The Holy Day of Worship

Question: How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? Answer: 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 public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 60).

In our studies on worship, we come this month to the Sabbath, the day that Christians are to set apart for private and public acts of worship. We will assume that Reformed Christians understand that they are to worship God on the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Our focus, therefore, is not on the “when” of worship – Scripture and our Confessions have settled that question – but instead on the “how” of worship. That is to say, we want to see how a proper observation of the Sabbath will shape our understanding and practice of worship.

We recognize and lament the assault throughout Christendom on the sanctity of the Lord’s Day. We believe that this is related to the widespread confusion among Christians about worship. So recovering the Sabbath is vital for recovering Reformed worship.


Why has Sabbath-keeping declined in American Protestantism? Why has a practice that enjoyed universal acceptance among American Protestants in the eighteenth and nineteenth century virtually disappeared in the twentieth century? The explanation usually comes from the rise of leisure activities and professional sports, the changing character of work wrought by the industrial revolution and technology, and the ascendance of the automobile that brought weekend resorts within reach of the middle class. In other words, what happened, in sociological terms, was secularization.

All of this is true, but it is not the whole story. At the same time that American Protestants changed their observance of the Lord’s Day, they also developed a peculiar form of spirituality, a particular understanding of the way in which spiritual growth is to take place. This form of piety is connected to the cultural context of religious disestablishment. Since the War for Independence, American churches find themselves in a religious free market where the most successful competitors are those that offer the most attractive product to religious consumers. Without the financial support of the state, churches in the United States were forced to adopt market strategies for growth and development.

How does this mentality shape spirituality? Much of the corporate life of contemporary evangelical churches consists of highly programmed activities conducted throughout the week for all ages and interest groups. Without such activities potential members will look for another church with the right mix of programs for mom, the kids, and dad. With a “seven-day-a-week” church, Sunday worship can become just one more program that is no better or worse than other church activities.

Detrimental to Sabbath observance has been the widespread popularity of revivalism. Not only have churches used revivals as a means to convert the lost and gain new members, but revivals have become the chief guide for determining genuine spirituality. These events distinguish the saved from the lost and they are times when believers reaffirm their faith and sense once again the saving power of God. In other words, revivals indicate when the Spirit of God is at work. This means that the way to measure genuine faith is through the quantifiable means of church programs and the intensity of religious experience. Mountain-top experiences are assumed to be necessary for spiritual growth.

Compared to these high-octane experiences, the Sabbath seems boring. However, the Bibleand our Confessions describe a very different picture of the spiritual disciplines essential for the Christian life. In Exodus 31, just as Moses was to descend from Mount Sinai, God reiterated the Sabbath command in His parting instructions. “You shall surely observe my Sabbaths,” God commands (v. 13). The Sabbath is a perpetual covenant for all generations (v. 16). God’s intention is to bless us through the constant and conscientious observation of the day, week after week and year after year. We are sanctified through a lifetime of observance. In other words, the Sabbath is designed to work slowly, quietly, almost imperceptively in reorienting our appetites heavenward. It is not a quick fix. It is an “outward and ordinary” ordinance (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 88), part of the steady and healthy diet of the means of grace.

American Christians, we have noted, are generally not in synch with this rhythm. Attracted to the inward and extraordinary, they suffer from spiritual bulimia, binging at big events, then purging, by absenting themselves from God’s prescribed diet. The problem with the spirituality of “mountain-top experiences” is that eventually you have to come down from that mountain, where you generally find that life is still difficult: your job is still unpleasant, your marriage is still shaky, sickness and disease have not gone away. In contrast, the Sabbath is a discipline that provides an oasis for pilgrims in the desert, whose life is still marked by suffering. And unlike the church activities that clutter the rest of the week, the Sabbath is the time when believers assemble on Mount Zion to meet with their God, to hear Him speak, and to partake spiritually of their Savior’s body and blood.

Moreover, the diligent practice of Sabbath-keeping helps the Christian to learn what we referred to last month as the “grammar” of Christian worship. In worship, Christians are engaged in the act of learning the language of Zion. By observing the Sabbath and faithfully attending the means of grace, one can learn this language over time, through the sure and steady means of repetition.


Exodus 20:8 instructs us to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The Sabbath is a holy day because God Himself sanctified it by His holy resting on the seventh day of creation (v. 11). A theology of the Sabbath must underscore the uniqueness of the day. Only when we understand the holiness of the Sabbath day do we begin to appreciate the holiness of Christian worship. But the idea of a Sabbath day in the New Covenant is under attack, especially by theologians who assert that. with the coming of Christ, all of life is a “Sabbath rest.” Some go so far as to conclude that there is no longer anything particularly unique about the Sabbath, nor binding about its observance.

