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Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I look forward to Sundays because of it being the day when I and other Christians gather in the Name of our Lord. It is my most favoured day of the week. Upon reviewing a message delivered some thirty years ago by John Richard de Witt under the heading "THE LORD'S DAY" I am obliged to rethink what I do on the Sabbath because of some things I have allowed to intrude into the day.

In two instalments I will reproduce John Richard de Witt's address. Part One commences herewith:

"The question of the fourth commandment and its observance among us is a difficult one. And yet it is also one which needs to be addressed. The second table of the law is still regarded with some seriousness, at least by most professing Christians. Who would dispute that it is a fearful sin to take life? or to steal what belongs to another ? The problem is with the first table. And while various kinds of idolatry are to be ascertained all around us, and while the name of God is used vainly by multitudes, perhaps none of the commandments of the first table of the law is as widely ignored as that having to do with the day of rest, the sabbath day. I speak now, not of unbelievers as sabbath-breakers, but of those who would describe themselves as believers: not of Christians in general, but of evangelical Christians: not of evangelical Christians without further distinction, but of reformed Christians. How this can be I do not know. In the Reformed theological and spiritual heritage much has been made of the fourth commandment. Indeed, a great deal has been made of the law of God, the decalogue. And it is difficult to see how one can classify himself as Reformed if he is antinomian at even a single point.

Generally speaking. Reformed Christians have been sabbath-keepers. And their aim in being such has been to live in conformity with the holy law of God. At the same time, however, in Reformed theology at its highest and best, the prevalent view of the fourth commandment has not been such as to teach the need for observing one day of the week as a day of rest and worship in a legalistic fashion, confusing the old covenant with the new, Judaizing the age of the gospel: rather, the accent has been upon the joyful, happy observance of a commandment of God that rooted itself in the Lord and his own pattern of creation and rest at the beginning of the world, a commandment, moreover, designed to foster and encourage the life of the people before God and to minister to their own physical and spiritual needs. It is easy enough to find examples of extreme sabbatarianism: a keeping of the day in a legalistic, external, and Pharisaical manner. But those examples, however characteristic they may be of certain periods in the history of the church, represent aberrations and were never normative. It is obviously possible to find corruptions of believing obedience at any level and in any department of life.

I have found it not a little difficult to know how to approach speaking on this subject. My own conviction is that of the Westminster Standards. I do not doubt that the fourth commandment is rooted in the very nature of God, that it rests upon a creation ordinance, and that there is a binding quality about the commandment for Christians in this age as well as there was for Israel in the Old Testament period. One must admit, however, that not all Reformed Christians have thought alike on the meaning of the commandment. John Calvin and the Puritans, for example - though they clearly belong together in the same family and cleave to the same central truths - were not of one mind in this respect. One often hears mention of the so-called Puritan and Continental views of the sabbath.

These two understandings of the fourth commandment find confessional Statement in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The Heidelberg asks, 'What does God require in the fourth commandment?' And the the answer follows: In the first place, that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained: and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church, to learn the Word of God, to use the holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms. In the second place, 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' [Ques and Ans 103]. The Shorter Catechism is much more particular and pointed. 'What is required in the fourth commandment ? 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. 'Which day of the seven hath God appointed to be the weekly sabbath? From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly sabbath: and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian sabbath'. 'How is the sabbath to be sanctified? The sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days: and spending the whole time in the pubic and private exercises of God's worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy' [Ques and Ans 58, 59, 60J. ft should be remembered here also that the Westminster Confession of Faith devotes a whole chapter to 'Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day'. In the Heidelberg Catechism the spiritual and practical significance of the day is emphasized. In the Westminster Confession and Catechisms a theological and exegetical understanding of the fourth commandment is expressed which indicates clearly that, while the practical meaning of the day is not to be ignored, the keeping of the day as such is a matter on a level with the keeping of the other commandments and that the nature of the command in this respect has not basically changed with the advent of the age of the new covenant.

I had originally thought to speak this morning, from the perspective of the Westminster view of the sabbath, on the three biblical aspects of the fourth commandment. The first is the legal aspect: the fourth commandment is one of the ten; and the same God who said, 'Thou shalt not kill'. and 'Thou shalt not commit adultery', said also, 'Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy'. The commandment is clearly rooted in what is said in the Scriptures of the activity of God at the creation of the world: 'For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it' [Ex 20.11; cf Gen 2.1-3].

One need not deny that there are certain ceremonial elements in the Old Testament form of the command. After all, it was then the seventh day that was to be observed; and the observance of the day was also carefully regulated under the Mosaic economy - regulated in a fashion now no longer in force. The Lord Jesus Christ called himself the Lord also of the sabbath, claiming authority over it, changing its character [Luke 6.5], and by his resurrection from the dead changing the day itself. Moreover, there are at least three passages in the New Testament that imply some degree of alteration: Romans 14.5, 6; Galatians 4.9-11; and Colossians 2.16, 17. The last passage is doubtless the clearest: 'Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ'. I myself believe that these more or less indirect references to the matter in hand have to do, not with the institution of the sabbath itself (which is an ordinance of creation), but with those things in its observance which were peculiar to its nature under the Levitical worship of the Old Testament. Moreover, all those regulations which the rabbis had added to the commandment as given in the decalogue were at once swept away. No one is to judge us any longer in meat, or in drink, or in respect of the holy days of a past which has been fulfilled in Christ. But this is not at all to say that the fourth commandment itself has lost its validity and relevance now that Christ has come. It is the Mosaic, the Levitical, the ceremonial, and the sacrificial aspects of the day that are removed, stripped off, done away. But the day remains.

How extraordinary it would have been were the Lord to remove one commandment from the everlasting and always-abiding law reflective of his own holy nature, without a hint to that effect in Scripture, without so much as an intimation that there was something different, something less permanent about the one as opposed to the others! The presumption is extremely strong - indeed so strong as to be no presumption but a certainty-that the fourth commandment remains always with the other nine: and that the holy law of God in this respect is in force and binding also upon Christians, to be sure, in its own way, a way consonant with fullness of the revelation that has come in Christ. Christians, therefore, are to be the sabbath-keepers, not sabbath-breakers. As Robert Murray M'Cheyne, the gracious and godly Scottish preacher of the last century, put it: 'Ah, guilty men! how plainly you show that you are on the broad road that leadeth to destruction. If you were a murderer or an adulterer, perhaps you would not dare to deny this. Do you not know - and all the sophistry of hell cannot disprove it - that the same God who said, 'Thou shalt not kill', said also, 'Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy ?' The murderer who is dragged to the gibbet, and the polished Sabbath breaker are one in the sight of God.'

Remainder in a few days.

Sam Drucker

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