J. G. Vos, “The Observance of Days,” Blue Banner Faith and Life (January – March, 1947), 2:17-20 — Reprinted in Blue Banner Faith and Life (January to March, 1952), 7:8-11
The Observance of Days
“Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.” —Galatians 4:10, 11
The day called “Easter” is observed as a holy day by many churches and also by multitudes of people who are not members of any church and who ordinarily show little or no interest in religion. Multitudes of people will attend religious services on Easter who rarely darken a church door on any other day of the year. Multitudes of people believe that it is a special sin to miss church attendance on Easter, even if they habitually absent themselves the other fifty-one weeks of the year. It is easy to see that Easter is generally regarded as of great importance.
It will not take long to discuss the question of Easter in the Bible. The King James Version of the Bible uses the word “Easter” just once, in Acts 12:4, “Now at that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church . . . and he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And when he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”
That is the one and only occurrence of the word “Easter” in the Bible, and it is an incorrect translation of the original Greek. The American Revised Version gives the correct meaning of the word: Passover. So we see that the Bible, correctly translated, never even mentions Easter.
Practically all Christian denominations throughout the world make a great occasion of Easter. Reformed Presbyterians or Covenanters are in a very small minority of Christian bodies in opposing the observance of Easter for reasons of principle. Because of this opposition we are regarded as peculiar, and this makes us more or less unpopular. Nobody likes to be different and nobody likes to be considered “queer.” However we need not be afraid to be different, provided we can give a good, substantial reason for the difference. So I propose to discuss the subject of “The Observance of Days,” and in particular to set forth some reasons for not observing Easter and other special religious festival days.
I once heard of a minister, many years ago, who was so strongly opposed to the observance of Christmas and Easter that he made a point of preaching a Christmas sermon on Easter and an Easter sermon on Christmas! Certainly we need not go that far, but at the same time we should understand the principles involved in this question. In former times the Reformed Presbyterian Church was solidly opposed to the religious observance of Christmas, Easter and other special days of the same kind. But in recent years this opposition has begun to weaken, and here and there a Covenanter congregation is beginning to copy the big denominations and do more or less as others do in this matter of observing days.
Three hundred years ago the Westminster Assembly of Divines met in London, England, to compile the Confession of Faith, Catechisms and other standards that have become the heritage of all churches of the Presbyterian family throughout the world. Let me quote what the Westminster Assembly said about the observance of holy days. It is found in the Appendix to the Directory for Worship which they prepared. This is what they said: “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.” 300 years ago that was the accepted belief of all Presbyterians. Since then, the majority have gradually adopted the customs of the Episcopalians and Catholics, and today they observe a variety of special days in their religious services. But we should realize that we Covenanters, in opposing the observance of Easter and other “holy” days, are only holding to the original principle which was once held by all Presbyterians everywhere. It is not the Covenanters that have changed.
I. The Apostle Paul on Observing Days
The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, reproving them for observing days: “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.”
The error of the Galatian Christians was that they confused law and grace. They thought that they could be saved by faith in Christ plus human works. And among the human works that they stressed was the scrupulous observance of special days. The days, and months, and times, and years, were, of course, those appointed by God in the ceremonial law for observance during the Old Testament dispensation. The Galatians as New Testament Christians were seeking to revert to the ceremonial worship of the Old Testament, so they observed these days as if that were necessary for salvation.
Note that the apostle Paul regards this observance of days as a bad tendency: “I am afraid of (for) you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.” Further on, in verse 20 of the same chapter, he adds: “I stand in doubt of you.” Paul wondered what was wrong with their religious knowledge and experience, that they should have become so zealous for the observance of days.
II. The General Principle Regulating Divine Worship
The general principle taught in the Bible as regulative of the worship of God is that every element of worship must be appointed in Scripture, and that any element which is not appointed in Scripture is to be regarded as forbidden in the worship of God. It is not necessary to prove that the Bible positively forbids the use of musical instruments in New Testament worship, nor is it necessary to prove that the Bible positively forbids the use of ordinary, uninspired, man-made hymns in singing praises to God. The mere fact that the Bible does not command these practices, that they are not appointed in Scripture, is sufficient to show that they are not to be introduced into the worship of God. This same general principle also applies to the question of the observance of days. These special days, and in particular Christmas and Easter, are not commanded in the Bible. Therefore they are forbidden as elements of religious worship and not to be observed as such.
When the average church member or even minister in the large, popular denominations is asked to give a text of Scripture that warrants the religious observance of Christmas or Easter, he is of course unable to do so. But in most cases he will reply: “Well, of course the Bible does not command us to observe Christmas and Easter; but, you see, the Bible does not forbid it either.” And that is the prevalent attitude on this question. But we should note well that on that basis all kinds of new and strange things could be introduced into the worship of God, such as holy water, bells, incense, pageants, theatricals, for the Bible does not actually forbid any of them. In fact there would be almost no limit to the changes that could be made on such a basis. As over against the attitude described above, we hold that the question of the observance of days is a matter of principle and not a mere matter of expediency. And we believe that the principle involved is revealed in the Bible with unmistakeable clarity.
III. Men’s Holy Days and God’s Holy Day
There is one day that God has really set apart as a holy day: the Lord’s Day or the Christian Sabbath. It comes once a week, 52 times a year. And it is peculiarly a commemoration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on that early morning, the first day of the week, nearly nineteen centuries ago.
I shall now speak of a prevalent tendency in the religious life of our times. A parallel development is taking place; two things are going on side by side. On the one hand, we observe the multiplication of special holy or religious days, not only Christmas and Easter, but a great many others as well. And as the years pass, the tendency is to add more and more of these special days.
On the other hand, there is an increasing carelessness and disregard for God’s holy day, the Sabbath. Who would venture to maintain that the Sabbath is observed as conscientiously today as it was 25 years ago? Oh, no! It is just the other way around. A quarter of a century ago most Christian people were conscientious and strict about observing God’s day, but at present there is a prevalent carelessness about God’s day, while a great deal of attention is paid to all these other holy days that have been invented by men.
These tendencies are parallel: more and more emphasis on special days, and less and less stress on conscientious Sabbath observance. People are substituting human ideas for God’s appointed plan and way.
Some people are astonished at Covenanters, and exclaim in their surprise: “What! Do you mean to say that you don’t believe in celebrating the resurrection of Christ? How could any Christian be opposed to that?”
Oh, yes, we believe in celebrating the resurrection of Christ, and we do it 52 times a year, for we commemorate our Lord’s resurrection every Sabbath day, and not just once a year. That is a Scriptural commemoration of our Lord’s rising from the dead. We believe firmly in Christ’s resurrection, but we also believe in celebrating it only in God’s appointed way, by a faithful observance of the Christian Sabbath each week.
IV. Men’s Holy Days and the Gospel of Christ
I have shown how the increase in the observance of special days is paralleled by a decrease in the observance of the Sabbath. Now let me mention two other tendencies that also run together in parallel fashion. One is defection from the truth of the Gospel, and the other is a tremendous increase in ritualism. These two tendencies go hand in hand just as surely as night follows day.
During the past 150 years there has been a general breakdown of belief in the truth of Christianity. Men everywhere have been coming to doubt the doctrines of the Christian religion and to question the truthfulness of the Bible. Such fundamental doctrines as the inspiration of the Bible, the Deity of Christ and his substitutionary atonement for sinners are frequently doubted or denied outright. This is not only true of worldly people, but even of church members, ministers and professors of theology in large and prominent institutions.
Now you would think that when people come to the conclusion that the Bible is not true, and that an intelligent, educated person can no longer accept it at face value, they would just say “Christianity is a fraud” and then give up all profession of the Christian religion. But that is very far from what most of them do. On the contrary, they stay right on in their churches and go right on preaching and attending church, but they neither believe nor preach the “old-fashioned” Gospel any more. They sometimes use the old words and phrases, but they employ them with new and strange meanings.
At the same time such people feel the need of something to satisfy the hunger of their souls, so they take refuge in ritualism, the multiplication of forms and ceremonies. This is the result of a desperate attempt to find reality and soul-satisfaction in religion, on the part of those who have come to believe that modern science has made it impossible to retain the supernatural Christianity of the Bible. So, many churches are going in for vested choirs; some are burning incense in worship, and some are doing even stranger things. And one part of this tendency is the multiplication of special religious days. We should realize, too, that no churches are plunging into ritualism so fast as those that have departed from the old Gospel of the Word of God. As men lose their faith in the truth of God’s Word, and in Christ as truly God, they seem to try to make up for their spiritual loss by putting on a great deal of religious ritual and pageantry. This tendency can be observed in churches large and small across our country.
“Doran’s Minister’s Manual” enumerates over 30 special or holy days that are regularly observed by Catholics, Episcopalians and some Lutherans. In addition to listing these the book provides materials for sermons or addresses for twenty special days, which are the following: New Year’s Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, Every Member Canvass Day, Washington’s Birthday, Palm Sunday, Easter, Memorial Day, Ascension Day, Children’s Day, Whitsunday, School Commencement, Missionary Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Reformation Sunday, International Temperance Sunday, Thaksgiving Day, Christmas, Old Year’s Day, Armistice Day.
To these we might add others that are coming to be commonly observed, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Red Cross Day, Go-to-Church Day, etc. One organization after another comes forward calling for a special day or week to be devoted to its interests. When we once begin to add other special days to God’s Holy Sabbath day, we start on a long, long trail, and no one can tell where the end will be.
Of course there is no objection to observing a day like Thanksgiving DDay, to which we are duly called by the civil authorities, nor to observing such days as the preparatory days before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, these being appointed for a special purpose by the officers of the church. That is quite different from the tendency to set apart certain days as special or holy in themselves, thereby adding elements not appointed in Scripture to the worship of God.
V. The Real Origin of Easter Observance
“Easter” is defined in my dictionary as “a Christian festival commemorating the resurrection of Christ.” But the interesting thing is the derivation, rather than the definition, of the word “Easter.” According to Funk and Wagnalls, it is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word spelled “Eastre,” the name of the old heathen goddess of spring whom our ancestors worshipped before Christianity came to the British Isles.
Philip Schaff’s “History of the Christian Church,” a standard work on Church history, states that “the transfer of the celebration of . . . the old German divinity of the rising, health-bringing light, was easy and natural . . . .” Have you ever wondered why fresh flowers, newly hatched chicks, and so forth, are regarded as connected with Easter? It is from the old heathen nature worship of ancient times. These things were symbols of returning life and vitality in the spring season of the year. So our heathen ancestors in pre-Christian times observed “Easter” as a religious celebration, before they ever heard of Jesus Christ. And after their conversion to Christianity, they went right on observing Easter, only they gave it a Christian dress and a Christian explanation. Instead of just worshipping the goddess of spring-time, they worshipped the true God; and instead of just celebrating the general awakening of nature to new life in the springtime, they began to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But it was still called “Easter” after the name of the old heathen goddess.
It is not easy to be different from the majority. It is not easy to hold unpopular convictions. It costs to stand with a minority and bear witness for an unpopular truth or principle. But it is worth-while, and, what is far more important, it is right. Let us not be afraid to be different, so long as we can give a valid reason, based on the Word of God, for our conscientious convictions.