To celebrate or not to celebrate!

That is not the question.

Richard Fredericks PhD., is associate professor of religion at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Recent innovations in several Adventist congregations in the United States and elsewhere have raised the question of whether celebration in worship is a neo-Pentecostal threat. Some even consider it dangerous to use the word "celebration" in describing any component of the worship service. Is such concern justified?

This article is not an analysis of Adventist congregations who call themselves "celebration centers." Rather, it is an at tempt to keep us from throwing out a God-given baby because of what some believe is muddied bathwater.

Regardless of how one views the "celebration movement" in Adventism, the real or alleged misuse of a good thing should never cancel its legitimate use. Though greedy hucksters constantly misuse the Bible, we continue to study it. Even though society constantly abuses money and sex, God doesn't call us to become celibate paupers. So with the biblical concept that worship is communal celebration of life in Christ—we should not reject it because some might abuse it.

Some critics of the "celebration movement" categorically assert that this is "no time to celebrate." Instead, our lives and our worship should be marked by weeping and sighing. Celebration, they say, must wait until the coming of Christ. One article through a rather dubious exegesis of Isaiah 22 even concludes that celebration worship is the unpardonable sin in the last days!1

Something beautiful could be lost if we take these voices seriously. We need celebration. The true gospel requires it. It is crucial to the corporate life and evangelistic outreach of the Adventist Church. It is central to Christ-centered worship. It is vital to the health of Christians as individuals. Without it our souls shrivel.

If this is true, it should be clear biblically. And it is. Amid our straggle to be authentic Christians in a spiritually decaying world, the biblical call to celebrate God's amazing grace becomes more urgent, not less. Especially as the coming of Christ draws near Christian worship should be characterized by joyful praise, confidence, and courage.2 In other words, celebration.

The Bible never calls us to choose between celebrating and mourning. Rather, Scripture teaches us when and why we should do both.

The true focus of worship

Worship is a verb. It's active devotion. Should Christian worship be characterized by celebration or by "sighing and crying for the abominations in the land"? The answer depends primarily on our focus of worship: Do we center upon God's great salvation through the death of Christ, or upon our desire to attain perfection of character?

Is corporate and private worship the time to focus on ourselves and what we are doing for God, or rather on who God is and what He has done for us? The answer is determined largely by the basis upon which we rest our hope for salvation. If we trust in the perfect sufficiency of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, then our worship will celebrate security in Christ. But if we base our hope upon a future perfection of the final generation, then worship becomes marred by mourning over our failure to attain that ideal.

Whatever gets our attention gets us. If the primary theme and focus of worship are ourselves even our desire to be Spirit-filled, sinless selves then we are left with Pharisaical self-worship (see Luke 18:9- 12; Matt. 7:22, 23). Unwise, if our worship focuses primarily on the ups and downs of the denomination, then we have corporate self-worship.

Given the theology of many who condemn every form of celebration worship, their opposition to it is justified. If the Adventist message requires preoccupation with our "sinless" selves, then worship becomes a time of grieving. Sorrowful humility results from any honest focus on ourselves in the light of the holiness of Christ. As Ellen White says: "The nearer we come to Jesus and the more clearly we discern the purity of His character, the more clearly we shall discern the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the less we shall feel like exalting ourselves....

"None of the apostles or prophets ever claimed to be without sin....

"At every advance step in Christian experience our repentance will deepen. ... We shall know that our sufficiency is in Christ alone. We shall make the apostle's confession our own. 'I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing' (Rom. 7:18). 'God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world' (Gal. 6:14)."3

The key question is whether worship is the time to focus on ourselves. Solomon wrote, "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event [literally, "delight"] under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to uproot. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Eccl. 3:1-4).*

Clearly all these things, including both weeping and laughing, have a proper place in this life. So there is a time for deep repentance and a time for great confidence; a time for confronting our sins and a time for rejoicing in our Saviour. Too often, in misguided zeal we set up false dichotomies, artificial either/or elements, when in reality both are appropriate. The question is, when should we mourn, and when should we celebrate? The Bible is clear.

Kneeling at the cross

When we focus on Christ crucified, risen, and coming, we celebrate. Indeed, it would be shameful not to celebrate. Listen to Ellen White's rebuke of those who criticize the manifestation of enthusiasm in light of God's grace:

"His arm brought salvation. The price was paid to purchase the redemption of man, when, in the last soul struggle, the blessed words were uttered which seemed to resound through creation: 'It is finished.'. .. Here is a theme, poor formalist, which is of sufficient importance to excite you.... Upon this theme it is sin to be calm and unimpassioned. The scenes of Cal vary call for the deepest emotion. Upon this subject you will be excused if you manifest enthusiasm." 4

"Christ's death proves God's great love for man. It is our pledge of salvation. To remove the cross from the Christian would be like blotting the sun from the sky.... Without the cross, man could have no union with the Father. On it depends our every hope. From it shines the light of the Saviour's love, and when at the foot of the cross the sinner looks up to the One who died to save him, he may rejoice with fullness of joy, for his sins are pardoned. Kneeling in faith at the cross, he has reached the highest place to which man can attain."5

There can be no doubt about it the center of true Christian worship is celebrating the victory of the cross by which:

1. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son as our atoning sacrifice (see John 3:16; 1 John 4:9, 10).

