The comedian Brian Regan used to perform a sketch about the moving sidewalks found in airport terminals. No matter how abundant the directives to Stand Right, Walk Left, there are always a few passengers who fail to understand the distinction. Instead, they block the space reserved for walking and disrupt the entire rhythm of a crowded airport. It’s often the same people, Regan remarked, who stumble in surprise when the moving walkway ends. Distracted or merely oblivious, they fail to comprehend crucial distinctions for navigating through a busy world.
Differences matter. The ability to make distinctions is essential to understanding the patterns and rhythms of human life. And differences must be taught. Children do not innately grasp the difference between medicine and candy, or between a friendly neighbor and a malevolent stranger. They must learn this faculty of discrimination through repetitive instruction, or their lives will be endangered.
These are general observations about the nature of the world, but they bear directly upon the way Christian individuals and communities live amid a culture that is no longer Christian. It is essential that we understand what differentiates faith in Christ from all other patterns of belief. This is the root meaning of the words sacred and holy: to set apart a specific person, place, or activity for a particular purpose. Like the Levitical priests, we must learn “to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Lev. 10:10). But, like the child who sees no distinction between the toy chainsaw and the real one, we must receive loving and consistent instruction if we are to learn the differences between the identity of the believer and the identity of the world.
Understanding what it means to be holy requires more effort than ever in a cultural context marked by increasing indifference to the significance of the set-apart. New church buildings shy away from sanctuaries (sanctus being Latin for “holy”) in favor of multi-purpose rooms, while more and more businesses maintain regular hours even on holidays (“holy days”). As our sacred spaces and times lose their significance, churches begin to look like nightclubs and weekends like work days. While we often attribute this decline to the triumph of secularism, the deeper issue seems to be that the sacred has ceased to mean anything. The global conversation surrounding Notre Dame Cathedral reveals widespread confusion not just about what the restoration of this sacred space will look like, but about what (besides the commercial interests of tourism) makes it a sacred space to begin with.
Across Christendom, one can observe a wide spectrum of attempts to counter our culture’s tilt toward desacralization. At one extreme, the emergent church movement embraces the abolition of anything smacking of “sacred space.” We can get more people in the doors, the argument goes, if we rebrand church as a hipster café or a theater. At the other extreme, many evangelicals show increasing interest in the sacred aura surrounding high-church liturgies and monastic orders, as exemplified by the popularity of Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.1 Even in distinctively Reformed and Presbyterian orders of worship, centuries-old church traditions such as the lectionary and the liturgical calendar are beginning to reappear.2 Though they may seem directly opposed to one another, extreme traditionalism and extreme progressivism share the common goal of restoring a sense of the sacred to a world of dulled senses. But can they succeed?
The historic Reformed articulation of biblical faith offers a beautiful and compelling alternative to the indifference of the twenty-first century—and it can do so without succumbing either to a rote liturgical format or to seeker-sensitive demands. The simple rhythm of the Reformed faith hinges upon learning to set apart one day a week for worship. We need not invent new forms of the sacred to shore up a sense of spirituality. Our God has already provided sacred space and sacred time for his people in the form of the Lord’s Day.
Children learn about differences through repetitive habits of instruction. Through chores, they learn to distinguish between “dirty” and “clean.” In school, they learn to distinguish between nouns and verbs. In college, they learn (ideally!) to distinguish between sound argument and mere opinion. These habits of training are redundant and mundane—and that’s exactly the point. Habits pertain to our character (think of the word habitual). Habits also pertain to our dwelling places (think of the word habitat). Like the regularly occurring signs posted above airport walkways, it is the regular routines of our lives that shape our identity as we navigate through the world.
The notion of instilling habits through repetitive instruction reminds us of the apostle Paul’s comment that the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). In particular, the Sabbath served as a sign from the Lord to his covenant people to demarcate their holiness in his household. As a seven-day pattern, the Sabbath pointed to God as Creator (Exod. 20:11). As the liberation from daily labor, it pointed to God as Redeemer (Deut. 5:15). Setting apart the day served to remind the Israelites of their own set-apartness and to renew their commitment to the Lord’s ways. With the finished work of Christ, the Law lost its authority as a schoolmaster (Gal. 3:25–26). Yet the grateful rhythm of weekly worship continues to develop our habits—the places we live and our ways of life—as we walk in ever closer conformity to Christ.
