The Fourth Commandment The Ten Commandments Series: Part 4
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.Exodus 20:8-11, ESV
When young, life is a matter of rather simple dos and don'ts. There are two tablets of action, two tables of morality: the permitted and the forbidden. Clearly understood, formerly and formally delineated, strictly applied and consistently reinforced. On the one hand, the dos: obey parents, walk silently in line to class, sit still, eat your vegetables, be nice to your sister. On the other table: do not run into the street, stick not thy finger into the electrical outlet, do not pull your sister's hair, do not pull the dog's tail, do not make fun of your teacher. Those were days of moral clarity. We can yearn for them. There comes a day when one understands that there is a reason behind all of these dos and don'ts. There is not only the functionality of a moral etiquette, there is the theology of a moral urgency.
When we come to the fourth commandment, we realize that we must be careful and mature in understanding this commandment, even as Israel was called to be adult and mature in understanding why the Lord would issue the nation Israel with this Sabbath command. “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” I can remember one of my first experiences in acute moral ambiguity. It occurred in relation to Sunday afternoon and my car. I was sixteen years old. I had my first car; it was in 1964 Ford Fairlane. It was a mean machine. Black paint. Red vinyl interior. Air conditioner that didn't work but looked good hanging there from underneath the dash. It was an object of my almost complete fascination. One Lord’s Day afternoon I was washing my car. As I was washing the car, my mother observed this and went into a mother moment. Every sixteen-year-old boy knows what they look like. Mom comes out of the house with a look of absolute moral, theological, almost divine indignation upon her face. She inquires of me, “What are you doing?” and I said, “I am washing my car.” She said, “Don't you know it is Sunday?” I did know it was Sunday. And she said, “You are breaking the Sabbath command.”
Actually, it was not the fourth command I was in such great danger of breaking but the second. But I can remember standing there with a half-washed car, half suds and half not, and wondering what in the world I had done to deserve this matriarchal moral onslaught. What in the world was behind all this? How was I supposed to know now what was on the do and not on the don't? This was fairly restful. It seemed rather urgent. Even merciful. I can remember thinking, “There must be more to thinking this through than this.” But as it were, the car remained half-washed and half-unwashed.
How are we to understand the fourth commandment? My own Sabbath crisis was not based in any detailed theology, just a personal experience of washing a car. I knew that my mother's outrage had not only to do with the car and the water and the suds and the sun, but had to do with the neighbours. What would the neighbours think? It had to do with evidently a practice that was not to be done on Sunday. I never had a clear list. Literature is replete with references to Sunday as the day on which there can be no fun. And for some Christians it almost seems as if that is the delineating factor. If you enjoy doing it, you may not do it. If you do not enjoy doing it, this is the day for it. And that in itself betrays something of the sick-souled nature of much of our concern about the Lord’s Day. Let us remember that the early Christians yearned, if only they could survive the week, to arrive at the Lord’s Day, where they would gather together and hear together the preaching of the Word of God. “If we can only survive the week, we will make it to the Lord’s Day together.”
The Fourth Commandment in the Old Testament
Something is behind all of this confusion, but there is abundant clarity in the Old Testament when it comes to the purpose of the Sabbath for Israel. The covenantal context of this passage, so clearly given here in the giving of the law, is indicative to us of the central role that the Sabbath would play in the life of Israel as the elect nation. This would be an institutional, public, absolutely obvious indication of Israel's special status. Israel is Yahweh's people. A holy God who makes claim upon their totality, and even upon their calendar, their time, and now this day. This day is a Sabbath unto the Lord. He, of course, is Lord over all things and all moments and all days, but he makes a special claim upon this day in his covenant people. “This you shall remember to keep.”
In the giving of the command there is an explicit reference to Genesis 2:1-3, where we understand that in creation itself there is a Sabbath pattern that we had not detected when first we heard it. “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
One of the first and most difficult questions we encounter regarding the Sabbath command is whether or not this was a universal command to all humanity. If so, then written into the natural order of things such that the unsinful eye should have recognized it, or is this a special command which is a part of the Mosaic covenant for Israel and Israel alone? The argument for the universal command is perhaps most quintessentially made by Geerhardus Vos, who argues that it is in creation itself, as evidenced by Genesis 2. That the Sabbath is to be a pattern of moral law for all peoples and all times everywhere. Six days of labour; one day of rest. If a convincing case for that argument can be made, then Vos makes it.
