A Theology of Time and the Church Calendar for LPC

Good Friday

How should the church think about the liturgical calendar?

As history reveals, the influence of tradition and culture establishes the necessity of discernment for Christians seeking to worship in spirit and truth. For churches in the Reformed Protestant tradition like Langhorne Presbyterian Church, the answer to that must always begin by asking first another question: What does the Bible have to say about this? What does God think about how we use our time and leverage it for worship and spirituality?

God’s Concern for Our Time

God demonstrates his concern about time from the get-go of creation. He created the sun, moon, and stars on day four of creation to rule the day and night and to be for “signs and for season, and for days and for years.” God established a natural rhythm of day and night, of the passing and return of seasons, into creation itself. The sun and moon, the rotation and orbit of the earth, are given by God for us to mark out the passing of time (signs and seasons) to commemorate and observe milestones. Things like New Year’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays at different points in the year are all gifts that God has given us flowing from day four of creation. The natural rhythm of creation is a gift to practice creativity and cultivation of the earth in our organization and practice of time. The way we practice time orients our lives and shapes the story we believe we are inhabiting. This is called the liturgy of life.[1]

This is why God also connected specific celebrations and religious festivals in the Old Testament law to the passing of time. The instructions for the different feasts and ceremonies can be found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with Leviticus 23 especially providing a summary of the seven principal feasts established by God for his people. All of these were held annually, but there were also special year-long celebrations: the Sabbath Year every seven years and Year of Jubilee every 50 years (Leviticus 25). The way that we practice time affects how we understand ourselves, our lives, and our world. The feasts in Mosaic law were timed by God according to the rhythm of sun, moon, and stars. The natural seasons were given meaning through theses festivals that God established in his word.

God in creation established another key way of understanding time that is just as fundamental to the natural world as the sun and moon; God rested on the seventh day and made it holy. God rested and established the Sabbath day. This is the foundation for the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord…for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-9, 11; cf. Deuteronomy 5:12-13). If you live close to the equator, the seven-day, weekly rhythm to life is much more obvious to you than the annual orbit of the Earth around the Sun with its seasons. The Sabbath is as fundamental and basic to nature as seasons.  

The practice of keeping the Sabbath is the foundational liturgical celebration for Israel under the Mosaic law. Leviticus 23 begins with an explanation of the Sabbath day and its worship, and only then turns to the other festivals and feasts, which are always patterned on the basic practice of keeping the Sabbath day. The Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee are both modeled on the Sabbath day. The festivals of Leviticus 23 and 25 are even sometimes referred to as “Sabbaths”.

The way that Israel’s time was organized was first weekly, then annual. The weekly organization reflected the Sabbath establishment in creation, something that is true for all people in all times and in all places. The annual festival organization is that way in which God directed the culture of Israel in their specific time and place, following the sun and moon for signs and for seasons.

Additionally, the feasts detailed in Leviticus 23 have a redemptive aspect to them. For instance, the Passover was a practice that looked backwards to God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, to their present need to continually have their sins passed-over, and the future need for true and final deliverance. The way God organized Israel’s time on an annual basis was intended to remind them of their salvation, of their belonging to God, of their continued need for him. The liturgy of life that God provided them was for that end: you have received and need redemption from sin. Yet, the feasts and sacrifices all aimed at something more concrete in the future. Hebrews 10:1-14 describes these celebrations and ceremonies as shadows; things that have meaning and tell us something, but have no substance in themselves. The shadows are cast by the thing with real substance, and that is Jesus. The annual festivals were designed to point Israel to Jesus, both in their individual ceremonial components and in the way in which they functioned in their totality to shape Israel’s self-conception. Now, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has come and fulfilled the purpose for which these ceremonies existed. They are no longer necessary because of what Christ has accomplished for our redemption.

An example from the New Testament is Christ’s fulfillment of the Passover. It is at the Passover meal that Jesus establishes the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which signifies his death and all the benefits believers receive from it. The Supper is identified as the new Passover meal for the church (1 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us – what the Old Testament event and festival represented in shadow form has been fulfilled in the substance of Jesus dying in our place – therefore we should keep the feast. Not the Old Testament feast of the Passover itself (shadow), but the New Testament feast of the Lord’s Supper which represents that fulfillment (substance; 1 Corinthians 5:8, 11:23-25). 

