In my previous post, I had addressed some common issues with Christmas as a festival from the historical viewpoint. Most of you may have already heard some of these arguments and still feel that today’s context lends very little for us to believe that Christmas could be pagan. Personally for our family, the conviction came not from history, but from a proper understanding of what is commonly known today as Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which patterns out clearly from the whole tapestry of Scripture. In order to understand this principle, one has to first believe and affirm Tota Scriptura (All of Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness – 2Tim 3:16,17 ) as well as Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is sufficient for life and godliness – 2Pet 1:3 ).
What is the Regulative Principle of worship ( RPW )?
The RPW simply put, goes something like this: only those elements that are instituted or appointed by command or example or which can be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture are permissible in worship¹. By implication, this also means that we cannot “add” to worship whatever we think is rightful, but only what God thinks is rightful since He is the subject and object of our worship. Where do we find this in Scripture? Exo 20:3-6, the well-known treatise on the Ten Commandments. Nobody would dispute that these ten commandments given on Mt. Sinai were moral in nature, i.e. they reflect the moral character of Yahweh and since God’s character is unchanging, these laws are still applicable to Christians. Let’s keep it that simple, for the time being. If we notice carefully, the first commandment prohibits God’s people from having any other gods before Yahweh, a prohibition of idolatry. Most of us assume that the second commandment is merely a repetition of the first, but if we read it carefully we’ll see that the second commandment prohibits God’s people from worshiping God in a certain way, that is, by images or imitations within our scope of reality. This law is well elucidated again in Deuteronomy 12 where Moses is commanded to crush all the high-places and altars in Canaan. The purpose was not so much to keep them from worshiping other gods, while that may be true, but it was to keep them from worshiping Yahweh “in that way” (Deut 12:4). God does not want his people to worship Him in the vanity of our ways, “each man doing whatever is right in his eyes” (Deut 12:8), but only in ways prescribed by Him (Deut 12:32).
Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire before God, when Aaron alone was commanded to offer the altar of incense before Yahweh, and fire consumed them alive (Lev 10:1,2). Uzzah died in a moment because he carried the ark of the covenant in a way not prescribed by God (2Sam6:3-7). King Uzziah contracted leprousy when he went into the Inner Sanctum to burn incense to Yahweh (2Chro 26:19) when he was prohibited to do so. Some of you may say, “That was in the Old Testament. We have a gracious God through Christ Jesus in the New Testament”. Well, that is certainly not true, since God’s moral uprightness never changes. Romans 2:4,5 would need to be heeded by each of us, called by His name. Moreover, we see from 1Cor 11:27-30 that anyone who takes the cup of the Lord unworthily would be dealt with, sometimes, even through death.
Christmas and RPW
Now, you may wonder what all this has to do with Christmas. Let me come to the point. In the OT, God specifically ordered holy days when the people had to congregate and worship God. The weekly and yearly Sabbaths, the Feast of Booths, the Day of Atonement, the Passover were all explicitly instituted by God to “remember” his redemptive acts from Egypt to the Promised Land. We see from the NT passages such as Col 2:16, Gal 4:10 that these Jewish festal days were no longer binding on the church, even as the Gentiles were coming into the church. These laws were “ceremonial” in nature and were tied closely to the Levitical system, and Christ was the fulfillment of all these shadows. Therefore these ceremonial festivals are no longer binding on the Christian. The passage in Romans 14:5,6 addresses an issue that falls under this ambit. The liberty of keeping days in this text should not be seen from today’s context, but from the lens of the early church wherein the Judaizers were pressurizing the Gentiles to conform to Jewish ceremonial laws (Acts15:28,29, Gal 2:11-14). In the NT, we see a clear case of the church worshiping God on the first day of every week, the Lord’s Day ( Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10; Acts 20:7), the day when Christ rose from the dead. In stark contrast, we see no evidence of the church celebrating the birth of Christ on an appointed festival day, as is being done today. Notice also, that the church even didn’t appoint one specific day for Christ’s death or resurrection, but celebrated his entire redemptive act on the Lord’s Day. So, the argument that Christ’s Incarnation made the day “holy” by intersecting heaven with earth and therefore to be commemorated simply doesn’t hold water. God didn’t even require His people to keep the holy days He had once ordained in order to fulfill a specific purpose, how much lesser would He require us to keep a day which He never ordained? Christmas was not a God-ordained holy day according to the concurrence of OT and NT Scriptures and therefore we need to rethink whether this should be marked as a Christian holiday at all.
If we start to see the problem as that which is either biblical or unbiblical rather than a-biblical, then we will recognize that no effort to help people see this day with Christ in it would prove fruitful. It’s destined to spiral out as just another festivity. We must change the glasses through which we look, instead of trying to correct our vision and others’ as well. Our influence on the popular culture of our day and age must be Scripture outwards, and we can never win people to Christ by camouflaging ourselves in their vanity, however good our intentions may be. With respect to the gospel’s propagation on this day, I can only say that our evangelism needs to be more organic and coming from the outflow of our lives, instead of an excessive focus on programmed activities on such festival days.
Soch ka bhoj
I would have never written this post had it not been for two reasons: firstly, this year Christmas is being celebrated on the Lord’s Day, and to see a traditional day overshadow and eclipse a God-commanded day really pains my heart. Secondly, I’ve been noticing quite a few posts that tout the blessedness of Christmas. Recently I read a post by one of my dear fathers in the faith, Dr. R.C.Sproul, calling Christmas sacred and those who deny it “sanctimonious”, without any proper biblical apologetic for his claim. Let’s remember our Lord Jesus, and what his real problem with the Pharisees was: It was unwarranted traditionalism (Mark 7:1-8), which in due time turned out to be legalism. It is adding to God’s law which paves way for legalism than sticking to his commandments alone. Brothers, how can we ever think that walking our life according to His precepts is legalism? And what has made us believe that implicitly imposing traditions of men on other brethren is Christian liberty? It’s time we asked ourselves these questions.
Most Christians who abstain from commemorating Christmas may seem like killjoys amidst the rest who do: grim, smug, joyless “scrooges”. In fact, the Puritans were looked at as party-poopers in their day and age, Far from that, we can be consciously joyous almost 52 times a year, every Lord’s Day, remembering Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming. And that’s the good news for those who think that we are killjoys. In fact, the more we consciously withdraw ourselves from our worldly labors and pleasures every Lord’s Day, the more God is pleased to rest us ( Matt 11:28 ) and brim our hearts with joy. Our celebration shouldn’t be in the material excess of our day, but in the quietness of our homes and hearts. My prayer is that this issue, far from dividing us, would sharpen us and encourage our hearts to return to His Word and be united through it. Shalom!
Some useful links for further reading:-
1. 12 Days of Christmas: Scott brown has posted several useful links on Christmas from differing viewpoints. Worth a read!
2. Regulative principle of worship and Christmas: Brian Schwertley. You may not appreciate his tone, but you’ll find his content immensely helpful.
3. History of holy days: Steven Dilday. A wonderful, gracious and solid expositor on the subject
4. Regulative principle of worship: Steven Dilday.
5. Regulative principle of worship: A recent paper produced by G.I.Williamson at a 2001 International Conference of Reformed Churches which was held at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia