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Rev. Koole is pastor of Grandville Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

In its treatment of the fourth commandment (Lord’s Day 38) our Heidelberg Catechism is noticeably brief, one Q. & A. (103); and in reference to the lawful keeping of the Lord’s Day, it is without reference to any prohibitions whatsoever. Just positive exhortations, saying nothing about things that are forbidden. And when it comes to the important matter of the fourth commandment’s abiding authority, or perpetual character, and the first day of the week replacing the seventh as the God-ordained New Testament Sabbath, it is as silent as William of Orange.

The Westminster Standards are quite explicit on these matters. Happily so, we are convinced. The Shorter Catechism, in its treatment of what the fourth commandment still requires of New Testament believers, is representative.

Q. 60 How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?

A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employment 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 the works of necessity and mercy.

We could wish that the Heidelberg had been as explicit.

This, you understand, is not to say that what our Catechism teaches about the fourth commandment is in error. It is not. Its emphasis upon the positive keeping of the Lord’s Day is wholly proper. But the question remains, could it not, and would it not, have been better that it had said more?

At the same time, it must be stated that to acknowledge that our Catechism does not go as far as the Westminster creeds in explicitly forbidding common labor and recreation on Sunday is not the same as saying that Reformed believers are thereby freed from the fourth commandment’s binding restrictions on work and recreation on the Lord’s Day. This, after all, has become the popular argument among many Reformed today. “When it comes to Sunday observance, we will be bound only by the Reformed creeds; our Catechism does not forbid normal week-day activities on Sunday (which would turn it into some new Jewish ‘Sabbath’); therefore, having regularly attended the worship service (and ‘once’ counts as regular), we are at liberty to engage in all those activities open to us on the other six days of the week.”

A growing number of Reformed who, when it comes to Sunday observances, suddenly want to be ‘loyal to the wording of their creeds!‘ (one could wish they had the same ‘zeal’ when it comes to Q. & A. 80 of their Catechism, the one that speaks of Rome’s Mass as being ‘an accursed idolatry‘) dismiss the Westminster creeds’ rigorous application of the fourth commandment as a Puritan influence (hence, a new ‘legalism’), and therefore not of true Reformed vintage at all. That Dutch Calvinists for centuries, for all practical purposes, in their Sunday observance kept the Lord’s Day holy with the same vigor that their Calvinist brethren on the British Isles did is counted as evidence of foreign influence, and not as something properly required of the Reformed man loyal to his own creeds. (Cf. Andrew Kuyvenhoven’s treatment of the fourth commandment in his book on the Heidelberg Catechism,Comfort and Joy.)

What such conveniently forget is that, when it came to their exposition of the fourth commandment, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands did not differ in any essential way from what became known as the Westminster view. While it is true that the Synod of Dordt adopted the Heidelberg Catechism with its strikingly brief, and, I will be so bold as to say, insufficient explanation of the fourth commandment, the Great Synod also went beyond the Catechism’s statement in its own supplemental declarations on the perpetual moral requirements of the fourth commandment (statements, mind you, that are as binding upon every Reformed church member today as what one ‘only’ finds in our Catechism). Dordt’s supplemental declaration concerning Sunday as the New Testament Sabbath had six points (cf. page 349). For our purposes, the last point is sufficient. Having established that there is to the fourth commandment a moral aspect that has abiding application, Dordt declared:

6. This day must be so consecrated unto the service of God that upon it men rest from all servile labors, except those required by charity and present necessities, and likewise from all such recreations as prevent the service of God.

Evidently Dordt deemed it necessary to say something more about the fourth commandment than was found in the Heidelberg Catechism they had adopted. The fathers were shrewd enough concerning human nature to anticipate exactly what we see happening in Reformed circles today, viz., members within the church insisting that, since the Catechism does not explicitly forbid engaging in various common, worldly pursuits on the Sabbath, they have the right to engage in such things without threat of discipline. The fathers sensed that more needed to be said. It is with men as with sheep, any weakness perceived in a good fence will be worried eventually into a gaping hole.

