Calvin’s Response To Being Forced To Observe Christmas

Now, I see here today more people that I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel. Did you think you would be honoring God? Consider what sort of obedience to God your coming displays. In your mind, you are celebrating a holiday for God, or turning today into one but so much for that. In truth, as you have often been admonished, it is good to set aside one day out of the year in which we are reminded of all the good that has occurred because of Christ’s birth in the world, and in which we hear the story of his birth retold, which will be done Sunday. But if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beasts. For when you elevate one day alone for the purpose of worshiping God, you have just turned it into an idol. True, you insist that you have done so for the honor of God, but it is more for the honor of the devil.

Let us consider what our Lord has to say on the matter. Was it not Saul’s intention to worship God when he spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, along with the best spoils and cattle? He says as much: ‘I want to worship God.’ Saul’s tongue was full of devotion and good intention. but what was the response he received? ‘You soothsayer! You heretic! You apostate! You claim to be honoring God, but God rejects you and disavows all that you have done.’ Consequently, the same is true of our actions. For no day is superior to another. It matters not whether we recall our Lord’s nativity on a Wednesday, Thursday, or some other day. But when we insist on establishing a service of worship based on our whim, we blaspheme God, and create an idol, though we have done it all in the name of God. And when you worship God in the idleness of a holiday spirit, that is a heavy sin to bear, and one which attracts others about it, until we reach the height of iniquity. Therefore, let us pay attention to what Micah is saying here, that God must not only strip away things that are bad in themselves, but must also eliminate anything that might foster superstition. Once we have understood that, we will no longer find it strange that Noel is not being observed today, but that on Sunday we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and recite the story of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. But all those who barely know Jesus Christ, or that we must be subject to him, and that God removes all those impediments that prevent us from coming to him, these folk, I say, will at best grit their teeth. They came here in anticipation of celebrating a wrong intention, but will leave with it wholly unfulfilled.

—From Calvin’s sermon preached on Christmas day 1551 in John Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, trans. Benjamin Wirt Farley (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003), 302–04 (HT: Ryan Cavanaugh)

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. Go Calvin!

    I’d like to share this with my relative who always sends me those awful “religious” Christmas cards.

    Thank you, Dr. Clark. You always post what we need to hear!

  2. “beasts” — intense!

    Dec 25, 1551 was a Friday (and I know Calvin preached every day, not just Sundays), so I guess people turned out extra for the weekday sermon on Christmas day. But even though he rails on them for turning out on Friday, he says “on Sunday we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and recite the story of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Why is a special celebration of Noel ok on Sunday but not Friday?

  3. If you read between the lines, Calvin’s complaint was not about them showing up on Friday December 25th but rather NOT showing up the other days of the week. It is worthy of notice therefore that the Reformed church which most practiced “Christmas” celebrations is the same church that most practiced daily worship called the “Order of Morning and Evening Prayer.”

  4. I can’t make out the meaning of this next to last sentence. Is it printed correctly? And if so, could someone paraphrase? “But all those who barely know Jesus Christ, or that we must be subject to him, and that God removes all those impediments that prevent us from coming to him, these fold, I say, will at best grit their teeth.”

    • Doug,

      There was a typo. It’s “these folk.” That’s been corrected. He’s saying that the people come to church because it’s Christmas, they come for Noel, not for Christ. They come with, as he says, a “wrong intention” but Calvin was expressing confidence that bad intention not withstanding, God will nevertheless make use of this (in Calvin’s view) corruption of Christian practice (the Christmas celebration in church) to draw their eyes away from the sentiment, the church calendar etc to Christ.

      He was juxtaposing our intent with God’s command. That’s the tension that he was experiencing. The magistrates were forcing him to do things that he regarded as unbiblical. They were prohibiting him from doing things that he wanted to do (e.g., pronounce the declaration of pardon/absolution as he had when he was in exile) and from administering communion at the end of the service.

      Remember the context. The Reformed were still in the process of overcoming the medieval church calendar, all the feast days, all the saints days. When he complains about them elevating one day over another, this is what he has in mind.

      For more on Calvin’s principle of worship see “Calvin’s Principle of Worship,” in ed. David Hall, Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of his Quincentenary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 247–69.

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