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Is Jesus the Reason for the Season?

 
A call to rethink Biblically the observance of Christian holidays


Introduction

 A church posted “Jesus is the reason for the season” on the message board in front of its building.  In response, a woman called the pastor of the church to complain.  She asked the pastor, “Do you have to draw religion into every holiday?”

Most of us have heard of an encounter such as the one described above.  A vocal minority of atheists and secular humanists seem to consider it their duty each Christmas season to voice their opposition to public displays of religion.  These individuals oppose the display of nativity scenes on courthouse lawns and in public parks.  They demand that public schools observe a “winter break” instead of a “Christmas break.”  They demand that businesses wish their customers a “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings,” instead of a “Merry Christmas.”  And they seek to promote alternative holidays, such as Kwanza, in order to overshadow the Christian holidays.[1]  

But is Jesus the reason for the season?  Is Christmas really a Christian holiday?  Should we celebrate other holy days and seasons, such as Advent, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension Day, Transfiguration Day, and All Saints’ Day?  Is it truly beneficial for the church to set apart days and seasons to emphasize various redemptive-historical events from Scripture? 

Christmas and Easter are indeed religious holidays, but are they Christian (i.e., Biblical) holidays?  Is Christ pleased when His people observe these seasons and religious festivals?

Historically, many Protestant, evangelical Christians, including Presbyterian and Reformed Christians, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Mennonites, opposed the observance of Christmas (see chapter 1).  Such opposition dates back to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.[2]   And such opposition is in accordance with the historical position of the early church.

Christmas and Easter are never mentioned in Scripture.[3]  The Apostle Paul never celebrated these special days.  The Apostle Peter never celebrated them.  No one in Scripture ever celebrated them.  Secondly, Scripture never tells us to observe Christmas or Easter.  In fact, God never told us to observe a day or season to remember Jesus’ birth.  And while God did command us to observe and celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection, Good Friday and Easter were not the means by which He commanded us to do this.  Rather, God commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper for this purpose.  “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25).  The ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Lord’s table, conducted on the Lord’s Day, was the means by which Christ commanded us to celebrate His death and resurrection. 


The observance of church holidays is no minor issue.  Most churches devote an entire month (from Thanksgiving to December 25th) to the celebration of the Christmas season.  That is one-twelfth of the calendar year.  Many churches celebrate the entire advent and lent seasons, which consume over one-sixth of their calendar year and preaching schedule—not to mention a host of other days many churches set apart, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Independence Day.[4]  And some other churches devote the entire calendar year to the celebration of the liturgical calendar. 

The thesis of this book is that “there is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holy days, rather the contrary (Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:16-23), and such observance is contrary to the principles of the Reformed faith, conducive to will-worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”[5]

While there is no warrant for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holy days, Scripture does command us to observe no less than 52 holy days each year.  That is, Scripture commands us to observe the Lord’s Day, the first day of each week, as the Christian Sabbath.  This holy day was instituted at creation, reaffirmed at Sinai, defended by the Old Testament prophets, upheld by Jesus, and reaffirmed by the Apostles John and Paul.  It is a perpetual holy day to be observed until the Lord of the Sabbath returns to usher us into our eternal sabbath rest (Heb. 4). 

Yet, with all the issues facing the church today, is the observance of church holidays really all that big of an issue?  Some ministers and theologians  argue that such a discussion is pointless.  For example, J. Douma, professor of ethics at the Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands, states,  


    Arguing about this [the observance of Christian feast days] now is foolish.  The number of Christian feast days is limited, and practice shows that the church can spend these days meaningfully, especially by preaching the great redemptive acts of her Lord.[6] 

Such pragmatic arguments reason that we shouldn’t make a big deal over the observance of church holidays, for church history has shown that observing these holidays can provide a tremendous opportunity for evangelism and edification.  However, such pragmatic reasoning skirts around the question of whether such church holidays are Biblical

Are the issues raised in this book really of any importance to your life and to your spiritual walk as a Christian?  Yes, because truth matters!  Truth matters to God, and, therefore, if you are a Christian, truth should matter to you. 

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, NAS, emphasis added).  He said, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37, emphasis added). 