It is also worth noting that when it came to the fourth commandment, Dordt did not adopt Ursinus’ Catechism as originally worded, but rather the Dutch translation by the great Dutch liturgist Peter Dathenius (in the 1560s). The original wording read “…and that, especially on the festive day of rest [am Feiertag], I diligently frequent the house of God.” Feiertag is the German word for “holiday.” Dathenius shrewdly substituted the words “. . . and that, especially on the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest [op den Sabbat, dat is, op den Rustdag], I diligently frequent the house of God.” By that word “Sabbath” he strengthened Q. & A. 103 of Ursinus’ Catechism considerably. The implication is that the New Testament Lord’s Day was to be treated as the lawful replacement of the Old Testament Sabbath, and its keeping was to involve not only spiritual activities special to the day (such as worship), but acessation (what the word “Sabbath” literally means) from common labor and recreation as well.

There is reason why contemporary translators of the Catechism are suddenly enamored with Ursinus’ original wording, rather than with Dordt’s adopted version. The word “Sabbath” has a way of curtailing and condemning what more contemporary Reformed folk want to call their rightful Sunday festive freedom. The word Feiertag, while it places the emphasis upon spiritual activities to be enjoyed, is silent when it comes to restrictions. As a result, the word “holiday” now looms large in contemporary Reformed sermons on proper Sunday observance. And what is a holiday without a picnic?

Dordt knew what it was doing when it purposely adopted Dathenius’ amended translation rather than Ursinus’ original wording.

To understand the approach of our Catechism as Ursinus originally drew it up—strikingly brief, without either reference to any prohibitions, or designating the first day of the week as the New Testament Sabbath—one must refer back to Ursinus’ revered mentor, John Calvin. And I will say it now, because it will help nothing by putting off saying it, when it came to the fourth commandment and its abiding authority for the New Testament age, Calvin was not at his best.

Our Catechism is the offspring of Calvin, following very closely Calvin’s Geneva Catechism. This is exactly its strength for the most part. But at the ‘fords’ of the fourth commandment, this proved a weakness. At this point, Calvin faltered. Not in his own practice of keeping the Lord’s Day—here he was above reproach; nor even in what he preached concerning proper Lord’s Day keeping—he was strict, exhorting his congregation “to lay aside our earthly affairs and occupations, so that we may be entirely free to meditate on the works of God” (Sermons on the Ten Commandments); rather, Calvin faltered by failing to ground this calling for a disciplined, self-denying Sabbath-keeping in a perpetual moral application of the fourth commandment. Ursinus, in his Catechism, could not bring himself to go beyond or contradict his revered mentor.

It was not that Calvin did not see the importance of the church setting aside a special day for worship and a time devoted to spiritual exercises and instruction. He did. But he refused to argue for this on the basis of an abiding authority of the fourth commandment for the New Testament believer�what the Westminster Confession describes as “a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages . . .” (WC, XXI, 7). Rather, Calvin argued for due observance of a holy day on practical grounds, grounds having to do with past precedent and expediency. Surely all of sacred history should prove to us how wise designating a special day for laying aside secular encumbrances and attending to Word and sacraments was for every believer’s well being. How foolish to set aside all this precedence and its indisputable wisdom. But as for the fourth commandment itself, it was ceremonial, foreshadowing the perfect heavenly rest, and since Christ had done away with the ceremonial, and was Himself the fulfillment of the types and shadows, its binding character was ended (cf. Institutes, II, 34).

In his commentary on the Catechism, Ursinus is willing to warn against engaging in common labor (work) on the Christian Sabbath, but even then he would not ground this in an abiding authority of the fourth commandment as it now applied to the first day of the week. Ursinus wrote:

. . . or, in other words, there is a necessity that we should have a certain day on which the church should be instructed and the sacraments administered; yet we are not bound or tied down to any particular day [emphasis mine—KK] (Com. on the Heidelberg Catechism, p 564).

