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Archive for the ‘Sabbatarianism & the Church Calendar’ Category

0_post_card_portraits_-_jrre_unidentified_rev_patonHere’s a selection from the first chapter of one of my all-time favorite books, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides.  These two passages are some of the more memorable ones to me, holding out the beautiful example of a New Covenant Abraham, leading his family to the throne of grace and giving a foretaste of heavenly glory.

This book is well worth the reading.  If you don’t read the book, read the first chapter.  But I dare you not to continue reading after that.  Read it to your family on a quiet Lord’s Day afternoon and develop your own memories of hallowing the day with your children.  Oh, and make sure to read the poem at the end …

The book can be accessed online for free with GoogleBooks, and you can obtain it at Reformation Heritage Books.

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Besides his independent choice of a Church for himself, there was one other mark and fruit of his early religious decision, which looks even fairer through all these years. Family Worship had heretofore been held only on Sabbath day in his father’s house; but the young Christian, entering into conference with his sympathising mother, managed to get the household persuaded that there ought to be daily morning and evening prayer and reading of the Bible and holy singing. This the more readily, as he himself agreed to take part regularly in the same and so relieve the old warrior of what might have proved for him too arduous spiritual toils. And so began in his seventeenth year that blessed custom of Family Prayer, morning and evening, which my father practised probably without one single omission till he lay on his deathbed, seventy-seven years of age; when, even to the last day of his life, a portion of Scripture was read, and his voice was heard softly joining in the Psalm, and his lips breathed the morning and evening Prayer,—falling in sweet benediction on the heads of all his children, far away many of them over all the earth, but all meeting him there at the Throne of Grace. None of us can remember that any day ever passed unhallowed thus; no hurry for market, no rush to business, no arrival of friends or guests, no trouble or sorrow, no joy or excitement, ever prevented at least our kneeling around the family altar, while the High Priest led our prayers to God, and offered himself and his children there. And blessed to others, as well as to ourselves, was the light of such example! I have heard that, in long after years, the worst woman in the village of Torthorwald, then leading an immoral life, but since changed by the grace of God, was known to declare, that the only thing that kept her from despair and from the hell of the suicide, was when in the dark winter nights she crept close up underneath my father’s window, and heard him pleading in family worship that God would convert “the sinner from the error of wicked ways and polish him as a jewel for the Redeemer’s crown.” “I felt,” said she, “that I was a burden on that good man’s heart, and I knew that God would not disappoint him. That thought kept me out of Hell, and at last led me to the only Saviour” . . . .

We had, too, special Bible Readings on the Lord’s Day evening,—mother and children and visitors reading in turns, with fresh and interesting question, answer, and exposition, all tending to impress us with the infinite grace of a God of love and mercy in the great gift of His dear Son Jesus, our Saviour. The Shorter Catechism was gone through regularly, each answering the question asked, till the whole had been explained, and its foundation in Scripture shown by the proof-texts adduced. It has been an amazing thing to me, occasionally to meet with men who blamed this “catechizing” for giving them a distaste to religion; every one in all our circle thinks and feels exactly the opposite. It laid the solid rock foundations of our religious life. After-years have given to these questions and their answers a deeper or a modified meaning, but none of us have ever once even dreamed of wishing that we had been otherwise trained. Of course, if the parents are not devout, sincere, and affectionate,—if the whole affair on both sides is taskwork, or worse, hypocritical and false,—results must be very different indeed! Oh, I can remember those happy Sabbath evenings; no blinds drawn, and shutters up, to keep out the sun from us, as some scandalously affirm; but a holy, happy, entirely human day, for a Christian father, mother, and children to spend. How my father would parade across and across our flag-floor, telling over the substance of the day’s sermons to our dear mother, who, because of the great distance and because of her many living “encumbrances,” got very seldom indeed to the church, but gladly embraced every chance, when there was prospect or promise of a “lift ” either way from some friendly gig! How he would entice us to help him to recall some idea or other, rewarding us when we got the length of “taking notes” and reading them over on our return; how he would turn the talk ever so naturally to some Bible story, or some martyr reminiscence, or some happy allusion to the “Pilgrim’s Progress”! And then it was quite a contest, which of us would get reading aloud, while all the rest listened, and father added here and there a happy thought, or illustration, or anecdote. Others must write and say what they will, and as they feel; but so must I. There were eleven of us brought up in a home like that; and never one of the eleven, boy or girl, man or woman, has been heard, or ever will be heard, saying that Sabbath was dull or wearisome for us, or suggesting that we have heard of or seen any way more likely than that for making the Day of the Lord bright and blessed alike for parents and for children. But God help the homes where these things are done by force and not by love! The very discipline through which our father passed us was a kind of religion in itself. If anything really serious required to be punished, he retired first to his closet for prayer, and we boys got to understand that he was laying the whole matter before God; and that was the severest part of the punishment for me to bear! I could have defied any amount of mere penalty, but this spoke to my conscience as a message from God. We loved him all the more, when we saw how much it cost him to punish us; and, in truth, he had never very much of that kind of work to do upon any one of all the eleven—we were ruled by love far more than by fear.

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Only a few days away from Halloween, I’ve been thinking more about why we don’t celebrate it, as well as reviewing online why other Christians do. I realize that there are many good believers who don’t see a problem with the festivities, and I’m not prepared to discount the evident grace of God that they have. Further, we are, every one of us, filled with sins and blind spots, myself included. But it is troubling to me how little argument is made against Halloween within the Church. So if you’re on the fence – and even if you’re not – may I at least challenge you with the following questions, friend?

1. Are you open-minded about it?  For a Christian, everything is fair game for re-examination under the Word of God. I fear that too often, we are looking for tailor-made arguments to suit our conclusions. We must not trust, but ever examine ourselves and let the light of God’s Word shine on even our most cherished practices. The Bible not merely some encouraging how-to handbook for ‘living our best life now.’ It is also a floodlight to expose our sins, that we might turn from them and find pardon and direction for new obedience. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

2. Have you educated yourself?  We really ought to understand why we do what we do. We must not be “as the beasts that perish,” unthinking and instinctive. Even if we conclude that it is harmless or even proper, we should “in understanding be men.” An unwillingness to inquire into the origins and development of Halloween for fear of what we may learn betrays a bad bias. We do not need to go on a witch-hunt for evil. But if we are going to adopt a practice, let’s do it with both eyes open. My wife and I recently watched a documentary about Halloween (with a bit of fast-forwarding) by the History Channel here. It only reinforced our decision.

Also, have you educated yourself about the biblical teaching on witchcraft and the occult, which Halloween unashamedly celebrates? For starters, read Deut. 18:9-14, 1 Sam. 15:23, 1 Sam. 28, 2 Chron. 33:6, 1 Jn. 5:21, and Acts 19:19. If you haven’t read them recently, re-read them. And note that witchcraft is branded in Paul’s catalogue of the works of the flesh, right along with other gross immoralities, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Even if we participate only in the ‘innocent’ aspects of modern, American Halloween, aren’t we somehow validating, or at least winking at the occult? We ought to have no fellowship with devils (1 Cor. 10:20) and should avoid even the appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:22).

3. Are you leading or following?  We are always products of our environment. But we should never let environment, culture, the marketplace or anything else call the shots. The crowd is not always right. And more often than not, it just isn’t. Counting heads is risky business, even when we are counting the heads of Christian trick-or-treaters. Let’s get in line behind God! Let’s be Joshuas, fearlessly pioneering the path of godliness, not the path of least resistance. So if that makes us strange and even lonely (1 Pet. 4:4), so be it. Let them say what they want. Let’s follow the pillar of fire by night. He will guide us safely through the darkness without.

4. Are your following your feelings?  Believe me, I know this all too well. The older I get, the more nostalgic I find myself. I remember the brisk, cool evenings, the costumes and the plastic jack-o-lantern pails. I remember with fondness going door to door, and telling my buddies which ones were giving out full-size Snickers. Halloween is in my American boyhood bloodstream, running black and orange every October 31. But I am not my own any more. I am bought with a price. I am Christian first, and an American second. How does God feel about Halloween? If my feelings are at variance, then those feelings must be put to death.

