The Sabbath and Worship

In the last issue of The Outlook we looked at the need for a revival of the Sabbath among Reformed people in our time. Since writing that article I observed a billboard the message of which reinforced my conviction that a Sabbath revival is urgently needed. The billboard’s message was: “Let’s meet at my house this Sunday before the game — God.” This statement is no doubt intended to be an arresting way to get people thinking about going to church. But it concedes to our culture that Sunday is fundamentally a day for sports on which it would be nice to work in a little time for God. Such a concession can only further weaken the witness and life of the church. Rather we must insist that Sunday is the Lord’s Day, a day that He has instituted for His people to spend with Him.

A key element in reviving a sound observance of the Christian Sabbath among God’s people will be a revived sense of the character and importance of Christian worship. The Reformed confessions summarize the Biblical teaching that the center of the Lord’s Day is the worship of God. The Heidelberg Catechism says that God requires in the fourth commandment “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 name of the Lord, and to give Christian alms” (question 103). The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men… are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (chapter 21:8).

Too often today churches have lost the importance of public worship as the central activity of the Christian Sabbath. Public worship has become any one activity among others that engage Christians, and probably not the most important. The prejudice of our time is that informal, small-group or individual activities are more spiritually profitable than formal worship. Such attitudes miss the Reformed understanding of worship.



Public worship is the official meeting of the covenant people with their God. God has promised in a special way to be present and bless when His people gather on His day under the authority of His office bearers using His appointed means of worship. Under the oversight of God’s elders, the ministers speak for God to His people in Scripture reading, preaching, sacraments and benediction. The people respond in confession, praise and prayer. This meeting, resting on God’s promises to meet and bless His people, stands at the heart of the life of the Christian community.

Many Reformed Christians today react to this kind of stress on the importance of public worship as if it were a very strange novelty. But listen to the carebl balanced words of Louis Berkhof on the means of grace in the church: While the Spirit can and does in some respects operate immediately on the soul of the sinner, He has seen fit to bind Himself largely to the use of certain means in the communication of divine grace…The Church may be represented as the great means of grace which Christ. working through the Holy Spirit, uses for the gathering of the elect, the edification of the saints, and the building up of His spiritual body. He qualifies her for this great task by endowing her with all kinds of spiritual gifts, and by the institution of the offices for the administration of the Word and the sacraments, which are all means to lead the elect to their eternal destiny…The Church is not a means of grace alongside of the Word and the sacraments, because her power in promoting the work of the grace of God consists only in the administration of these. She is not instrumental in communicating grace, except by means of the Word and of the sacraments. Moreover, faith, conversion, and prayer, are first of all fruits of the grace of God, though they may in turn become instrumental in strengthening the spiritual life. They are not objective ordinances, but subjective conditions for the possession and enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant…Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace. Of course these may never be dissociated from Christ, nor from the Church which is the appointed organ for the distribution of the blessings of divine grace (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, p. 604ff).

The privilege and blessing of meeting with God in public worship is seriously undervalued in our time. Too often it is thought that small prayer meetings or Bible studies, missionary reports or musical presentations can replace public worship as activities that are more spiritually profitable. Such activities may indeed be useful, important and inspiring. But they cannot replace the central importance of public worship.

If Reformed Christians can come to clarity on the value and importance of public worship, it should be easy to answer the oft-asked question, “Do we have to have two worship services on the Lord’s Day?” Our first answer is the obvious: There is no specification in the Bible as to how many services are required on the Lord’s Day. But our second answer should be equally obvious: What could be more proper or valuable than worshipping God on His day?

The Reformed practice of two worship services on the Lord’s Day arose not out of a legal requirement to have two, but out of an eager desire to grow in grace and a recognition that the best way to grow in grace is through the preaching of the Word and the reception of the sacraments. If we are content with one worship service on the Sabbath, we should look at our motivations and priorities as well as at our theology. Perhaps we ought to ask, why can we have only two services?

The Reformed churches have found two services on the Lord’s Day to be a great blessing. One service has often been given to the teaching of the catechism and the grounding of the congregation in the basics of the Christian faith. Some churches have used the second service for more frequent administration of the Lord’s Supper as well as preaching. Clearly there are many ways in which two services can build up the people of God.

A sound theology and practice of Sabbath and worship will produce remarkable results in the spiritual health of the church. The history of the Reformed churches confirms that. So does Psalm 92, the Sabbath Psalm. That Psalm does not prove that we must have two services on the Lord’s Day. But it does show that worship and praise is to characterize the whole day: “It is good to praise the LORD and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night, to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp. For you make me glad by your deeds, O LORD; I sing for joy at the works of your hands. How great are your works, O LORD, how profound your thoughts!” (Psalm 92:1–5).

Dr. Godfrey is Professor of Church History and President of Westminster Seminary in CA. He is also a contributing editor of The Outlook.