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Ten Reasons Why Christians Should Not Observe Religious Holidays
 

As Christians we believe that

I.   The Bible is God-breathed, without error, and unfailing; it is all that we need for life and godliness (2 Tim. 3:16; John 10:35; Isa. 55:11; 2 Pet. 1:3).

II.  God’s Word, as delivered to His holy prophets and apostles in the Old and New Testaments, is the only foundation for the beliefs and practices of Christ’s Church (Eph. 2:20; cf. Luke 1:70; 24:44-47; John 1:14; 5:46). 

III.  Any religious teaching that is not found in the Bible (explicitly or implicitly) does not come from God; it is not Christian; it is not Biblical; it is not binding on Christians. (Deut. 4:2; 12:29-32; 1 Cor. 3:12-15; Jas. 3:1; Rev. 22:18-19)

In addition to these foundational principles, let us consider ten reasons that Reformed Christians from generations past did not observe religious holidays:

#1. Religious holidays bind the consciences of men where God has not bound them.  They are based on tradition and superstition, not God’s Word (Matt. 15:9; Mark 7:8, 9, 13; Col. 2:16-17).  Today most professing Christians observe holy days and seasons that God never commanded us to observe, and they judge other Christians as being less faithful or holy if they do not keep their manmade religious holidays.  Yet, the Bible clearly teaches that the Christian’s conscience is bound to the Word of God alone.  

Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher, delivered a sermon on December 24, 1871, in which he declared that the observance of religious holidays and seasons is based on superstition and not on God’s Word:

     We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons.  Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and consequently, its observance is a superstition, because [it’s] not of divine authority.  Superstition has fixed most positively the day of our Saviour’s birth, although there is no possibility of discovering when it occurred. . . .
 
     It was not till the middle of the third century that any part of the church celebrated the nativity of our Lord; and it was not till very long after the Western church had set the example, that the Eastern adopted it.  Because the day is not known, therefore superstition has fixed it . . . Where is the method in the madness of the superstitious?  Probably the fact is that the holy days were arranged to fit in with heathen festivals.  We venture to assert, that if there be any day in the year, of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which the Saviour was born, it is the twenty-fifth of December.  

See also:  Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 6 (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Gal. 1:8-9; 2 Thess. 2:2).

#2. Religious holidays distort the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   Churches that center their worship and preaching around religious holidays found on liturgical calendars fail to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” as God intended (Acts 20:26-27).  Instead of proclaiming God’s Word straightforwardly and giving due proportion to all its teachings, they distort the Gospel by giving undue emphasis each year to the particular events emphasized by their humanly-devised liturgical calendar.

#3. Galatians 4:9-11 prohibits Christians from observing religious holy days and seasons.  John Calvin comments that the false apostles Paul confronts in Galatians sought to fill the minds of God’s people with “wicked superstitions.”  Their observance of religious holy days and seasons corrupted the worship of God, made void the grace of Christ, and suppressed believers’ freedom of conscience.  Calvin argued that the Gospel was of no value any more to those who consider “holy days to be part of the worship of God just as the false apostles did.” 

Regarding the Roman Catholic Church, Calvin asked, “. . . what sort of Christ or what sort of gospel does it retain?  So far as respects the binding of consciences, they enforce the observance of days with not less severity than was done by Moses.  They consider holidays, not less than the false apostles did, to be a part of the worship of God, and even connect with them the diabolical notion of merit.”[1]

The observance of so-called Christian holidays is even worse than some of the practices of the Judaizers.  John Calvin explained that the Judaizers and their followers “wanted to observe days which had been appointed by the law of God” under the old covenant, but today churches “command days to be kept as holy which they have rashly stamped with their own seal,” but which God never instituted in His Word. 

