The Regulative Principle of Scripture – Sola Scriptura

OXYGEN Volume 21

The Regulative Principle of Scripture – Sola Scriptura

Brian Schwertley

Because of man’s sinful nature, God’s covenant people often stray from the truth. Men often pervert true religion by eliminating elements in it they find unpleasant. They also pervert it by adding their own ideas to it. This very tendency to corrupt true religion, by addition or subtraction, is why God warned Israel not to add to or subtract from His Word. “Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers giveth you. Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you” (Deut. 4:1-2).

This passage of Scripture, and others like it, forms the basis for the Protestant reformers’ doctrine of sola Scriptura. That is to say, THE BIBLE ALONE is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men . . . and 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.” Therefore, everything that man does is to be based on either the explicit commands of Scripture, deduced by good and necessary consequence (e.g., historical example, implication, etc.) or, if circumstantial, to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word (e.g., time or place to meet, etc.). Moses’ command in Deuteronomy 4:2 is God’s regulative principle, in a broad sense. Man’s ultimate authority and blueprint for life is revealed in the Bible.

The Regulative Principle of Worship

The Bible is our only infallible rule for faith and practice. There
is no area of life where this truth is more applicable than in the area of worship. Before entering the promised land, God told the Israelites how to avoid idolatry and syncretism (i.e., blending or mixing) with pagan worship. “Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so I will do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God. . . . What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:30-32).


Anything that the church does in worship must have warrant from an explicit command of God, be deduced by good and necessary consequence, or be derived from approved historical example (e.g., the change of day from seventh to first for Lord’s day corporate worship). “As under the Old Dispensation nothing connected with the worship or discipline of the Church of God was left to the wisdom or discretion of man, but everything was accurately prescribed by the authority of God, so, under the New, no voice is to be heard in the household of faith but the voice of the Son of God. The power of the church is purely ministerial and declarative. She is only to hold forth the doctrine, enforce the laws, and execute the government which Christ has given her. She is to add nothing of her own to, and to subtract nothing from, what her Lord has established. Discretionary power she does not possess.”

The view commonly held among Protestant churches today is that anything is permitted in worship, provided it is not explicitly forbidden in the Bible. This was, and is, the accepted view among Episcopalian and Lutheran churches. The early Reformed and Presbyterian churches rejected this view as unscriptural. The Westminster Confession of Faith 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 imaginations and devices of men. . . or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”

What is today called the regulative principle of worship is not something John Calvin or John Knox invented but is simply a divine imperative. It is a crucial aspect of God’s law. “We say that the command to add nothing is an organic part of the whole law, as law, and, therefore, that every human addition to the worship of God, even if it be not contrary to any particular command, is yet contrary to the general command that nothing be added.”

The Unacceptable Offering

“And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of
the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell” (Gen. 4:3-5).

What was it regarding Cain’s offering that made it unacceptable before God? The preference for Abel’s offering and the rejection of Cain’s was not arbitrary, but based upon past revelation given to Adam and his family. Evidently, God revealed this information to Adam when He killed animals to make coverings for Adam and his wife (Gen. 3:21). Generations later, Noah knew that God would only accept clean animals and birds as burnt offerings to the Lord (Gen. 8:20). Cain, unlike his brother Abel, decided, apart from God’s Word, that an offering of the fruit of the ground would be acceptable before the Lord.

But God rejected Cain’s offering, because it was a creation of his mind. God did not command it; therefore, even if Cain was sincere in his desire to please God, God still would have rejected his offering. God expects faith and obedience to His Word. If God’s people can worship the Lord according to their own will, as long as the man-made ordinances are not expressly forbidden, then could not Cain, Noah or the Levites offer God a fruit salad or a bucket of turnips, for it is nowhere forbidden? And if God wanted a strict regulation of His worship apart from the regulative principle, would it not require hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of volumes telling us what is forbidden? But God, in His infinite wisdom, says, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:32).


“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. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:1,2).

“WHAT WAS THEIR SIN? Their sin was offering of strange
fire, so the text saith that they offered STRANGE FIRE, which God commanded them not. . . . But had God ever forbidden it? Where do we find that ever God had forbidden them to offer strange fire, or appointed that they should offer only one kind of fire? There is no text of Scripture that you can find from the beginning of Genesis to this place, where God hath said in TERMINUS, in so many words expressly, YOU SHALL OFFER NO FIRE BUT ONE KIND OF FIRE. And yet here they are consumed by fire from God, for offering ‘strange fire.’ ”

Those who reject God’s regulative principle of worship have a real problem explaining this text. Some argue that Nadab and Abihu were condemned because they offered strange incense, for offering strange incense is expressly condemned in Exodus 30:9. But the text does not say “strange incense”, it says “strange fire”. Others argue that they must have been insincere or drunk. But what does the Holy Spirit give us as the reason for their judgment? They offered STRANGE FIRE “which he commanded them not.” When it comes to worshipping God, there must be a warrant out of God’s Word. “All things in God’s worship must have a warrant out of God’s word, [and] must be commanded. It’s not enough that it is not forbidden. . . . Now when man shall put a Religious respect upon a thing, by vertue [sic] of his own Institution when he hath not a warrant from God; Here’s superstition! we must all be WILLING worshipers, but not WIL-worshipers [sic].”


“And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the
valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; WHICH I COMMANDED THEM NOT, NEITHER CAME IT INTO MY HEART” (Jer. 7:31; see also, Jer. 19:5).

The Lord condemns the children of Judah’s idolatry and pagan worship with the statement, “which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.” Idolatry, murder and child sacrifice are explicitly condemned in the law and the prophets. Yet, Jeremiah cuts to the essence of idolatrous worship. Judah was worshipping in a manner that did not originate from God’s heart. Judah’s worship was not founded upon God’s command. Rather than worshipping God according to His command, they “walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward” (Jer. 7:24). If the people of Judah had consulted the Word of God and obeyed it, they would have been spared God’s fury. “We have to do with a God who is very jealous; who will be worshipped as He wills, or not at all. Nor can we complain. If God be such a Being as we are taught in the Holy Scripture, it must be His inalienable right to determine and prescribe how He will be served.”


The regulative principle of worship has clear implications for those who want to promote the celebration of Christmas. The Regulative Principle forces those who celebrate Christmas to prove from Scripture that God has authorized the celebrating of such a day. This, in fact, is impossible. Additionally, celebrating Christmas violates other scriptural principles as well.

Christmas is a Monument to Past and Present Idolatry!

Christmas Dishonors Christ’s Day!

Christmas is a LIE!

And it is the World that Loves Christmas!

“Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil!” [Exodus 23:2]


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