A Holy Day: Some Thoughts on the Sabbath

Practical Theology

Traditionalists of one kind or another have been taken to task in recent years for their refusal to adopt worship practices that better reflect the norms of the modern day. I haven’t been Reformed long enough to give a sufficient refutation, although I certainly have my reservations. Nevertheless, I have observed over the years a few marks of evangelical worship that I think are worth noting, especially as it pertains to our participation on the Lord’s Day. I will mention some of them throughout this article.

While I would like to, I am not qualified to write a thorough treatment on a Presbyterian history and theology of the Sabbath Day. I am sure there are plenty of works within the Reformed tradition that have sufficiently dealt with the topic in view. What I can, and will attempt to do, is give a brief and anecdotal argument for the importance of the Christian Sabbath, why evangelicals should give more consideration to its recovery, and why this practice is best observed in a Reformed congregation.

Evangelical Worship
A worship service is one way to describe the anti-traditional evangelical church meeting. One way for us to start looking at this is by answering a definitional question: What should be the intent of any given Sunday?

For the average man, Sunday is viewed primarily as a second Saturday — a time to catch up on sleep, watch the ball-game, and luxuriate in the drowsy rest of an American off-day.

For others, Sunday remains a significant day of the week — a day to attend church, listen to a fine message, and spend significant time with family and friends. This group tends to add a nice lunch, a nap, and other self-medicated practices of rest. Given regional and other cultural demographics, this group may be comprised of a large majority.

For others still, Sunday is a day distinguished from the rest of the week for the purpose of growing in personal holiness before Almighty God and fellow man.

Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone: not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and since the Fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone. (WCF 21.2)

A few years ago my wife and I visited a megachurch near Orlando, Florida. This church came highly regarded and assumedly identified with some of our own theological convictions. Our first impression upon entering the plaza doors was the sight and aroma of oversized donuts on a stick, and barista-approved latte’s from the church’s internal coffee shop. Dazed, even a bit confused, we pressed on in our journey. We quickly found our way to the volunteer area, as they diligently handed out “get involved” flyers from the beautiful centerpiece in the main lobby. After some haggling, we attempted to find our seats in the main auditorium. Popular music played from the speakers above, and directional arrows helped us navigate from one section of the building to the next. With each step we were met with distraction after distraction. Were we here to worship God? It goes without saying, but this felt more like a mall than a church.

The worship practices of modern evangelicals have become rather ornate. Big stages. Grand schemas. Convincing stories. The service started with a bang, smoke billowing from left-center stage and a skinny-jeaned worship leader shouting, “How’s everyone doing this morning!” The drums were loud. The guitar was slow. The lights were off. It was just me and God. I admit the sermon was pleasantly Calvinistic, expository in nature, and highlighted the sovereignty of God in saving sinners. And while the message sounded a great deal like Calvin, the worship was no better than Finney.

Our service ended promptly at 11:20am in order to appropriately clean up for the next round of incoming guests. I must say, despite their denominational association, it was all quite unreformed. Seared to my conscience is that from beginning to end the consumer was always right— the meeting place existed for us and the culture sought to preserve our happiness.

Afterward, and uncoincidentally, we got a bite to eat downtown, did a little shopping, went home to watch Sunday Night Football, and prepared for the next work day. After filling our tank in spiritual excitement, we entered a time of restful waiting on next week’s big show.

This is a brief description of the worship you might find within any typical evangelical church. No call to worship, other than the initial pattering of the drums. No confession of sin, except from those thoughts in observing the grandeur around us. No assurance of pardon. No means of grace. No benediction. Frankly, there was no semblance of the Christian religion.

Sabbath Vices
The gap between me-centered worship and me-centered relaxation isn’t all that great. At the turn of the century, historic evangelical worship practices had been in steady decline and what is oft consider sacred today is almost indistinguishable from the kingdom of man.

I maintain that an observance of the Sabbath and consequent practices should be intramurally debated, given that it would be nearly impossible to agree on every jot and tittle of nuance. Nevertheless, I fear that the total loss of Sabbath-keeping has decidedly ended all debates. What was once a normative cultural custom has almost entirely been wiped out by a minimal separation of time. Blue laws have been civically abrogated. Stores are open for business, restaurants flourish, and companies like Netflix record some of their highest viewership on a day that was, in a not so distant past, the climax of the Christian pilgrimage.

Evangelical worship has not only assisted the effort to eradicate the Christian Sabbath, it has assuredly sped up the process. Evening services, prayer meetings, and fellowship meals are almost nonexistent. Service times last an hour, and are highlighted by novelty rather than tradition. Music is exclusively from this century. Prayer is minimal. Sermons are moralistic. Is it truly surprising that the Sabbath Day has been lost? Is it surprising that the Christian faith in the U.S. is in decline, if not by sheer number alone, but also in quality? The Sabbath principle rightly teaches us that our lives are bound — and this the true cross of individualism.

Thomas Watson, an English Puritan of the mid-late 17th century, is highly regarded for a collection of works he completed, and especially for his exposition and commentary on The Lord’s Prayer. In it he describes the marks of a child of God — one in particular may come as a surprise.