Jesus also fulfilled the Sabbath Day, though in a different way. God rested on the seventh day (Saturday) to commission his people (Adam and Eve, and by extension all of humanity) to then go forward on the next day (the eighth day, or Sunday) to have dominion over the world. There was work to be done, but this commission was disrupted by Adam and Eve’s sin and the subsequent curse pronounced by God upon the ground and Adam’s labor (Genesis 3:17-19). The Sabbath (Saturday) became then not just the day of rest from work, or the day to be devoted to the worship of God, but also the day where human rest from labor anticipated God completing the commission bungled by Adam. It became a day of anticipation of healing and restoration.

This is why Jesus healed on the Sabbath and identified himself as Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-13; Mark 2:23-3:6; Luke 6:1-11). He is the Lord of Rest and Restoration. He is completing the work begun by God and given to (then squandered by) Adam. This is why, after healing a sick, crippled man on the Sabbath in John 5:1-17, Jesus says that his “Father is working until now, and I am working.” Jesus is fulfilling the mandate of the Sabbath. And Jesus completes his work through his death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out the Holy Spirit.

Jesus through his redemptive work is completing the work of restoration and reconciliation that the Sabbath anticipated. His Father had been working, Jesus worked, and now “It is finished.” Jesus arose from the dead in victory, having completed the work that God the Father gave him. And Jesus rose from the dead on the eighth day, Sunday. From there on out, the church has solemnized Sunday as the Christian Sabbath (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2) called in the New Testament the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10). The people of God gather together faithfully every Sunday to worship God in gratitude for the rest provided in Christ and in anticipation of the fullness of that rest being consummated in his return (1 Corinthians 11:25, Hebrews 4).[2] Christ is already victorious, we can now rest in him, and we faithfully await Christ’s inevitable consummation of what he began. The Christian Sabbath is a time of celebration and rest in what Christ has done and a time of anticipatory rest in what Christ will do. It is a sign of God’s promise fulfilled, past, present, and future, in Jesus (Exodus 31:12-17, Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 4:8-10).

In short, the feasts and festivals of the Old Testament have been fulfilled in Christ, and thus are abrogated. The church should not return to shadows, but cling to the substance, which is Jesus himself as he is provided in the new covenant (1 Corinthians 5:6-7; Galatians 2:4, 4:8-11, 5:1; Colossians 2:17). The Sabbath established by God in creation has been fulfilled by Christ, and therefore the church should diligently rest in the worship of Christ on the eighth day, Sunday, and must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together for that purpose (Hebrews 10:25).

The liturgical rhythm God has established in his word is the weekly gathering of his people, devoting the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath to his worship. This must be the starting point for any discussion of the liturgical church calendar: What has God established? The Lord’s Day. How is God to be worshipped? As he has established in his word. What is worship about? Honoring God for the salvation he has provided us in Christ. Therefore, no worship practices that denigrate, cancel, or obscure the Lord’s Day are good. No practices that introduce into worship what God has not commanded in scripture should be tolerated. No amount of antiquity of custom or well-meaning intentions can circumvent this.

The Liturgical Church Calendar: Biblical Considerations

How do we understand the historic, liturgical church calendar in light of all this?

The first consideration is the question of the Old Testament. In the Mosaic law, God established a number of festivals and worship services for his people. Now, all of these celebrations were instituted directly by God and were part of the ceremonial and civil aspects of the old covenant. That has two implications. The first is that there is a significant difference in basis between the liturgical calendar of the Old Testament church and the new. In the old, God himself directed and established the holy days and how they were to be observed. There is no such direction for the church in the New Testament, which means that any celebration or observation of a liturgical calendar has its basis in human tradition. Sometimes that tradition is very old, sometimes new. Sometimes it is limited to one region or denominational tradition, sometimes it is been recognized by most Christians everywhere. Sometimes the tradition is totally disconnected from any biblical imagery, and sometimes it attempts to capture biblical themes. Regardless, any part of the church calendar beyond Lord’s Day worship for the new testament church is grounded in human custom, not divine warrant.

