Secular Holy Days?

Some well-meaning Reformed Christians rightly understand how problematic “church calendar” observance is, given Scripture’s teaching on the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) and the Sabbath. In some sense they agree with the Puritan and Westminsterian position that man-made holy days are unwarranted by Scripture. And yet, while not wanting to entirely abandon them, two sorts of positions arise which allege to keep holy day celebrations in a modest way. Some contend that these ecclesiastical holy days, while not obligatory, are never-the-less spiritually helpful for focusing on the specific biblical themes that the holy days are remembrances of. Others, not wanting to go even that far, contend that these holy days can be celebrated in a merely cultural and non-religious manner, rather than as special holy days. It is laudable that these views are an attempt to move away from superstitious observance of holy days, but we will contend in this article that they fail to actually do so. Recasting ecclesiastical holy days as merely helpful or merely cultural is not a consistent and faithful approach Christians should take with regard to these days.

Below we will see how (1) holy days are inherently spiritual and religious. We will also distinguish between public worship and private celebration as we look at how celebrating man-made holy days violates (2) the Sabbath and (3) Christian Liberty, (4) brings scandal to the church and her enemies, (5) often brings innovations in worship, and (6) supports monuments of idolatry.

1. Holy Days are Inherently and Necessarily Religious.

The Nature of Holy Days.

Ecclesiastical holy days are annual calendar days or seasons set apart by churches for the commemoration of redemptive-historical events in the life of Christ, such as his incarnation, birth, circumcision, resurrection, ascension, etc. They have biblical, rather than circumstantial or secular, subject matter, which puts them on par with the Sabbath as a spiritually significant aspect of worship. [1] The “church calendar” is an elevation of days and seasons to unique religious significance by virtue of them allegedly being anniversaries of biblical events—either literally according to the date, or by institution of the church which set the date for that purpose. Either way, these times and seasons are allegedly sanctified by the events that happened at those times in the past. Holy days are thus treated as spiritually significant by the continued annual observance of them. Holy days are similar to the reasoning behind relics and places being holy because of the things that happened with them or at them. [2] The timing of a holy day is not coincidental, secular, or practical, it is religious and sacred, and it is religiously observed as such. As R.C. Sproul wrote:

“When God touches earth, the place is holy. When God appears in history, the time is holy. There was never a more holy place than the city of Bethlehem, where the Word became flesh. There was never a more holy time than Christmas morning when Emmanuel was born. Christmas is a holiday. It is the holiest of holy days.” (Don’t Be A Scrooge This Christmas, Ligonier Ministries).

Perhaps Reformed and Presbyterian Christians who observe holy days are not comfortable with Sproul’s characterization, but they must still grapple with the purpose and intention of what a holy day is in and of itself. They must also grapple with the objective effect of their, albeit comparatively restrained, use of holy days.

The Use of Holy Days.

In truth, if ecclesiastical holy days serve any useful purpose, they must evoke thoughts and feelings about Christ, and the importance of his redemptive acts for his people. The very nature and purpose of such holy days is to stir up devotion and worship. It is not consistent with the reality and nature of a holy day to baldly assert that it can be used in a non-religious manner. To illustrate this point, it is profitable to compare the existence and use of graven images with the existence and use of holy days.

It is very inconsistent for Reformed Christians to eschew the use of images of Christ as art or for teaching children, but then to turn around and observe annual festivals commemorating Christ’s works while alleging to not consider them holy. In the former we see how images of Christ are created to stir up devotion, despite their alleged innocent use. So in a similar way, days set apart to commemorate events in the life of Christ aim to stir up devotion—that is the inherent and essential tendency of them, despite any casuistic protest that they are not holy. [3]

How can anything commemorating or depicting our beloved Lord and Savior, not be holy? And how can the observance of them not be de facto worshipful? How can a festival about Jesus Christ not be holy? If it is not then it must necessarily be vain and blasphemous. If Christ’s redemptive acts are to be invoked, as they are in the annual celebration of his birth, resurrection, etc., then a holy reverence is due to him in it. Invoking these redemptive acts while simultaneously refusing to take notice of “the reason for the season” or “the Christ in Christmas,” is treating Christ and his works as worthless, vain, and dull. Or it is setting aside the obvious religious purposes for its material associations and festivities. The only consistent use of these holy days is either a religious and devotional use, or an entire abandonment of them altogether. As we have argued several times before, we believe the latter is the most faithful Christian policy.

