Reading in the New Year

Books, Christian Living

Kid-ReadingIs it 2014 already? That didn’t take long! As you look ahead with anticipation, I hope you’re setting some reading goals to enrich your Christian life through the Scriptures and other Christian books. Tony Reinke very accurately explains, “Reading is a difficult pleasure because it requires discipline, diligence, and focus. But like in any pleasure, it is a pleasure that can be done for God’s glory.” [1] As someone who loves to read, I can admit that it’s not always easy, particularly in our day with so many other distractions clamoring for our attention. However, it’s essential to Christian growth and a discipline every one of us should seek to cultivate and grow in through the years. Don’t have time? Consider these numbers, also from Reinke:

First, most people can find sixty minutes each day to read. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t: fifteen minutes in the morning, fifteen minutes at lunchtime, and another thirty minutes in the evening. No problem. At this pace, you can devote seven hours to reading each week (or 420 minutes). The average reader moves through a book at a pace of about 250 words per minute. So 420 minutes of reading per week translates into 105,000 words per week. This book is roughly 55,000 words. Assuming that you can read for one hour each day, and that you read at around 250 words per minute, you can complete more than one book per week, or about seventy books per year.[2]

I would be elated to know that the average Christian read even 12 books per year along with the Bible! So what’s your plan? Why not consider one of the books I listed a few weeks ago to get you started?

Bible Reading. Many Christians begin the year with a plan to get through the entire Bible. It’s a good plan, and certainly something to strive for at some point, however it doesn’t need to be the way we all go about reading our Bibles each year. Quite frankly, for most it becomes a rather burdensome task which doesn’t provide the fruit that is intended. Nevertheless, reading the Bible in a year is profitable on many levels, so don’t not do it because it seems difficult (I promise, it is!). So here are a few Bible reading plans to help you get started: (this list was mostly generated by Justin Taylor):

  • Stephen Witmer’s two-year plan to get through the entire Bible.
  • The Gospel Coalition’s For the Love of God Blog takes you through the M’Cheyne reading plan, with a meditation each day by D. A. Carson related to one of the readings. In one year, you will read through the New Testament twice, the Psalms twice and the rest of the Old Testament once.
  • George Guthrie’s Chronological Bible Reading Plan. Guthrie has also made a a booklet version of the Read the Bible for Life 4+1 Reading Plan. In this plan, you read four different places in the Scriptures and a psalm a day, thus cycling through the psalms twice in the year. This plan is semi-chronological, placing the prophets and the NT letters in rough chronological order.
  • Don Whitney has a simple but surprisingly effective tool: A Bible Reading Record. It’s a list of every chapter in the Bible, and you can check them off as you read them at whatever pace you want.
  • For the highly motivated and disciplined, Grant Horner’s plan has you reading each day a chapter from ten different places in the Bible.
  • Joe Carter and Fred Sanders explain James Gray’s method of “How to Master the English Bible” (This is my personal favorite way to read the Bible devotionally).
  • There are 10 Reading Plans for ESV Editions, and the nice things is the way in which Crossway has made them accessible in multiple formats (web, RSS, Podcast, iCal, Mobile, pdf).

Bible Companions. It’s a good and important thing to read your Bible, but having a companion to help you through the Scriptures is important as well. I would suggest using a good commentary along the way and/or a confession of faith to help you theologically. We are arrogant and naive if we think we can figure the Bible out on our own – we need helpful resources.

  • I highly recommend reading Scripture with a confession of faith in hand. The Bible is theological, and sometimes we need help sorting out the theology behind it lest we fall into error. Check out the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.

Devotionals. What about devotionals? Devotionals are very helpful, and give us good things to think on throughout each day in addition to the Scripture we’ve read. Admittedly, many devotionals are shallow at best, but there are some that I have found to be helpful, meaty, and worth my reading time.  Here are a few of my suggestions:

While not necessarily written as a devotional, I have read Note to Self as a devotional and found it to be full of good thoughts to ponder throughout the day in small chunks. In other words, I would typically read a shorter book like this one in a sitting or two – this book is better consumed a chapter per day. And they are only a few pages each, making this an excellent choice for devotional reading.

Winslow was a very well known reformed pastor in the 1800s. His writings are deeply devotional and have proven to be a wonderful balm to my soul on countless occasions.

Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening is a classic devotional read. As with all of Spurgeon’s works, it is highly readable and enjoyable, just as much today as it was in the 1800s. This is also available free online.

Two years ago I followed a daily reading schedule to get through Calvin’s Institutes. It was highly rewarding, and I think something every Christian should consider doing do at some point. Many people talk about Calvinism or claim to have an understanding of what Calvin taught without ever actually reading him. Here’s a great way to get through his magnum opus in one year.

Tripp wrote 52 short chapters, mainly working through Psalm 51, to address our sin and God’s mercy. Whiter Than Snow is a very rewarding read, and each chapter comes in at 3 pages or less, making it perfect for a devotional.

Ligonier Ministries has published Tabletalk Magazine for many years, and has proven to be an excellent daily devotional for Christians. Tabletalk provides 5, 1-page readings for each week, and lengthy articles on a specific monthly topic to read on the weekends. It is well worth the subscription price – I, and many members of Ephesus Church have relied on Tabletalk for quite some time.

