Must Christians keep the Passover and other feast days to be saved?

by Luke Wayne
7/14/17

The World Mission Society Church of God (WMSCOG) teaches that one must keep the Passover and other Old Testament feasts (specifically as they practice them and under the authority of their church) or one cannot attain eternal life. This teaching is at odds both with what the Bible says about how one receives eternal life and also with what the New Testament says about the feasts.

The Way to Eternal Life

The Scriptures are abundantly clear that forgiveness of sins, future resurrection, and eternal life in the kingdom of God are attained by grace alone through faith alone and entirely on the basis of Christ's once-for-all finished work rather than our ceremonial practices. Jesus Himself said to Nicodemus:

"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life," (John 3:14-16).

And again He said to the crowds after the feeding of the five thousand:

"Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal," (John 6:27).

The crowd naturally responded, "What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?" (John 6:28). Jesus replied:

"This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent," (John 2:29).

And yet again He declared before the tomb of Lazarus:

"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies," (John 11:25).

Indeed, John sums up the point of all of this when he says:

"these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name," (John 20:31).

It is by faith in Christ that we come to eternal life, not by participation in certain ordinances or ceremonies. After His resurrection, Jesus said to His disciples that:

"Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things," (Luke 24:46-47).

Jesus sent His disciples to be witnesses of His resurrection and to preach repentance for forgiveness of sins, not to witness to the Passover meal and preach ceremonial feasts for the forgiveness of sins. Paul, likewise, writes that:

"But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast," (Ephesians 2:4-9).

And elsewhere:

"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law," (Romans 3:28).

And yet again:

"nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified," (Galatians 2:16).

It is abundantly clear that we are not forgiven our sins, reconciled to God, nor granted eternal life on the basis of works, ordinances, or ceremonial festivals of the Mosaic calendar. It is, instead, through faith in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf and His victorious resurrection from the dead.

The Christian and the Feasts

What, then, is the relationship of the Christian to the feasts? They are means of worship that many early Jewish Christians continued to participate in (and many still do today), hover they were not imposed upon Gentile converts and were never intended as a means to eternal life and a necessary prerequisite for salvation. In Acts 15, the Church at Jerusalem together with the Apostles and James (the brother of Jesus) addressed the issue as to how the Gentile Christian was to relate to the law. They determined that God has cleansed the hearts of the Gentile believers by faith and that they need not participate in the ceremonial rites and externals of the law. They urged them only to honor God in their walk by obeying certain moral essentials such as abstaining from sexual immorality and idolatry. Gentile Christians were not bound to keep the Jewish feasts in any form. Indeed, Paul would go on to plainly write to the Colossians:

"Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ," (Colossians 2:16-17).

and to the Galatians he warns:

"But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain," (Galatians 4:9-11).

It is clear from the writings of the early church that they understood from these words that the feasts and Sabbaths were not mandatory for Christians. Indeed, Ignatius of Antioch (a very early Christian pastor from a church where Paul spent a great deal of time) observes that even Christians who were "brought up in the ancient order of things," after entering into the new hope in Christ did not continue to observe the Sabbath.1 In another very early Christian writing, the author argues that, unlike the Jews, Christians do not celebrate the feasts because they worship God on all days alike and need not wait for the moon and stars to mark certain seasons.2 this, too, draws on the words of Paul:

"Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God," (Romans 14:4-6).

The feast is not off limits to the Christian, but it is not mandatory for him either. It is a matter of conscience. No one is saved through participation in the feast. Justin Martyr, a Christian writer in Samaria from the first half of the second century, argued to the Jews:

"For we too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you,—namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts. For if we patiently endure all things contrived against us by wicked men and demons, so that even amid cruelties unutterable, death and torments, we pray for mercy to those who inflict such things upon us, and do not wish to give the least retort to any one, even as the new Lawgiver commanded us: how is it, Trypho, that we would not observe those rites which do not harm us, —I speak of fleshly circumcision, and Sabbaths, and feasts?" (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 18).

Justin points out that men of faith like Able, Enoch, and Melchizedek were accepted by God apart from feasts, Sabbaths, or circumcision. He goes on to say:

"Do you see that the elements are not idle, and keep no Sabbaths? Remain as you were born. For if there was no need of circumcision before Abraham, or of the observance of Sabbaths, of feasts and sacrifices, before Moses; no more need is there of them now, after that, according to the will of God, Jesus Christ the Son of God has been born without sin, of a virgin sprung from the stock of Abraham. For when Abraham himself was in uncircumcision, he was justified and blessed by reason of the faith which he reposed in God, as the Scripture tells," (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 23).

And he goes on to plainly state:

"But the Gentiles, who have believed on Him, and have repented of the sins which they have committed, they shall receive the inheritance along with the patriarchs and the prophets, and the just men who are descended from Jacob, even although they neither keep the Sabbath, nor are circumcised, nor observe the feasts. Assuredly they shall receive the holy inheritance of God," (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 26).

Irenaeus, a second-century pastor who was taught by a disciple of John, explains that, with regard to salvation, the Scriptures repudiated "sacrifices, and oblations, as likewise the new moons, and the sabbaths, and the festivals, and all the rest of the services accompanying these."3

Interestingly, John explains the Passover to his readers as "the feast of the Jews," (John 6:4) and does the same with the feast of Booths (John 7:2). He does not claim them as Christian feasts.  Irenaeus, likewise, had to explain to his readers that Passover was an annual feast of the Jews and that Jesus attended it "in accordance with what was the practice of the Jews from every land, and every year, that they should assemble at this period in Jerusalem, and there celebrate the feast of the Passover."4 He explains all this as if his readers might not even know these things. Clearly, the early Gentile Christians had no practice of celebrating an annual Passover feast themselves.

The biblical teachings are clear, and these examples from early church history, though written by very fallible men, demonstrate that the words of the New Testament were clear to the early readers in their teaching that Christians were not bound to keep the feasts. We are not reading things into the text that the earliest readers would not have seen there. We are taking the New Testament writers plainly at their word. Passover and the other feasts are not necessary for eternal life. A true faith in Jesus Christ and not in our own works or ceremonial merits is the only way to salvation. The sacrifice of Jesus is enough. We need not add anything to it. 

  • 1. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, Chapter 9
  • 2. Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 4
  • 3. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 17, Section 1
  • 4. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 22, Section 3