There is only one thing that God is said to be seeking and that is true worshipers
:  “The true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.  God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23b-24).  Morton H. Smith, former professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, and professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has noted the importance of true worship:

    The way in which people worship is a good barometer of their spiritual condition.
  A Church that is concerned with worshipping God in accord with the Scriptures, is a Church that is concerned about the true spiritual welfare of its people.  When, on the other hand, a Church becomes careless or indifferent to the Biblical perspectives regarding worship, then that Church is spiritually sick.  The Reformers saw the truth of this fact, and spoke of worship as one of the marks of a true Church.[7] 

A church’s worship is indicative of its spiritual health.  Yet, as Brian Schwertley has pointed out, all too many churches today are not guided by Scripture and by Biblical truth but rather by pragmatism

    Evangelicalism in our day is in a state of serious decline.  Church growth, ecumenical fellowship, pragmatism, and keeping the peace have taken precedence over doctrinal integrity and pure worship.  As a result, modern Evangelicalism is flabby, compromising, impotent and lukewarm.  It is not a coincidence that the church had the most positive impact upon society and culture when its doctrine and worship were most pure (e.g., the second Reformation period in Scotland, 1638).  Only when we return to Biblical worship, and reject human autonomy in worship are we prepared to recapture our society for Christ.[8]

Is it possible that the corruption of the church’s worship in America, especially during the 20th century, is a significant cause of its decline?  Is it possible that the corruption of the church’s worship in Europe, within just a few generations or even a few decades after the Protestant Reformation, was a significant cause of its decline and near extinction? 

God calls His people in every generation to reform and purify the Church according to Scripture.  For, as R.C. Sproul reminds us,

     . . . the Reformers insisted that their work of reformation was not complete.  The church is called to be semper reformanda, “always reforming.”  Every Christian community creates its own subculture of customs and traditions.  Such traditions are often extremely difficult to overcome or abandon.  Yet it remains our task in every generation to examine critically our own traditions to insure they are consistent with the apostolic tradition.[9] 

Thus, as Reformed Christians, we are obligated to examine critically our own traditions in regard to the observance of Christian holidays, insuring that our practice is consistent with the apostolic tradition.  This apostolic tradition has been revealed to us in the Scriptures alone, which is the revealed will of God, His all-sufficient Word.  

God is seeking worshipers who will worship Him in truth.  Therefore, it is my prayer that this book will be used by the Lord to call the Church in America—its pastors, leaders, teachers, and members—to purify the Church’s doctrine and worship.  This is a call to rethink Biblically the observance of Christian holidays.  This is a call to abandon all religious holidays established by the Church and to return to the observance of only those days that God has ordained.  I believe that such a change would be a first step towards turning around the church’s decline, a first step towards genuine spiritual revival in America.

It is my prayer that you will commit to read, ponder, and prayerfully reflect upon the issues presented in this book.  Consider the relevant Scripture passages presented.  Pray for God to give you spiritual wisdom and discernment.  And then, and only then, make your final decision on this matter. 


I have written this book for the glory of Christ the King and for the purity of His bride, which He purchased with His own blood.  My purpose in writing this book is to call the church to reevaluate its worship practices according to Scripture and in light of church history. 

Let me conclude this introduction, by remembering the wise words of two church leaders who share my passion for true worship.  The great founder of the Presbyterian church, John Knox, once said in regard to those who sanctify what God has not sanctified:


   
The matter is not of so small importance, as some suppose.  The question is whether God or man ought to be obeyed in matters of religion.  In mouth, all confess that God alone is worthy of sovereignty.  But after many—by the instigation of the devil and by the presumptuous arrogance of carnal wisdom and worldly policy—have defaced God’s holy ordinance, men fear not to follow what laws and common consent (mother to all mischief and nurse most favorable to superstition) have established and commanded.  But thus continually I can do nothing but hold and affirm all things polluted, yes, execrable and accursed, which God by his word has not sanctified in his religion.  God grant you his Holy Spirit rightly to judge.[10] 

The Scottish Reformer John Knox says that all churches give lip service to the sovereignty of God.  But one’s true allegiance is proven by whether he obeys God’s will or man’s, by whether he obeys Scripture alone or Scripture plus church tradition.  Ultimately, nothing less than the Lordship of Christ is at stake!  Are you willing to submit to Christ’s Lordship over your life?  Are you willing to submit to His revealed will, the Word of God?  Christ requires nothing less than total discipleship of His followers.  Thus, if we are true disciples, we must be willing to examine continually our beliefs and practices in light of Holy Scripture, abandoning all that is unbiblical or contrary to God’s Word. 