I’ve said many times, I believe Operation World should be in every Christian home. While not devotional reading, it is the most helpful guide available to walk Christians through praying for every country in the world every year. We have a mandate to pray for the nations and to do all that we can to see the advance of the gospel to the nations. Operation World will be very helpful to you and your family to accomplish that great task. I would also recommend looking up the Joshua Project app for your smartphone so that you can pray for the people group of the day.

Lastly, I want to provide a few things for you to consider as you read your Bible. Are you asking questions of the text to develop a greater understanding of what the writers are conveying? Remember, our goal is to know what the text means, not “what does it mean to me?” Quite frankly, what it means to you is of no value. When reading the Bible, we must know what the text is communicating to us because we are learning what God is communicating to us. One of the most effective ways to understand the Bible is by asking questions while you read. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Who is involved? Who is speaking? Who is acting?
  • When did this event take place (what day of week, what hour of the day, relationship to some other event)?
  • Where did the action take place (what city, what specific location such as a home or on a mountain, etc.)?
  • What took place?
  • What sin is presented that I should forsake?
  • What command is given that I should obey?
  • What promise has God made?
  • Why did this event take place?
  • How did the event occur?
  • How do I put the principles taught in the passage into practice?

If you like to journal, or would like to start journaling through your Bible reading, why not use these questions to get started? I guarantee you’ll immediately find yourself enjoying and understanding the Scriptures more than you ever have before.

(By: Nick Kennicott)

1. Reinke, Tony. Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011). Kindle Edition, 104.

2. Ibid., 130.

Christmas and Christianity, Part 3

Christian Living, Culture

Blessed-Christmas-Tree-redPart 1.

Part 2.

What About History?

Most opponents of Christmas make the assumption that Christmas began during the time of the emperor Constantine around 313 AD. While there are many questions about Constantine, the historical record bears proof that he was most likely a Christian after 324. In fact, Constantine eventually forbade all pagan practices in Constantinople to include sacrifices, idol worship, and festivals not honoring Christ of any kind. Thus, the common argument opposing Christmas as a combining of a Christian celebration with a pagan festival on December 25th is on shaky ground, at best (more below). Additionally, many will point to the very name “Christ-mass” as proof that Christmas is a uniquely Roman Catholic invention, intertwined with the ungodly invention called Mass. However, history simply says otherwise. “Catholicism” was not a religious institution until Theodosius I reigned in 379. In other words, the church up until 325 AD wasn’t Roman Catholicism and everything else, but rather the Eastern Church and the Western Church. The Catholic Mass, as it is known today, was an invention of the 5th Century and very unlike the early liturgies of the Christian church.

It is true that the first two centuries of the Christian church did not list the birth of Christ as a regular festival, however there is evidence from the church father Clement of Alexandria suggesting that as early as 200 AD Christ’s birth was being celebrated in Egypt. [1] Clement also made note of Christian celebrations of the Baptism of Christ (Epiphany), which eventually became part of the celebration of Christ’s birth, as is even observed in the Church of Armenia today.

“But…” Christmas dissenters will say, “Christmas was adopted from a pagan Roman festival called Saturnalia which was held during the winter solstice on December 17-24th each year, where Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored.” There is no doubt that the day of Christ’s birth is unknown. In fact, it most likely was not in December, and yet no one can say for sure. Additionally, the Romans certainly did, along with many other cultures, celebrate the winter solstice through various festivals and idol worship. Saturnalia was the most popular festivity which included merriment, gift-giving, and several days of revelry. However, it is not likely that December 25th was decided by the church to be Christmas because of Saturnalia. Christ’s birth was being observed on December 25th as early as 336, based on the Chronography of the Church of Rome. [2] The Armenian church observed the birth of Christ on January 6 each year.

But why did the majority of the western church decide of December 25? Many suggestions have been offered, but the most probable is most widely agreed upon. It is likely that the church decided on December 25 to turn people away from the feasts of paganism being observed at the same time, most notably a feast dedicated to the Sun god. While there is no solid evidence on this being the reason for the church’s choosing of December 25, sermons from fathers of the church seem to point to this reality. [3] So the issue was not an attempt at identifying the actual birth of Christ on December 25, nor was it to incorporate pagan festivals into the life of the church and Christian home. Rather, it was a date most likely chosen to counter a very popular pagan festival that occurred each year. In no way does this mean that Christmas is a pagan holiday! It’s a non-sequitur to suggest that because Christmas was on the same day of a pagan festival — indeed in opposition to that pagan festival —that it too was a pagan festival! Such reasoning is historically fallacious and inconsistently applied. Were this a legitimate line of reasoning for the elimination of Christmas, we must also eliminate the names of the days of the week, for they are all drawn from the names of Roman deities.

“But, what about all of the customs associated with Christmas today? They all have pagan origins.” Indeed, they very well may, just like the ordinance of baptism in the Christian church. [4] Similarity does not equal dependence or derivation. Festivals throughout the history of the world have included things like trees and lights, however I’m certain they also included something similar to our potluck meals, so are they of pagan origin too? While it is certainly well advised to question our customs and practices, it is again a non-sequitur to conclude that similarity and even origin equal like-participation. It is very unlikely that Christians are being drawn into pagan worship through their Douglas Fir tree and blinking lights. The two need not be synonymous.

What Then Shall We Do?

Any reader of this might assume that I have a house covered in Christmas lights, a tree full of decorations, and a pile of presents for my children to open on December 25th. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, most people who know me assume my convictions about Christmas are very much the same as those who would seek to eliminate it all together. We have sought to observe a modest Christmas celebration to include the reading of Scripture, prayer, and singing in our home. We enjoy a festive meal and give simple gifts, remembering the greatest gift that was given to us in the Christ child who came to save his people from their sins. Leading up to December 25th, we recall the significant events of Scripture moving toward the birth of Christ through the use of a Jesse Tree (cf. Isaiah 11:1ff.). Additionally, we save money in stockings for missionaries. The children put money in the stocking, pray for the missionary, and on December 25th the money is sent to the missionary with a letter, and replaced with small gifts for the children. Any casual observer of our celebration would conclude, by God’s grace, that our time together is thoroughly centered on Jesus Christ, not Santa Claus, presents, trees, lights, missile-toe, or a yule log. We enjoy the season and seek to make memories, loving our neighbors and reminding all who will hear of the great and glorious first advent of our Lord Jesus Christ.

An Appeal For Balance

I hope to have made a convincing argument to keep the car in the middle of the Christmas road. Excesses are enticing, but rarely helpful when considering the full counsel of God and the freedom afforded us in Christ. If you love Christmas, enjoy it, but please question why you do what you do and whether or not it honors God. Avoid the sins of poor stewardship, gluttony, drunkenness, and materialism while focusing your attention and love toward Christ. Likewise, if you’d prefer to avoid Christmas altogether, you are more than welcome to do so. However, please do not insist that others do the same lest you condemn what God does not. It is neither safe nor right to bind the conscience of another Christian to that which God has not clearly revealed. If there is true, God-glorifying music and preaching focused on the incarnation in your church on the Lord’s Day leading up to December 25th, do not despise it because of your distaste for the holiday – remember, it is biblical truth being proclaimed so long as your pastor is faithful to what the Bible says. “I can’t think of anything more pleasing to Christ than the church celebrating his birthday every year.” [5]

 1. Stromata, I, 21.

 2. Herman Wegman, Christian Worship in East and West (New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1985), 103.

 3. cf. Augustine in his sermon 202 and Leo the Great, PL 54.

 4. Many pagan religions used baptism in their regular rituals believing in the purifying properties of water. In ancient Babylon, water was used to signify the spiritual cleansing of those in the cult of Enke. In Egypt, the book of Going Forth by Day included a discussion on newborn children being baptized to be cleansed from the impurities of their mother’s womb. The Osiris myth included the practice of water baptism in the Nile river, which was believed to have regenerative powers. Many ancient cultures baptized their dead as a ritual purification signifying their death to this world. In the ancient Greek world, immortality was associated with baptism along with purification and initiation into cultic practices. Language used in Ancient Near-East literature suggests that many believed baptism served to transform lives and remove sins. Others believed that it was merely symbolic of spiritual regeneration, representing a new beginning. The point is, all pagan religions recognize some form of baptism, oftentimes using very similar language as the Christian Church. In other words, baptism was not a uniquely Jewish or Christian practice, and in fact it is almost unanimously agreed that baptism’s use in pagan religious ceremony actually pre-dates its Jewish beginnings.

 5. Sproul, “Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?”

Christmas and Christianity, Part 2

Christian Living, Culture

christmas-treeRead Part 1.

Biblical Considerations

There are at least five areas to consider when working through the biblical arguments against Christmas celebration. They are festivals and special days of observance, the Lord’s Day, the regulative principle of worship, cultural engagement, and Christian liberty.

Festivals and Special Days of Observance

Reformed Christians have presented varied opinions regarding the observance of special days and festivals in their confessions of faith. The Continental Reformers, writing the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 stated, “Moreover, if the churches do 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, according to Christian liberty, we do very well approve of it.” [1] Similarly, the Dutch Reformed Church adopted a Christian calendar that included numerous special days for observance: “The Churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the following day, and whereas in most of the cities and provinces of the Netherlands the day of Circumcision and of Ascension of Christ are also observed, Ministers in every place where this is not yet done shall take steps with the Government to have them conform with the others.” [2] Other reformed confessions do not necessarily make reference to specific celebrations, however very clearly identify their lawfulness. [3] R.C. Sproul comments, “Keep in mind that the whole principle of annual festival and celebration is deeply rooted in ancient Jewish tradition. In the Old Testament, for example, there were times when God emphatically commanded the people to remember certain events with annual celebrations.” [4] Of course, none of this proves anything beyond the fact that reformed Christians have identified and affirmed festivals and special days of observance as acceptable in the body of Christ.