G.I. Williamson, a Presbyterian pastor in the OPC, once pointed out:

    . . . the people in Galatia could at least prove that the days they observed had once been appointed by God.  Christians today cannot show that God ever appointed Christmas, Good Friday, or Easter.  When Christ came, the ceremonial system passed away.  Included in the ceremonial system were annual sacred days.  For the Galatians to go on celebrating these days was, in effect, to act as if they were still waiting for the Messiah to come.  Yet even so they could at least claim that the days they were observing originated by divine institution.  Christians can make no such claim for their sacred days.  If Paul, then, was afraid that he might have labored in vain among the Galatians because of what they did, what would he say about people today who observe special sacred days God never commanded?[2]


#4. Colossians 2:16-23 prohibits Christians from observing religious holy days and seasons.  God here says that Christians never ought to let anyone judge them for not observing a religious holy day or season (although this does not include the eternal sabbath day, grounded in Creation).  The religious holy days and seasons of the old covenant were a shadow of the things that were to come, but they were all fulfilled in Christ.  Christ has abolished the ceremonial law of the Old Testament (Eph. 2:15).  For the Church to continue to set aside religious holidays constitutes “will-worship” or “self-imposed worship” or “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23). 

#5. The Second Commandment prohibits Christians from observing religious holidays (Exod. 20:4-6; Deut. 5:8-10). 
The second commandment requires people to receive, observe, and keep pure and entire all religious worship and ordinances that God has appointed in His Word.  It forbids us from worshipping God in any way not appointed in His Word.  It forbids us from counseling, commanding, using, or any way approving any religious worship not instituted by God Himself, all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intentions, or any other pretence.  We are called to disapprove, detest, and oppose all false worship. 

See Westminster Shorter Catechism, questions 50 & 51.  Westminster Larger Catechism, questions 108 & 109.

#6. The Fourth Commandment prohibits Christians from observing religious holidays and seasons (Exod. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15).  The fourth commandment requires us to sanctify or keep holy to God such set times as He has appointed in His Word.  Only the first day of the week, or the Christian sabbath, is commanded for Christians to observe.  No other religious holidays are set apart by God in His Word.  As the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1646) emphasized, the only day that God has authorized as a holy day is the Lord’s Day:  “There is no day commanded in the scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.  Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.” 

See Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 58.  Westminster Larger Catechism, question 116. 

#7. Religious holidays violate the Biblical (“Reformed”) regulative principle of worship.  God’s Word teaches that Christians are only to worship God in the way that He has commanded or “prescribed” in His Word (Deut. 4:2; 12:29-32; Rev. 22:18-19).  For the Church to continue to set aside religious holidays constitutes “will-worship” or “self-imposed worship” or “self-made religion” (Col. 2:23). 

The Westminster Confession of Faith in its first chapter, section 6, on “The Holy Scriptures” tells us that “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” is found in God’s written Word, “unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.”  Is the celebration of religious holidays in accordance with this Biblical view of the authority of God’s Word?

The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches in chapter 21, section 1, on Christian worship that “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 the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed [commanded] in the Holy Scripture.” 

In his commentary of Jeremiah 7:31, in which the Lord condemns the Jews for doing that “which I did not command, nor did it enter My mind,” Calvin wrote:

      We hence perceive that there is no end of sinning, when men give themselves up to their own inventions; for God surrenders those to Satan, that they may be led by the spirit of giddiness and of madness and of stupidity.  Let us therefore learn ever to regard what God approves: and let this be the very beginning of our inquiry, whenever we undertake anything, whether God commands it; and this course ought especially to be observed with regard to his worship; for . . . religion is especially founded on faith, and faith is based on the word of God. . . .

