The Christian Sabbath as known historically by Reformed Christians is in serious trouble. It is attacked by the secular culture of North America and largely ignored by many evangelical Christians. Even among Reformed Christians a profound uncertainty as to the theology and practice of the Sabbath seems widespread. The danger is very real that the Sabbath will become a quaint memory kept alive only by stories about men who shaved on Saturday nights, women who peeled potatoes also on Saturday nights, and dairymen who poured out milk from their milking on Sundays so as not to profit from such labor.
The peril in which the Christian Sabbath finds itself is compounded by the tendency to see the Sabbath in negative terms. Too often we have approached the Lord’s Day in terms of what we may not do on it and are satisfied if we have not engaged in inappropriate activities on it. We constantly face the danger of legalism with a checklist of prohibitions as our only thought about Sunday.
If we are to see a revival of Sabbath-keeping in our time, we need to cultivate a positive attitude towards it. Our first task is to be convinced that the Bible calls us to that duty. Many books have argued that case well. Let me mention one recent study. Joseph Pipa’s The Lord’s Day (Christian Focus, 1997) is good both on the Biblical case for the Sabbath and the practical observance of the day.
We cannot even summarize the full biblical case for the Christian Sabbath here, but we should mention three key lines of argument. The first is that the Sabbath is grounded in creation, not just the Mosaic covenant. God blessed and sanctified the Sabbath for man in creation, Genesis 2:3. Our Lord Jesus recognized this when He said that the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27), not just for Jews.
Second, almost all Christians have viewed the Ten Commandments as a summary of the moral law of God. Prohibitions against idolatry and adultery are clearly not just for the Mosaic covenant. So too the Fourth Commandment is part of the moral law of God applicable to all peoples.
Third, the New Testament is clear that there is still a day for God: John was in the Spirit on “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). That Lord’s Day is the first day of the week honored by the early church (John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 2:1, 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). The New Testament warnings against honoring days (Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16; Romans 14:5,6) apply to the elaborate Jewish calendar of holidays. They cannot apply to the Lord’s Day because the New Testament itself clearly establishes the Lord’s Day, the new expression of the creation ordinance of the Sabbath and the Fourth Commandment of the moral law of God.
Once we recognize the Biblical imperative on the Christian Sabbath, then we are ready to ask how we should keep it. We must remember that God has established His Sabbath for our good. Jesus insisted that we were not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was instituted for us (Mark 2:27). God has kindly given us what we need to support our living for Him. If we needed the Sabbath for time with Him before the Fall into sin, how much more do we need it now!
Indeed we need the Sabbath now as a foretaste of the blessed, eternal rest that Christ has won for us. Jesus by His death and resurrection has earned for us rest from our sin and its penalties. With outstretched arms He says, “Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Our fellowship with Him in public and private worship on the Lord’s Day is the beginning of that everlasting rest that he promises. If we do not desire such fellowship now, what does that say about our preparation for heaven?
Surely a revival of the Sabbath will lead to a revival for us. We need to be energized as a Reformed people in our passion for God. Isn’t the Sabbath given to us to be a weekly revival in the things of God? We should pray with the Psalmist, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation” (Psalm 85:6,7).
As we seek to cultivate afresh a Sabbath-keeping among us, we need to do that positively. We should not in the first place ask what we may not do. Rather we should ask how can we give this day to God to develop our relationship with Him. In answer to any question about what we may do on Sunday, we should first ask if it contributes to giving tne day to God. If work or recreation distracts from God, then it is not appropriate to the Sabbath. We do not need a long list of approved and forbidden activities.
We should seek to cultivate the attitude of Psalm 92, the Sabbath Psalm. That Psalm does not speak explicitly about the Sabbath at all. Rather it shows us the purpose of the Sabbath. The Lord’s Day is a time for worship and praise, “It is good to praise the Lord…” (verse 1). The Sabbath is a time for holy reflection about the faithfulness of the Lord, especially in the judgment of wickedness (verses 5–7). The Sabbath is a time to be renewed in confidence in the Lord’s wonderful provision for the righteous (verses 12–15).
Above all we need to cultivate the attitude expressed by the prophet Isaiah: “‘If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from do ing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.’ The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13,14). The Sabbath needs to be a delight to us.
Cultivating the Sabbath will not be easy for many of us. It will be a new spiritual discipline. We will probably have ups and downs in our progress. We will need to turn again and again to the Lord for pardon and strength. But a wonderful promise is ours to encourage us: if we keep the Sabbath and delight in it, we will find joy in the Lord. What a promise and what a benefit. If we revive the Sabbath, the Lord will revive us.
Dr. Godfrey is Professor of Church History and President of Westminster Seminary in CA.