The Good News of Holy Saturday

In Protestant American churches, and particularly in evangelical ones, Easter, along with Christmas, is the highlight of the church year. Pastors exhort their congregations to invite their neighbors, the worship leader may prepare some special music, and families will gather together afterward to eat some/a lot of New Covenant ham. In between these two poles of celebrating Christ’s birth and resurrection, though, many evangelical congregations have lost a sense of the rest of the Christian calendar. Even when a pastor mentions Holy Week, the most an evangelical church might do is have a Good Friday service.

One day in particular that suffers from this apathy towards the traditional church calendar among evangelicals is Holy Saturday. While Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some mainline Protestants still practice the Holy Saturday evening liturgy, both the practice and theological impact of the Great Sabbath have been lost in many evangelical churches. So what does Holy Saturday mean? Why is it important not only that Christ “died, and was buried,” but also that “he descended to the dead”?

First, when I affirm that Christ descended to the dead, what I mean – and what I think the Bible teaches – is that Jesus experienced the fullness of death as the incarnate Son. In other words, his human body went down to the grave, his human soul went to the place of the dead (and more particularly, the place of the righteous dead, Paradise), and both of these occurred while his human nature was all the while hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son. So the God-man experiences death – not just in a moment, but the state of death, remaining dead for three days. I think, then, we can point to at least three aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb that are good news – part of the gospel.

  1. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ Sabbath rest. Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and, as the Triune God rests after the work of creation is finished, so Jesus rests after his work of new creation is finished. Saturday is the seventh day, the day of rest, and Jesus is resting after completing his work of redemption. Of course, we’re still waiting on the resurrection – without Easter Sunday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mean nothing. But Jesus’ mission is effectively completed when he gives up his spirit at the crucifixion.
  2. Holy Saturday is when Jesus experiences death for us. The Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation,” and his time in the tomb is part of what he does for us. As the God-man, Jesus experiences death. He has not just died for a moment and then received life again, nor did he revive after being placed in the tomb and then just chill until Sunday morning. Jesus remained dead. I think this is particularly comforting for those facing death, or who have loved ones facing death – Jesus has experienced this with us and for us. We have nothing to fear because Christ our Brother has faced and experienced the same death we all face.
  3. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ victory over death. Again, we’re still waiting on the consummation of Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but in a very real sense the fact that Jesus remains dead for three days is in itself defeating death. He doesn’t just experience death for us; by experiencing it as the God-man, he also defeats it for us. Death therefore has no sting or victory anymore (1 Cor. 15:55). In the early church, Holy Saturday was when Jesus declared his victory to all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, since he was in the place of the dead with them. So we can say on Saturday Jesus’ announced victory and on Sunday he demonstrated it.

In Defense of Evangelical Eclecticism

In a recent post at Reformation21, the inimitable Carl Trueman complains about the coming onslaught of evangelicals enjoining Lenten observance:

It’s that time of year again: the ancient tradition of Lent, kick-started by Ash Wednesday. It is also the time of year when us confessional types brace ourselves for the annual onslaught of a more recent tradition: that of evangelical pundits, with no affiliation to such branches of the church, writing articles extolling Lent’s virtues to their own eclectic constituency.

Trueman essentially argues that “Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals” have no business observing the church year because it is not a part of their history. It may be fine for Anglicans, whose liturgical life has been shaped by the church year, but it exhibits ignorance, or worse, consumeristic carnality for other evangelical traditions to incorporate these practices into their liturgical and devotional life.  “[J]ust as celebrating July the Fourth makes sense for Americans but not for the English, the Chinese or the Lapps, so Ash Wednesday and Lent really make no sense to those who are Presbyterians, Baptists, or free church evangelicals.” Trueman concludes,

When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history. Or maybe they are simply exhibiting the attitude of the world around: They consume the bits and pieces which catch their attention in any tradition they find appealing, while eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires. Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is so often a symbol of this present age’s ingrained consumerism.

Since Trueman extols the virtues of his own Presbyterian tradition and its sacramental and sabbatarian piety, one wonders if it is the last two groups (the pitiable Baptists and free church evangelicals) who are the real targets of Trueman’s critique. Presbyterians may be ignorant of their liturgical tradition, but do Baptists even have one?

Anglican pastor and professor James Merrick has written an insightful response to Trueman, also published at Reformation21, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts from my own evangelical Baptist perspective. Since I have previously commended the benefits of the church year on this blog, it should go without saying that I disagree with Trueman’s assessment of Lenten observance. But here are a few reasons why I think Trueman’s argument fails to convince.

First, the principle that Trueman sets forth here, if applied consistently, would threaten to cut off evangelicals from the broader Christian tradition. The Protestant traditions that emerged in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, and which would form the backbone of the coming Anglo-American evangelical movement, did not start from scratch. They were building on previous centuries of faith and practice. Renewal movements are by their very nature involved in a process of “picking and choosing.” The question was whether or not the doctrines and practices of previous centuries conformed to Scripture, advanced the cause of the gospel, and built up the church. Each generation must earnestly ask that same set of questions.

