In this series entitled, “A Call to Pure Worship,” the first message proclaimed that God desires pure worship. We proved this straight from Scripture in our simple exposition of John 4, with its testimony that God the Father desires worshippers who worship him in spirit and in truth. In the first message we also beheld from Scripture that sinful man offers corrupt worship. Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12 is a quintessential case of religious corruption, and I hope you are convinced it is practically a paradigm for all kinds of corruptions popular in the visible church today, and corruptions which we should abominate with all our hearts.
This second message, “The Standard of Worship,” has two parts. In the part one we thought about what has come to be called “The Regulative Principle of Worship” (henceforth RPW), formally set forth in our 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 22, paragraph one, especially the last part of that paragraph, which says,
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.
As stated here, this doctrine basically amounts to the advocacy of a very, very careful and scrupulous obedience to Scripture in worship, doing exactly what it says, adding nothing, and taking nothing away. This thorough commitment to Scripture alone for the direction of our worship has ample support from Scripture itself. We have already seen this in our study of the first proof text offered by our confession on this point, namely, Deuteronomy 12.32 in its context.
We now come to part two of “The Standard of Worship.” In this message, I would lead you through our confession’s second proof text, Exodus 20.4-6, which is the Second Commandment. Both its obvious sense along with its deep and penetrating implications for the conduct of God’s worship will also, like Deuteronomy 12, help us navigate through the fog of theological confusion on this.
Then, at the risk of departing somewhat from the glorious simplicity of the biblical teaching, I would also like to address some of the sophisticated but unhelpful language that has been used in theological writings either to attempt overthrow of the RPW, or at least a substantial modification of it.
Finally, I wish to take up a key expression from a biblical passage traditionally associated with this matter, Leviticus 10. I want to show how this also, along with Deuteronomy 12 and Exodus 20, recommends an extremely sensitive conscience about God’s worship. That done, all that will remain is our third and final message, “The Inspiration of Worship,” for our fourth and final pulpit session.
Now please give your earnest attention to what truly is the very Word of God.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
The most obvious meaning of this Second Commandment is that it is a prohibition of images in worship. Among the heathen, these were typically “graven,” that is, carved or cut images made of wood or stone, as mentioned in Leviticus 26.1. Sometimes they were not carved but “molten images” (2 Chron 34.3-7), that is, made by melting and casting some kind of precious metal. These had greater physical beauty than stone idols, and so were more desirable to their worshippers. Numbers 33.52 also mentions that “pictures” were used in heathen worship.
All these human innovations in worship, the Israelites were to destroy utterly when they came into Canaan (Exod 23.24; 34.13; Deut 7.5, 25-26; 12.3). These wicked icons were found everywhere, just like they were when Paul came into Athens, where “his spirit was stirred in him [alt., “his whole soul was revolted at the sight,” NJB], when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry” (Acts 17.16). Of course this is not a prohibition of the arts per se. Rather, the Second Commandment makes it perfectly plain that no such statues or pictures invented by man are to be a part of worship. The Israelites must never incorporate these abominations.
Less obviously, the Second Commandment, and the Ten Commandments generally, have much broader implications. Our Lord clarifies their true import in the Sermon on the Mount.
The first principle I would bring to your attention is this:
1. Prohibitions of a Gross Sin Condemn All Other Sins of the Same Kind
The passage is well-known where Jesus teaches that not only murder but even malice is a violation of the Sixth Commandment (Matt 5.21-22), and by the same token, not only adultery but lust violates the Seventh (Matt 5.27-28). Now murder and adultery are greater sins of the same essential kind as malice and lust, and so by implication these are also condemned. As Matthew Henry quipped on Leviticus 19.17, “malice is murder begun.” Likewise, lust is adultery begun.
By applying this principle to the Second Commandment, we can see that it is not limited to the prohibition of images in worship, but broadly encompasses any and all will-worship, for that is essentially what idolatry is. Will-worship is idolatry begun. “Dumb idols” (Hab 2.18; 1 Cor 12.2) are simply will-worship taken to an extreme. The most glaring sin is specifically mentioned, like murder and adultery, to help us appreciate how evil this kind of sin really is, and where it eventually leads, though its beginnings may be small.