But I must admit that I am unconvinced. For one thing, there is no universal recognition among peoples around the world of a Sabbath pattern. There is not even a universal acceptance or recognition among peoples throughout history of a seven day week. If it is written into the law of nature, then it was not obvious even to the ancient Hebrews. There are vestiges of all the other commandments found even in the natural order of things, as God has revealed himself as Creator in that natural order. There is a law written on the human heart that does not universally indicate a knowledge of the Sabbath. Furthermore, in the experience of Israel, the Sabbath as a day of rest on the seventh day emerges only in the Mosaic period—indeed, only in the Exodus. The earliest reference being to the fact that on the Sabbath day one would not gather manna in the wilderness, so that a double portion had to be gathered on the sixth day in order that there would be food on the seventh. However, by the time we come to Exodus 20 and the giving of the Ten Commandments in these Ten Words, the verb that is first used for the Sabbath is the verb 'remember.' So it would seem by this point (and certainly evidenced by the gathering of manna) that there was some understanding of a Sabbath pattern. Six days of labour, “six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall observe a Sabbath, a rest to the Lord.”
The worldview of the Ten Commandments honours labour. It honours work. It understands that we are the beings who work. In fact, we are commissioned and we are commanded to work. Even in the curse given after the Fall we are told that it is by the sweat of man's brow that the earth will yield forth its fruit. Labour is dignified throughout the Scripture. But labour is only a temporary reality, and it passes quickly, and what man does so quickly turns to dust. We may speculate about all kinds of reasons why the Lord God, our Creator, would have given Israel this fourth commandment concerning the seventh day. But at the very least, it was to be a rest unto the Lord, and the Lord tied it to his own work in the work of creation. So the Sabbath in Israel pointed backwards to creation, and yet it also points forward in time towards something that will be an even greater fulfilment than rest on this day. Even as circumcision was to be the mark of entrance into the covenant, so also the Sabbath observance was to mark Israel as a people.
And it was not only for those who were even the children of the covenant, but for all those who were in the nation. It is interesting how this is extended both in the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages here: “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male servant or your female servant or your livestock or the sojourner who is within your gates.” Even the livestock observed the Sabbath! This is to be a day that is holy. It is set apart unto the Lord, for the Lord himself is holy. Human labour is dignified, but it is put in its place. On the seventh day there shall be rest. And the Sabbath is tied in the Scriptures to the safety, security and well-being of the nation Israel.
A famous passage dealing with Israel's rebellion and failure concerning the Sabbath is found in Nehemiah 13:
In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.Nehemiah 13:15-18, ESV
Looking backward and looking to the present, Nehemiah sees the sin of breaking the Sabbath, and he knows that God will bring judgment upon the people. And the very nature of their exile was (at least partly) explained in terms of their Sabbath breaking. Nehemiah went on to say:
As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.Nehemiah 13:19-22, ESV
This is a serious offense around the Sabbath. This is a direct tie, a link, a connection between the security and safety of the nation (even especially the city of Jerusalem) and the Sabbath-breaking that was profaning the Sabbath. And thus we see the fourth commandment not only in terms of its explicit command form, but also in terms of the experience of Israel.
The Fourth Commandment in the Gospels
And then we come to the New Testament. In the New Testament, certainly in the Gospels, it is clear that the Sabbath is still a central institution of Judaism. And yet we also understand that now there is something new added to the Sabbath. Whereas the Sabbath in the Old Testament had been primarily a day of rest (although in the book of Leviticus it refers to a holy convocation on the Sabbath, it is clear that it is primarily a day of rest and not a day of worship), in the rise of the synagogue there also comes the opportunity for Israel to gather together. And so the men of Israel gather in the synagogues. And so you will come across passages in which on the Sabbath day Jesus, who kept the Sabbath, is himself with the people of the Sabbath in the synagogue reading the Scripture. And yet, even as Jesus observed the Sabbath, in Matthew 12 and in parallel passages he declares that he is himself the fulfilment of the Sabbath. It is not that he will obey the Sabbath command; it is that he will indeed represent the Sabbath command, for he is Lord of the Sabbath.
