Reformed churches have historically been opposed to observing man made holy days such as Christmas and Easter. Even the Reformed churches on the continent, which left some holy day observance to Christian liberty in some of their confessions, did so because of either compromise with the stubborn people for the sake of further Reformation, or because the civil magistrates forced them to (c.f. John Calvin and Holy Days). Gisbertus Voetius, a delegate to the Synod of Dordt, relates that the Dutch Church had been trying to get rid of holy days for a long time, but the allowance of holy days by the synod was “imposed from the outside, burdensome to the churches, in and of itself in an absolute sense unwelcome; to which Synods were summoned, compelled, and coerced to receive, bring in, and admit, as in the manner of a transaction, in order to prevent worse disagreeable and bad situations” (Selectarum Disputationum Theologicarum pars prima, cited in Why are Ecclesiastical Feast Days in our Church Order?). The later Dutch Further Reformation was more successful in removing holy day observance from the churches (c.f. Nadere Reformatie Contra Christmas).
Sadly, today, not only are many Reformed churches going back to observing Christmas and Easter, some are even beginning to observe Lent, Good Friday, Advent, etc. as well. In this post we will outline eight reasons the Reformed have been opposed to man made holy days and have exclusively observed the Lord’s Day 52 times per year.*
1. “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work” (Ex. 20:9).
God has given us six days of working and one day of rest and worship. Whether we interpret the six days of work as a command or as permission, this principle is violated in the institution of a holy day. If it is a command, no man can command otherwise. If it is a permission to work six days, no human authority, including church officers, can bind the conscience and take away the liberty that God has granted to work six days per week, except as extraordinary providences call for occasional days of feasting and fasting (see below).
There is tremendous social pressure to observe certain holidays such as Christmas or Easter. Families would be upset if members chose not to participate; some feel they have a moral right to have the day off from their employer and wrongly think the employer would be infringing on their Christian liberty if they were forced to work on one of these holidays; when local churches have special worship services there is tremendous pressure for the congregation to attend, etc. All of these are violations of true liberty of conscience and the natural principle that six days of the week may be or must be used for work. These examples demonstrate that even though some may assert these holidays are not required, their emotional investment in them and actions toward others about them, in all practicality they are not treated as indifferent (adiaphora).
This argument is important, but not conclusive. The following seven reasons paint a fuller picture of the Reformed opposition to man made holy days.
2. Only God can make a day holy
“The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (Exod 20:4-6; Deut 4:15-20; 12:32; Mat 4:9-10; 15:9; Acts 17:25; Col 2:23).”
Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1
God forbids us from worshiping him “after our own heart and eyes,” because our fallen minds will cause us to go “a whoring;” true holiness is to worship God according to His commandments (Num. 15:39-40). Only the mind of God is able to guide us into holy worship, we are not able to do it ourselves. Man made holy days and ceremonies are an affront to the Head of the Church because man has no power or authority to sanctify days or to invent elements of worship “by art and man’s device” (Acts 17:29; cf. 1 Kings 12:33). Assigning spiritual significance to something Scripture doesn’t is the epitome of will worship (Col. 2:23), i.e. idolatry.
“What is idolatry, if this is not, to ascribe to rites of man’s devising, the power and virtue of doing that which none but He to whom all power in heaven and earth belongs can do?”
George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, p. 192.
God alone has the prerogative and authority to set apart a special day of worship and rest. Human beings have no authority to sanctify a day, we cannot worship God as we please, we must worship God how He has told us He wants to be worshiped. Christ as Head of the Church has not sanctified any other day but the Lord’s Day for New Testament worship. Therefore, to add our own church calendar to Christ’s church calendar would be an affront to His headship over the Church. We ought to sanctify by observing what God has instituted, not by attempting to impress God by our ingenuity and innovation in worship.
“There is no power either civil or ecclesiastical can make an holy day: no King, no Kirk: only the Lord that made the day, and distinguished it from the night: he hath sanctified the seventh day…If the special sanctification of a day to an holy use dependeth upon Gods commandment and institution, then neither King nor Kirk representative may make an holy day.”