The second implication is that since these old covenant liturgical celebrations were abrogated in the New Testament without a divinely instituted replacement, the church does not have the authority in the new covenant to enforce or promote Christian observance of holy days like it did in the old.

This is Paul’s argument in Galatians 2:4, 4:9-11, 5:1 and Colossians 2:16-23. In Galatians Paul is warning against a return to old covenant practices as a means of policing boundaries into the church. He says doing so is to return to yoke of slavery! The church cannot impose these observations on Christians.

In Colossians 2, Paul specifically talks about how these old covenant festivals, as well as improvisations upon them or similar activities by the church, are shadows. They lacked substance because they were all about Jesus, who has now come. To return to the shadows is to miss out on the real thing, which is Christ. The Old Testament shadows were good and necessary to point to Jesus before his coming, but are unnecessary now. Imposing them on the church, whether from the Old Testament or by innovation, should not be tolerated. Things like keeping a liturgical calendar or ascetic practices has an appearance of wisdom, but really are of no profit. How do Christians grow spiritually? Not through keeping calendars or fasts, but through the grace of God in Christ. These things are self-made (i.e. human invented religion) and are truly of no value (Colossians 2:22-23). There is not inherent harm in individuals following calendars and fasts, but that is up to the conscience of each person and should not be imposed upon them by the church (Colossians 2:16)[3].

The Liturgical Christian Calendar: The Reformation[4]

Often the antiquity of the liturgical calendar is invoked as a reason to maintain it. Now, it is not always actually the case (see this summary of traditional liturgical holidays in the Western church) that the traditions of the church calendar are ancient or universally held. There has been great diversity in practice and observation in the history of the church. Yet even if longevity of tradition is granted, the church derives its authority to worship to God from the word of God, not tradition. Tradition informs the church’s practice, but does not determine it. This is the starting point of the Reformed Protestant tradition when it comes to the church calendar.

During the Reformation the concern about the church calendar was five-fold. The first two concerns were shared by all Protestants, including Anglicans and Lutherans.

Saint-Focused Worship. The number of celebrations and observations on the church calendar during the medieval period had numerically skyrocketed and were overwhelmingly focused on people, not God. All the Protestant churches reduced the number of liturgical holidays and used the criteria of “does this day commemorate God and his gospel, or does it memorialize people” to determine which days to cut.[5]

Obscuring the Sabbath. The second concern was that Sunday as the Lord’s Day was being overshadowed by the rest of the calendar. God established the Sabbath; he did not establish Christmas. God ordained the Lord’s Day for his worship; he did not ordain Good Friday. The number and prominence of holy days was leading to the obscuring of what everyone agreed God had actually established in his word. They needed to reduce the number of holidays so that the calendar did not become so cluttered that the Lord’s Day was lost. The church needed to follow the pattern of Leviticus 23 and begin with the Sabbath (what God had established) in stressing spiritual importance, rather than the customs invented by the church.

The latter three concerns were not shared by the Lutherans or most Anglicans. But they were common to all of the Reformed (i.e. Presbyterian) churches.

Superstition. Superstition is attributing spiritual effects or values to actions or rituals which do not depend upon what God has promised or revealed in his word, and therefore are making an idol, even unintentionally, of the practice.[6] Days on the calendar, particularly Christmas and Easter, were being treated as especially holy or spiritually important. But nothing about December 25th or the Sunday upon which Easter fell made them any more or less important than other days of the week or year in the eyes of God. Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16, 23 are true of Christmas and Easter after all. Jesus is not born on December 25th each year, nor does he rise from the dead again and again on Easter. God in his word has not set these days aside (sanctified, made them holy). Yet, because of the emphasis the church was placing on them, and the way in which they were taking on significance in the worship of the church, people were investing the days with spiritual meaning and significance. This is dangerous. It has the appearance of wisdom, but is of no real help, and emphasis on the shadows can distract from the substance, which is Christ.