I readily recognize that the Bible does not command a celebration of the birth of Christ (nor his baptism, resurrection, ascension, etc.). Nevertheless, the birth of Jesus Christ is one of the most significant events in the history of the world, and the Bible is not silent on the specifics of that wonderful day. In fact, it can rightly be said that whenever the Scriptures regarding the birth of Christ are read and preached in the assembly of God’s people, the birth of Jesus is being celebrated as praise is given to God and proper worship is rendered in the hearts of each Christian. So while it is true that there is no biblical command for the celebration of Christ’s birth, it is equally true that it is not forbidden and, more importantly, that it is certainly a biblical event. Therefore, it is not an issue of the proper administration of the regulative principle of worship (discussed below), but instead whether or not we are biblicists. I for one am not. [5] There is a significant difference between Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and Solo Scriptura (Only Scripture). We are on faithful ground when we affirm Sola Scriptura (Scripture are the final authority for all faith and practice) and reject Solo Scriptura (Finding no use for anything outside of Scripture, to include creeds, confessions, and the writings of other Christians throughout the history of the Church).

The Lord’s Day

The only day of the week that God requires of his people is the Lord’s Day, or the first day of the week. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 states the following in chapter 22, paragraph 7:

As it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, be set apart for the worship of God, so by his Word, in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.

While festivals and special days of observance are lawful among the churches of God, they are not and shall not be obligations, nor shall members of any church be told they are required to participate if they choose not to. Therefore, a church member should not be considered in violation of Scripture or insubordinate to the church if he decides to absent himself from a special meeting of the church for a Christmas Eve service if the days in question are not the Lord’s Day. Nevertheless, Stephen Doe writes, “[The Old Covenant] church exercised her liberty in worship by establishing the Feast of Purim (Est. 9:18–32). The apostolic church exercised her liberty by meeting on many occasions other than the Lord’s day to worship and act as a community (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:42-47; 4:23-31; 5:42; 13:2; 20:7–38). This is a foretaste of the church in glory, when she is always worshiping (Rev. 4).” [6] While corporate gatherings outside the Lord’s Day are not required, they are lawful and have biblical precedent.

In my opinion, a person who will argue for the abrogation of any and all Christmas observance ought to be the most responsible adherent to the Lord’s Day, and yet this is often not the case. Much effort has been expended in arguing for the proper observance of the Lord’s Day as a Christian Sabbath. [7] Reformed Theology has, almost unanimously, affirmed the perpetuity of the 4th Commandment. Therefore, while most likely unintentional, it is a seriously misguided decision to forego the upholding of God’s very clear commands in the moral law while simultaneously insisting upon the upholding of a non-explicit principle derived from an argument of silence. Furthermore, while those who oppose Christmas are often quick to point to the Lord’s Day as the only day of observance recognized by God, they often do not as vehemently oppose the celebration of birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and other national holidays. It will be argued that these days do not make religious overtures, however based upon their reasoning with regard to the Lord’s Day, they are making an all or nothing argument. In other words, either the Lord’s Day is the only acceptable day of celebration or it’s not. If it’s not, their argument is invalid.

The Regulative Principle of Worship

The worship of God is regulated by His Word, and should be conducted in accordance with His commands as they are clearly identified in Scripture. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 explains the regulative principle in chapter 22, paragraph 1 with these words:

The light of nature shews that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is just, good and doth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart and all the soul, and with all the might. But 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 imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.

On the issue of Christmas, the question with regard to the regulative principle of worship really comes down to the content of a worship service. Is it unlawful for a sermon to be preached or songs to be sang about the birth of Jesus Christ? Surely not, so long as they are biblical in content. Furthermore, is it unlawful for a pastor to interrupt a series of sermons to focus on specific biblical truths at certain times of the year? It is not unlawful, and to suggest otherwise is to suggest that God commands certain passages of Scripture be preached by His ministers every other day of the year as well. The church is commanded to teach all of Scripture, to include the birth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:20; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 4:2; Acts 20:27), and it is left to the ministers of the Word to decide in what order and at what times of year that will be done. There is tremendous profit in preaching about the most significant events of world history through the redemptive-historical lens for all God’s people. Simply stated, the birth of Christ is part of the whole counsel of God, which must be preached.

But let us not be fooled. Many songs about Christmas are patently false and must be avoided in the corporate worship of God. Likewise, many sermons are no sermon at all. Sentimentality and cultural assumptions must be avoided and, as with every other song that is sang, prayer that is prayed, and sermon that is preached, great care must be exercised in ensuring all of worship to be biblically sound and Scripturally accurate, regardless of the season or time. However, if a pastor is not given the freedom to preach from the Word of God as he sees fit throughout the year, the regulative principle is being misapplied.

