I recently read Sinclair Ferguson’s article Should Christians Abandon Christmas? and felt like someone had pirated his computer and submitted an article on Christmas in his name. It was less than what I would expect from Sinclair Ferguson. I expected a good biblical treatment of the man-made tradition with some biblical support either for or against the holiday. I expected…some light and really just got a bunch of willy nilly retread that was neither rooted in Scripture or sound reasoning. It was very un-Sinclair-like.
His basic defense of the holiday was that since God is not specific in order of worship, or specific about what the preacher preaches on Sunday morning, then we have the freedom to go all in on Christmas. In the process of saying as much, he belittles the regulative principle of worship that those in his tradition have held for several hundred years, all so we celebrate a day and in a way that God has not commanded.
First, the biblical response. We are responsible to obey all God commands in his word. But that isn’t the same as saying that unless Scripture specifically commands it we should not do it.
Actually, the regulative principle of worship is based upon a text of Scripture showing just the opposite of what Ferguson is saying. Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron and priests in the Levitical system, decided to offer profane fire before the LORD. The LORD had not commanded it. Given Ferguson’s statement, it should have been fine. The brothers were just being creative in their worship. But God made it clear that we don’t have the freedom to be creative in our worship, or add to what He has not commanded us to do.
The LORD burned both men to death for doing what He had not commanded them to do. In other words, God was making it very clear that we do not have the freedom to invent elements of worship, or add to the worship, as Sinclair seems to be suggesting. God was letting us know that being creative and imaginative when it comes to the way we worship Him, is off limits.
This is because God knows our hearts and minds. He knows the depth of our sin in a way that we do not. He knows that if our imaginations are opened up and we are allowed to get creative, then the next thing we will be doing is making golden calfs, bowing down to them, and rising up by engaging in mass sexual adultery. This is why the way we are to worship God is limited to what He has prescribed in His word.
Yes, there is freedom in what He has commanded. We can worship at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., as long as we are worshipping on the LORD’s day, because that is when He has commanded us to worship. Yes, the preacher can preach from the book of John on the same verse for several weeks, as long as he is preaching God’s word faithfully. But there is no freedom to add to what God has already commanded.
If we are honest with ourselves, Christmas is an addition to what God has commanded. And we know that it is idolatrous because some churches have actually canceled worship on Sundays when Christmas fell on that day. That is trumping man’s tradition over God’s command. That is idolatry.
Back to Ferguson’s line of reasoning, if it can be called that:
Think of marriage. The Bible doesn’t command you to get married. Nor does it tell you whom to marry. It gives you principles and encourages you to work them out in your life, and promises you the help of the Spirit to do that. You seek to apply these principles wisely.
Actually, the Bible does command marriage. It’s given in Genesis as part of the creation mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it…(Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:7). Yes, we are to be wise in choosing our spouses and in getting married. We are to get married and have lots of children if possible. Only a few are given the gift of celibacy, and for the rest, we should marry and have children. But I guess I’m being picky about what God’s word actually says.
His reasoning on marriage is how he sets up his main argument by showing that when it comes to Scripture, it’s just not as clear as we would hope. Therefore, all manner of things are possible. Does he really mean that? OK, I’m still finding it hard to believe that Sinclair put this article forth. Yet here we are.
Ferguson uses this muddled line of thinking to set up his first main point:
How does this apply to the church celebrating Advent and Christmas? Fairly simply, really. A church can decide to hold a conference in the spring over a weekend. It isn’t commanded. But it isn’t disobedience. They do it because they think it’s wise and helpful. A preacher can decide that he’s going to spend a whole month preaching on John 3 v 16. He’s not commanded to—but he thinks it would be spiritually beneficial for the congregation. It is completely within the power of the elders in a church to decide, for example, that every Autumn there will be a thanksgiving service for the harvest, or that every time the Day of Pentecost comes round the preacher will expound Acts 2 or a related passage and they will sing appropriate hymns.
Again, why should a church celebrate Advent or Christmas at all, given that we have not been commanded to do so? That is the question. He gives no reason for actually doing it, other than the fact that it doesn’t command that we don’t do it. He does offer that it might be beneficial. I would argue that the celebration of the day if far more detrimental to our faith, than any benefits it may have to offer.
But suggesting that it might be beneficial is dangerous logic because we can come up with a lot, like men dancing in tights during worship, if we hold to the principle that we can do whatever we like in worship as long as there is no command against it. The principle, according to Ferguson’s own confession is that we only do that which IS commanded.
The Scripture says a lot about what we are to do. We are worship one day a week, the LORD’s day, according to God’s command. That is the only holy day we have been given from the word of God. Adding Christmas to the list of holy days goes against this principle.
The preacher is told what to preach: preach the word. Yes, he may preach from a certain text for a period of time, but that doesn’t mean he has the freedom to add holy days to the calendar. That doesn’t mean he can add new elements to our worship. The freedom in preaching God’s word is not carte blanche freedom to add new seasons to the yearly calendar of 52 holy days of the year.
Ferguson fails in his treatment of Christmas. He merely uses weak human reasoning to try and justify the day. But there really is no justification for what is put forth as a holy day, especially the idolatry that surrounds the day called Christmas. And the day has become idolatrous. Just ask the simple question: is a Christian being less than a true and obedient Christian if he does not celebrate Christmas? If the word “heretic” comes to mind, then the day has become idolatrous in your view.
Let us close with a quote from Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers:
We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority.