If Deuteronomy 12:32 teaches the Regulative Principle of Worship that whatever is not appointed in the Word of God is forbidden in His Worship, then wouldn’t Deuteronomy 4:2 teach that in life whatever is not appointed by the Lord is also forbidden to us? If that is the case, would we not be forbidden, for example, to play soccer because it is not appointed in the Word of God?  Conversely, if Deuteronomy 4:2 does not forbid soccer, then wouldn’t Deuteronomy 12:32 not forbid, say, a puppet show in worship even though it is not appointed?

Thank you for this very perceptive question. I think you can see that Deuteronomy 12:32 is indeed spoken in the context of worship. Deuteronomy 12:31-32 reads,—

31 Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. 32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” (Dt 12:31-32).

The Lord, as you would agree, is telling His people not to imitate the ways of the pagans. The pagans in ancient days think that they could win their god’s favour by sacrificing their children. But the LORD would not have us do anything more or anything less than what He requires of us in His worship. We are not to take initiative to try to show how devoted we are to Him! We are to worship Him in the way that He has appointed. Or to put it in another way, all the distinct elements of worship must be appointed by Him. If they are not, we must not use them. So in New Testament worship, we should only have Scripture-reading (including the call to worship); prayer and benedictions; preaching; psalm-singing; Baptism; Lord’s Suppers; and covenant-taking. We should not have puppet-shows; item presentations or dances, etc. But take note that the principle does not cover circumstance of worship such as the time of gathering, the sitting arrangement, the manner of sitting etc. I don’t think anyone of us will say: “Since the Lord has not appointed for you to cross your legs while sitting, you must not cross your legs.” Nor will we say: “Since the Lord has not appointed note-taking that you should not take notes during the sermons.” The point is: the commandment and principle covers only the significant and distinct elements of worship. And what are the significant elements of worship? Well, the significant elements of formal worship are those actions done during the period of worship (e.g. beginning with call to worship and ending with benediction), which would constitute the substance of the worship event. A man out of his own accord lifting up his hand during congregational prayer is not a significant element by this definition, but a call by the pastor to the congregation to lift up their hand towards the cross hanging on the wall during prayer will add to the element of prayer and make it idolatrous. Likewise, a musical item, or a piano piece played when the Lord’s Supper is served, for example, should be regarded as a distinct element not appointed by the Lord or an addition to an appointed element.

The Regulative Principle of Worship based on the Second Commandment and verses such as Deuteronomy 12:31-32 teaches us that the only significant elements of worship which should be in our worship services are exactly the things that the Lord has appointed for us for His worship. And we are not to add to the list.

Now, Deuteronomy 4:2 must be interpreted in similar fashion, albeit as it relates to life. It reads—

“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” (Dt 4:2).

It is clear that this verse is not only about worship, but about the believer’s life in general. But let us take note that like Deuteronomy 12:32, this commandment does not cover every moment and action of the believer. Rather, it is about the significant elements or actions in a person’s life. But what are the significant elements in a person’s life? Well, in the case of the worship event, the significant elements are those actions that define the worship event, so in the case of life, the significant elements are those actions and moments that define a person’s life. But what are these? Well, because life is much broader than the worship event, it is much more difficult to define clearly. An element in worship is easily distinguishable; but not so an element in life seeing that the purpose of life, which is to glorify God, is much broader than the purpose of worship, which is to extol the greatness of God. However, Deuteronomy 4:2 does give us a clue. What is commanded or appointed in God’s Law would be the significant elements in life! Now, for God’s people under the Old Covenant, the Law would include the Moral Laws, the Ceremonial Laws and the Civil and Sundry Laws.

God is saying: “Don’t add to my Law; and don’t subtract from my Law.” He is not saying: “Don’t hunt or practice archery; don’t play soccer; don’t swim; don’t ride a bicycle; don’t celebrate birthdays, etc…” These things are matters of indifference. They are neither commanded nor forbidden! God’s people must keep God’s commandments and ordinances strictly. They must observe all that his law requires: honouring of parents, keeping marriage pure, observing the feast days, offering the sacrifices appointed, etc. They must not subtract from the law, by for example doing away with the Sabbath, or making marriage optional. Neither might they add to the law, for example, by commanding that all men must celebrate their birthday, or that every wedding must be celebrated with a banquet, etc.

Now, in our modern society, the Ceremonial Law has been fulfilled in Christ, and the Civil Laws are no longer directly applicable to the average believer because we are taught to subject ourselves under the civil authority of the land we dwell in. The apostle Paul says: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom 13:1). Under this circumstance, the number of things that may be regarded as matters of indifference has greatly increased. This is the reason why we often speak of the regulative principle for life (apart from life on the Sabbath Day) as being practically “Whatever is not forbidden in the word of God is allowed,” in contrast to the principle of worship which is “Whatever is not appointed in the word of God is forbidden.” But you will realise that the principle has not really changed. It is just that there are far more things that may be defined as matters of indifference today so that the broader principle would be more generally applicable.

Now, we may add that some of the matters of indifference may be commanded by the civil government or by our employers. We think of immigration laws, traffic laws, anti-littering laws, anti-smoking laws etc. We would then want to observe these things as part of our obedience to the 5th Commandment (and some of these laws may even have moral bases). But even then, as believers, we will to make sure that our obedience to civil authority does not require us to break God’s Moral Law.

If the Law of the Land requires us to abort every child conceived after the second child, will we obey? We must not obey. 

Can we apply the same principle in the case of worship? No, for the Lord has not, as it were, seconded the government of His church, to any but those who must be directly submitted to his Law. In particular, God has not given authority to any parties to make laws for His own worship. Or to put in another way, no one has the authority to raise a matter of indifference into law in worship, nor to add to or embellish any divinely-appointed element of worship. No one, for example, has the authority to say: “All worshippers must wear all-white for worship.” And we may add that neither has anyone the authority to command an uninspired hymn, such as “Faith of Our Fathers” by the apostate Frederick Faber to be sung in God’s worship.

God would have us worship in Spirit and in Truth and He alone reserves the prerogative of truth. He alone has the prerogative to appoint what we are to do in worship. All other worship is will-worship and commandments of man.