Redemptive History, Union with Christ and the Liturgical Calendar

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The word "liturgy" continues to be a trendy--yet often indeterminate--buzzword among young(er-ish) Christians. This is especially so with regard to those who have recently made the shift away from broad evangelicalism and toward historic worship practices of Christendom. Alongside this phenomenon lies the ever present willingness of many professedly Protestant churches to embrace, either in part or whole, the liturgical calendar for the structuring of their worship services. One can see the apparent appeal. After all, many have suggested that the Liturgical Calendar offers a recognition of the organic unity of Scripture centered on the redemptive-historical nature of Christ's saving work and participated in through the corporate worship of God's people. But is this actually the case? Does the Liturgical Calendar enhance or undermine the redemptive historical nature of Christ's saving work? 

Not surprisingly, many Anglicans--at one and the same time--acknowledge the lack of biblical support for a liturgical calendar while insisting upon a pragmatic adaptation of it. For instance, N.T. Wright suggests:

"There is nothing ultimately obligatory for a Christian about the keeping of holy days or seasons. Paul warns the Galatians against adopting the Jewish liturgical calendar (Gal. 4:10)...However, many churches have found that by following the liturgical year in the traditional way they have a solid framework within which to live the Gospels, the Scripture and the Christian life. The Bible offers itself to us as a great story, a sprawling and complex narrative, inviting us to come in and make it our own. The Gospels, the very heart of Scripture, likewise tell a story not merely to give us information about Jesus but in order to provide a narrative that we can inhabit, a story we must make our own. This is one way we can become the people God calls us to be."1

While adherents of the liturgical calendar frequently insist that it aids our experience of the redemptive historical nature of Christ's work, the opposite actually proves to be the case. When we subject ourselves to a temporal recapitulation of Jesus' life and labors--from incarnation to baptism to wilderness testing to death to resurrection to ascension and to Pentecost--we end up undermining the full, rich implications of the once-for-all nature of that saving work. We run the risk of bifurcating the work of Christ. 

In doing so, we can also illegitimately make the Gospel something that we do rather than something done by Christ for us and received by faith alone. Strict adherence to the Liturgical Calendar puts us in danger of forfeiting the privilege that we have to live the Christian life in light of the full realization of what we already definitively possess in union with Christ--rather than seek to fulfill or appropriate it by our own experience.  When one intimates that we have to recapitulate the events of redemptive history in order to live the Christian life, he or she functionally denies those aspects of the Messianic ministry that are foundational to the "already" of our experience as believers. As Roland Barnes notes: 

"The Liturgical Calendar can be spiritually stunting insofar as it asks believers to suspend their living in the light of the finished work of Christ as they march along from incarnation to resurrection and ascension throughout the calendar. The Reformed observance of the weekly sabbath and the regular practice of expository, Christocentric preaching emphasizes that we are now living in the full realization of the finished work of Christ. Each Lord's Day we celebrate the fact that 'He is Risen!' We live each Lord's Day in the light of the triumph of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus."2

To prove this point, I'll share a story. A number of years ago, I was rebuked by a strict proponent of the Liturgical Calendar for preaching a passage of Scripture on the birth narrative on the first Sunday of Advent. His response to hearing that I had done so was, "Not yet!" That example serves to illustrate the hinderance that the Liturgical Calendar can have to our living the life of faith in light of the full realization of what we already have in our union with Christ. When we say, "not yet" to the fulfillment of all things in the finished work o f Jesus, we are in danger of laying aside our privilege of entering in on the application of the benefits of that once-for-all accomplished work.

A consideration of Reformed and Protestant thought on the Liturgical Calendar will also be of use to us as we consider whether we should adhere to it or not. However widespread adherence to the Liturgical Calendar may be in our day in Protestant and Reformed churches, it is far from the majority view of the continental Reformers, English Puritans and Post-Reformation scholastics. The Reformers' aversion to the observation of a liturgical calendar was built on their supposition that the Lord's Day was biblically sanctioned while "holy days" were rooted in the self-righteous Roman Catholic penitential system. In his monumental work, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures (vol. 5), Hughes Oliphant Old explained:

"Discontinuing the penitential seasons of preparation for Christmas and Easter was one of the first reforms of Reformed Protestantism. This may seem radical to some, but it is at the heart of the Reformed approach to worship. The whole history of these seasons of fasting had been marked by a legalistic asceticism which is far removed from Christian piety as taught in the New Testament. While specifically Reformed churches have been characterized by their avoidance of Lent and Advent, few Protestants find the kind of asceticism implied by these observances consistent with the teaching of Jesus. Most Protestants have found the old observances of Lent and Advent terribly reminiscent of the piety of the Pharisees which Jesus so explicitly condemned. The objection to Lent and Advent is that they overemphasize the penitential dimension of Christian devotion."3

"So, is it wrong for Protestants to focus in a special way on specific elements of Christ's saving saving work during seasons like Christmas and Easter?" This is, no doubt, a question brewing in the minds of any reading this post. At New Covenant, we loosely celebrate Advent with a month long sermon series on the incarnation and the second coming. At Easter, I preach a sermon from a particular passage about the resurrection of Christ. The reason is simple: The birth and resurrection of Jesus are crucial elements of His redeeming work. In that sense it is always spiritually beneficial to give them a focused place in our preaching. Barnes again notes:

"We can celebrate the incarnation during the Christmas Season (Advent), but we do so only in light of the fact that the incarnated Son is now our Risen Lord. We do not enter into worship during the months between Christmas and Easter waiting for a resurrected Savior. We come each Lord's Day to celebrate His resurrection and triumph over sin, death, and hell. At worse the calendar holds believers back from the celebration of the resurrection until Easter, or at best it subdues their celebration. The weekly celebration of the resurrection reminds us that the babe that was born in Bethlehem is our triumphant Lord, that He suffered so that we would be spared judgment for our sins, that the veil of the Temple was rent in two and that we enter in to the very Holy of Holies each Lord's Day as we gather for worship."4

Wherever one falls on the spectrum of adherence to elements of the Liturgical Calendar, we must learn to live our Christian lives constantly in light of the once-for-all atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. We must always live and worship in dependence on the One who ascended to the right hand of the Father and is our great High Priest ever living to make intercession for us. We must live our Christian life in union with the One who cried out "It is finished," even as we anticipate His return. All of our worship practices must coincide with those truths and must be derived squarely from the prescriptive elements of Scripture and the example of the Apostles. To that end, it will be an enormous benefit for us to submerse ourselves in the Scriptures and in the rich repository of Reformed, Puritan and Post-Reformation writings on worship. 


1. N.T. Wright For All the Saints? (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2003) p. 24

2. An excerpt from Roland Barnes' article, "The Practice of Lent in the Reformed Tradition" in The Confessional Presbyterian (vol. 10) 2014. 

3. Hughes Oliphant Old The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, vol. 5, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) pp. 60-61.

4. Ibid.
Posted February 28, 2017 @ 5:56 PM by Nick Batzig
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