The flaw of this argument is easily detected if we apply the same logic to our tithing to the Lord. We ought  to view the Sabbath and our use of time in the same way that we regard the tithe and the stewardship of our money. To set apart a portion of our income for the work of the church is not only to acknowledge that ten percent of our possessions belong to God. Rather, it expresses our conviction that all that we possess is the Lord’s. Still, God’s comprehensive Lordship over our possessions does not remove from us the obligation to give to Him a portion specifically for the work of His church. In a similar way, even though all of our days are to be used in service to our Lord, we are still commanded to set apart one day in seven for special use in worship and service. While we live all of life in God’s presence and within His eyesight. only in worship on the Lord’s Day do we enter into the holy of holies. For this reason, Isaiah refers to the Sabbath as God’s “holy day” (lsa. 58:13).



Lest we think the Sabbath was merely an Old Testament ceremonial institution, we can see this same connection in the New  Testament, especially with the term that is introduced to describe the Christian Sabbath, the “Lord’s Day.” John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” when he wrote the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:10). This language is similar to the “Lord’s Supper” (I Cor. 11:20), and it means the same thing. Just as the latter is the supper that belongs to the Lord, so the former is the day that is set apart, and belongs to the Lord. The Lord’s Supper is a holy meal; it belongs to the Lord who ordained it in order that we might remember His work of redemption. And so we must not regard the Lord’s Day as an ordinary day, any more than we would treat the Lord’s Supper as a common meal. In the early church, the association between the Lord’s Day and worship was clear. The people that belonged to the Lord gathered for worship on the day belonging to the Lord, the Christian Sabbath. In the New Covenant, just as in the Old, this was the day for “holy convocations” (Lev. 23:2–3).


How then does the idea of one day set apart inform our attitude toward worship? If the Sabbath day is separate and unique, so are the activities of that day. Because the Bible teaches that the Sabbath is holy, it follows that we are to understand worship as holy activity. Just as the Lord’s Day is set apart from the rest of the week, so the acts of worship are hallowed, or set apart. from the rest of the activities of life.

As obvious as this conclusion may seem, it has come under considerable challenge in our day. We are losing a sense of holiness and therefore of the idea that worship is holy activity. This challenge comes from two directions.

First, there are many Christians, especially Reformed Christians, who emphasize the comprehensiveness of the Lordship of Christ. A Christian world-and-life view extends to all areas and walks of life. This teaching rightly affirms the goodness of creation and the legitimacy of all legal callings. One need not be a preacher or a missionary to honor God in his or her labors. One can be a farmer or a baker and glorify God, if that is what God has called one to do. Furthermore, the worldly things that farmers and bakers produce are not somehow immoral or beneath Christians. They are good gifts of God who pronounced His creation as good; so to work in God’s good creation is not to enter into an evil realm.

But neither is it to enter into a holy realm, and here is where a Christian world-and-life-view may lead Christians astray. Some Reformed theologians have suggested that to maintain a distinction between the church and the world, or to distinguish between what is holy and what is common, is to embrace a dualistic world-view that compromises a fully-orbed Reformed world-and-life-view and denies the goodness of creation.

Second, in a similar way, the notion of worship as a distinctly holy activity falls under implicit attack from the advocates of contemporary worship. Because life in all its diversity is for the purpose of glorifying and serving God, why not give expression to that diversity in worship? Why not encourage gifted artists and musicians to display their God-given talents in worship through skits, dance and the like?

To be sure, most advocates of contemporary worship find it necessary to draw some distinctions. John Frame, for example, writes, “There are differences between what we have called ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ senses of worship,” but he goes on to write that “those differences are not always precisely definable.” And so when it comes to public worship on the Lord’s Day, he denies that “there is a sharp distinction between what we do in the meeting and what we do outside of it…All of the earth is God’s temple.”

We don’t need to proceed very far before we see how this line of thinking may be abused. Frame continues, “We must make distinctions of this sort that are implicit, though not explicit, in Scripture. Scripture does not, for example, explicitly forbid juggling exhibitions at worship meetings. But Scripture does set forth the purposes of worship meetings; and entertainment — even though lawful at other times, is not normally consistent with those purposes. We may even say that entertainment. when it is consistent with biblical standards, is a form of ‘worship in the broad sense.’ But it is generally inconsistent with the purpose of a worship meeting” (emphasis added).

Notice what has happened to worship in Frame’s logic. His world-and-life view, insisting that all of life is worship in a broad sense, quickly obscures the Biblical teaching about holiness. So all that he is capable of saying about juggling is that it is not “normally” consistent with worship, but that itis “generally” inconsistent. This leaves open the possibility that there maybe particular times when juggling is appropriate,because it is a form of worship in Frame’s “broad sense.” By this route all sorts of innovation (and nonsense) find their way into worship.

In other words, the distinctions that are foundational to our observance of the Sabbath and our assembling for worship all collapse in much contemporary writing that refrains from underscoring the Biblical teaching on holiness, and thus undermining the idea that in worship we assemble with all the saints and angels before the throne of God, in the holy of holies.

We will examine later in some detail the specific activities that are appropriate in worship. But the concept of holiness furnishes us with a start. This much may be said: only holy activities are appropriate; God has appointed them as the means for His holy people to glorify His name and to grow in grace. Only from that basis can we avoid the pitfalls of contemporary worship confusion.


Scripture insists that we connect holiness especially to Sabbath-keeping. The Sabbath day is holy because it is that particular time when God’s people give heightened corporate expression to their holy calling. To understand the holiness of the Sabbath and worship, it is necessary to contrast it with the Biblical teaching on profanity. To be worldly in our Sabbath-keeping is to profane the day, by treating it with contempt, desecrating and poll uting that which God has set apart as holy. In Ezekiel 22:26 God through His prophet lays this charge upon Judah:

Her priests have done violence to My law and have profaned My holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the profane, and they have not taught the difference between the clean and the unclean; and they hide their eyes from My Sabbaths, and I am profaned among them.

A similar example comes from Leviticus 10. Because Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, worshiped in a way that God had not commanded by offering strange fire, He consumed them. In that context God instructed the priests of Israel “to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean” (Lev. 10:10). Thus, the distinction between the holy and the profane lies at the heart of Biblical teaching about worship.

In these examples, the acts of profanity that God threatens to punish are things that He has not commanded. So there is a clear commandment from Scripture for God’s holy people not to profane the Sabbath by engaging in activities that He has not prescribed. But there is more. Our confessional standards bring out a further Biblical distinction in their teaching on the Lord’s Day, in referring to matters that are “common” or “lawful.” How is the Sabbath to be sanctified or kept holy? The Westminster Larger Catechism tells us, “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinfuL but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful” (117). The Catechism is pointing out a third category of activities that informs our observance of the Sabbath. There are things we do during the week that are legitimate and worthwhile. They are part of our vocation, like baking and farming. And there are recreations that are valuable and permissible, even such activities as juggling. But the Catechism suggests that not only would juggling be impermissible in worship, but it may not even be something we would do on the Lord’s Day at all.

Another example from the Old Testament is helpful here. In Jeremiah 17, God instructs His people, “You shall not bring a load out of your houses on the Sabbath day nor do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy” (v. 22). These common activities are certainly lawful during six days of the week, but they are forbidden on the day reserved for holy activities. In Nehemiah, we see these lawful works expressly condemned as wicked and profane: “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do the same so that our God brought on us, and on this city, all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath” (13:16-17). The prohibition against lawful and common activities on the Sabbath extends beyond work and includes even leisure pursuits that are lawful on other days. Only by turning away from our own pleasure do we call the Sabbath a delight, and do we honor it as a holy day of the Lord (Isa. 58:13).

Now, of course, some would accuse us of espousing a harmful dualism at this point. But such a charge misunderstands the Biblical teaching on holiness. To mark the Sabbath as holy is not license for six day of secularization. We live all of life in the presence of God. But believers engage in activities during the week that are common to them and non-believers. Only believers, however, assemble on the holy day to participate in the holy activity of worshiping God. They come corporately to Zion, assemble before Him who is the consuming fire, and meet Jesus at the mercy seat, only on the Lord’s Day.

In another sense, the charge of dualism is false, because, strictly speaking, it doesn’t go far enough. The Biblical picture might be better described as trichotomous instead of dualist. Scripture instructs us to divide activities among the holy activities, those that are inherently sinful and the ones that are common or lawful on other days. These three categories are crucial both in sanctifying the Lord’s Day and in understanding what is acceptable in worship. Unless we distinguish among these activities, we are missing the Biblical picture of the holiness of worship and the Sabbath.


God calls Christians to live holy lives. He calls us to live in the world and to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. He also commands us, at set times and places, to participate in holy things that are distinct from the ways of the world. God has given us a holy meal (the Lord’s Supper), holy water (Baptism), holy words (preaching), and a holy vocation (the minister of the Word). He has also given us holy time: one day for worship and rest. Contrary to popular claims, Reformed Christians do believe in a liturgical calendar. But it is weekly, it is not seasonal. Nor is it based on the programming of large para-church ministries. Rather, it is the outward and ordinary cadence of Sabbath-keeping.

It is no coincidence, we believe, that a crisis in Reformed worship is taking place in an age of Sabbath desecration. Skits that mimic television sitcoms and sermons that start with Letterman-like “top ten lists” are possible only when we forsake the holiness of the Sabbath. And only by recovering the Sabbath as a holy day set apart for holy activities does the church have any hope of worshiping God acceptably. When we enter the holy of holies on the Lord’s Day, we are engaged in practices that are “outward and ordinary,” but also uncommon, because they are holy.

Attention to the sanctification of the Sabbath and distinguishing between those practices that are legitimate and illegitimate ways of observing the day will also inform the way we worship. For crucial to keeping the Sabbath holy is the observance of the holy activities that comprise the worship of the only living and true God.

D.G. Hart is librarian and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PAJ, and is an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).