Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
A Day of Worship and Rest
If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 58:13-14NKJV
Today we again consider Question 117 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “How is the sabbath or the LORD’s day to be sanctified?” It gives the answer, “The sabbath or LORD’s day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the publick and private exercises of God’s worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.” Last week we looked at what it means to keep one day holy. This week we consider how to do it.
How should we keep the Sabbath holy? What does it mean to rest on the Sabbath? These questions are debated among Reformed people and have been since the Reformation. Personally I know of no doctrine over which Reformed people disagree more often than their understanding of the Sabbath day. Easily the number one exception to the Westminster Standards taken by officers in PCA is over some aspect of the Sabbath. Among Reformed people there are basically two positions, which are usually referred to as the Continental and the Puritan view of the Sabbath. The Continental view of the Sabbath was more typical of the Dutch Reformers and can be found in the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) Question 103. The Puritan view is what we are considering in today’s question from the Larger Catechism. Before we consider the differences, it is important that we note the similarities. Both views emphasize the importance of public worship and rest on Sunday. Likewise both speak of the day being especially appropriate for doing good works such as when we “contribute to the relief of the poor,” (HC 103). Hence, on the three most important parts of understanding the Sabbath: worship, rest, and the day on which it falls, the two main branches of the Protestant Reformation are in total agreement! Furthermore, within those broad headings there is further agreement in some of the minutia: as in the worship being especially public worship, and that the rest includes works of mercy and necessity. Thus, Reformed people should celebrate and be thankful for what we have in common, which is far greater, and not just argue over our differences, which comparatively speaking are much smaller.
That being said there are differences! One has to do with the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching that God’s will for us in the fourth commandment includes 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,” (HC 103). This understanding of the fourth commandment, where every day becomes a type of the eternal Sabbath, as we seek to rest from doing evil and rest from resisting the work of God’s Spirit in us, is not found in the Westminster Standards. Likewise, Westminster’s prohibition of recreation is not found in the Continental view. The verses most often cited as teaching the prohibition of recreation are quoted at the head of this article, where God chastens His people for “doing your pleasure on My holy day.” Advocates of the Westminster position interpret “your pleasure” as recreation, while adherents to the Continental view hold that “your pleasure” means worldly employments or sinful pleasures. Furthermore, even within these two views there is often disagreement over what constitutes forbidden recreations, what are legitimate forms of rest, what distinguishes a work of mercy from a worldly employment, and etc.
Considering all of the disagreements on such minutiae, I am persuaded that Christians should be careful not to impose their own convictions for how to keep the Sabbath upon one another. May God grant that each one of us be more concerned with our own duty to keep the LORD’s Day holy, than with someone else’s!