5. Do you have the hearts of your children?  The prophecy “a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6) is not to be confused with the curse of children-rulers (Isa. 3:4). Let’s face it. In America, Halloween is a day for children, and our age is the age of youth. But as adults, we must always be in the lead. And if we decide that Halloween is unwholesome at best or ungodly at worst, we should lead accordingly. I especially think this entails loving them demonstrably enough the 364 other days so we don’t cave on Halloween out of guilt. If we are in the lead, we can give alternatives and fill any void with deep, Christian, parental love, that will more than make up for any perceived loss.

6. Is Halloween really edifying?  Is this celebration of the dead (and the ‘living dead’) consistent with “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report” (Phil. 4:8)? Does not the Halloween mask somehow mask over the obvious? As a rule, that which passes under cover of night is not worthy of those who are “of the day.”

7. Is Halloween really harmless?  I know that we sophisticated moderns dismiss ghouls, ghosts, goblins, and all things that go bump in the night. But are our secular, pagan neighbors really all that cut off from the reality and the draw of the Kingdom of darkness? I am of the mind that old, superstitious paganism is more alive than dead, like the Dracula of Halloween lore. It is a real, abiding threat. And as Christians who know better about the spiritual world, can we suggest that we are immune? We are not. If we flirt with the occult as though it were a child’s game, we may be drawn in never to return. Thus the ban on all paganism in both Old and New Testaments.

8. Are you being a good & effective witness?  This is a recurring argument, made no doubt by well-intentioned believers. I don’t impugn their motives. But having the only house with the lights out on Halloween is not inherently undermining our Gospel witness. Some apparently believe this rather strongly. But I fail to see how non-participation is necessarily boorish. If we go out of our way to get to know our neighbors as we should, show them the love of Christ, and speak the Gospel to them the rest of the year, I hardly see why I need Halloween to commend Christ. Our neighbors respect us, even if they don’t understand us.

Further, I am convinced that Halloween continues to be a heathen coping-mechanism, which I cannot endorse for their sake. That is, death is real, yet so troubling that they must somehow manage its reality – only on their terms, short of God. Laughter and frivolity are like the booze that drowns their troubles away. But on November 1, the specter of death still stares the sinner in the face. We, however, celebrate the Lord’s Day fifty-two days of the year. We celebrate life. New life – life over death!

Now there’s a celebration that calls for full participation. And invitation.

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It’s Christmas Eve, and we’re among the very precious few nowadays who aren’t doing anything special. Though we are committed Christians, we don’t observe this holiday – though we love and embrace all sincere Christians who celebrate the God who entered our world of sin and misery through a virgin’s womb. Yet, unlike the masses both of saints and seculars, for us this is just another Monday. And tomorrow is just another Tuesday.

Our main reason is quite simple. We believe that all religious devotion ought to be done when and only when God commands it. Standing in the great legacy of the Protestant Reformation, we confess that “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men …not prescribed in holy Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1). God has made Himself patently clear on this point. We may not invent our worship after our whim (Col. 2:23, Matt. 15:9). And we may certainly not take our cues from the darkened heathen (Deut. 12:29-31). Our watchword in worship is God’s Word. Full stop. “What thing soever I command I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:32).

On all hands, Christmas fails the test. Nowhere in Scripture is it appointed. We don’t even know the day of our Lord’s birth. Baptism was appointed. The Lord’s Supper was appointed. And the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, was clearly appointed as well. But not the slightest hint of Christmas may be drawn from the sacred page. For this, we must turn to subsequent, post-apostolic history. To the invention of men. And dig far enough below the topsoil, and you’ll eventually hit the firm substratum of unmixed paganism. Read any historians, secular or sacred. The day, however lovely, romantic, or ostensibly ‘Christian,’ is “not of heaven, but of men.”

So that’s the Cliff Notes version of why we choose to be the odd-ducks. And while others we love and respect observe it civilly at home, we’ve elected just to bypass the whole thing. First, I think the ecclesiastical-civil distinction is too nuanced for my children to grasp. Kwissmiss is Kwissmiss. But further, I think false worship often gets into the church through the home. Folk religion has a nasty way of creeping in the back door (Gen. 31:30, 34; Gen. 35:1-4).  And from there to public worship.