When considering the related issues of special days of observance, the Lord’s Day, and the regulative principle of worship, Stephen Doe summarizes the issue well:

God commands us to worship him once weekly in a corporate manner, but allows us to apply biblical principles to worship him at other times. The church under the new covenant does not have less liberty than the church under the old covenant; we are not the underage church, but the church which has been baptized in the Spirit of Christ. If we were to apply the regulative principle without clearly understanding these things, then we would have to condemn the apostolic church for meeting daily, since God had never commanded such meetings. Instead, they understood that what God was commanding was for them to worship him acceptably (cf. John 4:24; Rom. 12:2; Heb. 10:25; 13:15). This balance is seen in the example of our Savior, who exercised his liberty of conscience, while not violating the regulative principle, when he attended the Feast of Dedication (that is, Hanukkah; cf. John 10:22). That was an extra-biblical feast not commanded by God in Scripture, but begun by the Jews to commemorate the rededication of the temple after the close of the Old Testament. Jesus was free to go up to Jerusalem or not to go up. God commands us to worship, and Jesus was using that occasion to obey the command of God. [8]

Cultural Engagement

On the Lord’s Day prior to each December 25th, it is not uncommon that many of our neighbors – people with no religious affiliation at all – are very likely to find themselves sitting in a church to hear a sermon and observe the worship of God’s people. So how shall the church respond? It’s quite easy to tell them all that we are Christians, not pagans, therefore we do not recognize Christmas as a legitimate holiday, and reject all notions that it has anything to do with the birth of our dear Savior. However, is it a dire tragedy that non-believers would hear something true about the birth of Christ, God made flesh that He might live a law-fulfilling life and die a sinners death that men and women like them might be rescued from the penalty of their sin and set free from the bondage of death that they might live, by grace, through faith with Christ forever? Nah. Sounds like a good gospel opportunity to me.

However, with that being said I must admit that even this year (in 5 days!) I will not be preaching a sermon about the incarnation on the Lord’s Day before Christmas. It simply hasn’t worked itself into my rotation this year, and since we are not bound to a liturgical calendar, it certainly isn’t required. Nevertheless, it’s important that we should normally seize any opportunity to proclaim the central themes of Scripture. If, by even the slightest margin of a chance, some unbeliever decided they wanted to know what Christians think about Jesus’ birth, would we be bottom feeders for life if we told them?

Christian Liberty

As I’ve stated many times up until this point, the primary issue at hand is Christian liberty. John Owen believed that without a proper doctrine of Christian liberty, the Christian life is impossible to live.

The second principle of the Reformation, whereon the reformers justified their separation from the church of Rome, was this: ‘That Christian people were not tied up unto blind obedience unto church-guides, but were not only at liberty, but also obliged to judge for themselves as unto all things that they were to believe and practise in religion and the worship of God.’ They knew that the whole fabric of the Papacy did stand on this basis or dunghill, that the mystery of iniquity was cemented by this device,–namely, that the people were ignorant, and to be kept in ignorance, being obliged in all things unto an implicit obedience unto their pretended guides. [9]

Indeed, the reformers and puritans thought the issue of Christian liberty to be of utmost importance. John Calvin writes:

We are now to treat of Christian Liberty, the explanation of which certainly ought not to be omitted by any one proposing to give a compendious summary of Gospel doctrine. For it is a matter of primary necessity, one without the knowledge of which the conscience can scarcely attempt any thing without hesitation, in many must demur and fluctuate, and in all proceed with fickleness and trepidation. In particular, it forms a proper appendix to Justification, and is of no little service in understanding its force. Nay, those who seriously fear God will hence perceive the incomparable advantages of a doctrine which wicked scoffers are constantly assailing with their jibes; the intoxication of mind under which they labor leaving their petulance without restraint. This, therefore, seems the proper place for considering the subject. Moreover, though it has already been occasionally adverted to, there was an advantage in deferring the fuller consideration of it till now, for the moment any mention is made of Christian liberty lust begins to boil, or insane commotions arise, if a speedy restraint is not laid on those licentious spirits by whom the best things are perverted into the worst. For they either, under pretext of this liberty, shake off all obedience to God, and break out into unbridled licentiousness, or they feel indignant, thinking that all choice, order, and restraint, are abolished. What can we do when thus encompassed with straits? Are we to bid adieu to Christian liberty, in order that we may cut off all opportunity for such perilous consequences? But, as we have said, if the subject be not understood, neither Christ, nor the truth of the Gospel, nor the inward peace of the soul, is properly known. Our endeavor must rather be, while not suppressing this very necessary part of doctrine, to obviate the absurd objections to which it usually gives rise. [10]

One of the easiest things for church leaders to do when it comes to areas of dissent relating to their personal preferences is to eliminate areas of Christian liberty by arguing against their validity as a matter of Christian obedience. One of the hallmarks of authoritarian leadership is an insistence on obedience to a pastor’s preference instead of the clear teaching of the Bible. Where there is no liberty, there is very little Christian growth and vitality. A church is easy to control when they assume there are no liberties, however a church in such a state is not depending on the wisdom of God, but the leadership of man.

Christian liberty is the central issue in a discussion on Christmas. Yes, proper precautions must be made and pastors are right to offer warnings of excess and wholesale purchase of the world’s observance, however the outright condemnation and calling Christmas celebration sin is a violation of Christian liberty and a most grievous sin in itself.

Often, those who oppose Christmas will cite Mark 7:8, 13 when Jesus said, “You lay aside the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men… making the Word of God of no effect through your tradition.” However, Jesus was not scolding the Pharisees because they had traditions, but rather because their traditions contradicted God’s commandments and they told the people that those who didn’t hold to their traditions were sinning, thus binding the consciences of the people. Does the annual celebration of Christ’s birth contradict the commandments of God? No. Are pastors telling the people of God they must observe Christmas, and if they do not they are in sin? I certainly hope not! We are not in sin if we choose not to, but nor are we in sin if we do.