The old Presbyterian theologian R.L. Dabney could not bring himself on this issue to chastise Calvin by name. Having noted in his excellent article The Christian Sabbath: Its Nature, Design And Proper Observance that since ancient times “. . . there has existed a difference of opinion in the Christian world as to the authority upon which the Lord’s Day should be observed,” Dabney goes on to note with disappointment that the Reformers did not settle the issue, but rather aggravated it. And then all he could bring himself to say was, “The wrong side, as we conceive it, was held not only by papists, but by some of the great Reformers[emphasis ours—KK], and error was by them planted in some of the Protestant Churches” (Discussions, vol. 1, p. 497, Bott). Calvin (and Luther, as well) remained unnamed. We could wish to extend the same courtesy; but the Heidelberg was not Dabney’s creed, it is ours.

The basis for the above charge is to be found in Calvin’sInstitutes (Book II, 28-34), and, as stated above, in his Geneva Catechism.

The following quotation from theGeneva Catechism will make plain where Ursinus got our Catechism’s explanation of the fourth commandment. Calvin set up his Catechism as a discussion between a Master (instructor) and a young Scholar (student).

Master: Let us now see how far this [fourth] command has reference to us [in the NT].

Scholar: In regard to the ceremony, I hold that it was abolished, as the reality in Christ,

Col. 2:17.

Master: What of the commandment then remains for us?

Scholar: Not to neglect the holy ordinances which contribute to the spiritual polity of the Church; especially to frequent sacred assemblies, to hear the word of God, to celebrate the sacraments, and engage in regular prayers, as enjoined.

Master: But does the figure [of the OT law] give us nothing more?

Scholar: Yes, indeed. We must give heed to the thing meant by it, namely, that being engrafted into the body of Christ, and made his members, we cease from our own works, and so resign ourselves to the government of God.

Ursinus’ answer in his Catechism has little to add to the above exchange. And the phrases he does add (viz., “. . .that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by his Holy Spirit in me . . .”) are lifted almost word for word from the Institutes (cf. II, 34). And plainly, by the phrase “. . . cease from our own works” Calvin did not have in mind special restrictions that applied to the Lord’s Day, but he is referring to ungodly activities that we are called to refrain from every day of the week.

Dabney summarizes what one finds in Calvin, without mentioning Calvin by name.

According to that [wrong] opinion, the sanctification of one day from every seven was a ceremonial, typical and Levitical custom, and it was therefore abrogated [sic!—a word Calvin used—KK] when a better dispensation came, along with other shadows of spiritual blessings. These persons admit that the Lord’s day deserves observance as a Christian festival, because it is a weekly memorial of the blessed resurrection and because the example of the church and enactments of her synods support it, but not because it is now a commandment of God [emphasis mine—KK]. . . . To sanctify the whole day as a religious rest under the supposed authority of a divine command is Judaizing; it is burdening our necks with the bondage of a merely positive and typical ceremony which belonged to a darker dispensation” (op. cit., pp. 498-499).

It is clear from the Institutes that behind Calvin’s attitude was a twofold fear. First, that Christ Jesus as the fulfillment of the ceremonies and Old Testament Sabbaths would be obscured (Christ, the perfect rest-giver), and with that, Christian liberty would be lost on the New Testament Lord’s Day. And second, he feared a new form of Judaizing gripping the churches, that is, returning to what the Old Testament Sabbath had become in Christ’s day, a mere refraining from doing a whole long list of things, and calling this “Keeping the Sabbath holy.”

Not an unreal danger!

What Calvin wanted stressed was that the real purpose of any New Testament holy day designated by the New Testament church must be that God’s people be active in spiritual exercises and in things that benefit one’s own soul and others’, otherwise it profited little.

In this there is truth. And that certainly is the emphasis of our Catechism as well—a good, healthy, spiritual emphasis.

But what must not be forgotten is the reality of human nature. When the word preached puts no restrictions on what church members may lawfully do on the Lord’s Day, Sunday soon becomes a day swallowed up either by recreation or by the opportunities of buying and selling. As a result, time is not found for the truly profitable things intended by the divine Lawgiver. The weakness of our natures, so easily preoccupied with the common affairs of life, must be taken into consideration if the spirit of the fourth commandment is to be kept.

Again, we are reminded that the church cannot rely upon any one man in all things, no matter what his spiritual wisdom and pedigree. None is infallible. Not even John Calvin.

Thanks be to God for the wisdom of a Dathenius, and of the fathers of the great Synod of Dordt, and of the Westminster Assembly as well.