But for me, there’s a more subjective reason. I know, I know.  Subjectivity, on my own view, is the very culprit.  It’s precisely because people dream of a white Christmas, precisely because they are entranced by visions of dancing sugar plums that the day is such a force to be reckoned with. Many won’t even consider arguments like the one above because sentiment so controls them. And I don’t say that as one who is immune from all the trappings. Christmas was a part of my very American boyhood. To this day, the decision not to celebrate is a decision to suppress my own feelings.

And yet at the same time, I have to admit that my opposition to Christmas is in part the fruit of my subjectivity.  Follow me here.

Jesus is everything to me. And yes, the Jesus of the manger. The Jesus who received the visit from the wise men. The Jesus of Luke 1 & 2. I am His and He is mine. And without Him, I am nothing.

And because Jesus is everything to me, Christianity – its doctrine and its worship – is everything to me as well. But I cannot believe that Jesus is everything or that Christianity is everything if it is in whole or in part the product of man.

If I should peel back the layers and find the unreal in my blessed Savior or in the dogma of His inspired apostles, I would come face to face with the unthinkable. I shudder even to type that sentence, to be frank. The hypothetical cannot even be hypothetical. I would sooner deny my own existence than deny the total authenticity of Jesus. If He is false, or the drama of redemptive history in which He played the main part, is compromised by myth, I am lost and undone!  “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; and ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:6, 7). No, I must stand with Peter on the petrine Rock. “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And “we have” most certainly “not followed cunningly devised fables” (2 Pet. 1:16).

Christmas, however, arises neither from our Lord nor His apostles. Try as one might, it lacks their sanction. Yet it presumes to be radically essential to the very existence of Christianity in the world. Can you, reader, imagine Christianity without Christmas? If you can, you’re an odd duck like me. But in all likelihood, you aren’t.

Yet if it is so radically essential and at the same time is on all hands the result of heathenism and churchly capitulation, then Christianity requires something un-Christian to be complete. And Jesus, then, requires something un-Christian to be complete. Why didn’t Jesus think of Christmas, if Christmas is so grand, and so very Christian? Jesus then becomes dependent on the mind of man. Man must contribute. Man must add. But what can He add to Truth but falsehood? What can He give to the Man who has everything? His sin, his misery, his vanity.

Maybe this strikes you as overly fine and needlessly complex. I will let the reader judge for himself. All I can do, though, is give my plain and honest testimony. As I see it – or rather, as I deeply feel it – Christmas is tells the world that Christianity is defective and needs supplementation. Or worse, it needs improvement or even rehabilitation.  From below.

I, for one, will stay on side of Paul. “What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols” (2 Cor. 6:14-16)?  I’ll stay there first because I am convinced it’s objectively right. But it’s also subjectively safe.

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This week, countless devout Christians throughout the world will celebrate the birth of the Savior.  Believers of every stripe revel in that great redemptive moment of the incarnation.  It marked the entrance of God into our sin-blighted world.  The Only-Begotten Son then began His saving errand by the gateway of the virgin’s womb.

It grieves these sincere believers when Jesus, ‘the reason for the season,’ is elbowed out by the crass materialism and secularism of the age.  When Jesus is absent, the celebration just rings hollow.  Gone is the manger.  Gone the shepherds watching their sheep.  Gone the chorus of angelic hosts, announcing the good news of the Christ-child.  When the ark is taken, Israel sighs.

And yet, as a Christian, I have a deeper grief yet.  My grief arises precisely in the fact that modern Christmas is just old paganism taking off its disguise.  Or, the rooster returning to the roost, if you will.

Anyone who has read even a little of the origins of Christmas will know that its origins were anything but Christian.  It represents a compromise in mission – an emasculation of mission, really.  When Europe was first being evangelized, the Church failed to insist that the pagans break off all ties with their ancient ways.  To throw them a bone, the Church baptized their winter solstice holiday, devoted to idols, and called it Christian.  But calling it Christian did not make it Christian.  And at the end of the day, paganism cannot be domesticated.  It must be converted, and all bridges burnt (Acts 19:18, 19, 1 Thess. 1:9).

With my Christian brothers and sisters, I join them in glorying in the incarnation.  With them, I grieve over the religious decline and the syncretism of the day.  But I would appeal to them to rethink Christmas.  And for that matter, rethink mission.

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