Love to our heavenly Father is seen by loving his day. ‘If thou call the Sabbath a delight.’ The ancients called this regina dierum, the queen of days. If we love our Father in heaven, we spend this day in devotion, in reading, hearing, meditating; on this day manna falls double. God sanctified the Sabbath; he made all the other days in the week, but he has sanctified this day; this day he has crowned with a blessing. (The Lord’s Day, Thomas Watson)

The children of God long for the day of their Father. They see it coming and hasten to it. The day is not filled with trinkets and personal delights. It is set apart for the devotion and love of God in Christ. This is a mark of the new man. He delights in the free exercise of prayer and the preached Word, the means of grace and the worship of God. If Watson represents anything, it is that he belonged to a period of evangelical worship when the defilement of the Sabbath Day was not only a gross sin, but evidence that one was without Christ. That anything less than the full worship of God on the Lord’s Day would not do.

There have been abuses of this doctrine to be sure, but should that result in jest or solemn consideration? One’s response may indicate something of their own maturity and their hope in this life.

Reformed Sabbatarianism & The Means of Grace
In the fourth book of the letter of Hebrews, the author encourages his congregation to strive toward God’s eternal and Sabbath rest. This is an interesting phrase, and one that incites confusion in modern parlance. Why does he call the goal of the Christian life a Sabbath? It is because the man of God was made to dwell with God forever. It has been this way from the beginning. The Sabbath Day was established at creation as God rested from all his works. It was renewed at Sinai as God commanded its observance in the moral law. It was lastly, and finally, declared holy and binding upon the New Covenant believer as Christ unapologetically identified himself with it as the one and true “Lord of the Sabbath.”

The Sabbath is a sanctified day, set apart from the other six days of the week. It is a day of holy resting and cessation of all worldly and recreational labors. It is a day defined by a peculiar redemptive-historicism and eternal motivation; it is a day of eschatological rest, with its goal in the divine life. We observe this day on Sunday and often refer to it as the Lord’s Day because it is the day in which we celebrate that great High Priest who obtained this rest on our behalf. It is a day where manna falls double, and up until recently, a day that remained most precious to the Reformed faith.

Q. What is required in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment requireth the keeping holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in his Word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy sabbath to himself. (WSC, Q. 58)

The means of grace, namely the sacraments, are part and parcel with the Sabbath Day, and apart from some higher-liturgical churches, the Reformed have regularly celebrated them within the life and worship of the church. We acknowledge two sacraments as instituted by the Lord Jesus. They are Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is a the New Covenant sign of entry into the church, whereas the Lord’s Supper signifies union and renewal within the existing body. The sacraments are signs, signifying a greater spiritual reality, and seals, applying the authentic promises of God. Only the church proper has the authority to administer the sacraments, and are therefore to be ordinarily received by the church when gathered corporately.

Q. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ
communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (WSC, Q. 88)

The means of grace are ordinary in stature and few in number, but they are to be administered and appropriated often. They are unimpressive by modern standards and too traditional for the typical evangelical. Yet, the whole worship of God is contained and represented in them.

Granted, most churches do administer and participate in both baptism and communion. But what of their content and priority upon the Christian faith? Is their attendance necessary and central? What is being communicated by the church if we cannot worship our God for more than an hour on any given Sunday, and the pictures of his love for us are ostensibly hidden from sight?

The Sabbath Day is holy, not insofar as it communicates the saving benefits of Christ’s covenant, but as it is the occasion wherein these benefits are participated in. This isn’t to say that the Sabbath holds forth no benefits of saving faith, but that it calls us to look toward that heavenly day when all Christ’s benefits should be enjoyed more fully.

Communion with God
Jesus Christ promised to be with his church always, even to the end of the age. Although he promised to do so in a special way.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18–20)

The Lord does not permit that we are free to do as we please on his day, nor does he imply at any point in his ministry that the Sabbath should be annulled. Instead he commands his church to abide by the Word and sacrament, longing for the day in which his dwelling place is consummated with man. With his grace, we have that dwelling place foreshadowed. Not in the ornate structures of evangelical stage dramas and donuts, but by observing the Sabbath Day as it was intended and by receiving the sacraments regularly, feeding and resting upon Jesus Christ as he is offered to us.

I recently held a conversation with an elder in our presbytery. In his closing remarks he encouraged that I labor to “know [my] enemy.” That ancient serpent hates the free worship of God. He prowls around like a lion, and if possible, will devour any opportunity for the church to exalt their King. How much easier we have made his task by eliminating an entire day devoted to the glory of Christ.

While my plea is not directly Sabbatarian theology, it is that we should sober our minds and strive toward Christ’s resurrection as our own. The Scriptures hold out no other command and promise; no other hope and reward. Let us long for communion with God, for I am convinced it is the only way that we should endure to the end.

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Nicklaus A. Hart

Nicklaus A. Hart

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Orthodox Presbyterian. Catholic Christian. Boy dad. Geaux Tigers.