Leviticus 19.27 confirms this principle. It reads, “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” God’s law here prohibits a practice that might seem innocent enough in itself but was probably condemned mainly for its association with pagan worship customs. The Israelites were in danger of adopting them in connection with their worship, also. Reading this divine prohibition someone might protest, “What is the harm in this?,” but that would be the wrong question. Rather, reverent souls ask, “Is this what God directs us to do in his worship?” The Lord is sensitizing his people not to add any religious customs beyond those he has ordained, even things that may seem morally indifferent.
Now idols are easily seen to dishonor our great God, since they are a singularly improper means of representing the invisible, eternal, and holy One. Worshipping idols is also beneath our dignity, since even we are superior to them. We possess intelligence, feeling, and volition, but venerated statues cannot even begin to think, will, or act. From all this it follows that, in a more subtle way, all will-worship deserves the very same censures obviously attaching to idolatry. Do we really think that anyone else could possibly improve on the substance and form of worship which God has set forth as that which pleases him best? And do we not impugn God’s wisdom if we are not content with rendering the worship that contents him? Further, what greater nobility is there for any people than to be faithful servants of this God Most High, carrying out his revealed will to the letter?
Jesus’ teaching on the Sixth and Seventh Commandments also shows that the their righteousness goes beyond mere externals to matters of the heart. Malice and lust are sins of the inner man, sins which none but God can see (1 Kgs 8.39). Therefore the Second Commandment forbids “idols of the heart” (Ezek 14.3; 1 John 5.21), as God sees them too. Though our external worship may appear ever so pure to human observers, without a deliberate intention to exalt God and God alone, he beholds our corruption. That is why he complains bitterly, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt 15.8-9).
The second principle Jesus teaches us for interpreting the Ten Commandments is this:
2. Prohibitions of Any Sin Imply Commands to the Opposite Virtues and Duties
The Sixth Commandment against malice and murder also by implication requires us to promote our neighbor’s well-being as we have the means and opportunity. Paul said, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6.10). The Seventh Commandment against lust and adultery similarly requires chastity and fidelity to one’s spouse. “Treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters” (1 Tim 5.2). “Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well” (Prov 5.15).
From these valid inferences we can also know that the Second Commandment against will-worship positively requires our deliberate intention and earnest efforts to render that worship which conforms scrupulously to God’s revealed will as our only rule. It is as if God is asserting his claim to be the sole Conductor of a symphony, if you will allow the analogy. He wants all the players to follow his cues on purpose rather than playing to please anyone else, including themselves. This Godward intention is more important than hitting the right notes, because God rejects even the right notes of a renegade. On the other hand, he is ever so gracious to his well-intentioned followers even when we make mistakes.
On one occasion when the priests had failed to eat the sin offering in the holy place at the time appointed by God, they were forgiven this fault (Lev 10.12-20). “It appeared that Aaron sincerely aimed at God’s acceptance; and those that do so with an upright heart shall find he is not extreme to mark what they do amiss” (M. Henry, in loc.).
A definitive statement of the Reformed interpretation of the Second Commandment is found in the Westminster standards. For example, the Shorter Catechism says,
The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word. . . . . The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word (WSC #50, 51, Scripture references omitted).
The Larger Catechism also has two questions on requirements and prohibitions of the Second Commandment, but we would share the requirements later. For now, consider its prohibitions, expanded very much beyond the Shorter Catechism:
The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them, all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed (WLC #109, Scripture references omitted).
It is important to note well that these statements express the consensus judgment of very learned and godly Reformed ministers, a form of sound words upon which they agreed.
And now I trust that in your judgment, I have just offered that which is nothing else but the traditional, Reformed interpretation of the Second Commandment, and that in this, I have set forth, essentially established, and amply proven that the RPW is a faithful expression of the true teaching of Holy Scripture.
Still, there are COMMON OBFUSCATIONS.
To “obfuscate” is to darken and make unclear. I would now turn your attention to some obfuscations found in the literature discussing the RPW in detail. First,
1. Is “Adiaphora” Legitimate As a Third Category of Direction?
It seems to me this entire issue is needlessly confused by proposing a third category of direction related to worship besides God-directed worship and man-directed worship. The sooner we realize that we are constantly choosing between these two, the better. We are always faced with an either-or proposition. Either we will worship God’s way, or not God’s way. Joshua’s challenge is, “If it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh 24.15). Joshua’s hearers understood perfectly well what he meant. “And the people answered and said, God forbid that we should forsake the Lord, to serve other gods” (verse 16). Worship is a watershed with only two possible directions and outcomes. “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6.24).
As an aside from our main point here, consider that this true worship—this self-denying, devil-defying, world-repudiating worship—can never be offered except by a miracle of regenerating grace in the worshipper. Unbelievers cannot possibly worship God the right way because they are still held as willing captives to their own desires and the fear of man.
A. W. Tozer pressed this matter with characteristic insight and vigor:
With this desire to please men so deeply implanted within us how can we uproot it and shift our life-drive from pleasing men to pleasing God? Well, no one can do it alone, nor can he do it with the help of others, nor by education nor by training nor by any other method known under the sun. What is required is a reversal of nature (that it is a fallen nature does not make it any the less powerful) and this reversal must be a supernatural act. That act the Spirit performs through the power of the gospel when it is received in living faith. Then He displaces the old with the new. Then He invades the life as sunlight invades a landscape and drives out the old motives as light drives away darkness from the sky.
The way it works in experience is something like this: The believing man is overwhelmed suddenly by a powerful feeling that only God matters; soon this works itself out into his mental life and conditions all his judgments and all his values. Now he finds himself free from slavery to man’s opinions. A mighty desire to please only God lays hold of him. Soon he learns to love above all else the assurance that he is well pleasing to the Father in heaven (The Divine Conquest, Barbour edition, pp. 41-42).
Brethren, this goes far toward explaining why simple, biblical worship is so difficult to find in most of today’s churches, and why it has so little appeal to nominal Christians. The gospel preached accurately and forcefully has been almost completely lost, and the Spirit has almost completely withdrawn from pulpits and congregations alike in our apostate age. The vast bulk of Christendom knows next to nothing experientially of divine grace. It is content with a form of godliness, while denying its power (2 Tim 3.5). So instead of true encounters with God, the nominalists delight in manmade rituals and entertainment in his house. Oh, how we need a mighty working of the Spirit for our recovery from all this! By itself, an intellectual persuasion of the RPW is inadequate.
I have come to conclude that as it relates to the substance of worship, the whole concept of “adiaphora,” that is, things neither commanded nor forbidden, is an insidious Trojan horse carrying inside all kinds of potential innovations never before considered by Reformed churches holding to the RPW. There really is no “middle way” between the historic Reformed position and the Roman Catholic-Lutheran-Anglican position. The end result of attempting some middle way must necessarily entail, in my opinion, an essential rejection of the biblical doctrine known as the RPW, even if the proponent of a middle way insists that he holds a slightly-modified Reformed view of worship. Second,
2. Is There a “Different Hermeneutic” for Worship?
Another confused notion has arisen in the discussion of these things. Some allege that the RPW presents a “different hermeneutic,” or “principle of interpretation,” for worship than for everything else, and therefore it is implausible on the face of it. Such critics argue that “all of life” is worship, and therefore, the Bible should not be applied any differently to the church’s worship than it is to our daily, mundane activities.
With the best of intentions, I am sure, even one advocate of the RPW asserts that “in point of fact, however, the regulative principle does provide a different hermeneutic,” but he adds, he finds “no cogency in this difficulty,” nor did he “find it a difficulty” to maintaining the RPW (T. David Gordon, “Some Answers About the Regulative Principle,” Westminster Theological Journal, 55:2 [Fall 1993]).
So one interprets the RPW as a “different hermeneutic” and rejects it, while the other allows that it is a “different hermeneutic” and accepts it. This “two hermeneutic theory” seems to me to fall short of a proper understanding both the Scriptures and the RPW as found in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith XXII.1. A much simpler and biblically-defensible way to think about this is that a single, sound hermeneutic recognizes that God has given us much more specific direction about worship proper than he has about other spheres of life, which we admit, in a very broad sense, may also be thought of as worship.
