The Confessional Reformed View of the Lord’s Day

A thoughtful piece by William Evans posted on the Aquila Report got me thinking today. The post is entitled, “Why I am (sort of) a Sabbatarian.” It is worth reading. Evans is a Presbyterian, and his frame of reference is the Westminster Confession. Mine is quite different, and reading Evans’s piece helped me to appreciate what I regard as one of the great strengths of the Reformed tradition in which I was reared.

I grew up in a “Dutch” Reformed community. What that meant was that virtually all of the people in my church and school were of Dutch background, just about everyone in the church over 55 had come from the Netherlands, and all the people that I knew who were Dutch were Christians. My interaction with neighbors who were not Dutch taught me that people who are not Dutch were probably not Christians, and at best they might be nominally Catholic.

My father, the pastor of our local Christian Reformed (later United Reformed) Church, raised us with an excellent balance of warm piety, Kuyperian vision, and Reformed theology, always reminding us to examine whatever we do, no matter how traditional, from the perspective of Scripture. He worked hard – I think – to communicate to us the freedom and beauty of the Christian life, framing all rules and practices in those terms.

Like most of my Reformed friends, my family refrained from unnecessary work on the Lord’s Day. That was the day on which as kids we could do whatever we wanted – outside of the times we had to be in church – but we did not have to do our homework. We would regularly get to have friends over, or go out to play soccer with a group of friends and neighbors at the local park.

We did not spend much time debating what should or should not be done on the Lord’s Day. Although I heard the Ten Commandments read in church every single Sunday as the rule for my life, the Heidelberg Catechism that taught me how to interpret those commandments carefully avoided the sort of focus on rules and prohibitions for which I knew the Pharisees were famous. For those of you unaware of its content, this is what the Heidelberg Catechism says about God’s will for Christians in the Fourth Commandment:

First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.

Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath.

Note that not a single imperative is given regarding an obligation to rest, or regarding a prohibition of work. The whole emphasis is on the worship of God and the care for others appropriate to the “festive day of rest,” as well as to other days. The only reference to the Sabbath is to the eternal Sabbath rest into which believers have entered through Jesus (Isaiah 66:23; Hebrews 4:9-11).

My first meaningful contact with Presbyterians came when I arrived at Covenant College fresh out of high school. And what I discovered there baffled me. Hardly any of these people went to church more than once on a Sunday and the vast majority of them regularly spent their afternoons and evenings doing homework. No one seemed to think any of this was particularly irregular. And yet as I constantly noticed, the college I was attending and the churches from which these people came regularly talked about the beauty and authority of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms.

I was all the more surprised when a Presbyterian pastor told me that one of his concerns about the “Dutch” Reformed churches from which I came was their lack of teaching about the Sabbath. As he pointed out, the Westminster Confession carefully equated the first day of the week with the Old Testament Sabbath day in a way that the Heidelberg Catechism does not, and it requires not only rest from work, but rest from recreation as well.

And yet the Presbyterians that I knew simply ignored their confession, and the “Dutch” Reformed people I knew regularly spent the first day of the week in worship and rest. It was enough to make one wonder, Was there a connection? Does requiring Sabbath observance as a law actually make people less likely to devote one day in seven to worship and rest, whereas an emphasis on using the traditional “festive day of rest” as an opportunity for worship and fellowship makes them view such rest and worship as a blessed opportunity?

This connection became all the clearer in my mind when I discovered John Calvin’s writings on the Fourth Commandment, which I will not review here, and the very clear statement of the most widely accepted 16th Century Reformed Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession. There I read:

The Lord’s Day. Hence we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord’s Day itself, ever since the apostles’ time, was set aside for them and for a holy rest, a practice now rightly preserved by our Churches for the sake of worship and love.

Superstition. In this connection we do not yield to the Jewish observance and to superstitions. For we do not believe that one day is any holier than another, or think that rest in itself is acceptable to God. Moreover, we celebrate the Lord’s Day and not the Sabbath as a free observance.

It was at this point that I began to appreciate my own upbringing, as well as for the first time to see the power and significance of the exhortations of the Apostle Paul regarding Sabbaths and other special days. On the one hand, as Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17, “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.” On the other hand, as he writes in Romans 14:5-6, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.”

This seems like a solid approach to me, and as best as I can tell, it is the most effective in motivating Christians freely to devote the first day of the week, which the church has set aside for worship and rest, to just those ends. I refuse to judge another person for his or her mode of observing the day, and for my part I continue joyfully and appreciatively to use it for worship and rest as I always have.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 14, 2012, in Law, Sunday and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Confessional Reformed View of the Lord’s Day.

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