Perth Assembly, p. 67.
While Christmas and Easter may not be considered inherently holier than other days, they are “holy days” in the sense we are speaking here in respect to their purpose and use because they are set apart for religious exercises. Specific biblical texts must be chosen unlike the Lord’s Day where it is left free to teach any part of God’s Word. Unbiblical ceremonies are added, such as the lighting of candles, the waving of palm branches, and certain decorations with intended religious significance, all of which violate the Regulative Principle of Worship and subvert the headship of Christ over His Church. Thus, in actuality, the holy days of man’s appointment are not merely equal with, but “in solemnity surpass the moral Sabbath appointed by the Lord” (Ibid.).
Occasional days of public fasting or thanksgiving
“Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for publick fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.”
Westminster Directory for Public Worship
The Light of Nature teaches that when God’s judgment is evident, or a society is in desperate need of repentance from a particular sin, it is appropriate to proclaim a general fast and a time of crying out to God to turn away His wrath and grant them repentance. Likewise, in times of blessing, it is appropriate to separate a day for public thanksgiving. Occasional times of fasting or thanksgiving prompted by providential events may be seen repeatedly in Scripture (as in 2 Chron. 20:2-3; Ezra 10; Neh. 9; Joel 1:14, 2:15; Zeph. 2:1-3; Matt. 9:15), whereas traditional holidays set apart by men are explicitly renounced in Scripture. Part of the rebellion and idolatry of the making and worshiping of the golden calf was the creation of a holy day of worship for “Jehovah” (Ex. 32:5). Also Jeroboam greatly angered the Lord in part by mimicking prescribed Mosaic festivals and instituting a holy day “which he had devised of his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33).
Occasional times of fasting or thanksgiving called by the Church are circumstances of worship since “all the particular causes, occasions, and times of fasting, could not be determined in Scripture” (Gillespie, Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies, p. 51), but annual days set apart by the Church for the commemoration of biblical events (such as the birth or resurrection of Christ) would be elements of worship and have no warrant from Scripture. The former are responses to immediate difficulties or blessings, as recognized by the elders of the church (or an individual, family, community, or nation), and their call to fast or feast in response to God in that particular set of circumstances, while the latter arise out of mechanical regulation (c.f. Mark 2:18-20; Matt. 6:16-18; G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes, p. 169) and have biblical, rather than circumstantial, subject matter, putting it on par with the Lord’s Day as an element of worship. How audacious are we when we institute elements of worship of our own devising!
3. No one but God has ever appointed a holy day
Not only may no one but God make a day holy, but in fact no one lawfully did so in the Old Testament, therefore none can be made in the New Testament age either. But what about Purim (Esther 9:22), and the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) (1 Maccabees 4:36), during which, Jesus was in Jerusalem (John 10:22)?
“It appears, that the days of Purim were only appointed to be days of civil mirth and gladness, such as are in use with us, when we set out bonfires, and other tokens of civil joy for some memorable benefit which the Kingdom or Commonwealth hath received. For they are not called the holy days of Purim, but simply the days of Purim, a day of feasting and of sending portions one to another (Esther 9:19-22), no word of any worship of God on those days.”
George Gillespie, Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies, p. 245.
Purim is essentially the same type of holiday as the 4th of July in the United States. It is not a religious holiday, rather it is a civil celebration and thus not under the purview of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Additionally, the Book of Esther is traditionally believed to have been penned by Mordecai, who was also a prophet (Esther 4:13). Therefore, whether “the days of Purim were instituted to be holy days, or not, yet there was some more than ordinary warrant for them” (Ibid., p. 101) and it was instituted by a prophet of God, thus, whether civil or holy, Purim was lawful.
The Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah)
The Feast of Dedication was a commemoration of the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt in the inter-Testamental period and recorded in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees. Thomas Cartwright compares the dedications of the first and second Temples recorded in the Old Testament to the dedication by Judas Maccabeus in order to demonstrate that it was not of the same character as the first two, which were done lawfully:
“That this Feast [of Dedication] was unduly instituted and ungroundedly, it may appear by conference of the dedication of the first Temple under Solomon (1 Kings 8:22ff), and of the second, after the captivity returned from Babylon (Ezra 6:15-18). In which dedication seeing there was no yearly remembrance by solemnity of Feast, not so much as one day, it is evident that the yearly celebration of this Feast for eight days, was not compassed by that Spirit that Solomon and the captivity were directed by. Which Spirit, when it dwelt more plentifully in Solomon, and in the Prophets that stood at the stern of the captivities dedication, than it did in Judas [Maccabeus], it was in him so much the more presumptuous, as having a shorter leg then they, he duly in that matter overstride them. And his rashness is so much the more aggravated, as each of them for the building of the whole Temple, with all the implements and furniture thereof, made no Feast to renew the annual memory, where Judas only for renewment of the Altar, and of certain other decayed places of the Temple, instituted this great solemnity.”
Annotations on John 10.
Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication
“And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch. Then came the Jews round about him…” (John 10:22-24a).
This passage does not say that Jesus observed the Feast of Dedication, rather it gives us the time and place that the following events occurred. It would be unwarranted to assume from this passage that Jesus condoned the unlawful holy day. Christ remained in Jerusalem after the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7) so that He could preach to the multitudes at the Feast of Dedication, not so that He could observe the man made holy day. Just as the Apostle Paul capitalized on the multitudes of people at Jewish festivals whom he preached to (Acts 18:21; 20:16), but not to observe the festivals themselves (Gal. 4:10; c.f. Calvin commentary on Acts 18:21), so did Jesus.
“Jesus improved the feast of dedication, though not of divine institution, as a proper opportunity to exercise his ministry, when crowds of the Jews were gathered from all parts…”
Samuel Davies, sermons (1758).
4. Annual holy days were part of the Ceremonial Law and abrogated with it
“Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23).
“The Apostle calls them ‘weak and beggarly elements‘ (Gal. 4:9-10). ‘The elements of the world‘ (Col. 2:20). ‘Shadows of things to come‘ (Col. 2:16-17). The Apostle did not say: ‘the observation of Judaical days,’ but in itself, the observation of days served to the people of God for a typical use and a rudiment of religion. If the observation of some anniversary days was prescribed to the Jews, as elements and rudiments for their instruction; it follows that the observation of anniversary days is of itself a rudimentary instruction; otherwise the Apostle’s reason will not hold.
The Apostle condemns difference of days as he condemns difference of meats. To esteem some meats clean, and some unclean is Judaical, howbeit we observe not the same difference, that the Jews did. Days and meats are paralleled together, to esteem one day holier then another, not so discerned by the Lords commandment must be also Judaical. The Kirk under the Gospel hath past the rudiments; and therefore the observation of anniversary days doth not beseem her. To substitute other days in place of the Jewish, a Christian Pascha [Easter] and Pentecost for the Jewish, is but to substitute rudiments and elements to the Jewish, and not to chase away, but to change the Jewish holy days…
The Jews had no anniversary days, but such as were abrogated. They were abrogated not only as ‘shadows of things to come,‘ but also as memorials of bygone benefits. Even as they were days of remembrance they belonged to the pedagogy of the law. Converted Jews may not lawfully observe the Jewish festivities, even as remembrances of bygone benefits (Gal. 4). In every respect all their anniversary days are abolished, and they had none other, but such as were abolished. Therefore in every respect they belonged to the Ceremonial Law. The observation therefore of anniversary days even in respect of remembrance was to the Jews pedagogical, rudimentary and elementary, and consequently ceremonial… If the Jews had no anniversary solemnities to endure after Christs coming when they should be converted to Christianity, how can the observation of anniversary days be taken up by Christians?”
Perth Assembly, p. 72.