We see this in modernity, as the most obvious example of this is people only showing up to church on Christmas and Easter. They do not attend the service to worship God in spirit and truth or to honor and obey Christ but because they thought the day was spiritually significant. Jesus never commanded observing Christmas; he has commanded attending church on the Lord’s Day. They attend to honor the day and custom, and use claims of honoring God to cloak themselves in piety. However, this is no modern phenomenon. John Calvin has a famous sermon about this, when he was compelled by the Genevan government to hold a Christmas service:

Now, I see here today more people that I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel. Did you think you would be honoring God? Consider what sort of obedience to God your coming displays. In your mind, you are celebrating a holiday for God, or turning today into one but so much for that. In truth, as you have often been admonished, it is good to set aside one day out of the year in which we are reminded of all the good that has occurred because of Christ’s birth in the world, and in which we hear the story of his birth retold, which will be done Sunday. But if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beasts. For when you elevate one day alone for the purpose of worshiping God, you have just turned it into an idol. True, you insist that you have done so for the honor of God, but it is more for the honor of the devil.[7]

When a special day of the year is esteemed more highly than the regular worship of God commanded by God himself in his word, it is not God being worshipped when that day is observed. It is the day itself, which is idolatrous superstition.

The superstition was clearer in relationship to Easter and Lent. Easter was seen as such an especially important day that people needed to prepare for it. But every Sunday is a resurrection Sunday because every Lord’s Day is the divinely established celebration of Christ’s resurrection. In the eyes of God, there is nothing more valuable or significant about Easter than any other Sunday. So, the preparation for the day is already an elevation of a human tradition (Easter) above what God established in his word (weekly Lord’s Day worship). But the idea of Lenten preparation for Easter in particular is that we must get ourselves in the right place in order to properly come to God in worship.

Now, there is some truth to this. Anytime we come to God in worship we need to prepare by focusing our hearts and minds on God in advance. Anytime we partake of the Lord’s Supper, the actual divinely established ritual commemorating Christ’s death, we are to prepare by examining our hearts to see our sin, faith in Christ, and love for our neighbors. But where Lenten preparation goes wrong and veers into superstition is that it treats Easter as more special, and therefore requiring a distinct and special preparation. This has the appearance of wisdom, but is really of no help in fighting sin. But in accepting the premise of special preparation, the preparation itself takes on spiritual significance and is invested with spiritual meaning. That spiritual investment comes from men, not God, meaning it is superstitious. Biblical preparation for worship is about repentance, actually turning from sin and throwing ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ, and this is to occur daily, not in a special season. Lenten preparation for Easter is about denigrating and ritualistically restraining ourselves in order to be made worthy in a season of special focus. Worship and practice became about what we do, not what Jesus has done.

Worship should orbit Jesus and his finished work. That is what we rest in, and even what biblical preparation is really about striving for: faithful resting in Christ because of what he has done for us (Hebrews 4:11). The Lenten fast and preparation shifts the orbit of worship away from Christ’s definitive action towards our contributions. This undermines faith and confidence in Jesus and steals away God’s glory.

Christian Liberty. Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16-25, and other passages like 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14 teach, that if God does not command something in his word, people do not have to do it. If God has not banned something, his people are free to make use of it. This is Christian freedom. Christian liberty means that God alone is lord of the conscience, and individual people have been freed from following doctrines and commandments of men that either contradict God’s word or elevate themselves to the same level of moral obligation. For the church to require implicit faith and obedience to its created commands for spiritual practice destroys Christian freedom and devalues God’s word (Matthew 15:9, Romans 14:4, 10, 23; 1 Corinthians 7:23; Galatians 2:3-5; James 4:12).

The church and its pastors are only able to exercise the authority granted them by God, which is delimited by scripture. The church calendar, historically, added obligations upon the people of God that could not be justified from scripture. Roman Catholics still refer to “Holy Days of Obligation.” The Lenten fast or sacrifice is the best example of this.[8] The Lenten fast was a requirement placed upon the church to observe as a practice of faith, and therefore a spiritual burden being placed upon the people by the church without warrant from God’s word. It added to the law of God and infringed upon the freedom of conscience. The Reformation famously began in Switzerland (1522), when from the pulpit Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich urged his church to exercise Christian liberty by eating sausages during Lent in opposition to the burdensome customs of Rome.