2. The curse of sin in our lives was exchanged for the sufficiency of Christ's righteous life, thus allowing us to stand complete in Him before the Father: "For in Him all the fulness of deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete" (Col. 2:9, 10; see also Heb. 10:14).

3. Christ received the punishment we deserve, making an all-sufficient atonement for our sins that has saved us from the wrath of God (see Col. 1:19-22; Rom. 5:9, 10).

4. Jesus has promised to never leave us nor forsake us; to be with us always, even unto the end (Matt. 28:19, 20).

5. We have the testimony that who ever has the Son has eternal life, and there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (see 1 John 5:11-13; Rom. 8:1, 31-39).

6. After believing the gospel of our salvation, we are sealed in Christ with the Holy Spirit of promise (see Eph. 1:13,14).

In light of all this that Christ has accomplished for us, exuberant praise and boldness are two primary characteristics of New Testament worship (see Rom. 14:17; Phil. 2:17, 18; 3:1; 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16-18; Heb. 4:16; 10:19-23).

A time to weep

At 5:30 each morning I rise to walk and talk with the Lord. While walking I read a pocket New Testament through which God speaks to my soul. For several weeks recently I wrestled through Ephesians 4 and 5 and Colossians 3, which communicate exceedingly high calls to holiness in Christ. Morning by morning God humbled my soul, rebuking the short comings of my life and calling me to a higher commitment to holiness.

In self-examination we should be con trite before God (see Isa. 55:6-12 and 1 Peter 5:6). This is the time for humility, mourning, and confession of sin; the time for hungering and thirsting after the true righteousness of Christ, which surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, who spent their whole lives seeking an ad equate inward righteousness (see Matt. 5:3-7, 20; 6:33; Phil. 3:7-10).

God calls us to deal with our souls honestly. "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life" (Gal. 6:7, 8).

Both corporate and individual self-examination, if Spirit-led, produce the same result: humility in light of our unworthiness (see Luke 17:10). The church needs to realize that even our best achievements in the light of God's ideal are a constant call to repentance: At every advanced step our repentance will deepen.

Great are Thy works

Personal and corporate self-examination, necessary though they be, are not the central fact or focus of true Christian worship. David highlights both the orientation and the attitude of true worship: "I will extol Thee, my God, O King; and I will bless Thy name forever . . . Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised. . . . One generation shall praise Thy works to an other, and shall declare Thy mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of Thy majesty, and on Thy wonderful works, I will meditate. And men shall speak of the power of Thine awesome acts; and I will tell of Thy greatness. They shall bubble over with [margin] the memory of Thine abundant goodness, and shall shout joyfully of Thy righteousness" (Ps. 145:1-7).

Worship as the celebration of God's goodness alone is clear in the Psalms. But what about during the last days? Does the focus in worship shift from God's great saving act in the past (which gives the future hope), to put our confidence in the attainment of sinlessness by the final generation? Does the apocalyptic crucible produce a people who can finally sing: "Worthy is the Lamb—and me?"

No, Scripture never hints at such a shift of orientation in the final worshiping community. Listen carefully to those who are victorious over the beast and his image: "Great and marvelous are Thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty; righteous and true are Thy ways, Thou King of the nations. Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? For Thou alone art holy; for all the nations will come and worship before Thee" (Rev. 15:3,4).

Joy is our strength

Let us see what kind of worship God expected from His imperfect people in the days of Nehemiah (see Neh. 8:9,10). The setting was shortly after the Jews returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. They had wandered from God and forgot ten the Torah (translated Law), but now a remnant had returned to rebuild their city and their faith. Ezra led them into a study of the books of Moses, explaining so that "they understood the reading" (Neh. 8:8). The people felt so smitten by how far they had fallen from God's will that they began to weep. Notice the response of Ezra, Nehemiah, and all the Levites: "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.... Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (verses 9, 10).

As reading on in Nehemiah makes clear, the people of God had real short comings, real problems to grieve about. But since they had returned to Him, this was a time of worship, of hearing God's redemptive Word and focusing on Him, not on themselves. In that context the joy of the Lord was their strength, the very strength they would need to confront and conquer their own sins in the battle of life.

