The Regulative Principle
“Nadab and Abihu … 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. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (vv. 1–2).- Leviticus 10:1–3
Deuteronomy 5:8–10, the second commandment, tells us that we may not make an image of God (the divine nature) or create an image of anything else with the intent of bowing down and serving either it or the being it is supposed to represent. Clearly, this statute is concerned first and foremost with worship, telling us that there are limits to what constitutes the right worship of our Creator. Human hearts are idol factories, as John Calvin once said, and we are prone to making God in our image. Yet, we also tend to shape the worship of the one true God in our own image, after our view of what we find acceptable (Rom. 1:18–32). To keep us from sinning against the Lord, Scripture establishes boundaries that we dare not cross when we come before Him.
Many biblical texts clearly teach that our holy Creator takes His worship very seriously. In today’s passage, for example, we read of the occasion on which God struck Nadab and Abihu dead for offering “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1–3). Commentators are not sure about the exact nature of their infraction, but they do agree that the seriousness of the offense is related to their worshipping God in a manner that He had not commanded. They sought to be innovators in worship, and they paid the price for it. Lest we think that the Lord no longer takes His worship as seriously as He did back then, consider 1 Corinthians 11:27–30. Many of the Corinthian Christians were taking part in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper inappropriately, and some of them died for their unworthy partaking. These passages, and many others, make it clear that it is “a life-and-death matter to worship God according to his command,” as one Reformed theologian has put it.
The notion that we must follow Scripture in organizing our worship and are not permitted to introduce practices that God has not approved is known as the regulative principle. It is drawn from several biblical texts, including today’s passage, and it is reflected in answer 96 of the Heidelberg Catechism. As the catechism states, we may not “worship [the Lord] in any other way than has been commanded in God’s Word.” What we do in worship must be found explicitly in Scripture or deduced by good and necessary consequence from its teaching.
Even within the Reformed tradition, where the regulative principle is highly esteemed, there is disagreement as to how it should be applied. But adherents to the regulative principle agree that human beings are not free to introduce things into worship that have no biblical warrant. Worship should be reverent, structured according to God’s commands so that we do not endanger ourselves by approaching our holy Creator in an unholy manner.
Passages for Further Study
1 Samuel 13:8–14
1 Kings 13:33–34; 15:30
2 Chronicles 26:16–23
1 Corinthians 10:31