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Sunday, July 17, 2011


This is the second and final instalment of an address given some thirty years ago by John Richard de Witt under the heading "THE LORD'S DAY". I take up the address with de Witt making his second point about the fourth commandment:

The second aspect of the commandment on which I had thought to speak is the experiential one. What a blessed thing it is to 'call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable'! [Is 58.13] No doubt a large part of the difference between Christians who rejoice in the Lord's Day and the keeping of it and those who disport themselves on it very much as they might do on other days of the week is traceable to early experiences at just this point. Many of us can testify to the blessing, and to the blessed memories, given us by our parents in childhood years on the Lord's Day. Henry Ward Beecher once wrote of the sabbath of his parental home: It might have been made happier and better if there had been a little more adaptation to my disposition and my wants; but, with all its limitations, I would rather have the other six days of the week weeded out of my memory than the Sabbath of my childhood. And this is right. Every child ought to be so brought up in the family, that when he thinks of home the very first spot on which his thought rests shall be Sunday, as the culminating joy of the household'. Sir William Robertson Nicoll, writing of the staunch conservative leader of the old Free Church of Scotland, James Begg, who died nearly a hundred years ago, in some reflections both appreciative and critical, had this to say: 'His ideas about the Bible, the Sabbath, and Popery may be open to much criticism. But are not the Bible and the Sabbath what he called them-the two great pillars of visible religion? Has ever religion flourished where the Book and the Day have been despised?'

The third aspect of the sabbath commandment on which I had thought at first to speak is the eschatological one. The Heidelberg Catechism strikes an authentic note-drawn from Calvin-when it describes this facet of the truth: That all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by his Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath'. In the words of Calvin himself: The purpose of this commandment is that, being dead to our own inclinations and works, we should meditate on the Kingdom of God, and that we should practice this meditation in the ways established by him' [Institutes, 2/8/28]. The same truth is given expression in the Epistle to the Hebrews (it is here, after all, that Calvin learned it): There remaineth therefore a [sabbath] rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his' [4.9, 10]. The spiritual significance of the fourth commandment, then, according to this view - and it surely is a biblical one - is that by leaving off our sinful works and allowing the Lord to work his perfect will in us we foreshadow and in a sense begin already here and now the everlasting sabbath of rest, the life eternal in the presence of the Lord.

The ground which I would have taken, had I followed my original intention, is thus quite clear. But the problem we face - the crisis even - is so urgent and of such significance that it seemed to me I must take another line altogether. What do the Genevan and Puritan - the Continental and British - sabbaths have in common? After all, we are speaking of the closest kinship. And when we read in confessional statements and in the writings of our spiritual forebears we discover that a great deal of ground is shared by these two approaches to the Lord's Day. Moreover, we discover as well that we are - many of us - at a great remove from them in our own practice and in our own attitudes. While Calvin in his Institutes and other writings differs somewhat from the Westminster divines, they were self-consciously walking in what they understood to be his footsteps, and in those of the other Reformers. And while there is no doubt that with respect to the interpretation of the fourth commandment in terms of its theological significance and fulfilment a distinction must be drawn between the 'Continental' and the 'Puritan' sabbath, in practice the Lord's Day observance of Calvin and the Puritans was very much alike. Calvin thus could say: 'If we spend the Lord's day in making good cheer, and in playing and gaming, is that a good honouring of God ? Nay, is it not a mockery, yea and a very unhallowing of his name ?' And again: 'And though the bell toll to bring them [the people of Geneva who were neglecting the worship of God] to the sermon, yet it seems to them that they have nothing else to do but to think upon their business, and to cast up their accounts concerning this and that matter. Some others fall to gluttony, and shut themselves in their houses, because they dare not show a manifest contempt in the open street'. Moreover, while in Calvin's view every day, not just one day in the week, should belong to the Lord and be dedicated to his praise and service, the principle of an observance of one day in seven as a day of worship he held to be a minimum requirement.

What then is the force and effect of all this? One may speak of a crisis in the doctrine of the Lord's Day for many reasons. There is the in credible complexity of the times in which we live. What does it mean to keep the day holy? When we use our telephones, or heat our homes, or cook a meal, we are constraining some to work. Moreover, the very difficulty in keeping the day has led many to increasing degrees of laxity. If one cannot keep it perfectly, then perhaps one need not keep it at all.
Most evangelical Christians at least suppose that they belong in God's house on Sunday morning. But beyond that little is required of them, and they may be permitted to spend the day pretty much as they please. That the greater part of our people do not even go so far as this is evidenced by the fact that the majority of the membership of a typical congregation is not even in church once on the Lord's Day. In my experience - and I do not believe I am far wrong here - a typical congregation of, say, five hundred members may be represented by two hundred, perhaps two hundred and twenty-five at morning worship, and that includes children who have as yet made no profession of faith. What are we to say of the rest? And then what of the second service on the Lord's Day? And what of tile things people do in the afternoon and the evening? What of the abandonment of multitudes to their television addiction on the sabbath day? What of the careless causing of others to work on the sabbath day that we ourselves may be fed? What of the involvement in sporting events on the day? It was once the case - and not so very long ago - that
an athlete who professed faith but engaged in Sunday sports was regarded as suspect in his testimony. Now most Christians appear to have no problem with his conduct, and in fact join him in their enjoyment of the football game or whatever, free of conscience and without a conviction that this is the day which the Lord has made, a day in which to rejoice and be glad in him.

I wonder how many of us may be sabbath-breakers, rather than sabbath keepers. I wonder how many of us may not be careless even at the point of our going up to the house of God. The degree of our indifference to daily chapel services does not speak encouragingly in this respect. I do not, of course, suggest that the daily chapel services here are in the same category as the worship of the Lord's Day. But our joy in the public service of God, as Calvin did not tire of insisting, should extend to the daily praising of his name and the daily hearing of his Word. We have the privilege of worship every day, not only on the Lord's Day. How then is one to interpret and understand our refusal to seize upon and take advantage of an opportunity offered us here which is not likely to be ours again ever in our lifetime?

But what of the Lord's Day - that great pillar, along with the Bible, of true religion in our land? Do you remember the sabbath day to keep it holy? Do you hear God speak in his Word and take delight in obedience to what he commands you to do ? You may say, 'But the Puritan sabbath idea is Sabbatarian, and I want no part of that. I am free; Christ has made me free. And I intend to exercise my freedom'. Do not plead Calvin against the Westminster divines! For one thing, most of us are pledged to the position taken with great emphasis in our confessional standards. We really have no choice in the matter. So important was this issue held to be that, as I have already pointed out, a place of prominence was assigned to the sabbath commandment in the very framework of the Westminster Confession itself. But I need not argue from the Puritans to establish the truth of what I say. I may cite Calvin and cite him freely. And far above and beyond Calvin, I may cite the Word of God itself The other sins prohibited in the decalogue we think are reprehensible. Who of us would rise to the defence of theft, or murder, or covetousness? But what is to distinguish them from disobedience to the fourth commandment? What is to mark them off as far more depraved and aggravated in their depravity than sabbath-breaking, than indifference to the obedience required of us by God with respect to the leitourgia of faith, the service and praise of his name on the day he has reserved to himself for his own worship and for our rest

As indicated previously, while I look forward to each Sabbath, I need to and will revise what I do on the day to afford myself greater opportunity to be "In the Spirit on the Lord's Day" and to be a vehicle for the Lord to glorify His Name.

Sam Drucker

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