This essay was originally published during the Easter season, but it applies equally to celebrations of Advent and Christmas.
Today (the day upon which I write this essay) is Maundy Thursday. Tomorrow will be Good Friday and this Sunday is Easter.
In the liturgical calendar, each of these days has a special significance. Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, Good Friday the crucifixion, and Easter Sunday the resurrection. Christians have observed these dates for centuries, along with others such as Palm Sunday (commemorating the Triumphal Entry), Annunciation (commemorating Gabriel’s visit to Mary), and Christmas.
Some Bible-preaching churches observe all of these days, while others observe only the most important. A minority of Christians have refused to observe any of them. For example, many Puritans believed that observing Christmas was an instance of will-worship, and they rejected it entirely.
The notion of will-worship grows out of the so-called Regulative Principle. Perhaps the most fundamental rule of worship in the Reformed tradition, the Regulative Principle was adopted wholesale by both the Anabaptists of the continent and the Baptists of England. In brief, the Regulative Principle states that churches are permitted to employ only those elements of worship that are authorized in Scripture.
The Regulative Principle is what led many of the Reformed (including the Puritans) to reject the observance of days like Christmas. The New Testament nowhere instructs churches to observe the day, and it nowhere depicts its observance. The same would be true of other holidays like Maundy Thursday and Annunciation. Since the observance of these days is not authorized in Scripture, they were thought to be merely the product of human invention and self-assertion. After all, worship that is not required by God can only be offered to please the worshippers, which means that the worshippers are really worshipping themselves. This act of self-assertion is what the Reformed (following Col. 2:23) refer to as “will-worship.”
As a Baptist, I affirm the Regulative Principle. Indeed, I believe that many of the problems of contemporary churches (including fundamental Baptist churches) can be traced directly to the neglect of this principle. We have allowed much into our worship that pleases only ourselves. Since God nowhere authorizes it, we have no right to assume that it is anything but an offense to God.
One might assume that my commitment to the Regulative Principle would place me on the side of the Puritans on the question of holidays. They concluded that the lack of biblical authorization amounted to a prohibition of such observances. While I agree with the principle, however, I believe that this particular application is mistaken.
In the opening paragraph of this essay I mentioned several holidays: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Palm Sunday, Annunciation, and Christmas. Each of these days is devoted to an important biblical event and doctrine. These events and doctrines are somewhere near the center of the Christian faith. Without them, the gospel would not exist, Christianity would never have been, and we ourselves would not be Christians.
These events are so important that they are worth thinking about. We ought to ponder the virgin birth of Christ (the focus of Annunciation). We ought to consider carefully the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship (Palm Sunday). We ought to wonder over the incarnation (Christmas) and mull over the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Maundy Thursday and Good Friday). Not least, we ought to contemplate the resurrection of our Savior (Easter).
Of course, we do not need to restrict these meditations to holidays. Every worship service is a good time to emphasize the incarnation. Every service is a good time to emphasize the resurrection. And so it is with the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, and so forth.
While services are appropriate for such reflections, we cannot possibly consider all of these things in detail during one service. The content is too vast and the mysteries too profound. So we find ourselves required to shift our focus from one to the next, thinking now about the incarnation and another time about the resurrection. To be sure, the entire complex of gospel doctrines is always in the background, but because of the smallness of our minds we must place only one or two matters in the foreground.
Let us take the sufferings of Jesus as an example. Our Lord’s body and blood are always part of the tapestry of our worship, even when we are not focusing directly upon them. From time to time, however, we must bring the remembrance of the body and blood to the foreground. We must make them the object of special attention. We do this every time we gather around the Lord’s Table. For some churches, this observance may occupy one service in several, and it will become almost the exclusive focus of the service. For other churches, the bread and the cup may be an aspect of every service, but this aspect will be separated from the rest of the service, allowing for a deliberate focus on the sufferings of Jesus. In all cases, the communion service draws our attention specifically to something that is always in the back of our minds.
Of course, the Lord’s Table is an ordinance and its observance is commanded by Christ, while special remembrance of the incarnation (for example) is not. Nevertheless, the same dynamic applies. It is impossible to understand the gospel apart from the incarnation. Therefore, the incarnation is always in the background of our worship. From time to time, however, we need to draw it into the foreground so that we may attend to it deliberately.
Focusing on the incarnation would be appropriate at any service, but it cannot be done (or at least done to the same degree) in every service. If we focus only on the incarnation, then we shall end up neglecting something else. Yet, if we do not plan in advance to focus on the incarnation, then we may end up neglecting it through inattention.
A thing that is lawful to do in any service is certainly lawful to plan to do in one, specific service. That is why we have Christmas. We have designated Christmas day as an occasion upon which we shall plan to draw attention to the incarnation of our Lord. At that time, if at no other, we shall ponder the mystery of the theanthropic person. Hypothetically, we could do this during any service, and we should probably do it during several services each year. By writing Christmas day into our calendars, however, we publicly discipline ourselves to concentrate upon the incarnation at least once each year.
So it is with the other holidays. One day each year is precious little time to devote to the virgin birth, the priestly office, or the bodily resurrection. Certainly we are not limited to the holidays if we wish to emphasize these truths. Nevertheless, if we place the holidays in our calendar, we are publicly and deliberately disciplining ourselves to heed these wonderful realities.
The Regulative Principle is important—far more important than most contemporary Baptists are willing to admit. Rightly applied, however, I do not believe that it rules out holidays that focus upon biblical events, teachings, or activities. Quite the contrary, I believe that those days are very useful in maintaining a fresh and vibrant Christianity.