Moreover, this argument for a secular celebration of holy days seems like a modified form of the old argument that it is acceptable to bow to a statue, or go to Mass, as long as one’s heart intends no religious devotion in these actions. On the contrary, our bodies as well as our souls belong to the Lord. We cannot do something outwardly with our bodies and something else inwardly with our minds and spirits (Perkins, Works VIII, p. 307). Obviously the relatively modest use of holy days are far less egregiously sinful than idol worship or attendance at the Anti-Christian Mass, but the rationale behind the arguments justifying both is the same.

Private Use of Holy Days.

Private observance is not as heinous as corporate observance because it does not necessarily affect entire congregations. Some churches may not have set aside corporate gatherings in observance of the church calendar, but yet many families will still privately observe it in their homes to one degree or another.

Even when observed privately, holy days remain an unwarranted setting apart of time for the commemoration of biblical events and treating them as religiously special by virtue of a supposed anniversary of a biblical event. Even if a church or family does not introduce unwarranted practices in their worship, the willed intention in setting aside, for instance, December 25th to religiously observe Christ’s birth, is sinful “will-worship” (Col. 2:23) because it originates in the will of man rather than the will and command of God.

Thus, the observance of holy days inherently superstitious [4] and unlawful, regardless of the degree of zeal or solemnity with which one observes them. However, we need to acknowledge different levels of error with respect to the things people do in observance of holy days (cf. WLC 151).

2. The Sabbath.

The Lord’s Day is the only holy day instituted by God for observance in the new covenant. By creating and observing annual days in commemoration of redemptive-historical events in the life of Christ the church is adding spiritual significance to a time that God did not attribute spiritual significance to and treating something as holy without divine warrant. This was part of Aaron’s sin when he instituted a feast day for Jehovah, and made a graven image of him, without divine warrant (Ex. 32:5). It was also Jeroboam’s sin when he created a holy day “which he had devised of his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33). The Apostle Paul rebuked the Galatian churches for returning to “the weak and beggarly elements” of the law, and bringing themselves into “bondage” by observing old covenant holy days which had been abrogated in Christ, “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.” (Gal. 4:10-11). If observance of expired holy days which had been instituted by God deserved their rebuke, how much more does observing man-made holy days? The first day of the week is the “Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10), but holy days are the Church’s days, usurping Christ’s authority as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mat. 12:8). God has the prerogative of creating holy days, no one else does.

For the Puritans and Dutch Reformed who rejected the “church calendar” this also meant that they were prohibited by the government from working on those days, which they argued, violates God’s provision of six days for labor. Today that is no longer the case, however in many places there is a cultural expectation that frowns upon working on a holy day. Some Christians feel they have a moral right to have Christmas day off and wrongly think their employer would be infringing on their Christian liberty, or would be otherwise upset, if they were forced to work. Even though some may assert these holy days are not required, practically speaking, their emotional investment in them and actions toward others about them contradict the notion that the holy days are indifferent.

On an “ordinary” Lord’s Day, many church parking lots are sparse while restaurants, stores, etc. are filled with vehicles, but on ecclesiastical holy days it is the opposite. Many businesses are closed, and “cultural Christians” or their unchurched family members will attend church these few times per year. Although this is becoming less true as Western culture becomes less and less influenced by Christianity. This is the practical effect of ecclesiastical holy days eclipsing the Lord’s Day in a society.

3. Christian Liberty.

Public worship is not optional. When the elders of a congregation issue a call to worship, they are doing so on behalf of the Head and Bridegroom of the Church. Unless providentially hindered, church members should make every effort to be present in public worship. Special corporate worship services in observance of the “church calendar” necessarily obligate the congregation to participate in them, which binds the conscience to something not warranted by the Word of God. Some may reply that these special services are optional, and those with tender consciences should not be pressured to attend. However, the idea of special worship services for a subset of the congregation who are willing to engage in superstition is fundamentally divisive. Christian liberty is not the freedom to institute ecclesiastical holy days, rather it is the freedom from “the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship (Mat. 15:9; 23:8-10; Acts 4:19; 5:29; 1 Cor. 7:23; 2 Cor. 1:24)” (WCF 20:2).

This binding of the conscience also often occurs culturally and in homes where a social expectation exists to join in the festivities for certain holy days.

4. Scandal.

Even when holy days are not celebrated by Protestants to the measure and degree that Roman Catholics observe them, they set up a stumbling block to 1) other Christians by their example, and 2) Roman Catholics, emboldening them in their idolatry. George Gillespie pointed out many specific instances where Papal theologians of his day confirmed many of their superstitions by pointing to the ceremonies of the Anglican Church, including holy days (Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, pp. 110-111). Even to this day, perceptive Catholics will point out the inconsistency of holy day observance with Protestant principles. (cf. 4 Ways Evangelical Protestants Curiously Turn Catholic Every Christmas; and Why Do Protestants Celebrate Christmas?). While not every alleged inconsistency pointed out by Catholics are genuine inconsistencies, holy day observance certainly is, and presents a barrier for Reformed believers in persuading Catholics of the vanity of their worship. Hence, even if holy days were indifferent, the scandal that arises from their observance would be enough for us to abandon them.

5. Innovation in Worship.

Public worship services for ecclesiastical holy days also typically involve the introduction of additional parts of worship not warranted by Scripture. For example, ceremonial candle lighting, choirs and musical performances, plays or skits, visual depictions of Christ (e.g. Nativity scenes, crucifixes, skits, etc.), man-made hymns outside of Scripture, non-ordained people giving homilies or readings, decorations that are regarded as having spiritual significance, etc.

Similarly, in private homes, the ordinary simplicity of family devotions (assuming that normally happens in the first place) are often eclipsed by superstitious Advent readings, candle lightings, Christmas carols, films and decorations with depictions of Jesus, etc.

Remembering Christ’s works of redemption by studying relevant portions of the Bible, praying, and singing about them is obviously not wrong in itself. However, if we are doing this on a particular day by virtue of it being that particular day that the church has set apart for that purpose, then it violates the 2nd and 4th commandments. Many practices done on man-made holy days are not wrong in and of themselves, but many of them are wrong because of the reason they are chosen to be done at that particular time. Doing the right thing for a superstitious reason is still not good. For “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23), and that faith must be rooted in God’s revealed will, of which holy days cannot be found.

6. Monuments of Idolatry.

Many seasonal foods, drinks, and decorations are indifferent and not closely associated with superstition or unlawful holy days. These may be received and used with joy as God’s creational gifts of common grace (Acts 14:17). Yet other things, such as Christmas trees, gifts, & carols, Christmas cards, Advent candles, Easter baskets, etc. do not directly pertain to worship per se, and may even be used by unbelievers, but they are corrupted by their close association with holy days. These things are not religious in themselves and are neither commanded nor forbidden, being indifferent (adiaphora) in themselves. Outside the context of man-made holy days, decorated plants, gift giving, Christian songs, cards, candles, lights, decorations, etc. are not inherently superstitious. They only become so when they are attached to something that is superstitious and serve as a reminder and a sign of that superstition. When these indifferent things become corrupt with superstition by being integrated into an unlawful holy day, they should be done away with. According to the maxim drawn from Scripture and articulated by Westminster divine, George Gillespie:

“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…” (Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, p. 149).

Gillespie goes on to briefly explain each part of the maxim:

“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 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.” (ibid., p. 150)

We are not to delight in the symbols of idolatry just as much as the idolatry itself, because they preserve and honor the memory of unlawful holy days which should be entirely done away with (ibid., p. 154). [5] It is a duty of the second commandment to not only to detest, oppose, and remove all false worship (Acts 17:16-17; Ps. 16:4), but also to remove all monuments of idolatry (Deut. 7:5; Isa. 30:22), according to our places and callings (WLC 108). We are to hate “even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 23) and follow the example of Hezekiah, who “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” (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 (Jer. 10:2-5).

This requires a great amount of spiritual prudence about the particular natures and uses and effects of things. In so doing we must be careful of two pitfalls: 1) legalistic conscience binding which goes beyond Scripture, and 2) legalistic excuses—following the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it. We should all endeavor to righteously and charitably apply this important Scriptural principle to remove all monuments of idolatry from our lives.

A Concluding Plea.

Individuals and families ought to consider what we are doing around “the holidays” and if we are treating days other than the Lord’s Day as religiously special by virtue of a supposed anniversary of a biblical event. Additionally, we ought to consider whether we are promoting or maintaining monuments of idolatry. If we do this sincerely and consistently according to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), we will not observe man made holy days and will find that the weekly Lord’s Day is sufficient for religious festivities.

[1] Circumstantial or secular occasions would be times when something religious is engaged in but the timing of which is not on account of something spiritually significant. For example, a weekly Bible study on, say, a Wednesday night. The reason for it being at that time is circumstantial and practical, not because of something religiously special about Wednesday nights.

[2] Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) made this comparison:

“No doubt as God’s extraordinary presence has hallowed and sanctified certain places, so they are His extraordinary works that have truly and worthily advanced certain times, for which cause they ought to be with all men that honor God more holy than other days.” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5.69).

[3] Papists, Lutherans, and Anglicans are much more candid in their unapologetically religious observance of holy days, although their practices are much more egregious than those in our camp who this article is a response to.

[4] Superstition, in the theological sense, is not simply irrational belief in the supernatural. It is more comprehensive than that. This is what superstition means, according to William Ames, Jerome Zanchius, and George Gillespie:

“Superstition is that whereby undue worship is yielded to God. For in superstition God is always the object, and the end in some measure, but the worship itself is unlawful. It is called undue worship, either in respect of the manner or measure, or in respect of the matter and substance of the worship. In the former manner the Pharisees offended about the Sabbath when they urged the observation of it, as touching the outward rest, above the manner and measure appointed by God. And they also offended in the latter manner, in observing and urging their own traditions (Mark 7:8). Hence superstition is called an excess of religion, not in respect of the formal power of religion, because so none can be too religious, but in respect unto the acts and means of religion.” (William Ames, Marrow of Sacred Divinity, Book 2, ch. 13, § 25-28).

“Superstition is the opposite vice to religion, in the excess, as our divines describe it; for it exhibits more in the worship of God than he requires in his worship. ‘Furthermore,’ says Zanchius, ‘upon that same worship, that there is sin in excess; now if you add something to that which Christ established, or if you follow something added by others; so that if you add other sacraments to those established by Christ; or if to his sacrifices, other sacrifices; or if you add rites to the ceremonies of some sacrament, all those are rightly called by the name ‘Superstition.” We see he accounts superstition to be in the addition of ceremonies not instituted by Christ, as well as in the addition of more substantial matters. Superstitio (as some derive the word) is that which is done supra statutum [beyond what is established]; and thus are the controverted ceremonies superstitious, as being used in God’s worship upon no other ground than the appointment of men.” (George Gillespie, Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, Part 3, ch. 1, § 2).

[5] We use terms like idolatry, superstition, will-worship, etc. not to be inflammatory or hyperbolic, but because they are categorically descriptive of the type of sin being described. Not all second commandment violations are equally heinous (WLC 150-151). The type of holy day observance being argued against in this article is certainly much less egregious than the rank idolatry of Rome, and the more heinous high church practices of our fellow Protestants, yet it is never-the-less out of accord with God’s will as laid down in Scripture.


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