Going in two at a time (commandments give singular priest, but there were no prohibitions against multiple priests)
2. Incense burning (God had commanded Aaron to burn incense in Exodus 30:7, yet God had not prohibited anyone else from doing it)
3. They offered fire for no reason that was commanded (not for burnt, wave, peace, nor grain offering… and the incense was not commanded at that time, yet God had not prohibited random offerings of fire)
4. *possibly* not taking fire from outside the tabernacle, when they were supposed to take it from the altar. Again, God had not prohibited taking fire from outside.
But remember, they did not do anything which God had specifically prohibited. It was not as if they ate blood, which was specifically prohibited (Leviticus 3:17). Instead, they had ‘thought up’ another way to worship God which God had not specifically commanded – this is the crux of the Regulative Principle of Worship.
Here we define the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW):
What God has specifically commanded regarding worship is pleasing to Him and thus permissible. We must do what God has commanded in worship. What God has not commanded, is profane and prohibited, deserving of death. God does not have to specifically prohibit something in worship for it to be profane, although He does frequently do so.