The Sabbath Is about Instruction
The Heidelberg Catechism’s application of the fourth commandment to the Christian life (Lord’s Day 38, Q&A 103) contains some surprises. The catechism begins not with a moral injunction against Sunday recreation, nor with a theological explanation for the shift from seventh-day to first-day worship. Rather, it begins by upholding “the gospel ministry and schools for it.”3 The authors of the catechism recognized the Sabbath’s role as a teaching tool: a routine exercise, like the alphabet or the pledge of allegiance, that cultivates the character of its students. (After all, the catechism itself manifests a structure of weekly Lord’s Day instruction.) The Lord gives us the Sabbath as weekly practice for the eternal communion that we will enjoy with him in the life to come. Each Sunday we rehearse the holy dialogue in which God calls us to worship, shows us our sin, proclaims his forgiveness in Christ, seals us with the water of baptism, teaches us from his Word, and invites us to commune with him in table fellowship. This sacred routine is not a burden; rather, it is what the catechism calls a “festive day of rest.” Sunday school is the whole day: enrollment in the weekly “college of grace” prepares us for an eternal life of grateful worship.4
The Sabbath Is about Community
The catechism goes on to encourage diligent attendance of “the assembly of God’s people.” The Sabbath of the old covenant occurred in community. Not only must you refrain from work, but so must your household, your livestock, and the sojourner within your gates. Whereas leisure is a private activity, Sabbath rest occurs together.5 Here, too, we practice: since we will be living in community eternally, we should learn to get along with one another now. Life in the local church is simple but not easy—not when we must confess our sins to one another, not when we must challenge one another in the faith, and not when we must submit to the admonition and discipline of the elders of the church. But we must learn all of these character traits if we wish to grow in our love for Christ and his people. The Lord gives us the local church as a rehearsal room for heavenly habits.
The Sabbath Is about Daily Rest
The most surprising aspect of the catechism’s treatment of the fourth commandment, however, is its second part: “that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, [and] let the Lord work in me through his spirit.” The catechism suggests that the pattern of the Sabbath involves a daily mindset, not merely a weekly one. And this interpretation is consistent with Jesus’ own treatment of the Old Testament during his earthly ministry. Where the scribes and Pharisees saw only the law’s ceremonial implications, Jesus penetrated to the core. Just as the commandment against murder involves hateful words (Matt. 5:21–26) and the commandment about adultery includes passing fancies of the mind (Matt. 5:27–30), so too the commandment about the Sabbath engages all the habits of the heart every day of the week. We dishonor the Sabbath not just by working needlessly on Sundays, but by the heart problems that drive us to do so. We break the Sabbath by our arrogance and our self-assurance, by our anxiety and our workaholism. We violate the Sabbath whenever we fail to remember that we were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, whenever we forget that it was God who in six days made the heavens and the earth, not us, and that even he rested on the seventh day and made it holy—in short, whenever we fail to recognize the colossal covenantal difference that the Lord has drawn between the things of heaven and the things of earth.
The Sabbath Is about Eternal Rest
Apart from Christ, the Sabbath is unkeepable. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). But the catechism’s treatment of the Sabbath concludes with comfort, not condemnation. Honoring the Lord’s Day in our hearts allows believers to “begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.” The heart of this commandment is not works righteousness but rest righteousness. Christ’s dying words on the cross, “It is finished,” put a merciful end to our straining and striving to find favor in the sight of God. And so the Christian’s daily attitude of rest—rest from sin, rest from worry, and rest from the anxieties of the world—arises not from a guilty conscience but from a grateful one. We can rest because Jesus has already done the important work (Ps. 22:31), as we prepare for the “Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10).
And that gospel-centered rest bears mighty witness in a restless world.
The Rhythm of Rest in a World of Arrhythmia
Arrhythmia is a medical term for an irregular heartbeat—a problem that can cause anxiety, confusion, and fatigue. In our culture, the loss of sacred space and time manifests a deeper heart condition, a spiritual arrhythmia that saps the strength of individuals and communities. One of the symptoms of this cultural malaise is deadly fear toward anything routine. In our Athens-like preference for the new and different (Acts 17:21), we risk passing over the routine of work and rest, of confession and pardon, of a holy God calling and his holy people responding, which our merciful Lord has provided to treat our anxious condition and to remind us of the one difference that truly matters.6 But wherever faithful Christians gather in corporate worship each Lord’s Day and go forth from there to lead lives of grateful service, the Holy Spirit will continue to use the gentle heartbeat of the Sabbath, like the rhythmic flash of a lighthouse, to draw lost souls to himself.
Like the symbols on an airport walkway, Sabbath-honoring Christians in the twenty-first century may sometimes find their testimonies to the rest-giving gift of salvation walked over, spit upon, or ignored altogether. Yet amid the quiet rhythm of gospel-centered work and rest, we may still encounter a person or two whose curiosity leads them to ask, “What makes you so different?” And in noticing that difference, a weary traveler may stumble upon what the psalmist described as the “beauty of holiness” (Ps. 96:9).
1. See Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).
2. See Carl Trueman, “Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing Our Piety,” Reformation21, February 2015, http://www.reformation21.0rg/articles/ash-wednesday.php.
3. Here I use the translation of the Heidelberg Catechism found in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.
4. Charles Spurgeon uses this phrase in his commentary on Psalm 25 in The Treasury of David.
5. Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Place (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017), 50.
6. See Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
Mr. Michael R. Kearney is a graduate student and research assistant in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is a member of Covenant Fellowship Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) in Wilkinsburg, PA.