Continental Lord's Day versus Westminster Sabbath
The application of the fourth commandment has been hotly debated for many centuries. Today, there is still a tension between the “Continental” view of the Lord’s Day and the “Sabbatarian” view. The Continental view is along the lines that we order our affairs as we do on the Lord’s Day so as to engage in worship – since the church has chosen in her freedom (in God’s providence) to worship on the Lord’s Day. The Sabbatarian view sees a stronger connection between the fourth commandment, as a day of rest – a “Christian Sabbath” – and the Lord’s Day. The Continental view emphasises that every day is equally holy, while the Sabbatarian view insists that God has appointed as a perpetual, moral commandment, one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy to Him. Supporters of the Continental view often cite the Heidelberg Catechism to back their position, while Sabbatarians appeal to the Westminster Standards. Thus the “Three Forms of Unity” and the Westminster Standards are set in opposition by many.
Are these respective confessions really offering opposing views of the fourth commandment? In my opinion, they are not essentially opposed – though there are certainly differences. Perhaps the key similarity is that both make a strong connection between the following ideas: fourth commandment, Sabbath/rest and the Lord’s Day. Some who hold the Continental view see only a weak connection between these realities, arguing that the Lord’s Day is not an application of the fourth commandment, or a day of rest, or a Christian Sabbath. Note, however, the connection between question and answer in the Heidelberg, Lord’s Day 38: “What is God’s will for us in the fourth commandment?” “That ... especially on the festive day of rest...” I worship etc. The catechism does not relegate “rest” to the OT: “What is God’s will...” present tense. It sees “the festive day of rest” as an application of the fourth commandment, which was about the Sabbath Day. In this context, “THE festive day” can only be referring to the Lord’s Day.
Some have tried to weaken the force of this connection by arguing that the words “day of rest” are not in the original German or Latin – only the words “feast day(s).” However, in both languages “feast days,” carried also the idea of a holiday in which one could rest from one’s normal work. So these words were ideal for bringing together both the idea of rest and the idea of joyous celebration – a combination found, for example, in Isaiah 58:13-14. The German word is singular, referring in this context specifically to the Sunday. The Latin is plural, perhaps referring to the fact that the church may worship on other days in addition to Sunday. G. Williard’s translation of the Latin in Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, puts it this way: “Especially on the Sabbath, the day of rest...” (p. 560). The older Dutch text of the Catechism also uses the word for “Sabbath” in its answer at this point. But in any case, the original author’s intent in a confession is not so critical as the church’s current intent – as the interpretation of the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell” demonstrates.
Parallel and complementary
Looking more broadly at Lord’s Day 38 and WCF 21:7-8, we can see that both have the following emphases: worship (learning from God’s Word and sacrament and responding in worship); works of mercy; and the pursuit of sanctification. However, the Westminster also has some distinctive parts: the importance of preparation for the Sabbath; the need to rest from recreations as well as employments; and the statement that God has particularly appointed one day in seven to be kept holy to Him, as a perpetual Sabbath binding all men in all ages. This is identified with the last day of the week in the OT, and the first (Lord’s Day) after Christ’s resurrection. The Heidelberg’s unique contribution is on the joy of this day; on supporting the “schools” to educate for the Gospel ministry; and on beginning already the eternal Sabbath. As I see it, these various points are in no way contradictory. They are parallel and complementary.
Just how much the Heidelberg agrees with the Westminster can be seen when we look at Ursinus’ own explanation of it. In his Commentary on LD 38, he concludes that the pattern of six day’s work and one day rest means that on the Lord’s Day servile work, as well as other works which men might perform on other days, must give way to public and private worship. The WCF’s example of avoiding our worldly recreations would fit quite neatly into Ursinus’ “all other works” that we perform on other days.
Appealing to the Reformers
No doubt many will continue to see these respective confessions as contradictory, especially on the issue of a moral commandment setting aside one day in seven to be kept holy. On this point, appeal is often made to Calvin and other Reformers – including Ursinus. In Institutes 2.8.33, Calvin is adamant that it is superstitious to distinguish one day from another (citing Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16-17; and Galatians 4:10-11). He criticizes the view that the only ceremonial aspect of the OT Sabbath that has been abrogated is the day – which has been changed to the first day of the week; he criticizes those who say that the moral aspect that remains is that one day in seven is holy. Similarly, Bullinger in the Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 24), states that “we celebrate the Lord’s Day and not the Sabbath as a free observance.” It is not hard to find in such statements support for the Continental position.
Nevertheless, I would urge caution at this point. The Reformers were not always free from overstatement. To get a balanced picture, one needs to consider more than just a few extreme comments reacting against the Pharisaic legalism that was common at the time. For the Reformers did regard the fourth commandment as having both a perpetual, moral aspect and a temporary, ceremonial aspect. Understanding what they meant by “ceremonial” and what they regarded as included in that category, requires a comprehensive study. In Institutes 2.8.32, Calvin insists that not all is relegated to ancient shadows by Christ fulfilling the OT Sabbath. Two points are equally applicable to every age: to assemble on the stated days for hearing God’s Word etc; and to give rest from labour to servants and workmen. He adds that if we’re under the same necessity, for the same reason as the Jews with their Sabbath, let no one allege that this (commandment) has nothing to do with us. Moreover, in his Commentary on Genesis 2:2-3, Calvin asserts that Christ’s fulfilment of the Jewish Sabbath does not alter what belongs to the perpetual government of human life, as established in this creation order: that from then until the end of the world, men might employ themselves in the worship of God; and that while they should do that every day, they need one day to keep them from becoming less attentive. Similar thoughts are expressed in Ursinus’ Commentary on LD 38. The Reformers were not saying that the fourth commandment places upon us no moral obligation to rest on the Lord’s Day. They were warning against viewing the Lord’s Day as the one holy day of the week – as if the only thing that changed from OT to NT was which day was holy. They insisted on the freedom to hold public worship any day, rather than on one, special holy day. But they also saw the need for setting aside one day – in God’s providence, the first day of the week – for the sake of good order, to serve the peace of Christian fellowship and to prevent men from neglecting the Lord. Moreover, they acknowledged the continuity between this practice and the Creation Ordinance and the Jewish Sabbath. Ursinus, in his Commentary on LD 38, says that the moral aspect of the fourth commandment – the part that does not have respect to any particular time – “binds all men from the beginning to the end of the world, to observe some Sabbath...” (p. 557).
Although many have objected to the WCF 21 statement about a perpetual moral commandment appointing one day in seven to be kept holy, I wonder if this is really so different than what the Continental Reformers were saying. Clearly, the latter were opposed to the view that the Lord’s Day was holy, set apart in the same manner as God appointed just the last day of the week in the OT. But I have tried to show that they were not averse to seeing the Lord’s Day as a day set apart according to the moral requirements of the fourth commandment and the original creation ordinance. Hence the Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 24) can speak of the church having “set aside” the Lord’s Day for a “holy rest.” The word “holy” most basically means, “set apart for special use to the Lord.” Not everything set aside for the Lord’s use has the same use. One may say that every day is equally set apart for the use of honouring the Lord, pursuing sanctification etc; but also that one day only in the OT was set apart for directing our hearts to that general service to the Lord – the holy Sabbath; and that now, while any day could be used for that purpose, for all days are sanctified by Christ, the Lord in His Providence has guided the church to set apart the Lord’s Day for that holy purpose of preventing our tendency to let slip our attention to Him. Seen in that sense, I can fully agree with the WCF when it speaks of a perpetual, moral Sabbath commandment, regarding one day in seven. I do not see that the Heidelberg Catechism, or Ursinus in his explanation of it, as saying anything to contradict that. I would like to suggest that the alleged contradiction between the Heidelberg and the Westminster might stem in part from a failure to recognise that the word “holy” is not always as loaded as it is when we speak of OT holy days; and that there is no necessary conflict between saying that all days are now equally holy, but one day is set aside (holy) to help us see that.
If we take that emphasis of the Reformers seriously, it will be a strong reminder against “Sunday Christianity.” We should make every effort to use the Day of Rest and Worship for what it is intended: to treat every day as holy, sanctified by Christ. That means making the effort to apply what we learn from God’s Word to the other days as well. It also means making every effort to continue the joyful response of worship on the other days of the week as well.