And in his famous contest with the Pharisees, when his disciples have been accused of breaking the Sabbath because they had simply gathered some wheat as they walked through a field, Jesus said, “If you want to catch them in a misdemeanour, I will give you a felony. I am Lord of the Sabbath. You will not interpret the Sabbath to me; I will interpret the Sabbath for all.” Jesus honoured and recognized the Sabbath. More importantly, he identified himself as the Lord of the Sabbath. And then as the Lord of the Sabbath he makes clear that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
The corruption of the logic of the Sabbath was already clear. The Pharisees become Exhibit A of what happens when Sabbath-keeping is turned into theological casuistry. The rabbis were involved in intense debates by the first century concerning the Sabbath. My favourite is this: If an egg is found under a hen on the Sabbath morning, may it be eaten? It is a technical question. When, after all, was the labour performed? The hen is not available for interrogation. If the egg was the product of labour on the Sabbath, it is not to be eaten. If, however, the labour was done on some other day and it just appears on the Sabbath, then it is a gift. What kind of casuistry is this?! Which egg can you scramble and which must you destroy?
Others are more indicative of the tragic missing of the point that was at the heart of much of Israel's experience by this time. The question came: What if the elderly woman of the family, the matriarch, should fall in the field? What if she should need to be brought back to the house? Could you take a litter to her in order to bring her out of the field? The rabbis debated this back and forth, some saying yes and some saying no. The ones who said no said it is too dangerous, for in taking out the wooden stakes (the poles that would be a part of the litter) one might drop it and might dig a furrow in the ground, and one would have plowed and desecrated the Sabbath. Better to leave granny in the field than desecrate the Sabbath by plowing.
This is the kind of logic that Jesus will not abide. The Pharisees think they have Jesus right where they want him in Matthew 12, and they present him with the man in the synagogue who had a withered hand. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” they ask. And Jesus did not answer them first. Instead he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He will demonstrate that he is Lord of the Sabbath before he speaks as Lord of the Sabbath. “Stretch out your hand.” “And he stretched out his hand, and it was restored, just as the other.” And Jesus said, “Which man among you, if he has an animal that falls into a ditch, would not rescue that animal? How much more important is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is right to do that which is good on the Sabbath.”
Earlier that same day he had rebuked the Pharisees who were the traffic cops waiting to write tickets about Sabbath-breaking when they thought they had his disciples caught in an infringement, an infraction of the Sabbath. Jesus said, “You know, it would be helpful if you read the Bible. You would have read that even on the Sabbath the priests work. You would know that even David and his men went inside and took that holy bread which was not for them, but they ate it and they did not die. I am Lord of the Sabbath.” The context, by the first century, is one of confusion and corruption of the Sabbath. Rather than seeing the Sabbath as made for man, man was understood to be made for the Sabbath. It became an imposition and a mere institution. “I am the Sabbath” says the Lord God himself. “I will define the Sabbath.”
The Fourth Commandment and the Church
But what about the Church? When we come to the experience of the Church (for instance, in the book of Acts and in the remainder of the New Testament) we do not find a Sabbatarian pattern. We do not find an observance of the Sabbath. We find the celebration of the Lord’s Day. This must certainly been have been an issue of some controversy, and that is reflected in the very text of the New Testament. When we come to Acts 20:7 we understand that the believers were gathered on the first day of the week. And in the New Testament this is explicitly tied to the fact that it was on the first day of the week that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. So the Lord of the Sabbath is raised from the dead not on the Sabbath day, but on the first day of the week, thus redefining our calendar and putting this first day at the center of our week, as the observance and commemoration and celebration of the resurrection of Christ becomes the calendar issue for us in a seven day pattern. It is repeated in other places, implicit and explicit, in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 16:1 it is on the first day of the week that Paul commands that they shall take a collection for the church in Jerusalem. That certainly implies that that is the day on which they were gathered together.
Acts 20 is the passage in which poor young Eutychus becomes famous for having fallen asleep during the sermon and falling out of an upper story window and dying—an occasion for the power of God to be demonstrated through the apostle Paul as he stretched himself upon him, even as Elijah and Elisha had similarly done. And this boy was brought back to life. It would appear that they had been doing on the Lord’s Day what they would have done the other days of the week, until they gathered for worship. And in the imperial economy of Rome there was no invention of what we now know as the weekend. There were no days set apart as days of leisure and no work. We always tend to read the Scriptures and every other issue and every other text by our contemporary experience without recognizing that the invention of the weekend is a relatively recent and almost entirely Western reality, explainable in the course of our civilizational history but certainly not universal.