Now, the Reformers also knew that the church implying that something should be done as a spiritual obligation and duty would also be coercive. Which is why the Reformed churches not only stopped requiring observation of days on the calendar like Lent, but stopped promoting them. To use pastoral authority to promote a non-biblical, extra-scriptural spiritual practice as something good and pleasing to God, especially with the history of superstitious following the church calendar, would be illegitimately pressuring people to violate their conscience or to return to the practices of the superstitious church.

God’s Word Rules. The church must do in worship whatever God has commanded, and may not do in worship what God has either not commanded or has forbidden. This is sometimes called the rule of worship or the regulative principle of worship. The church is only to worship God as he has instructed in scripture. The things which God has commanded (e.g. reading and preaching the Bible, prayer, administering the sacraments) are the components or elements of worship. The rituals or ceremonies tied to the administration of the elements either fall into the category of essential to their nature (e.g. the words of institution for the administration of the sacraments are necessary ceremonies) or are merely circumstantial, like the specific songs, prayers, or sermon texts selected. Elements of worship must only come from scripture, the ceremonies that are essential to the elements must be derived from scripture, and the circumstances of worship should conform the spirit of scripture and biblical wisdom.

In other words, there is nothing wrong with having a theme of a worship service, like focusing on the incarnation or resurrection. But adding an element of worship based on the church calendar (e.g. applying ashes on the first day of Lent, anointing with oil on Maundy Thursday) or revising the ceremonies (waving palms during the call to worship) without warrant from God’s word violates this principle. It is adding something to God’s worship he has not commanded. It also binds the worshippers: the church is now using its authority to command people to worship God in a way that he has not instructed in his word. Additionally, compelling people to attend worship services outside the Lord’s Day is to obligate people to honor days that God has not commanded. There is nothing wrong with worshipping God at other times than the Lord’s Day or having a biblically guided theme in worship (e.g. focusing on the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday), but requiring those days to look a certain way was to make extra-biblical ceremonies or circumstances essential to worship.

Our Place in the Story. Since the Reformation, another key additional criticism has emerged. This is the de-historicized nature of the church calendar. History is linear: it begins, progresses, and has an end. History is also redemptive: God created, man sinned, God provided redemption in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Christ, and God will restore and consummate all things in the return of Jesus. This is reflected in the Lord’s Supper: we memorialize the death of Jesus and look to his return.

The historic liturgical calendar is not linear, but cyclical. This is seen most especially in the Lenten season anticipating Easter. There is a game of pretend: Lent is the season of lament and despondency, waiting for the resurrection, with a vigil in anticipation of Easter. It places people earlier in the cycle of the story, not further along its linear path. People are stuck, cyclically preparing for Easter, waiting out Lent and looking towards Christ’s resurrection. This is still the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church[9] and is very common sentiment among Protestants who follow the liturgical calendar. For instance, this 2021 article from the evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today,

One of my pet peeves is receiving an email during the latter part of Lent with the sign-off ‘Happy Easter!’ or ‘Jesus is risen!’ I have to fight the temptation to reply, ‘Not just yet!’ Such proclamations, although well meaning, rush me to a destination I’m not ready to reach. Before I experience the joy of Easter morning, a lengthy journey awaits.[10]

“Not just yet” is only true if the place we find ourselves in the story of redemption is pre-Easter. A lengthy journey through Lenten sorrow that anticipates resurrection joy is only true if Easter has not yet come. This is not simply a return to the shadows, signs and seasons of the Mosaic rhythm of time, it misunderstands where the Christian is in the story of redemption and denies them true joy and hope. Another recent devotional from a high-profile evangelical ministry put it this way, “Lent is a time where we search our hearts and repent in anticipation of Christ’s victory over the darkness of sin and death.” Lent becomes about what we do (search our hearts) in anticipation of what Jesus will do (rise again and triumph) but the truth is that Jesus has already done this. By making the Christian redemption story liturgically cyclical, it pulls the Christian from where we truly are.

In other words, we actually always do live post-Easter, post-Pentecost. Jesus has died, is risen, and will come again. The liturgical church calendar tends towards Jesus will die, Jesus will rise, and Jesus will come again. There is always a waiting for Jesus to not only return, but to die and rise again. It steals the hope of the gospel, now. I can have the joy of Easter morning in the deepest pit of despair because Jesus has already risen again.[11] In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that if Jesus has not risen from the dead, we of all people are most to be pitied. The liturgical church calendar returns people to the state of sorrow and pity over and over again, when the good news of the gospel is that Jesus is alive.

This stands in continuity with Zwingli’s rejection of the Lenten fast. The church calendar is neither about our participation in the suffering and mediation of Jesus, nor preparation for his suffering and mediation. Jesus has suffered and is risen. The hope of the gospel is that we receive this by faith. 

The Reformation: What Should an Annual Christian Calendar Be?

The earth does indeed orbit around the sun, and human experience of the natural seasons is cyclical: winter-spring-summer-autumn-winter again. The rhythms of our lives reflect this. There is something of a secular liturgy that all people follow according to the seasons. For Americans it includes: New Year’s Day, return to school, icky winter, spring break, Memorial Day, end of school and summer break, Independence Day, Labor Day and return to school, fall and Halloween, Thanksgiving, and then winter and school break around Christmas. We live on a planet that orbits the sun and therefore in a rotational, seasonal world. This shapes us and is unavoidable.

Yet even the signs and seasons of the sun and moon are provisional. The natural, cyclical pattern of creation will ultimately give way to a single point: the return of Christ and his direct governance and leadership in our time and worship. This is what Revelation 21:22-24 is driving at when it says the sun will be no more in the new creation, but Jesus will be in the midst of his people. The rulership given to sun and moon in Genesis 1:16-17 is temporary, stewards holding down the fort until Jesus returns and consummates creation and redemption. History and time, even with Earth’s orbit of the sun, are still linear, with the glory of Jesus being the final point. So, for now, the divinely established liturgical calendar remains the seven-day week. Six days for labor, one for rest in worship.

Yet the natural cycle and secular liturgy life shape people and mold their conception of identity and story. The practice of Christian Sabbath is the best complement to God’s design in nature and best corrective to secularized liturgies. Our true story is not seasonal, nor secular, but salvation in Christ.  Since we do live in a naturally seasonal world, there is a benefit to having biblical and gospel themes establish our rhythm of life, to augment nature and counter the secular. But any intentional adjustment of Christian practices must necessarily be based upon the divinely established weekly rhythm of Sabbath and directed by the teaching of God’s word.

In short, Protestants have responded in three ways the seasonal nature of life. Lutherans and Anglicans with intentionality maintained a good many events of the historic, Western church calendar. For the Lutherans, the liturgical holy days or feasts were not part of their formal doctrine (definitively expressed in the Book of Concord, 1580) but varied from region to region and church to church. For Anglicans, there was a great deal of variety between the different editions of the Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552, 1559) with the final version of 1662 (the basis of modern Anglican and Episcopalian prayer books) including three categories for a total of 27 holy days. There were Principal Feasts (e.g. Christmas, Easter) which people were obligated to observe and often had special liturgies and ceremonies; Red Letter days (e.g. the Circumcision of Christ, Candlemas), which people were expected to observe and had specific scripture readings and prayers, but not liturgies or ceremonies; and Holy Days (e.g. All Saints’ Day, Maundy Thursday) which were included on the church calendar without expectation on church services or any additional liturgical change beyond recommended scripture readings.

The Reformed had two different responses.[12] In Britain, the direction taken was to ban all observances of holy days and church feasts due to their superstitious nature. The Scottish First Book of Discipline (1560), primarily written by John Knox and used to guide the practices of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, forbade any observation of holy days and specifically listed out a number of celebrations that it deemed especially bad. The Scots argued that there was no assurance from God’s word that the observances of these days were acceptable in God’s eyes or beneficial to faith. Rather, because the observing of these days turned faith away from God’s word, focused on saints instead of Christ, and added human invention to God’s worship, they are abominations.

The Westminster Assembly, the same group of primarily English Presbyterians that produced the Westminster Confession and Catechisms which the doctrinal standards of global Presbyterianism including LPC, also wrote a Directory for Public Worship (1644). This directory supplanted the Scottish books of discipline and worship and remained the overall guide for Presbyterian worship for centuries. The Directory had this to say about the liturgical church calendar “There is no day commanded in 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.”

On the European continent there was a different approach taken by the Reformed churches. The Second Helvetic Confession of Faith (1562) was written by Heinrich Bullinger as the doctrinal standard of the Swiss Reformed churches. That confession states

Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. but we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

The six celebrations mentioned here (Nativity/Christmas, the Circumcision of Christ, Passion/Good Friday, Resurrection/Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost) all focus on the redemptive and saving work of Jesus. These became known as “evangelical (i.e. gospel) feast days”. The confession approved of their celebration since they focus on the gospel, but only if churches in their Christian liberty wanted to celebrate them. There were no specific instructions or liturgies on how to celebrate the days or which day of the week to celebrate them, but it was left up to the individual churches in conformity with the regulative principle. A similar guideline was provided for commending the remembrance of saints: no change in liturgy, no holy days for them, but feel free to acknowledge them in the normal elements (e.g. sermons, prayers) of worship.

The Second Helvetic Confession was followed by two other groups. The Reformer Zacharias Ursinus (author of the Heidelberg Catechism) drafted the Palatinate Church Order (1563) to guide the worship of the German-Reformed churches. It commended the observation of the evangelical feast days. Similarly, The Synod of Dordt in the Netherlands, after it issued the Canons of Dordt from which the famous Calvinistic acronym “T.U.L.I.P.” is derived, also produced the Church Order of Dordt (1619). It likewise commended the evangelical feast days.[13]

What these latter groups were doing with the evangelical feast days was acknowledging the natural, cyclical rhythm of the world and seeing the value of having a gospel-shaped liturgy of life. They prioritized in both word and practice the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day, allowed churches the liberty to celebrate the evangelical feast days, grounded the calendar in what Jesus has done for salvation, and did not compromise the regulative principal of worship in commending these days. Rather, the evangelical feast days provided themes to guide the regular worship of the church according to the word of God on the Lord’s Day. These days were helpful, but not holy.

Applying This to Langhorne Presbyterian Church

To guide Langhorne Presbyterian Church, being directed by scripture and learning from the history of the church, there are six guiding principles for utilizing the church calendar.

First, Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, and it is a day that should be devoted to the public worship of God. This is how we rest in Christ. This is the only day that God has established in his word to be kept holy. The weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day is more important for Christian faith, spirituality, the glory of God, and Christian practice than any other holiday. Sunday worship is the central and non-negotiable time for the church to gather and worship God. It is the primary means by which God liturgically forms his people and properly orients us to our place in Christ’s story of redemption. If LPC must choose between worship on the Lord’s Day or on a holiday (e.g. Christmas Eve celebrations on Saturday and Sabbath worship the next Sunday morning) it must always choose worship on the Lord’s Day.

Second, Worship, whether on the Lord’s Day or any other time, must always remain focused on the glory of God in the redemptive work of Jesus. To change our focus onto other people, what we are doing, or what we are bringing to God, is an inversion of the gospel. Worship must always center on the gospel, which is what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. It is ok to have times where we speak about and meditate on people and what they are doing (e.g. praying for people of the church, hearing from mission partners, having a Sunday commemorating the communion of saints in sermons or prayers), but this must always be done in express reference to the centrality and glory of the work of Jesus.

Third, God determines how we are to worship him. He does this by his commands in scripture. We are not to introduce any liturgical element, ceremony, or motion that does not have a positive warrant from the Bible. To do so is to elevate our creativity over God’s instructions and to impose, no matter how well intentioned, venerable, or pleasant, a human tradition upon the conscience of our fellow worshippers. The church does not possess the authority to deviate from scripture in its worship. Our church’s doctrine, expressed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, provides the concrete directives on what we believe are the biblically prescribed elements, motions, and ceremonies. Specific examples of rituals without biblical warrant include the application of ashes or the waving of branches in worship.

Fourth, LPC is free to have particular topics or themes present in its prayers, songs, scripture readings, and sermons. These themes can follow the traditional Christian calendar, but should never veer from the first three principals above. LPC will generally follow the rhythm of the evangelical feast days in setting the themes of its worship service. For example, it is appropriate to have prayers, songs, scripture readings, and sermons on Easter Sunday that meditate on Christ’s resurrection. It also appropriate to thematically decorate the church building (a circumstance of worship), but it should never be done ostentatiously or in distraction from the biblical principles of worship. It is inappropriate to have worship thematically determined by the secular calendar or to have non-gospel/biblical themes or practices shape our worship. A specific example is singing patriotic music on the Fourth of July.