(By: Nick Kennicott)

 1. Compiled with introductions by James T. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume II, 1552-1566 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 872-72.

 2. Church Order of Dort (1618-1619), article 67.

 3. e.g. 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Moreover, solemn humiliation, with fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, ought to be used in an holy and religious manner” (2LBC – 22.5; WCF – 21.5).

 4. R.C. Sproul, “Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?,” Ligonier Ministries, December 16, 2013, accessed December 17, 2013,

 5. Dr. Jim Rehnihan explains: “D.B. Riker provides a helpful definition: ‘biblicism is the rejection of everything not explicitly stated in the Bible, and the concomitant dismissal of all non-biblical witnesses (Fathers, Creeds, Medieval Doctors, Councils, etc.)’

“What are the results? Effectively, they are idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture. The strange reality of all of these attempts to interact with the pure Word of God is that when the results are compared and contrasted, you almost never get the same conclusions. There is an unending stream of doctrines promoted under this rubric: the Jehovah’s Witnesses use it to deny the deity of Christ (following the same method as Arius long ago), the Campellites use it to teach their form of baptismal regeneration. Heretics have always employed this message. More sober men likewise use it, and produce strange results. Someone, somewhere studies Scripture, draws out a system of doctrine, and teaches it to others. A new movement begins. But sadly, personal interpretation almost always ends in conclusions different from everyone else. Yet, the product is claimed as the teaching of the Word of God. And in reality, though it may be startling to say so, these are basically new revelations. Since the claim is made that the doctrines taught are those of Scripture, they must be equated with Scripture. It is impossible to separate one from the other.

“…But here is the problem: This whole method is based upon a form of personal independence, or even self-confidence. Doesn’t it ever cross anyone’s mind that they aren’t necessarily the wisest theologian, the best exegete and most insightful commentator? Don’t they stop to think about God and His purposes? Has the Lord chosen me to know truth that has been hidden from others? Such self-confidence is really arrogance-unbridled and oftentimes evil. It misleads self and others. Is the Christian faith reduced to my conclusions? What right do I have, alone and unaided to think that my reading and study perfectly meshes with the mind of God? Jesus and me with a Bible under a tree-perhaps a romantic notion, but a dangerous and potentially damning notion” quoted in Barcellos, Richard (ed.), The Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastor’s Conference Papers (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2013), 114-115, 119.

 6. Stephen Doe, “The Observance of Christmas,” The Mountain Retreat, accessed December 17, 2013,

 7. cf. John Giarrizzo, The Lord’s Day Still Is (Carlisle: Reformed Baptist Publications, 2013).

 8. Doe, “The Observance of Christmas.”

 9. Owen, John, Complete Works, 15:402.

 10. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 3:19:1.

Christmas and Christianity, Part 1

Christian Living, Culture, The Church

Free-Wallpaper-Christmas-TreeI’m not sure if every pastor out there gets the same questions I do, but one that seems to come up pretty regularly this time of year is all about Christmas. I’ve never said much about it from the pulpit, I don’t have any great books or resources to turn anyone to except for a few short articles here or there, so I decided to write about it at length and answer various ideas that tend to come up in the conversation. Since it’s quite lengthy, I will do several posts. My desire is to offer balance, but to be gracious and fair to those who do not share my position. I can’t imagine there is an argument that exists that I haven’t heard or read about by now regarding Christmas, so feel free to comment, but please don’t be offended if I tell you, “It’s coming in another post…” or, “I hear ya… thanks for commenting.” So with that said, on with part 1 (and by the way, these are my opinions, not necessarily Alford’s… he used to live in Seattle and probably drank the water, so it’s hard to say what he might think…).

’Tis the season… or is it? Every year it seems the battle intensifies among evangelical Christians when considering what Christmas is all about. How much should we be involved? Is it something we should celebrate at all? How does the history of Christmas and its traditions influence our participation? Should Christmas be a consideration in our corporate worship gatherings? Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, presents and cookies – Can we make sense of it all?

On Dangers and Ditches

Almost every issue in the church has its extremes, and Christmas is certainly one of them. In a sincere attempt to keep the faithful Christian car on the road, we sometimes veer off into a ditch and wonder why others aren’t following us. I’ve certainly been in my fair share of ditches, and the danger always exists that I will soon find another. After all, I’m a fallible man with a constant need to check my heart against God’s Word, and to allow the people of God to speak wisdom and correction into my life so that I don’t find myself in need of a tow truck. And while I don’t expect anyone to assume I am the great evangelical GPS, I have certainly seen the ditches on both sides of this issue and think I might have something to offer after years of research, discussions with wiser men than I, and biblical argumentation that encourages careful discernment and care with an eye toward God’s glory and the enjoyment of His great gifts.

In my experience, I have seen two primary ditches among Christians when it comes to Christmas celebration:

1. Wholesale Purchase

I find it somewhat odd that many Christians never consider the compatibility (or lack thereof) of various cultural traditions with Christianity. Most significantly, I am troubled by unquestioned materialistic over-spending for gifts, images of Christ, and the embrace of a cultural myth called Santa Claus.

