Ten Reasons Why Christians Should Not
Observe Religious Holidays
As Christians we believe that
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).
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).
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.
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.”
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 [of approval],” 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?
#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.”
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
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:
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.
. . .
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.
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.
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
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?
. . . 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.
<![endif]>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.”
Martin Luther wrote in 1520:
“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.”
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 appear 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
An article that just appeared in the PC(USA) Ideas! Magazine and is
prominently displayed on their denominational website
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.
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 [John Knox] 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
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.
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.
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.
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Bible Ministries. All rights reserved.