In the experience of the Church it is evident that the matter of Sabbath-keeping became something of a controversy, as we shall see. But the most important issue appears to be that the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. In Psalm 95 God himself warns that those who will not hear and heed his word will not enter into his rest. Even in the Old Testament there is an appointing to a rest that is beyond the rest of the seventh day. A rest for which Israel is to yearn and long. A rest that will be fulfilled in the consolation of Israel. A rest that is messianic. A rest that we know is completely fulfilled in Christ.
Thus the passage from Hebrews 4:9-10: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” This promised Sabbath rest of which the writer of Hebrews speaks is a rest of salvation. It is a rest of present experience and it is a rest of eschatological expectation. It is the rest that is accomplished by the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. Perfectly accomplished for us as he paid in full the penalty for our sins. And thus the most important issue of the Sabbath rest in the New Testament is that we rest in Christ and we rest from our labours. And that must mean (as the New Testament makes abundantly clear) that we rest from all efforts to be saved by our works. We cannot work for our salvation; we may only rest in Christ. And in Christ we find a total rest. We cease our labours. We rest from our works as God did from his.
The writer of Hebrews is very concerned about hardness of heart—a refusal to hear, a refusal to obey—which would become the reason why souls will not enter the Sabbath rest. It is fulfilled in Christ. It is tied to belief, as is made clear in Hebrews 3:19. There is the promise of entering this rest. We are told to rest from our works as God did from his. This is a breathtakingly beautiful portrait of our salvation. It is by faith, not by works. It speaks of fiducia—faith and security and total trust.
So what is the relationship between the fourth commandment and the Christian church? There are three main options and only three.
Seventh Day Sabbatarianism
The first is seventh day sabbatarianism. We need to give this position the logic it is due. It simply suggests that the fourth commandment continues unaltered in the life of the Christian Church as it had existed for the nation of Israel. And thus there is a seventh day sabbatarianism that is almost completely consistent in its logic, and I would argue, almost certainly wrong according to the biblical text. This seventh day sabbatarianism explains why there are Seventh Day Baptists and seventh day this and seventh day that. It explains the questions you get if you are ever in conversation with one of these persons and they ask you why it is that you are a Sabbath-breaker. Why it is that you worship on Sunday. Again, they should be given the tribute of their consistency. It often falls into a legalism, but more importantly, it flies in the face of New Testament practice and New Testament teaching.
First of all, when it comes to the gathering of the redeemed people together and the new covenant people, they gathered together on the first day of the week, not the seventh day of the week. And there is no amount of hermeneutical dislocation and creativity that can make the first day into the seventh. They gathered on the Lord’s Day, not on the Jewish Sabbath. Paul’s missiological strategy indeed was to go into the synagogues on the Sabbath and to preach Christ. But the Church gathered on the Lord’s Day, on the first day of the week. There is no New Testament mention whatsoever of seventh day practice in the Church. Even in passages like Romans 14, and quintessentially Colossians 2. And we are told that it is not to be an issue among Christians, Colossians 2 being the quintessential text:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.Colossians 2:16-23, ESV
It is a pretty categorical statement. Paul makes clear in Romans 14 that it is perfectly fine for Jewish believers to continue to gather in the synagogue with other Jews on the Sabbath day. It is perfectly fine for them to be bound by their own traditions and by their own consciousness in observing the Sabbath. But it is wrong to bind the conscience of the Church in terms of this observance. And there is no reference to this observance in the New Testament.
Lord’s Day Sabbatarianism
The second option after seventh day Sabbatarianism is Lord’s Day Sabbatarianism. The shift here is the day, where it is understood that the Church does indeed gather together rightly on the Lord’s Day, on the first day of the week rather than the seventh. But explicit in this position is a transfer theology that the fourth commandment stipulation of the seventh day is transferred to the first day under the new covenant. There is again a logic to this position, and not only that, there is a great tradition in terms of our theological understanding and heritage in this tradition. It is most quintessentially expressed in that beautiful confession of faith, the Westminster Confession, which puts it just like this:
The Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day, from their own works, words and thoughts, about their worldly employment and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.Westminster Confession, 1646.
