Mount Gerizim

Mount Gerizim from John 4:20

Is there a Biblical basis for the Regulative Principle?

There is an idea present in our churches today that we may do almost anything we desire in worship as long as we find it meaningful and do it with the correct motives of a pure heart. We may even defend our chosen elements from those questioning us by saying, “They do not know my motives” or “Only God can judge my heart.” But this is not a proper reason to worship God as we see fit. The Scriptures tell us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The implied answer (and the answer of the following verse) to this question is, “No one but God can understand it.” We ourselves cannot understand our hearts. They are desperately sick and always trying to deceive us; that we might not understand the depth of our own rebellion against God or worse; that we might even justify it as God honoring. How hard it is for us to examine our own hearts! They cannot be trusted by us meaning they cannot be our authority for how we should worship. Instead we need God himself to tell us what is acceptable worship.

In Matthew 15:8-9 Jesus speaks of the heart. He says that, “their heart is far from [God]; in vain do they worship [God].” Their vain worship is then described as adding “the commandments of men” to the already sufficient instruction of God. With their lips they honored God, maybe not even realizing their hearts had added to the instruction of God making their worship unacceptable to him. This is not how we want to worship God.

But Jesus again speaks of worship in John 4:20-26. This time he is speaking to a woman, of the Samaritans who had split themselves from the Jews. The Samaritans had added to God’s instruction and moved the center of their worship from Jerusalem to Mount Gerizim. Here they whole heartily intended to correctly worship the one true God. Instead Jesus condemns their worship by saying to them, “You worship what you do not know.” He then defines worship for the coming New Testament church by saying, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” [Emphasis added] Acceptable worship to God is worship in the truth revealed to us by Scripture.

None of this is new. God has always intended that he be worshiped as he sees fit without the addition of new elements. And it makes sense: if anyone knows best how God should be worshiped it is God himself! In Genesis 4, Cain offers to God the “fruit of the ground” while his brother Abel, in light of the animal sacrifice of Genesis 3:21, offers “the firstborn of his flock.” We are told God accepted Abel and his offering, “but for Cain and his offering he had no regard;” [Emphasis added] asking him “If you do well, will you not be accepted?”As this shows, God rejects forms of worship (Cain’s offering) he has not ordained.

Later at the giving of the Law which is to guide the worship of Israel, the prophet Moses says to the people, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it.” (Deuteronomy 4:2) Eight chapters later in the explicit context of rules for worship, Moses says, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:29-32) The same command is repeated numerous other times in Joshua 1:7 and again in Joshua 23:6-8 where it is dealing directly with the purity of Israel’s worship.

But the most starting Scripture dealing with the Regulative Principle may be in Leviticus 10:1-3. We are told that “Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them.” [Emphasis added] But the interesting thing to notice is this: nowhere had God previously instructed Nadab and Abihu not to offer unauthorized fire. How were they to avoid this error? It was not prohibited by Scripture! How were they to know they could not offer this fire? Simply, God expected them to worship only according to his revelation without adding a single thing. As the story goes God demonstrated the seriousness of his concern for not adding to his worship. “And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron held his peace.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)

It is not a trivial thing to augment God’s worship. As the Scriptures teach us we should take this principle very seriously. We cannot add to worship because “our hearts are in the right place;” our hearts are deceitful. We cannot add to worship because we believe God will be glorified by it; only God decides how he wants to be worshiped. And it is The Regulative Principle that keeps us from such error. It helps us to discern the proper elements by command, example, and principle and frees us to offer God only those elements which we know are pleasing to him. It frees us from constantly evolving, exhausting, deadening, man-centered, and God diminishing worship.