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,’”
Question 108 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the duties required in the Second Commandment?” It gives the answer, “The duties required in the Second Commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one's place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.” Last week we saw why the Ten Commandments are numbered differently by various groups. This week we examine the regulative principle of worship.
Have you ever wondered whether or not your worship pleases God? Because we are sinners the only way we can come before God to worship and serve Him is through Jesus Christ. Our best works and our most sincere intentions are in themselves sinful in His sight (Is. 64:6). Therefore, everything we do must come to God through the blood of Jesus in order for it to be acceptable to Him. But is that enough? In other words, if we are sincere in our faith can we then do anything we want in worship and know that God is pleased with us and accepts our worship? The Scripture at the head of this article says “No.”
The crime committed by Nadab and Abihu was not that they did something in worship that God had forbidden, but they did something that “He had not commanded,” and for this God struck them dead. Moses explained to Aaron God’s action by reminding him, “This is what the LORD spoke saying: ‘By those who come near me I must be regarded as holy.’” In the context of worship, to regard God as holy means to do only what He has said. Thus, there is nothing in the text to indicate that Nadab and Abihu were not sincere in their worship or in their faith. Their sin was in bringing to God an offering of worship that was “unauthorized” by him. They added to God’s worship something they had devised in their own hearts. They did not fear God as holy.
In the New Testament, Jesus decried those traditions of men that had crept into God’s worship and supplanted His Word (Mark 7; Matt. 15). Paul condemned what he called “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23) and the bondage it brought to Christians (Gal. 4:9). Similarly, during the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers were zealous to get rid of all of those elements of worship, which God had not prescribed, which had accumulated in the church during the previous centuries. These works included sacrifices, relics, pilgrimages, rote prayers, holy days, celibacy, etc. Now none of these things can be found in God’s Word, but as they are not forbidden by Scripture how can they be disallowed? The answer that the Reformers gave then and still give today is called the “regulative principle of worship.” This principle is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “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 imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture,” (WCF 21:1).
Because God is holy, manmade traditions have no place in worship. God alone decides how we may approach him. Thus, by offering only the forms of worship God has commanded can we know that we are doing what is pleasing to him in our worship. Therefore, the Regulative Principle of Worship is not a restrictive measure, but a freeing one! It releases God’s people from the bondage of manmade traditions, and liberates their consciences from the fear of wondering whether He accepts their offering. For when we come to God His way, we can know that God accepts our worship and is pleased by it. May God grant us a heart that would regard Him as holy, so that we would not dare approach Him except in the way He has commanded!