Fifth, LPC is never to use its authority to implement in worship practices absent or contrary to God’s word, nor to expressly or implicitly pressure the people of the church to believe or practice anything for their Christian walk lacking a scriptural warrant. This is especially true in pressuring people to observe additional celebrations and to ritually fast in preparation or anticipation for a specific day on the church calendar (Colossians 2:16-23). A specific example is encouraging the observation of Lent, whether expressly or implicitly.

Sixth, LPC’s use of the church calendar does not repeat, re-enact, or recapitulate the historic events of the life of Christ. Rather, it remembers, commemorates, and celebrates events that have definitively occurred in the past.[14] The church will never urge its people, expressly or implicitly, to prepare for or think of the work of Christ as if it has not yet happened. Nor will it urge people to use days of the calendar to specially participate in the work of Christ or receive his blessings. The church has Jesus and his benefits now, and receives and participates with Christ by faith as he is offered in the gospel. This offer of the gospel is to be proclaimed and administered week-in and week-out at LPC. This will protect the church from granting so-called holy days superstitious power or spiritual significance and will instead prioritize the definitive work of Jesus.


[1] James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is the best, accessible explanation for how this works in our world.

[2] The Didache, the earliest extra-biblical Christian document, instructs the church to gather on Sundays to worship God. For further information on the topic of Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath and the day still remaining obligatory for the Christian see Sinclair Ferguson’s Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification.

[3] The reference to “Sabbaths” here is not the keeping of the Lord’s Day and fourth commandment, but is shorthand for all the other Old Testament festivals that were collectively referred to as sabbaths.

[4] The best examples of Reformation era writing on this topic come from Heinrich Bullinger of Zurich in his Decades (1548-1551), which for a time were the standard textbook for clergy in the church of England; the French-Genevan John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) and his commentaries on Galatians and Colossians; the German Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (1587), which he authored; A Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies (1637) by George Gillespie, a Scottish-Presbyterian delegate to the Westminster Assembly; and the English Puritan John Owen’s A Discourse Concerning Liturgies and their Imposition (1662). All of these are accessible and easy to digest.

[5] There was another concern that holy days had become secularized and turned into days of debauched partying, much like how St. Patrick’s Day today. Christmas was a chief offender here. However, the Protestant churches differed in their solution to this. Some just wanted to correct sinful behavior, while others eliminated the holidays altogether.

[6] This definition is borrowed and modified from Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

[7]Calvin’s Response to Being Forced to Observe Christmas”, preached on Christmas Day, 1551.

[8] Fasting is good, and it is appropriate for the church to call for a fast from time to time. Individuals are free to fast in any season (e.g. Matthew 6:17-19, 9:15; 1 Corinthians 7:15), but for the church to call a fast should be in response to specific and timely circumstances of judgment, discernment, and thanksgiving. When the church calls for fasting, it is to be the condition of the people as they gather in public worship (Joel 2:12-18). It is wrong to disregard the church calling for a fast, not because of the inherent authority or respect of the church or value in fasting, but because the call to fast should always be tied to a pressing need or blessing, and disregarding the fast is discounting the suffering or blessing identified by the church. The church calling for fasting should always be to specific moments and circumstance, not a recurring, automatic season like Lent. See the Westminster Directory the Public Worship for more on this.

[9] For example, here, “How to live Lent According to the [Catholic] Catechism”.

[10]Our Pilgrimage Through Lent”.

[11] This point is made brilliantly by Karl Barth in his wonderful little Dogmatics in Outline and Learning Christ Through the Heidelberg Catechism

[12] Worship: Reformed According to Scripture by Hughes Oliphant Old and Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism by Philip Benedict are the best historic resource on this subject.

[13] Though in the case of the Dutch church there was extended debate on the subject. The final arrangement was a compromise, with the liberal ministers and civil government on the side of following the church calendar and the conservative ministers being on the side of imitating the Scots and banning their observance. See “Why are Ecclesiastical Feast Days in our Church Order?

[14] I am indebted to Steven Wedgeworth for this pithy summary.