      This reason ought to be carefully noticed, for God here cuts off from men every occasion for making evasions, since he condemns by this one phrase, “I have not commanded them,” whatever the Jews devised.  There is then no other argument needed to condemn superstitions, than that they are not commanded by God: for when men allow themselves to worship God according to their own fancies, and attend not to his commands, they pervert true religion.[3]

The observance of religious holidays adds to God’s Word the inventions and imaginations of men.  God warns against this in the strongest of language throughout His Word.  Consider Deut. 4:2; 12:29-32; Lev. 10:1-2; Num. 16:36-40; 1 Sam. 13:9-13; 2 Chron. 26:16-19; Jer. 19:5; Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 7:7-8; John 4:22-24; Col. 2:20-23; Rev. 22:18-19.  The Bible forbids the observance of humanly-invented religious holidays in Christian worship, as they were not instituted by God in His Word.  

See also:  Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 6 and Chapter 20, paragraph 2 (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Gal. 1:8-9; 2 Thess. 2:2; Jas. 4:12; Rom. 14:4; Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29; 1 Cor. 7:23; Matt. 23:8-10; 2 Cor. 1:24; Matt. 15:9; Col. 2:20-23; Gal. 1:10; Gal. 2:4-5; Gal. 5:1; Rom. 10:17; 14:23; Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11; John 4:22; Hos. 5;11; Rev. 13:12, 16-17; Jer. 8:9). 

#8. The observance of religious holidays constitutes religious syncretism, the mixing of true and false worship and true and false religion, which is strongly condemned in Scripture (Deut. 12:28-32; 2 Cor. 6:14-16).  God’s people are warned in the strongest of language not to worship Him in the way that pagans worship their gods.  He adds, “whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do, you shall not add to nor take away from it” (Deut. 12:30-32).  Most religious holidays come from ancient pagan religions and were later adopted and “christianized” by the Roman Catholic Church.  Since they were not commanded by God in His Word, they are not of divine origin.  The observance of such holidays is thus a superstition, which integrates false religion into Christ’s Church. 

#9. Church history condemns the observance of religious holidays.   The apostolic church and early church did not observe man-ordained religious holidays.  Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian churches were opposed to the observance of all religious holidays, except for the Lord’s holy day, the Christian Sabbath, Sunday.  John Calvin, John Knox, Ebenezer Erskine, the Puritans, and American Presbyterians opposed such holy days and seasons, as did many Bible-believing Christians throughout the centuries.  The Directory for Public Worship of the Westminster Assembly did not allow the observance of religious holy days and seasons, nor did the version used by Presbyterian denominations in America prior to some time in the 1900s. 

John Calvin expressed the idolatrous tendency of such holidays and seasons as Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, and Lent in his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:1-2:

      Accordingly, although Papists laugh at us, when we censure their tyrannical laws about outward ceremonies, yet we know that we are pleading a cause of the greatest weight and importance; because the doctrine of faith is destroyed, as soon as the worship of God is infected by such corruptions.  The controversy is not about flesh or fish, or about a black[4] or ashy color, or about Friday or Wednesday, but about the mad superstitions of men, who wish to appease God by such trifles, and, by contriving a carnal worship of him, contrive for themselves an idol instead of God.  Who will deny that this is revolting from the faith?[5]

      . . . it is not an error of small importance, or one that ought to be concealed, when consciences are bound by the contrivances of men, and at the same time the worship of God is corrupted.[6]


It might shock most modern-day Lutherans, but even Martin Luther voiced his opposition to the observance of church holidays.  He lamented, “. . . we have made holy days unholy and working days holy, and do no service but great dishonor to God and His saints with all our holy days.”[7]  Martin Luther wrote in 1520:

     XVII.
          “Therefore He commanded also that the seventh day should be kept holy and that we cease from our works which we do the other six days.  This Sabbath has now for us been changed into the Sunday, and the other days are called workdays; the Sunday is called rest day or holiday or holy day.  And would to God that in Christendom there were no holiday except the Sunday; that the festivals of our Lady and of the Saints were all transferred to Sunday; then would many evil vices be done away with through the labor of the workdays, and lands would not be so drained and impoverished.  But now we are plagued with many holidays, to the destruction of souls, bodies and goods; of which matter much might be said.”[8] 