The Westminster Confession clearly claims that the Lord’s Day is a Christian Sabbath. There has been a transfer, it explicitly claims, of the day from the seventh to the first. Again, there is a logic there that is consistent, but there is no New Testament evidence that it is so. There is simply no textual basis for this transfer, either in terms of an explicit passage that says that it has taken place according to the Lord’s command, or in terms of the implicit reference to the practice of the early Church in observing something that would reflect this transfer.
The Sabbatarian tradition developed most especially in English speaking evangelicalism. In the seventh century, a form of Sabbatarian thought had emerged as there arose the requirement of coming up with a rationale for why civil law should hold the first day to be special and a day of rest and a day of no employment and labour. The requirement of coming up with an argument for the civil law produced in Aquinas and in others in the seventh century and later a form of Sabbatarianism. But it was the British, the English Sabbatarians that quintessentially formalized the evangelical understanding of first day, or Lord’s Day, Sabbatarianism. This became very much the practice of the Puritans. The Lord’s Day was treated as a universal Christian institution, Sabbatarian in its nature.
The key issue is this, however: is the Lord’s Day a Christian Sabbath? The problem is that there is no text that makes this transfer, and there is (I would argue) no clear New Testament warrant whatsoever. Paul indeed in Romans 14 and Colossians 2 seems adamant that this is not the case! Part of our confusion here has to do with the central purpose of the Lord’s Day. Is it the same as the central purpose of the Sabbath? Is it mostly about rest? I would argue that it is not.
The evidence in the New Testament is that it is mostly about worship, it is mostly about gathering, it is mostly about being confronted with the preaching of the word, it is mostly about coming together with mutual instruction, it is mostly about the Lord’s Table and the fellowship that we would share with the Lord’s people. The communion of the saints is a picture of that which is yet to come. And even for us, the Lord’s Day points not only back to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and his accomplished work, but it points forward eschatologically to that rest we will enjoy on that day when we shall be with him! And there will be no more work. There will be no more evangelism. There will be no more missions. There will be no more works of mercy, for there will be mercy in abundance. There will be no benevolent ministries in heaven. All will be well. Every eye will be dry; every tear will be wiped away. The context of the Lord’s Day is different than the context of the Sabbath. The purpose of the Lord’s Day is different than the purpose of the Sabbath.
Lord’s Day Observance
The third main position is Lord’s Day observance. This is the position of the reformers (in particular, of Calvin and of Luther). It is the position of most evangelical Christians around the world. It is the understanding that the central issue for the Church is the command that we gather together on the Lord’s Day in the practice that Christians “should not forsake the assembling of themselves together.” That we should come together to fulfil all that is commanded in the New Testament—from the preaching of the Word, to the singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, to the mutual edification of the body, to the fellowship that we enjoy in the observance of the Lord's Table that proclaims his life, his death, and his resurrection until he comes.
Lord’s Day observance in this third position focuses upon the positive content of the Lord’s Day and the positive expectation that God's people will yearn for this day. The problem with so much of our thinking about the Lord’s Day is that it is natural for us to think of it as an imposition on our otherwise busy schedule. And yet, we are to be faithful to the fact that we are to gather together. And we are to make it a priority of our lives that on this day we will be with God's people, we will be with the redeemed, we will be with the saints, and we will gather together to prepare for eternity, to be confronted by the Word of God, to edify one another, and to yearn for that eternal rest which is promised to us by the grace and mercy of God. Our own confession of faith, the Abstract of Principles, states it rightly:
The Lord’s Day is a Christian institution for regular observance, and should be employed in exercises of worship and spiritual devotion, both public and private, resting from worldly employments and amusements, works of necessity and mercy only excepted.Abstract of Principles, 1858
Significantly, it is not identified in this confession as a Christian Sabbath. Even though there are clear ties of historical privilege and even a genetic development from the Westminster Confession to our own aspect of principles, it is shifted significantly here in that the Lord’s Day is identified as a Christian institution but not as a Christian Sabbath.
It is a Christian institution. It is an institution, not merely a moral habit or practice. It is not merely a matter of convenience. It is not that we merely decided that it is easier, all things considered, for us to gather together on the first day of the week. It is because we are doing what we are commanded to do in following the example of the apostles in gathering together.