What if we applied Trueman’s principle not only to liturgical practices but also to doctrinal beliefs? Are free church evangelicals wrong, for example, to claim the Nicene trinitarian tradition as their own? I mean, Athanasius didn’t go to Wheaton or publish with Crossway or write for Christianity Today. Or should Baptists continue to affirm the doctrine of original sin? Augustine couldn’t teach in any of our Baptist seminaries; he approved of baptizing babies after all! Shouldn’t we just stick with those doctrines and practices which are a part of our own denominational histories? Someone may respond that trinitarianism is a part of evangelical history and the doctrine of sin is a part of the Baptist tradition.* But that is precisely my point. Somewhere along the way someone in these Protestant traditions decided that there were some things from the previous centuries of Christian history that were worth preserving. These traditions may have also jettisoned certain practices (the way that the Puritans threw out the liturgical calendar), but free church Protestants shouldn’t feel locked into the decisions of the seventeenth century (a point also made by Merrick). We are free once again to reconsider which practices might be consistent with Scripture and beneficial for the church’s spiritual well being.

Second, there is a sense in which liturgical eclecticism is the tradition of free church evangelicalism. This need not be interpreted in the most negative, consumeristic light. It can be interpreted in terms consistent with the principles of evangelicalism itself. Christians are free to pursue any and all liturgical and devotional practices which are consistent with Scripture and which provoke Christians to love and good deeds.  Those committed to a strict understanding of the regulative principle may disagree with the adaptability and openness of these evangelical traditions, but that in and of itself isn’t an argument against them. One could argue that theological and liturgical eclecticism actually puts Baptists and free church evangelicals in a better position to be corrected by Scripture than those committed to more rigid confessional traditions.

Finally, the Fourth of July analogy is unfortunate. Christian denominations are important for providing habitats within which Christians can live and grow and mature in a particular tradition. But denominations aren’t silos, or at least they shouldn’t be.  We should welcome the sharing of theological and liturgical “best practices” as we seek to learn and grow along with the larger body of Christ. Conceiving of denominations as analogous to discrete nation-states, with their own distinct and non-transferable traditions, runs the risk of sectarianism and forestalls a robust commitment to the church’s catholicity among Protestants.

In the end, I agree with Trueman that the church year should not be presented as “normative” for Christians, in the sense that Scripture demands its observance. But I disagree that its observance marks a fundamental rejection of evangelical tradition. Eclecticism can be a virtue if it leaves us open to correction from Scripture and encouragement from the broader Christian tradition.

P.S. Trueman has written a surrejoinder to Merrick’s post.


*Though it is interesting that as the General Baptists slid into unitarianism, some Baptists argued against the Trinity as a “Roman Catholic” doctrine.

Evangelicals and the Church Year

I grew up knowing almost nothing about the church year.  I say “almost nothing” because my childhood Southern Baptist church did celebrate Christmas and Easter. Unlike some other traditions, our church had no principled aversion to seasons of reflection on certain aspects of Christ’s life.  We just didn’t know about anything but Christmas and Easter. And these two seasons were so predominant in the broader culture that their legitimacy was never in question. I suspect this is a common story for many Baptists and low-church evangelicals.

In recent years, however, many evangelicals have started to expand their embrace of the church year.  Many churches are focusing more intentionally on the seasons leading up to Christmas and Easter: Advent and Lent, respectively.  But I think there is benefit in embracing the whole-kit-and-kaboodle (is that still a recognizable phrase?), that is, celebrating the whole year: from Advent and Christmas through Epiphany, Lent, and Easter all the way to Ordinary Time (also known as the season of Pentecost).

A couple years ago, Daniel Montgomery, pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote a helpful post titled, “Why We Observe the Christian Year at Sojourn.” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s an important bit:

In our narcissistic culture, we ignore the wisdom of the Ancients and the traditions of those who came before us. We act like we’ve invented the wheel and we’ve got this whole thing figured out.

You see this in contemporary church services. You see it in the “latest and greatest” songs we sing, in the haphazard way we order our services, in the easy-come, easy-go mentality of our people and the consumer-culture mentality of our service planners. And you see it in the way we’ve laid aside and then forgotten the wisdom of our church fathers, who devised the Christian Calendar.

Rightly understood, there is nothing mystical about the Christian year. There is nothing about it that requires us to treat the Christian year as if it were commanded in scripture, like baptism and communion are commanded. Yet there is nothing about it that requires us to steer away from it or regard it as an unbiblical intrusion on our services and our daily lives.

It is simply a practice of historic Christianity that continuously stirs reflection, anticipation and action in the hearts of God’s people for the whole, big story of the gospel. More and more Christians are rediscovering this historic practice, and growing in the truth and knowledge of Christ.

Let me pose some similar questions here that Montgomery poses at the end of his post:

  • Have you been a part of a church that celebrates part or all of the church year? If so, how have these patterns of worship and reflection helped you in your spiritual growth?
  • Do you see any danger in celebrating the church year?
  • If you are convinced that there is benefit in the church year, how might we encourage our churches to move in this direction?