The observance of religious holidays would appear to run contrary to the principles of the Reformed faith, as expressed in the confessional documents of most Presbyterian denominations:   

Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6; 20.2).
      Westminster Larger Catechism  (Q 108, 109, 116)
      Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q 50, 51, 58)

 #10. God’s Word itself and Jesus Christ Himself appear to condemn the observance of religious holidays.  God’s Word, as written by His holy apostles and prophets, appears to condemn the observance of religious holidays by Christians, as can be seen in the writings of Moses (Exod. 20:4-6, 8-11; Deut. 4:2; 5:8-10, 12-15; 12:29-32), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:3-6), Josiah (2 Kings 23:2-7ff), the apostle Paul (Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:16-23), and the apostle John (1 John 2:15-16; Rev. 22:18-19) among others.

The teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appears to condemn the observance of religious holidays.  He warned that such worship is in vain and that such traditions invalidate the word of God and make the word of God of no effect (Matt. 15:9; Mark 7:8, 9, 13).  Jesus’ Great Commission teaches us that Christians are to observe that which Christ “commanded” us in His Word (Matt. 28:20).  Jesus commanded us to observe His death and resurrection, but not His birth.  He told us very specifically to remember His death and resurrection on the Lord’s day as we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:24-25).

God calls us to “stand fast . . . in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).  Except for the sabbath day, which is part of God’s eternal moral law, we ought not to observe “days and months and seasons and years” as holy (Gal. 4:10).  If we place our trust in church holidays or anything other than Christ alone by faith alone, God warns, “Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Gal. 5:2).  If the observance of religious holidays (and their associated humanly-invented symbols, rituals and ceremonies) is contrary to Scripture, then God calls us to repent and obey His Word alone.  

Instead of obeying God’s Word alone, many Presbyterian and Reformed churches in America are following the lead of the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in rejecting, redefining, or “explaining away” much of the teachings of the Protestant Reformers as well as God’s Word itself.  In redefining what constitutes the Reformed, Presbyterian, and Calvinist faith, such churches are becoming increasingly worldly and looking back to Roman Catholicism as they introduce the teachings of the Pope and other “traditions” into their Reformed churches.

An article that just appeared in the PC(USA) Ideas! Magazine and is prominently displayed on their denominational website
[9] illustrates this point.  “Giving Up Calvin for Lent,” written by Tammy Wiens, associate for spiritual formation, theology, worship, and education, explains the new reformation in which modern-day Presbyterians have embarked, departing from the teachings of Calvin and the Protestant Reformation:


      In a year dedicated to John Calvin’s legacy, it is intriguing to note one thing Presbyterians cannot trace back to him: our practice of Lent. Those of us who choose to “give up” something for Lent are not doing so with Calvin’s blessing. More than likely Calvin would also be surprised to find Presbyterians wearing ashes on their foreheads at the beginning of Lent, because Protestants have historically avoided that practice. For many years Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians shied away from all things Roman Catholic. The timidity, of course, was something we inherited from the Protestant Reformation. In their efforts to free Christians from what they saw to be the oppressive rule-making of the Catholic Church in Rome, Calvin and other Reformation theologians sought to eradicate practices of popular piety that were not singularly Christ-centered. As with any major shift or movement, however, the pendulum swung so far away from Roman Catholicism that much of the Reformed tradition lost ties to some Christian practices that we are now moving to recover. Practices such as pilgrimage, iconography and veneration of saints were not necessary practices for salvation, and, in fact, said the Reformers, these disciplines could sometimes lead people away from Christ. What’s worse, the costs involved in carrying out these practices had become a means to line the pockets of the church.