First Corinthians 10.31 is the classic text to assert that we ought to do absolutely everything to the glory of God, including our eating and drinking. And yet we do not have nearly so specific direction from Scripture about ordinary eating and drinking as we do about those activities which are with sufficient justification more narrowly designated as worship. Eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper are highly regulated, but not any other eating and drinking. We have broad principles under the New Covenant that there are no longer any clean and unclean food distinctions as under the Old Covenant (Lev 11). We are expressly assured that “every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4.4-5). We are cautioned against the immoderate use of food and drink (Prov 23.21; Eph 5.18). Beyond these general principles though, the Word of God does not specify a particular diet which is more spiritual than any another. In ordinary eating, we may use something besides bread, and in ordinary drinking, we are not limited to the fruit of the vine. We can enjoy steak and potatoes as much as we can rice and beans, both with a clear conscience of complete fidelity to God’s revealed will. The church of Jesus Christ around the world, as it exists within many different cultures with their preferences and habits about different kinds of foods, displays a great culinary variety, and that is just fine!
Similar dynamics are operative in many issues pertaining to our manner of dress, our dwelling-places, modes of travel, vocations and trades, hobbies, and many other aspects of life in the real world. Just as with the matter of eating and drinking, I am not saying that there are no biblical principles which offer some moral guidance, and place some moral limitations upon these activities, but plainly God gives us a very wide berth. Outside of worship proper, in these mundane, common circumstances, he grants in a very large degree that we may choose according to our own personal preferences and judgments.
When it comes to worship proper, the Word is much more particular, even in the New Testament. The substance of worship we offer to God is not left to our imagination, but it is spelled out for us in various ways, not only by commandment, but also by inference and by example. There is no different hermeneutic for worship proper than for all of life. No, but I say simply that the Word is more particular about worship proper than it is about all of life. Furthermore, we must be just as particular in every area of human existence and activity as the Word is, neither insisting upon particulars where the Word leaves us free, nor omitting scrupulous conformity where the Word is specific. That means we will be much more particular about our manner of worship than we are about many other things. Once this realization came to me through meditation upon the relevant truths of Scripture, it is now hard for me to understand why so few seem to grasp and appreciate it.
To argue that worship proper is not to be distinguished from “all of life” lived to the glory of God is to miss the particularity of Scripture in its more specific regulation of worship proper. The “all of life is worship” argument against the RPW, destroying the classification of worship proper, strikes me as very similar to the “all days are alike holy” argument against the Lord’s Day Sabbath. Such opponents allege the implausibility of special biblical ethics for sanctifying the Lord’s Day, and therefore they say that the very idea of one holy day in seven for Christians is an error. But we do not adopt a different hermeneutic on the Lord’s Day. We merely recognize that the Word of God is more particular about the proper way of spending the Lord’s Day than it is about what we should and may do on the other six days of the week. Sadly, some who would never fall for this popular anti-Sabbatarian cavil are falling into the very same kind of irrationality against the RPW. Thirdly,
3. Is There a Confessional Allowance for the Light of Nature and Christian Prudence in Worship?
Some have attempted an artful dodge against the RPW by appealing to our confession in chapter one paragraph six. The relevant part of this paragraph says,
We acknowledge . . . that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church common to human actions and societies; which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.
To interpret this statement as pertaining to “the worship of God” rather than, as it clearly states, to “some circumstances concerning the worship of God,” would be the beginning of a misunderstanding. Further, even this sphere of concern is further characterized as things “common to human actions and societies.” That would necessarily exclude the worship which God has ordained for the church.
The doctrine of the confession on worship proper is explicit in chapter 22. It is pernicious to make 1.6 and 22.1 effectively opposed to each other, and this is essentially what some have done, though they would not admit it, and say instead that we must “harmonize” them in the realm of worship proper. If I have not misunderstood them, I believe that some have without warrant loosened the semantic range of the word “prescribed” in 22.1 so that they might squeeze in “the light of nature and Christian prudence” as another avenue of judging what is allowable in worship proper, besides Holy Scripture, except for considering its “general rules.” If so, that would be a terrible mistake in the very foundation of a sound doctrine of worship.
