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Candles Up, Preaching Down

In the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-twentieth century Christmas day was regarded as an ordinary working day. There was little recognition of it in the community and almost none in the Presbyterian Churches. This was the result of the Reformed heritage handed down from the 16th century Reformation, and especially from the Puritan element within it, that prevailed in England and Scotland. Some observed the day as a family occasion; others celebrated New Year’s Day, as they did with Harvest Thanksgiving, to acknowledge God’s goodness in the past and seeking his blessing on the future.

It was thought that with the recovery of Reformed theology and Puritan principles in the 1960s the so called ‘holy days’ would be outlawed in the Church. Instead in the last two decades we seem to be going rapidly in the opposite direction. The floodgates have been well and truly opened in the ‘Reformed Churches’ and we have Christmas services, ‘carols by candlelight’, children’s parties with Santa, evangelical magazines and papers with Christmas issues, and even Reformed publishers making ‘Christmas offers’.

As far as the Reformed Churches in Scotland are concerned 1997 proved a watershed. A well-publicised Christmas Carol Service, involving hymns and instrumental music, was held in the Bon Accord Free Church of Scotland congregation in Aberdeen. Such a type of service was unheard of in the Free Church for the whole of the 20th century. The arguments used in justification of it were: (1) that it was not to be considered as public worship; and (2) that it was an evangelistic endeavour. On complaint from two other Presbyteries, the Edinburgh & Perth Presbytery supported the action of the Aberdeen congregation, a decision from which several members of Presbytery dissented with reasons. By 2010 the hymns and instrumental music had been given official status by the General Assembly, and the ‘holy day’ is now observed almost universally.

The case against the use of ‘holy days’ is fairly well known and need not be repeated here. Surely what should concern us is how the use of the festival of Christmas in the Church is connected to the current spiritual apostasy and to accommodating the churches to contemporary culture. The use has many detrimental effects:

1) A failure of nerve in the preaching of the Gospel

Some regard the observance of Christmas as a ready tool for evangelism. It is a way to connect with the man in the street. But surely this is a failure of confidence in the spiritual weapons we have been given? The Lord says: “Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help” (Isa. 31:1). In the days of Saul when “there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel,” so we are told that all the Israelites “went down to the Philistines to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter and his axe and his mattock” (1 Sam. 13:19-23). Has anyone noticed a vast change in church attendance or can point to conversion through the introduction of such tactics?

For over a hundred years now evangelicals have been prone to regard ‘evangelistic’ meetings and ‘evangelistic’ sermons as special occasions, different from the ordinary run of things. This is surely an indictment of our normal preaching services. If we were to hold that the essential work of evangelism lies in holding meetings of a special type we would simply prove that we had failed to understand what our regular services are for. “The Lord Jesus Christ,” said Robert Bolton, “is offered most freely and without exception of any person, every Sabbath, every Sermon either in plain, and direct terms, or impliedly, at the least.” The observance of Christmas in the Church is similar to the mass evangelism of recent decades. Some good can come of it but the long term effects are more damaging to the Church.

2) The introduction of sensuality in worship

In a helpful article on ‘Sensual Worship – A Sign of Impending Apostasy’ (Banner of Truth Magazine, November 2010) Iain Murray wrote: “When interest in the churches begins to centre around the visual and the sensual it is commonly a sign of impending apostasy.” The Epistle to the Hebrews shows us how, in contrast to the Levitical system, we have in the New Testament era “the naked simplicity of gospel institutions”. As with the Hebrew Christians, when spiritual decline occurs there is a tendency to turn to liturgy and ceremonies. As the Protestant martyr, Hugh Latimer warned: “When candles go up, preaching comes down”. Puritan John Owen declared: “Dislike of the purity and simplicity of the gospel worship is that which was the rise of, and gave increase or progress unto the whole Roman apostasy.” To quote Iain Murray again: “An appetite is being fed which in the past has led to the very abandonment of the Gospel. When satisfying the “natural” becomes acceptable in churches, the spiritual will not long remain.” We may question how the typical Christmas service of today can be pleasing to the high and holy God? Can the words of many carols be a fitting attitude for a sinful creatures in the presence of God?

3) The promotion of a superficial religious experience

The ‘Christmas message’ generally portrayed in connection with the festival is very sentimental. It is easy to be carried along by the wonder and the mystery of it. The world can accept that kind of thing. For years evangelicalism has been moving to a man-centred Gospel and the trend is accentuated by the so-called ‘Christmas message’. Response to such a ‘gospel’ generally leads to a profession in which there is no radical change of heart. The worldliness that characterizes many professing lives and the entertainment element in many evangelical churches testify to that. You even find the keeping of Christmas taking precedence over the observance of the Lord’s Day.

The message is “the glorious gospel of the blessed God”. The chief end of the Gospel is the glory of God. The natural man in his pride refuses to give that glory to God and until he is made aware of his sin and lost condition he is not going to find the true Gospel to be ‘good news’. The gospel message preached rightly is offensive to the natural man. But it is the power of God unto salvation and humbles and subdues the heart so that the true fear of God is wrought in it. If Christian experience in depth is ours, if revival and reformation came to our churches and to our nation one thing is certain the observance of Christmas within the Church would disappear.

Martin Luther could scarcely be described as a ‘kill-joy’ Puritan yet he said in an ‘Address to the German Nobility’ (1520): “One should abolish all festivals, retaining only the Lord’s day. My reason is this: with our present abuses of drinking, gambling, idling, and all manner of sin, we vex God more on holy days than on others. And the matter is just reversed; we have made holy days unholy, and working days holy, and do no service, but great dishonour, to God and His saints with all our holy days.”