Being a Good Steward

I love giving good gifts to my daughters. Jesus recognized this as a basic human reality (cf. Matthew 7:11) and did not condemn it as a practice. However, the Bible repeatedly calls the people of God to faithfully steward what God has provided, not as reckless materialists, but as responsible money managers. The Christmas temptation is to make sure we buy a gift for every person, to get them exactly what they want, and to spare no expense whenever possible to ensure everyone is happy on Christmas morning. The result is months of credit card debt, decreased giving to God’s church, and increased anxiety and burden. Christmas in America is buried in consumerism and has become a search for meaning in all the wrong places. We don’t need more stuff. We need to learn how to see and use the stuff we already have in a way that makes us thankful for God’s provision and care over His children. Buying and giving gifts is certainly not a sin, but going into massive debt to do so is (Romans 13:8). And if you’re still wondering whether or not America has a materialism problem, just spend a few minutes on the internet searching videos and articles about Black Friday. When people die in consumeristic stampedes, there’s little question that loving one’s neighbor isn’t at the top of the priority list.

Images of Christ

While Christians often debate this issue, I am convinced that the 2nd commandment forbids the making of images of Christ in every respect. I oppose the ikons of Eastern Orthodoxy depicting the members of the Trinity, and just as strongly oppose the myriad of attempts at depicting Jesus in art of various forms (film, paintings, sculptures, crucifixes, etc.). God has said quite categorically, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). So the nativity scenes of Christmas depicting Jesus as a baby are a violation of the 2nd commandment, and while well intentioned, should not be displayed by Christians. [1]

Santa Claus

What’s so bad about Old Saint Nick? Whether we like it or not, cultural myths play an important role in society telling a story about people and their beliefs. However, while it’s good to know the myths of a culture, embracing those myths and propagating them as true myths is another issue altogether. Santa Claus has become the central figure in a false gospel of works that promises rewards from a deified fat man and his magical reindeer. He knows when you are sleeping and awake? Is Santa omniscient? He delivers presents throughout the entire world in one evening? Is Santa omnipresent? He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so you better be good? Is Santa the great rewarder of good behavior and the punisher of evil?

I think it is important to cultivate the imaginations of my children, but telling them a story and insisting on its truth about that which is clearly supernatural is setting them up to disbelieve what I tell them about God. In other words, if the story about Santa turns out to be false after they believed so strongly it was true, what should they think about the story of Jesus? If Santa doesn’t exist and isn’t omniscient and omnipresent, why should my child think God is? If I can get everything I want once each year by just “being good” why do I need grace? The myth of Santa Claus undercuts the gospel and serves to create false categories in the minds of children. The bottom line is, parents shouldn’t lie to their children, no matter how sincere the attempt at fun.

2. Christmas is Sin

While in the minority, there are Christians who not only reject the celebration of Christmas in their own families, but go further to insist that those who do celebrate Christmas are in sin. To condemn Christmas celebration as wholesale sin is troubling on many levels, the most significant being the binding of conscience and the removal of Christian liberty regarding matters to which the Bible does not speak directly. Opponents of Christmas will often argue from cultural and religious history to make their point, and thoughtful Christians will even seek to provide biblical warrant for their outright rejection. However, in any matter of life that is not explicitly condemned or endorsed by Scripture, an argument may be made from good and necessary consequence. If the argument from good and necessary consequence is unconvincing, often because it relies upon Scriptures and principles taken out of their proper context, the issue becomes a matter of Christian liberty and individual conscience.

I am convinced that while opponents of Christmas raise necessary and important questions for our consideration, their conclusions often serve to bind the consciences of Christians, rob Christians of their God-given liberty, are filled with logical fallacies, and rely upon historical anachronism. Nevertheless, the questions that are raised deserve answers, and it is to those questions we will turn in the next post.

(By: Nick Kennicott)

1. I am not unaware of the nuanced discussion among Christians regarding the 2nd Commandment, yet I am unconvinced of the arguments for appropriate images of God. I strongly encourage the reading of J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Chapter 4.

The New Calvinism Considered by Jeremy Walker (A Review)

Book Reviews, The Church

new-calvinism-front1-Jeremy-WalkerIt’s hard to criticize well.  The dangers are numerous- pride, misrepresentation, and imbalance are always a threat; not to mention those parallel temptations of timidity, revisionism, and hero-worship.  Especially among the people of God, the call to discernment (which requires a critical eye) is always difficult to navigate.  Yet navigate it we must.  God has called us to neither combativeness nor cowardliness, but rather to a charitable clarity which is willing to both give and receive a friendly critique.

With all that in mind, I received a copy of The New Calvinism Considered by Jeremy Walker in the mail last week with great anticipation, eager to see how one from my own denominational circles (Confessional Reformed Baptist) would offer criticism to a group that played a key role in my own Reformation.  More on that at the end of this review.

