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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.


Does it matter how the elements of worship are practiced? Can a biblical element such as preaching be presented in the form of dance?

As we said earlier, the “forms” refers to how elements of worship are practiced. Under the Regulative Principle we are free to change the form of an element with a few exceptions. Take for example the element of preaching. Preaching is given to us in Scripture by command, example, and principle. Each time preaching appears in the Scriptures it is practiced in the form of speech. Preaching itself, at its most basic level, is speech about the God of the Gospel. It is never given to us in any other form. Therefore to change the form of preaching from words to dancing is to fundamentally alter preaching in a way that makes it something entirely different. Preaching is an example of a biblical element of worship in which the form is essential to the element. Therefore you could say the form is mandated by the nature of the element.

As long as we do not alter an element by altering the form of the element we are free to use creative new forms. For example we are free to “devote” ourselves “to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13) by reading one chapter at a time, reading responsively, or reading overtop the rhythmic finger picking of an acoustic guitar player.

So as exciting as it might be to see your pastor do an interpretive dance, it still would not qualify as biblical preaching.

How does the Regulative Principle work?

Before we can discuss how the Regulative Principle works we must have a common understanding of the vocabulary being used. “Elements” are the parts of the worship service such as singing, praying, reading Scripture, collecting an offering, and preaching. The elements are the “what” of worship. “Forms” refers to how those elements are practiced. For example, the element of an offering may be practiced in the form of members bringing their tithes to the front of the sanctuary or it may be practiced in the form of passing a collection plate. Forms are the “how” of worship. Everything else in the worship service such as the announcements, the pews, or the air-conditioning are the “circumstances” of worship. (We will examine circumstances tomorrow.) With these definitions we are now ready to discuss how this idea works.

The Philadelphia Confession of 1742 describes the Regulative Principle with these words, “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” (Chapter 22, Paragraph 1) [Emphasis added] According to this statement acceptable worship is first comprised of the elements God has instituted in Scripture and second limited only to those elements. No more and no less is the idea of the Regulative Principle.

Because all of the proper elements of worship are contained in Scripture we need to know how to go about finding them. As everyone instinctively knows, not every activity described in Scripture is an element of worship. For example prostitution, gambling, and even murder are not acceptable elements of worship even though they are described in Scripture and may even be described in the context of (false) worship. For true worship we must carefully, precisely examine if elements are instituted by: 1) a command pertaining to worship, 2) an example set for our imitation in worship, or 3) a principle from Scriptures for worship.

These three words: command, example, and principle are time tested guides. They have been used to order the Church’s worship for hundreds of years. For example the preacher Jeremiah Burroughs (d. 1646) not only used these three ideas but taught them and the Regulative Principle to his congregation. In his powerful sermon Drawing Nigh Unto God Burroughs writes, “But when we come to matters of religion and the worship of God, we must either have a command or something out of God’s Word drawn from some command wherein God manifests His will, either by a direct command, or by comparing one thing with another, or drawing consequences plainly from the words.” Jeremiah’s directions to us will take time, consistency, hard work but the rewards of knowing Scripture better, understanding the mind of Christ more clearly, and bringing pleasing worship before God are more than enough reward. Anyone who leads or plans worship should ask themselves, “Are the elements of our worship those pleasing to God as he has instituted in Scripture by command, example, or principle?”

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