The Bible makes clear that in Christ we stand acquitted before God (see Rom. 5:1; 8:1). Because of this verdict (see Rom. 8:31-34) we now live in the joyous year of jubilee. Notice the confessions of praise that the prophet Isaiah declares this brings us: "To grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness. ... Instead of humiliation they will shout for joy over their portion. . . . Everlasting joy will be theirs" (Isa. 61:3- 7).

Isaiah switches to a first-person confessional to express the attitude of Christ's community in worship, a confession of rejoicing in what Christ has done for us: "I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult ["be joyful," NKJV] in my God; for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes the things sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up be fore all the nations" (verses 10, 11).

The real celebration begins

When Jesus Christ emerged from the tomb the real celebration began. Old Testament prophetic promise became historical reality, and this formed the substance of the celebration. The new covenant of a justified people in Christ was ratified and sealed by His death and resurrection (see Rom. 4:25). So as Christians we rejoice, for in Christ we already at this moment have been (1) "justified [accomplished fact]" "by His blood [method]" (Rom. 5:1, 9); (2) "brought near [to God] by the blood of Christ" (Eph. 2:13); (3) "[given] peace with God" (Rom. 5:1); (4) qualified "to share in the inheritance," and delivered "from the domain of darkness," and transferred into "the kingdom of His be loved Son" (Col. 1:12, 13).

Grasp what these verses are saying. The verbs in every case denote what God has already accomplished for us in Christ. Christ was absolutely victorious over sin, death, and the devil. His victory is ours before the Father as we put our faith in Him. Therefore, as Christians we work from victory, not toward it.

In Luke 10:17-21 we find the disciples caught up in their own experience. Their focus is on themselves and what they are capable of in Christ's name. Jesus affirms His power in their lives, but then He warns them not to rejoice in their subjective experience even when it is a victorious one. Rather, He says, "rejoice in this,... that your names are recorded in heaven." In other words, if we accept the gospel of salvation through the blood of Christ, our Lord commands us to rejoice that, by the grace of God, our names are recorded in the Lamb's book of life.

The disciples finally understood this focus of the gospel after the cross and Pentecost. Never in history was there a more victorious church than the early apostolic church, and yet the entire focus of their preaching, praying, witnessing, assurance, and fellowship (as described in the book of Acts) was on Christ crucified and risen not on their subjective experience. Therein lay the secret of their power.

The Father commands it

Jesus introduced three parables in Luke 15 in response to the Pharisees' accusation that He received sinners and ate with them. In each story Jesus pleads guilty to their charge, and the punch line is always a call to rejoice in God's acceptance of those unworthy and lost. "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10; see also verses 5, 7). If the angels celebrate every repenting sinner who is found by Christ, shouldn't we as repenting sinners also celebrate our salvation in Christ when we worship Him?

The third parable, the story of the prodigal, merits the most careful consideration. Here Jesus introduces the concept that our willingness to rejoice becomes the mark of an authentic relationship with the Father. We all know the story. The son in selfishness turns from the loving father and squanders his inheritance on the cheap and unsatisfying sins of "a far country." He ends up eating garbage with pigs. That is Christ's terse, realistic description of life apart from our heavenly Father.

Finally the lost son comes to his senses (the work of the Holy Spirit). He makes three essential choices. He determines to (1) return to his father, (2) confess his sin against the father, and (3) cast himself in utter unworthiness upon the father's mercy.

While the young man is yet a long way off, the father sees him and also does three things. He (1) showers compassion on him, (2) embraces him (the text implies kissing him again and again), and (3) covers the prodigal's wretchedness with his own magnificent robe, while also restoring to him the ring of sonship. This is the basis for our celebration as Christians.

Isn't that the good news? Indeed, it is such good news, it should cause us to celebrate—which is just what the father calls everyone to do: " 'Let's... celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate" (verses 23, 24, NIV).

Let's not miss the potency of the parable as seen in verses 25-32. In the older brother Jesus symbolizes the religion of the Pharisees, so consumed with the pursuit of salvation through personal character attainment that they had no time or desire for God's gift in Christ. The older brother, coming in from working in the fields, discovers the party. He is angry furious, in fact. How dare they celebrate! Think of the wasted, impure life of this false brother compared with his own superior zeal in obeying the father's commands. Look at the prodigal's lack of moral perfection. What is there to celebrate? (See verses 29, 30.)

But the father doesn't even respond to the older son's self-righteousness. Instead, he freely offers his proud son just what the younger brother accepted so freely everything. Jesus ends the story by putting these words in the mouth of the father (God) for us to ponder: "But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (verse 32, NIV).

Celebration despite circumstances

So as we embrace the gospel, the celebration begins. But should it continue on when the hard times come, when the world, the flesh, and the devil rage and dark circumstances surround us? The key again is Christ crucified as the motivation and assurance of the Christian life. If Christ Jesus is Lord and we continue to walk in Him, then with Paul we can shout: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31, NIV).