Taking its cue from 1689 LBCF I.6, literature on the RPW often distinguishes the “circumstances” of worship from its “substance.” It typically says that the RPW only applies to the substance, and since these are extra-biblical categories, there have been endless debates among good men about what belongs to the circumstances and what to the substance. Would it not be better to say we should be as particular in everything as the Bible itself is, properly interpreted, and remain free where the Scriptures do not bind our consciences, not only in worship proper, but in all of life? I am not categorically rejecting as illegitimate all discussion of the circumstances and substance of worship, but I am proposing a more strictly biblical way of thinking about these things which may help us to greater clarity in our own minds. Fourth,
4. Is Applying the RPW Next to Impossible?
Another attempt to overthrow the historic RPW has been to assert that implementing it consistently among our churches is next to impossible anyway, so of what practical use could it be? And indeed, even among adherents we regret to admit that there is some apparent diversity of judgment about how it should be applied, with the result that there are noticeable differences in the way various congregations worship, even though they share deep convictions about the RPW. Some churches practice exclusive psalmody in worship, while others also sing hymns. Some will not use any musical instruments in worship, while in other places a piano or an organ may support congregational hymn singing. Some collect tithes and offerings in a box mounted on the wall, while others pass plates through the congregation during worship services.
Admittedly, not everyone can be right in their views about these things. Some are perhaps indulging unnecessary scruples of conscience beyond what Scripture requires, and others may be wrongly rationalizing their own traditions. However, instead of concluding that the RPW is essentially wrong, how can we deny that this diversity is what we should expect among the churches of this age, none of which have arrived at perfect sanctification, and all of which are in need of further reformation according to the standard of God’s Word? Our judgments about the specific applications of the Ten Commandments suffer some diversity, and yet we know the problem is not with them, but with us. To argue against the RPW because it is difficult to apply in every detail and because there is diversity of judgment in application among its adherents is insidious and completely unjustified.
Besides, a greater uniformity in worship is evident among Reformed churches serious about these things than what is seen among other churches, unless those other churches have an enforced conformity and common liturgy as found in the Roman Catholic Church, and there is certainly no biblical warrant for that.
Brethren, it is very important that we all begin with the same biblical convictions upon foundational matters like the RPW, even if we do not all come to exactly the same conclusions about the specifics of application. This will inhibit gross departures from the Scripture standard, and foster a continual resort to Scripture for true reformation.
Our Reformed forefathers, with their profound understanding of and deep commitment to the RPW, were able to attain much clarity and consensus about its application. That is obvious from documents they produced together. For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism states positively that,
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 (WLC #108, Scripture references omitted).
Our 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith is also very specific and definitive on the proper activities of the church at worship. After advocating prayer in 22.3-4, it says,
The reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and hearing the Word of God, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord; as also the administration of baptism, and the Lord’s supper, are all parts of religious worship of God, to be performed in obedience to him, with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear; moreover, solemn humiliation, with fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, ought to be used in an holy and religious manner (1689 LBCF 22.5).
Commenting upon the similar paragraph from the Westminster Confession, one author has written,
Anything else or different from this, and especially anything borrowed from heathenism or the abolished temple-service—as pretended priests, altars, altar-cloths, incense, symbolical vestments, [etc.]—are entirely without divine warrant, and therefore unlawful. The same thing may be said of all man-pleasing, sensationalism, solo-singing, with any of the peculiarities of the theater transferred without divine warrant into the worship of the Christian Church (James Begg, Anarchy in Worship, p. 13).
Applying the RPW to worship is not next to impossible as claimed. Rather, it is most necessary for our preservation in biblical worship and our continued reformation. It will lead to a greater uniformity among us who so revere the standard of Scripture. And as the Lord of glory blesses us, he will progressively sanctify our service until he returns.
Any treatment of this topic would be incomplete without bringing Leviticus 10.1-3 to your attention. This passage illustrates and confirms the essential correctness of the things I have been preaching.
1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. 2 And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.
The exact sense of verse three is not easy to discern. It could be that the phrase, “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me,” exposes what Nadab and Abihu had failed to do, that is, to set apart the Lord as God in their hearts while they engaged in his service. Or it may have the sense that God will show himself holy one way or another, either through obedient priests or by making disobedient ones examples of his holy justice. Alternative translations reflect this: “I will be holy in the eyes of all those who come near to me,” and, “I will show my holiness among those who come to me.”
