What is the Regulative Principle of Worship?

By: R.C. Sproul Jr

The Regulative Principle of Worship is simple enough. It affirms that Christians ought only to incorporate into their worship those things that God has expressly commanded. The locus classicus for this perspective is Leviticus 10, where Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Levi are struck dead by God for offering “strange fire” before the Lord. The principle is both historical and sound. Its application, however, has often proved to be problematic.

The Bible does indeed give a detailed explanation on exactly how God demands to be worshipped. The challenge is that this explanation is given in the Old Testament, prior to the coming of Christ. The Bible tells us what sacrifices should be brought, how they should be killed, how they should be cut up, how they should be cooked, and who should eat what. In the New Testament all we have are scattered mentions of what the saints actually did when they gathered together.

Because we rightly affirm that Jesus was the once for all sacrifice, and to go back to the shadows would be to deny His coming (see the book of Hebrews), we are left in something of a pickle. We can’t follow the Old Testament requirements, and the New Testament doesn’t contain a clear order of worship. Some solve the dilemma by building what might be called a Frankenstein model of worship. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, a part of the service is taken from here (where the saints are said to take up a collection) another part from this other text (where they saints are said to celebrate the Lord’s Supper), and still another from this third place, where we see preaching going on.

This patchwork approach, for all there is to commend it, has a few disadvantages. First, like Frankenstein’s monster, it is clumsy. There can be precious little beauty and flow from a service of disparate parts forced together. Second, while it happily avoids the bloody shadows of old covenant worship, it lacks the unifying theme of the sacrifice. Old Testament worship was sacrificial. Though the once for all sacrifice has come, He left us with a fitting ways to remain sacrificial, while not going back to the shadows, while no longer spilling blood- we touch sacrifice when we praise, when we give, and most of all, at the Lord’s Table.

Just as in the Old Covenant, we come to worship because we are called, commanded to appear by the Lord of Hosts. Just as in the Old Covenant we come in ourselves still sinners, and so confess our sins. On this side, however, the sacrifice has already come, and so we who trust in that once for all sacrifice are assured of our pardon. Out of this flows a sacrifice of praise, as we sing the glory of the Redeemer. Having been redeemed, we are in need of direction, instruction from our commander. And so the Word is preached. Just as in the Old Covenant we respond with sacrifice, standing to return to God His tithe, not because the tenth is His, but because all that we have, and all that we are are His. We respond to the call of His sermon with “Here I am. Send me.”

And then He feeds us. Then we share the fellowship meal, wherein we are welcomed to His table, not as soldiers, but as friends. Not as servants, but as children. Finally, just as in the Old Covenant He pronounces His blessing on us, and we depart to make known His reign, until we can come again. Here then we dance, we feast, just as we will at the marriage feast of the lamb.

The Regulative Principle of Worship is a wonderful gift from our fathers. We need to remember, however, that our fathers include not just the Puritans, but Calvin and Luther, as well as Aaron and Levi.