Acts 16 illustrates how Paul applied this principle of celebration in his own life. While evangelizing the Roman colony of Philippi, he delivered a servant girl from a demon, thus ending her lucrative fortune telling business. Her owners stirred up the mob. Paul and Silas found themselves bloodied, bruised, and cast into a dark, dirty dungeon.

Can you imagine more discouraging circumstances? But what did the apostles do? They sang! In the inky blackness of that midnight hour, chained and battered, they celebrated God's goodness to them in songs of praise. Paul and Silas certainly were not singing about themselves or their circumstances (see 2 Cor. 4:4-6), but about God, about who He is and what He had done for them in Jesus Christ.

Out of this witness of celebration in the midst of suffering came the salvation of a jailer and his family. These converts were convicted of the reality of Christianity by the apostles' joyful courage amid terrible circumstances.

Let us celebrate the feast

The New Testament centers in the cross of Christ as God's finished and perfect work for saving sinners. God forbids us to glory or boast in anything else, for on it (as Ellen White says) hangs our every hope (see Gal. 6:14).6 Because of this focus the New Testament is a book of celebration and security: "For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast" (1 Cor. 5:7, 8)!

As Adventists we tend to center our theological identity around preparing for coming eschatological events. The Valuegenesis study shows clearly that our children know more about the time of trouble, the close of probation, the last deceptions, the seven last plagues, the Second Coming, and final judgment than about the gift of present assurance through the substitutionary death of Christ which is the basis of true preparation for the future. There is no security hi merely knowing about final events. Until we find personal assurance in the cross of Christ, the Second Coming is the cursed threat rather than the blessed hope. The theory that the true gospel is the character attainment of the final generation of Adventists continues to breed a paralyzing perfectionism in our ranks. No wonder many don't feel like celebrating; they are preoccupied with themselves, with getting ready rather than being ready, with trying to attain salvation rather than sharing and celebrating the joy of free salvation in Christ.

The solution is not simply more con temporary music. Neither is it more in tense weeping and crying while we focus on our sins. The key is Christ and Him crucified. The gospel is the proclamation of God's great salvation in Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:18-21; 1 Peter 2:24). Without this gospel we have nothing to celebrate. When we know the gospel, we will comprise a community of continual celebration, despite all circumstances and trials, because of our security in Christ.

The term gospel means good news. How do people respond when they receive really good news? What would be our reaction if a son thought dead in a war called to say he was OK; if a daughter at college we thought went down in an air plane crash called from the airport saying she was safe; if we were reunited with our families after a long separation? What about when we finish college or win a promotion? We rejoice. Arid our rejoicing is spontaneous, heartfelt, and natural.

Consider this. How should we react when we learn that God has given us, right now, eternal life based on our faith in the death of Christ alone (see 2 Tim. 1:9,10)? It would be foolish to believe the gospel and not celebrate the unity and security of our lives in Christ.

In 2 Samuel 6 we find our final illustration of how dangerous it is to despise or deny the legitimacy of celebrating the goodness of God. David was dancing be fore the Lord with all his might because the ark of mercy was returning to God' s people. Michal, the daughter of Saul and David's wife, saw her husband's exuberant celebration in worship and "despised him in her heart," condemning him as a shame less fool. But David knew that his expression of joy had a different setting: "I will celebrate before the Lord. "Because Michal despised David's joyful celebration, she spent the rest of her life under the curse of barrenness.

May God help us grasp the fullness of His gospel, His radical goodness to us in Christ. This will move us to authentic and godly celebration of Him in our worship and witness. May we learn to celebrate before we too, like the proud daughter of Saul, find ourselves as individuals and congregations utterly barren and without any children.

You see, then, that whether to celebrate or not to celebrate is not the question. In our worship we simply must rejoice in "so great a salvation" (Heb. 2:3).

Our theology will always define our worship. If our hope is in ourselves and the righteousness of our own victorious experience, worship as celebration is either religiously impossible or it is arrogant self-deception. But when we turn from our selves to adore the Lord Jesus Christ for what He has done and will complete for His people, then worship becomes a celebration. Even in the most difficult circumstances, celebration is necessary, obvious, and natural.

*Unless otherwise noted, scriptural passages in this article are from the New American Standard Bible.

1. Marshall Grosboll, "No Time to Celebrate," Our Firm Foundation (December 1990), pp. 14-19.

2. More songs of praise and rejoicing are in Revelation than in any other book of the Bible except the Psalms, Scripture's own celebration hymnal.

3. Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), pp. 160, 161.

4. ____, Testimonies (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 2, pp. 212, 213.

5. ____, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), pp. 209,210.

6. Ibid., p. 209.


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Richard Fredericks PhD., is associate professor of religion at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland.

August 1992

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