5. Jesus Christ has not instituted any other holy day but the Lord’s Day
In addition to the abrogation of the Old Testament ceremonials and festivals, and the utter silence of the New Testament regarding any new ones, which would be enough to prove that there are no Christian holy days other than the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath. However, the following reasons further demonstrate that there are no new holy days.
If there had been any other days dedicated to Christ, the Apostle John’s statement “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) would be ambiguous. He clearly assumes that his readers will understand what day he is referring to. When the Apostle Paul condemns the observation of Jewish holy days (Col. 2:16; Gal. 4; etc.), he does not direct them to new holy days. If such existed, that would be the appropriate place to mention it.
“Against this argument is first alleged, that the Apostle compares [the Sabbath] with the observation of days (Rom. 14:5-6).
“Answer: The Apostle bears with the infirmity of the weak Jews, who understood not the fullness of the Christian liberty. And the ceremonial law was as yet not buried (Heb. 8:13). But the same Apostle reproves the Galatians, who had attained to this liberty, and had once left off the observation of days (Gal. 3:3-4 & 4:9-11 & 5:7-8). Next, the Judaical days had once that honour, as to be appointed by God himself: but the anniversary days appointed by men have not the like honour.”
Ibid., p. 74.
For brevity’s sake, we will not go into a defense of the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath here. See The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath | Jonathan Edwards.
Holy days in the Early Church
There are conflicting accounts in the Early Church about where Pascha, or Easter, comes from. Some sources claimed that the Apostle John taught it to them, others that Peter and Paul taught it, but the accounts are not reliable. Scripture alone is the rule of faith and life (Luke 16:29, 31; Eph 2:20; 2 Tim 3:16; Rev 22:18-19), and if the Apostles wanted something to be observed by the Church, they would have written it in Scripture. And if the Apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit to institute a Christian version of Passover, Pascha (Easter), they would not have disagreed on the day it was to be observed as some in the Early Church have testified. Some reported that Philip and John kept the 14th day of the month, and others that Peter kept the first Lord’s Day after the 14th day of the month, which turned into a long lasting controversy.
“I am of opinion, that as many other things crept in of custom in sundry places, so the feast of Easter to have prevailed among all people of a certain private custom and observation insomuch that not one of the Apostles hath any where prescribed so much as one rule of it to any man. The success and event hath manifestly declared unto the world, that of old it was observed, not of Canon, but of custom. And a little after, they that keep Easter the 14th day of the month, bring forth John the Apostle for their Author. Such as inhabit Rome, and the West parts of the world, allege Peter and Paul for themselves, that they should leave such a tradition, yet there is none of them that can shew in writing any testimony of theirs for confirmation and proof of that custom.”
Socrates (380-439 AD), Church History, book 5, chapter 22.
6. Specific dates
If God wanted us to have religious festivities for the events of Christ’s life, He would have recorded the exact days of the year that those events took place, but we have no such information, the dates of Christmas, Easter, Advent, Lent, etc. are educated guesses at best, therefore it is not God’s will for us to set apart and observe those days.
“If it had been the will of God, that the several acts of Christ should have been celebrated with several solemnities, the Holy Ghost would have made known to us the day of his Nativity, Circumcision, presentation to the Temple, Baptism, Transfiguration, and the like… If the principal works of God advance some days above others, all the days of the year should be holy. If we should honour the memory of Christ’s acts, all days likewise should be holy, because every one of them is full of his miracles. Christ by his actions did no more consecrate the times wherein they were wrought, than his body did the manger or the cross. Not Christ’s action on a day, but his institution makes a day holy. If Christ’s actions advance and consecrate the days whereon they were wrought, the days ought to be known… You see then, as God hid the body of Moses, so has he hid this day and other days depending on the calculation of it, wherein he declared his will concerning the other days of his notable acts.”
Perth Assembly, p. 79-80.
7. Even things indifferent, when they are abused and polluted with superstition, ought to be abolished.
If something is neither commanded nor forbidden it is indifferent (adiaphora). However, if something indifferent were to become corrupt with superstition it should be done away with so as not to cause offense. It is a duty of the second commandment to not only to detest, oppose, and remove all false worship, but also to remove all monuments of idolatry, according to our places and callings (WLC Q. 108). We are to hate “even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 23) and follow the example of Hezekiah, “He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4). We are to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thes. 5:22) and not to follow the ways of the superstitious heathen (Jeremiah 10:2-5).
“Grant the keeping of holy days to have been at the beginning a matter indifferent, and setting aside all the former reasons, yet ought they to be abolished, because according to the rule of the Fathers, commended to us by Zanchius (In 4. Praecept. Col. 678.), Non male igitur fecerint qui omnis pr‘ter diem Dominicum aboleverunt, Things indifferent, when they are abused and polluted with superstition, ought to be abolished… The number, the abuses, the superstitions, the false worships, the will-worships of feasts so increased, that there is nothing in the kirk so unsavory to God, so pernicious to men, as to sanctify such and so many days. We pretend that we place no part of God’s worship in the observation of days. But how can we observe a day to the honor of Christ, and not worship him by that observation? That were to make his honor no honor. We use to reason against the Papists, after this manner. To dedicate days to Saints is religious worship. Is it not then religious worship to dedicate a day to Christ; yea surely, and will-worship.”
Ibid., p. 83.
George Gillespie defines “monuments of idolatry” thus:
“Ceremonies are unlawful, because they are monuments of by-past idolatry, which not being necessary to be retained, should be utterly abolished, because of their idolatrous abuse… All things and rites, which have been notoriously abused to idolatry, if they be not such, as either God or nature hath made to be of a necessary use, should be utterly abolished and purged away from Divine worship, in such sort that they may not be accounted nor used by us, as sacred things, or rites pertaining to the same…
I say, which have been notoriously abused to idolatry, because if the abuse is not known, we are blameless for retaining the things and rites which have been abused. I say, if they are not such as either God or nature has made to be of a necessary use, because if they are of a necessary use, either through God’s institution, as the sacraments, or through nature’s law, as the opening of our mouths to speak (for when I am to preach or pray publicly, nature makes it necessary that I open my mouth to speak audibly and articularly), then the abuse cannot take away the use. I say, they may not be used by us as sacred things, rites pertaining to divine worship, because without the compass of worship they may be used to a natural or civil purpose. If I could get no other meat to eat than the consecrated host, which Papists idolatrise [idolize] in the circumgestation of it, I might lawfully eat it; and if I could get no other clothes to put on than the holy garments wherein a priest has said mass, I might lawfully wear them. Things abused to idolatry are only then unlawful when they are used no otherwise than religiously, and as things sacred.”
8. That which has lawfully been abolished cannot be received and put in practice again
After the attainments of the Protestant Reformation, wherein the Reformed Church cast off the superstitious, idolatrous, and arbitrary rituals and holidays of the Papal Antichrist, how can we justify slipping back into a lukewarm position?
“Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain…But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain…Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you.” (Gal. 3:3-4 & 4:9-11 & 5:7-8).
“If the Apostle reproved the Galatians so sharply that beginning in the spirit, they returned to the flesh, that is to the ceremonies of Moses’ Law, some time ordained by God, what reproof deserve we after we have begun in the Spirit, and run so well, and so long, if we return to human traditions and superstitions?”
Perth Assembly, p. 86.
“Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward” (2 John 8).
“As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly” (Prov. 26:11).
“For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Peter 2:20-22).
“But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die” (Ez. 18:24).
“But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions… Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise” (Heb. 10:32, 35-36).
* This article is a summary of Reasons Against Holy Days, one of the five points of dispute written by David Calderwood and the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in 1618 when King James forced the Kirk to adopt the Five Articles of Perth. The other four articles refuted by the General Assembly are: kneeling during communion, private baptism, private communion for the sick or infirm, and confirmation by a Bishop. Read the full report here: Perth Assembly.
See also The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism by Chris Coldwell.
A Holy God and Holy Days by Rev. Robert McCurley (transcript and audio).
Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies by George Gillespie