The Forbidden Manner of Worship
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. —Deuteronomy 4:15-19
The larger context of Deuteronomy chapter 4 outlines the careful diligence that must be shown in the keeping of God’s law, especially charging parents to teach God’s acts of providence in history to subsequent generations. Parents are commanded to “[M]ake them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deut 4:9).
The passage sets forth two principles to be considered and obeyed. First there is the responsibility of self-government. Verse 15 of Deuteronomy chapter 4 clearly establishes that man must live in the fear of God, mindful of his actions in light of God’s righteous standard. The Christian is only able to judge what is right or wrong by the authority of God’s Word in the power of the Spirit and so be conformed to the image of Christ. Self-government is basic to biblical law.
The second principle to recognize is that man is responsible to communicate the truth about God to others. There is an emphasis put upon family discipleship because the family is the basic social unit. Through the family, subsequent generations are discipled in the faith. But discipleship is not prescribed for the family alone. The family is equipped by the shepherds and teachers of the church “for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.” So as members of the body of Christ, we as Christians are to keep watch over ourselves and admonish one another in the faith.
Immediately following the charge to “watch yourselves very carefully” (Deut 4:15) the passage gives examples of ways in which we might act corruptly or err in the practice of right and holy worship. Man is warned to check himself, guarding against his propensity to form a view of God that is not found in his all sufficient testimony about himself, the Scriptures. The charge, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it” (Deut 4:2), was uttered in the immediately preceding verses, and is followed by the command, “take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life” (Deut 4:9).
We must remember first that God is spirit and has “no form” (Deut 4:15). If we ascribe any form of our invention to God, or identify God “in the form of any figure” (Deut 4:15) we have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom 1:25), and created a false representation of Almighty God. “[H]e is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). Christ alone is “the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3), being the second person of the triune Godhead.
As the first warning identified man’s presumptuous nature and his tendency to create a god after his own image, so the second warning concerns man’s tenacious rebellion in rendering worship to something other than God himself. The basic faith of so many who identify themselves with Christianity is actually the tragic doctrine of humanism. Humanism as a belief system is one which can captivate any Christian who seeks to distance himself from the full implications of this commandment. A Christian is properly identified as a humanist when, while he denies that he is party to any form of external physical idolatry, he yet refuses to yield his mind on even the smallest issue of life to the law of God. This was aptly noted by R. J. Rushdoony when he wrote: “Humanism is the second oldest religion known to man. It goes back to the Garden of Eden and to the tempter’s creed as set forth in Genesis 3:1-5.”1
The basic duty of the Christian faith is to live obediently in terms of God’s Word by faith in Jesus Christ. Habakkuk 2:4 declares that “the righteous [man] shall live by his faith.” To live in terms of any other faith than that faith which professes and performs obedience to Christ’s commandments is to live in opposition to God, and to embrace the very oldest of lies; that man can “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). This is something that each one of us does in self-deceit. We make excuses, identify something as unfair, or harbor notions of self-justification for our lawless actions in order to relieve the guilt of our conscience. The Christian must of necessity abhor the vileness of sin. He must wage war with the false concept of peace with any other faith, and he must discharge his obligation to advance Christ’s everlasting Kingdom.
As with all issues of life, the comprehensive sufficiency of scripture must by necessity be assumed in order to consistently apply these principles of worship. God’s Word alone is the final measure by which any and all forms of worship must be examined and applied. The eminent importance of this issue cannot be overemphasized. Deuteronomy 12:31-32 demonstrates this:
When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. —Deuteronomy 12:31-32
Two themes in this passage are crucial to recognize. First there is the antithesis of the Christian faith and the humanistic faith. The humanistic faith was the faith of those nations which served other gods and disobeyed the commandments of the one true God. They were to be deposed and destroyed by Israel, the saints of God. This was a concrete enactment of the proverb that says “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil” (Prov 8:13). By consequence of regeneration, “the law of the Spirit of life” (Rom 8:2) has set the mind of the Christian “on the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5) “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled” (Rom 8:4). The redeemed man who has been converted by the Spirit of God unto saving faith in Christ cannot dwell peaceably with evil, either in the world or within himself. The natural man runs towards humanism. The Christian must be at war with him.
What the natural man perceives as good and right worship can never be faithfully performed toward God and it is imperative that the Christian submit himself to the command of God who declares: “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way” (Deut 12:31). The Christian is forbidden to worship God in a manner that is derived from man’s mind. It was by the mind of man that “every abominable thing that the LORD hates” (Deut 12:31) was “done for their gods” (Deut 12:31). History is replete with the detestable horrors fallen man has stooped to in worshiping his gods, such as what is recorded here; “for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deut 12:31).
The governing authority of God’s Word over the manner that we worship God is stated thus: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (Deut 12:32). Here is the ultimate standard that we as Christians must adhere to; namely that God himself has prescribed the manner of worship that is pleasing to him, and we are thereby forbidden from worshipping God in any manner other than he has revealed to us in his Word.
The Word of God is set forth as the only infallible source of God’s revealed will to man. If man turns to any other source to determine how he ought to worship God, whether through the examples of other religions, personal experience, or witty invention and the cleverness of his own mind, his worship will be regarded by God as abominable. It will have no merit whatsoever, and will incur the judgement and wrath of God, instead of his blessing and favor. May God give us grace that we might abstain from all things that are forbidden in the second commandment.