G.I. Williamson shares Knox’s passion for church reformation: 


    It is my hope, though I will probably not live to see it, that the Lord will send a new and even greater Reformation than the one he sent in the sixteenth century.  When that happens, I believe, the church will again be emancipated from what is, after all, nothing more than a man-made tradition.[11]

May the Lord send us such a Reformation! 
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[1] What is a holiday?  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, includes the following definitions for the word holiday: (1) A day on which custom or the law dictates a halting of general business activity to commemorate or celebrate a particular event; (2) A religious feast day; a holy day.  Holiday is etymologically derived from the words holy and day.  (“Holiday” is derived from the Middle English word holidai “holy day,” which was derived from the Old English hâlig dæg, “holy day”.  [The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  1996.])  A holiday, at least historically, denotes a day that is set apart or consecrated, usually as a day of religious observance.  However, as the West has become increasingly secularized, holiday observance has also become an increasingly secular affair for most people. 
[2]
Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are Romish sacred days.  By this we mean that they have their source in Roman Catholic tradition, rather than in Scripture. . . .  there have been times in the history of the Reformed churches when the truth on the subject of sacred days received reverent attention.  Already, before John Calvin arrived in Geneva at the time of the great Reformation, the observance of Romish sacred days had been discontinued there.  This had been done under the leadership of Guillaume Farel and Peter Viret.  But Calvin was in hearty agreement.  It is well known that when these traditional days came along on the calendar, Calvin did not pay the slightest attention to them.  He just went right on with his exposition of whatever book of the Bible he happened to be expounding.  The Reformers, Knox and Zwingli, agreed with Calvin.  So did the entire Reformed church of Scotland and Holland.  At the Synod of Dort in 1574 it was agreed that the weekly Sabbath alone should be observed, and that the observance of all other days should be discouraged.  This faithful Biblical practice was later compromised.  But that does not change the fact that the Reformed churches originally stood for the biblical principle. . . .  (G.I. Williamson, “On the Observance of Sacred Days” [Havertown: New Covenant Publications Society, n.d.], emphasis added.)  Williamson, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and author of a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, was one of the most prolific writers against the observance of religious holidays during the late-twentieth century.
[3] In the King James Version of the Bible, the word Easter appears in Acts 12:4.  This is an inaccurate anachronism, as Easter is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility, Eostre.  Other Bible translations correctly translate the Greek word pa,sca as “Passover.”  As a historical note, King James, who authorized the KJV, also promoted the observance of Episcopal holy days such as Easter.  So it was likely not by accident that his followers substituted the word Easter for the correct Biblical word Passover when they translated Acts 12:4.   
[4] The observance of the American “Hallmark holidays” of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Grandparent’s Day should be especially troublesome to Christians, as they are always celebrated on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week.  The world always prefers to glorify man rather than God, worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).  While it is right to honor our fathers and mothers, the renaming of the Lord’s Day as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day exchanges the truth of God for a lie.  Similarly, I believe that it is wrong for the church to celebrate Independence Day, Memorial Day, other national holidays, and even birthdays, on the Lord’s Day, for this similarly shifts the focus from God to man and secularizes God’s holy day.  The Bible never records anyone celebrating “Caesar Day.”  While Jesus said to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17), Scripture never records that this “rendering” included honoring Caesar or the Roman military in the public worship of God.  Scripture gives no evidence that the apostolic church celebrated Roman holidays in its worship services. 
[5] This is a direct quotation from the declaration issued by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) in 1899 (Minutes, Presbyterian Church U.S. [1899], 430.).
[6] Jochem Douma, The Ten Commandments, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1996), 158.
[7] Morton H. Smith, How is the Gold Become Dim:  The Decline of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., as Reflected in its Assembly Actions (Jackson, MS: Premier, 1973), 97, emphasis added.
[8] Brian Schwertley, “The Regulative Principle of Worship and Christmas,” (Lansing, Michigan: electronically retrieved 12 July 2001 at http://www.reformed.com/pub/xmas.htm, 1996), 25.
[9]
R.C. Sproul, Grace Unknown (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 29, emphasis added. 
[10] John Knox, “Letter to Mrs. Anna Lock” (1559), The Works of John Knox, vol. 6, ed. David Laing (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1855), 14, author’s translation, emphasis added.    
[11] G. I. Williamson, “Is Christmas Scriptural?”, electronically retrieved 14 October 2001  at  http://www.apuritansmind.com/Christmas/WilliamsonChristmas.htm


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