      Ash Wednesday and other Lenten observances were among those practices that Reformers sought to eliminate based on their conviction that they manipulated the hearts of believers to trust in ritual and right practice, rather than devoting their lives in pure service to Christ. In his Institutes (IV.12.20), John Calvin criticized the fasting associated with Lent as a “superstitious observance,” believing that the discipline had become a substitute rather than an aid to right relationship with Christ and service to God.[10]

       So, what has prompted Presbyterians to revive Lenten observance? For one thing, Vatican II brought major reforms within the Roman Catholic Church [not necessarily for the better]. These reforms embraced the best of Protestantism [I beg to differ] and opened a door that had been closed to increased dialogue and relationships between Catholics and Protestants. It paved the way to a mutual sharing of the best of both traditions which in turn led to liturgical resources that would allow the two traditions to worship in greater unity. For instance, in 1970 The Westminster Press published a new Worshipbook that offered Presbyterians a full Lord’s Day lectionary, and thereby, a resource to promote lectionary-based preaching. Following the lectionary made the church year more visible to worshipers. In turn, those who planned worship began to take greater notice of special days and seasons, which over the years has played a significant role in the Reformed tradition’s reclamation of classical spiritual practices tied to the season of Lent.

     Another factor in Presbyterian reclamation of Roman Catholic practices such as those associated with Lent is that the boundaries between traditions are not what they used to be. If you survey Presbyterians today you are as likely to meet someone who was raised Roman Catholic as you are to find someone who was raised Baptist. Recent studies have disclosed that over 40 percent of adults have switched to a religious affiliation that is different from the tradition in which they were raised.[11] Even among those who were raised in and remain in the Protestant faith, a goodly number change denominations at least once in their adult lives. It only makes sense that as people migrate from one church to another (or from one religion to another) they bring pieces of their previous worship traditions with them. An increasing number of Protestants are dipping into the well of Roman Catholic spiritual practices such as lectio divina, centering prayer and Benedictine observance of the Daily Office. In this sense, Lent may be part of a trend toward a recovery of classical spiritual disciplines — a trend that is also increasing our willingness to embrace mystery, ritual and awe.

      In this year of honoring Calvin’s 500-year legacy, it is intriguing to speculate what the Reformer might say to Presbyterians in the 21st century concerning our return to Lenten practices. . . . .

I end my quote here, as I fail to concur with Ms. Wiens’ ideas as to what Calvin might think of modern-day Presbyterians’ observance of Lent. 

I believe that if Calvin were alive today he might ask modern-day Presbyterians who desire to reclaim Roman Catholic practices to no longer associate his name with their religion.  He would insist that the light of the Protestant Reformation has been virtually extinguished.  He would insist that the embracing of “mystery, ritual, and awe” among modern-day churches is evidence of their spiritual darkness.  He would boldly and vehemently call upon us, with his characteristic logic, reason, and zeal, to reform ourselves and our churches, striving to conform our doctrine and worship, our faith and life to the Scriptures alone. 

________________________________________________________

[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 125. 
[2] G.I. Williamson, “On the Observance of Sacred Days” (Havertown: New Covenant Publications, n.d.).
[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on The Prophet Jeremiah and Lamentations, Vol. I, trans. Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 413-414.  
[4] Good Friday is also known as “Black Friday.”  “The vestments used [today in the Roman Catholic Church] are red.  Before 1970, they were black except for the Communion part of the rite, for which violet was used, and before 1955 black was used throughout.”  Electronically retrieved 28 January 2009 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Friday#cite_note-sanctamissa.org-14.
[5] John Calvin, Commentaries on The Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 98.  
[6] Ibid., 99.
[7] Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate” (1520).  See #18.  Electronically retrieved 29 January 2009 at http://www.lgmarshall.org/Reformed/luther_germannobility.html
[8] Martin Luther, “A Treatise on Good Works Together with the Letter of Dedication” (1520).  Electronically retrieved 29 January 2009 at www.ccel.org/l/luther/good_works/cache/good_works.html3
[9] Electronically retrieved 15 February 2009 from the official website of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) www.pcusa.org/ideas/2009spring/lent.htm
[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.20 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).
[11] Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, Feb. 25, 2008.
 


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