There is also possible ambiguity in the second phrase. We may interpret it as God’s resolve to receive glory and honor, but it could also be taken to mean that he is committed to showing this glory and honor. In any case, the fundamental sin of Nadab and Abihu had to do with their irreverence of heart and conduct while engaged in worship. God prescribed his worship to be performed in a particular way, but the priests were careless. The manifestation of their irreverence is described in verse one.
This is the part of this text which is most salient to our topic. They “offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.” Many commentators speculate about exactly what they did on that fateful day, but it is more important how it was characterized in this text inspired by the Spirit of God.
The Spirit emphasizes that the offense taken by God was due, first of all, to the offering of “strange fire.” In this context, the adjective in the original Hebrew phrase means “foreign, completely different, unlawful” (CHALOT). God did not recognize it as legitimate. It was, as the ESV translates, “unauthorized” fire, something the priests invented and not found anywhere in God’s directions to them.
The further characterization of their objectionable deed offers another indication of the reason for God’s taking offense. Note the negative: they did what “he commanded them not.” Now they may also have done something which God had forbidden, but that is not the way the narrative portrays their sin. Matthew Henry quotes Bishop Hall’s excellent and judicious comment on this passage:
It is a dangerous thing, in the service of God, to decline from his own institutions; we have to do with a God who is wise to prescribe his own worship, just to require what he has prescribed, and powerful to revenge what he has not prescribed (in loc.).
Years later, Jonathan Edwards explained the event this way:
It may be asked, What so great crime were Nadab and Abihu guilty of, that they paid so dear a price as to lose their lives by an immediate vengeance? But the answer is easy: the great end and purpose of the Mosaical dispensation was to separate unto God a chosen people, who should be careful to obey his voice indeed, and who, instead of being like other nations, following and practicing, as parts of their religion, what men might invent, set up, and think proper and reasonable, should diligently and strictly keep what God had enjoined, without turning therefrom to the right hand or to the left, or without adding to the word which was commanded them, or diminishing aught from it. But herein these young men greatly failed; God had as yet given no law for the offering incense in censers: all that had been commanded about it was that Aaron should burn it upon the altar of incense every morning and every evening. Afterwards he received further directions (Leviticus 16:1–12); so that these men took upon them to begin and introduce a service into religion which was not appointed, they offered what the Lord commanded them not; and this, if it had been suffered, would have opened a door to great irregularities, and the Jewish religion would in a little time have been, not what God had directed, but would have abounded in many human inventions added to it. Aaron and his sons were sanctified to minister in the priest’s office for this end, that they should remember the commandments (Miscellanies, #1088).
Deuteronomy 17.3 condemns gross idolatry in the same terms. Matthew Henry observed,
Of this [idolatry] it is said, That it is what God had not commanded. He had again and again forbidden it; but it is thus expressed to intimate that, if there had been no more against it, this had been enough (for in the worship of God his institution and appointment must be our rule and warrant).
Jeremiah 7.31 is similar. Of burning sons and daughters in the fire, that horrid pagan rite, the Lord says that his people were doing something that, and I quote, “I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.” Compare Jeremiah 19.5, where the Lord says that child sacrifice is something “which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind.” Jeremiah 32.35 uses exactly the same language. This biblical emphasis underscores the soundness of the Reformed position, that is, the historic RPW.
My stressing these negative characterizations of corrupt worship may seem unnecessary to you, but other treatments of them have gone to great lengths to evade their obvious support for the RPW.
Brethren, I am not saying that the serious application of biblical truth to worship will be easy, or that all who are intent on pleasing God in pure worship will come to the very same conclusions in all respects about the manner of worship. However, we must clearly understand that the standard of worship is Scripture alone, and we must actually use the Bible as our functional guide and compass to navigate our way through the complex issues confronting us. If we all are headed in the same direction, no matter where we begin, our paths will finally converge, and we will all finally be found around the throne of Christ in heaven, worshiping him in perfect purity to the praise of his infinite and eternal glory! May he so lead us, and bless us. Amen.
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