It is unclear exactly how we are to understand the operation of the Lord’s Day in terms of a list of dos and don'ts. The Abstract of Principles—the confession of faith that is our own in this institution—suggests (in language that is indeed reminiscent of the Westminster Confession) that we are to “rest from worldly employments and amusements, the exception being works of necessity and mercy” (in the language of the Westminster tradition piety being the third exception). It is true that even among our founders, Dr. Boyce, in his brief catechism of Bible doctrine, mentions the Lord’s Day as a Christian Sabbath. That does not appear, however, in other statements concerning the Lord’s Day. It does not appear among other of the founders concerning the Lord’s Day. How are we to understand this? It is not an easy question. It is not a facile issue.
In the end, the Christian’s conscience is bound by the Word of God and we are bound by the command that we gather together and make of this day a priority, in order that the worship of the one true and living God—distinctively Christian worship; gospel-centred, cross-centred worship; worship in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is to be the consuming passion of the first day of the week.
Lord’s Day Non-Observance
You will notice that I mentioned three major options here—each having its own consistency, each attempting to wrestle with the biblical text, each attempting to understand the responsibility of the Church. But there is a fourth option which is no option, and this is Lord’s Day non-observance. That is simply not an option for the people of God. And yet, writ large across the evangelicalism of our day is this fourth option creeping its way into our practice. With the Lord’s Day being marginalised, no longer treated as an institution of biblical significance and eschatological promise, but the Lord’s Day being treated as something with which we may play. We are now following a logic in so many of our churches that betrays the Lord’s Day by suggesting that if you will just come for this, you are then completed in terms of your responsibility for this day.
I think in my own lifetime of how this has changed. We woke up early in the morning on the Lord’s Day and we put on special clothes. I can still remember, even in my youngest years, putting on giant white clunky leather shoes. I remember we had special clothes for Sunday that we did not get to wear any other day of the week. It was the Lord’s Day. I can still remember the smell and the sound of the nursery in the church. I can still remember what it was like to go into “big church” for the first time. It seemed so huge that it would swallow us. I can remember sitting on the pew and my legs could not touch the ground, dangling with the clunky white leather, being told by insistence of word and of hand to stop wiggling.
We were there for Sunday school in the morning and then we were there for morning worship, and after morning worship we shared a family meal, often with a larger extended family. And then almost as quickly as we had left, we were back for training union and choir practice and evening worship, and after that fellowship with God's people of the church. It was an all-consuming day, and I am so thankful for it. I do not know who I would be if not for being with God's people on that day as much as I was, by God's grace and mercy in my life. I do not know who I would be today if I had not had such opportunity to be confronted with the Word of God, not only just in a service, thanks be to God, where the Word of God was declared, but also in so many other opportunities of Bible study, Christian nurture, the Christian experience with the saints.
I am convicted, as I am confronted by the fourth commandment, not about Sabbath-keeping, but about Lord’s Day breaking. I am convicted, as I read the fourth commandment, that Israel's responsibility to keep the Sabbath was, if anything, less important than the Church's responsibility to observe the Lord’s Day. It is not mere ceremony; it is to be that day anticipated and longed for. It is not an imposition; it is to be our confidence that if we can only survive this relatively useless stuff we do during the week (in eschatological terms), if we can only arrive at the Lord’s Day, we shall be with God's people together! We can survive imperial oppression. We can survive the drudgery of what appears to be meaningless labour. We can survive persecution and trial. We can endure sickness and death, if only we can arrive at the Lord’s Day to be with God's people together.
How pale and tepid and weak, how compromising and conflicted, appears our thought of the Lord’s Day. I offer no tables or lists. It is not a Sabbath that is the central Christian institution for our worship and gathering. It is distinct from other days; it is set apart for worship. Are there things we ought not to do on the Lord’s Day? Certainly there are. Anything that would detract from our worship should not be done on the Lord’s Day. Anything that would rob the Lord’s Day of priority and worship should not be done. Anything that would be on our minds when we are worshipping, as if we can only get done with this in order to go do that, is a matter of sin. No matter what it is.
Was it a sin for me to wash my car on that Sunday afternoon? I still do not know. I do know this: I was a sinner on that day, saved by the grace of God, who when he thought of the Lord’s Day had no understanding of the rest that the Lord of the Sabbath has accomplished for me, and understanding that there is that Sabbath rest which we are promised in Christ. I knew of salvation but I did not know of that picture of our salvation. And I should have. I do not know if I would have washed my car or not, but I would have had a very different understanding of the Lord’s Day. Paul wrote in Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” And so we may.