Walker offers in this book what he describes as A Personal and Pastoral Assessment.  Although much of this material has existed online in various formats for a few years, it is helpful to have it all condensed, expanded, updated and well presented in this new volume.  Having read Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless and Reformed a few years ago I would say that Walker supplies what that book left many asking for- a careful and clear evaluation of the New Calvinism movement.  To be clear- Hansen approached the topic as a journalist rather than a pastor, and so the sort of interaction Walker is able to offer was beyond his scope.  While interested readers may benefit from reading both volumes in tandem, if I had to pick one it would clearly be Walker.

Rather than fully summarize the contents of the book, let me simply share with you four reasons I can heartily commend it.

1. It is well written and short 

Walker has committed what some in the academic guild seem to consider the unpardonable sin, yet which this Calvinist considers near visible proof of divine election- he has written a substantive book that is clear, engaging, and exactly as long as it needed to be.  Although there are occasional points at which it has the ambiance of modified teaching notes, on the whole it is that happy combination of an easy read which is always telling you something important.  It is even occasionally funny- a trait I believe was actually intentional.

2. It is humble and self-critical

On page 44 Walker concludes his section commending the “grace-soaked” nature of much of the New Calvinism.  He call his fellow traditionally Reformed observers of the movement to ask themselves hard questions over whether or not they have let their own delight over God’s grace cool to the point where it has become “familiar or suspect.”  He even personally owns his own propensity to arrogance on page 98.  While this review opened by acknowledging the inherent difficulties in offering (even needed) criticism, a man who is able to humbly admit his own faults and be self-critical is the sort you want to tackle the task.

3. It is charitable and nuanced

An entire chapter is given over to commendations, and while there are sometimes caveats and critiques nestled among them, these commendations come off as thoroughly genuine.  Furthermore, when he does criticize I appreciate that Walker takes the time to say that the New Calvinism is hardly monolithic.  He doesn’t impute the sins of its more radical fringes to its more chaste proponents.  Both this willingness to commend brothers in Christ where they are commendable and to admit nuance and diversity among the New Calvinists has been a desperately missing ingredient from some of the more scathing evaluations which have been offered by others.

4. It is clear and to the point

It is necessary to offer criticism humbly and with an eye toward self-correction, but eventually the criticism must indeed be offered.  I am thankful that Walker is willing to wade into some of the more concerning issues with eyes wide open, and I believe his good Christian testimony emerges intact (no small feet these days when it comes to intra-Christian criticism).  Specifically, I am thankful for the way he openly and clearly deals with concerns which have themselves been open and clear for some time- the tendency of many in these circles towards forms of Amyraldianism and essentially Arminian methodologies, the clear pragmatism which some espouse with only minimal veneer, and the shameful way some of the worst offenders have spoken of sexuality while sporting a juvenile smirk.

It is not unloving to point these things out.  The fact is they are already been out for some time, at least for any who have cared to observe them.  If you take up the book to read it, you can judge for yourself whether or not Walker handles his critique well.   I believe he has, and I would simply ask that if you do feel he has not succeeded in his attempted nuance and humility, you will at least not let that fact cloud your evaluation of the concerns he brings to the table.  Don’t shoot the proverbial messenger for pointing out what most anyone with five minutes and an internet connection can find for themselves.

I started this out by mentioning that I was excited to read someone from my own denominational circles interact with some who had previously had a very real impact on my own theological development.  In brief, I left broad evangelicalism in a reaction against what I saw as the uncut pragmatism being offered in the Church Growth Movement.  This departure led me into circles influenced by John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul.  Early on I read a Walt Chantry book, but I had no concept of what a Reformed Baptist was, nor that anything like the 1689 Baptist Confession even existed.  Eventually it was shown to me and I began to move in that direction, although without any church or councilors to guide me.  For a few years I settled into an Acts 29 church north of Seattle and got a good taste of this thing called New Calvinism.  I then made my way through various OPC and PCA congregations before eventually encountering other Reformed Baptists in the Pacific Northwest- meetings which eventually culminated in helping to plant a 1689 Confessional church, enrolling with Reformed Baptist Seminary, and eventually moving across the country to serve in the church I now call home.

Why tack on this autobiographical blurb to the end of a book review?  Because it may give the reader a sense of why I so appreciate the tone of this book.  I fully agree with his concerns, but I am so thankful that he has not offered them in the manner I have heard and read others offer them.  I now feel there is a good point of reference for conversation, a critique offered from my own camp I don’t have to apologize for.  I also want to say something to those who have been very heavy handed not just in their concerns, but in the way they have impugned those within this movement personally.  There was a time when I was a rank and file young man in one of these churches.  Now I embrace a Confessionally Reformed Baptist identity.  I don’t say that to exalt myself in any way, shape, or form- or to say that those who haven’t moved in the way I have are somehow lagging in their sanctification.  Rather, my point is that if you are genuinely concerned, you should know that there are many within these circles who are eager to listen.  A book like this would have been a real help to me as I worked through some of these very issues.

In conclusion then: If you love the New Calvinism and bristle at any suggested critique (you know who you are), you need this book.  It you loath the New Calvinism and get secretly giddy whenever one of its leading men makes a misstep (you know who you are) you need this book.  Jeremy Walker has offered criticism in a careful, humble, and charitable manner- yet he has been clear.  The current Calvinism, both New and Old, is in his debt.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

P.S.- Here’s an interview with Walker conducted by his publisher: