Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
“Day of rest faces test,” said the headline in theHolland Sentinel of July 25, 1994. Neither the headline nor the accompanying article presents any surprises. Clearly there is a wide divergence of views concerning Sunday as a day of rest. Clearly also, rapid changes in views and practices have taken place in the past five to ten years, especially in those communities which honored Sunday as a special day of rest.
The different views (quoted in this paper) of Sunday as a day of rest varied between those of our own Rev. W. Bruinsma of First Prot. Ref. Church of Holland, and of Yohannes Mengsteab of Zion Lutheran Church. Rev. W. Bruinsma is quoted as insisting, “The day is the Lord’s day that he sanctified for use…. The Sabbath is desecrated—buying and selling, recreation. People go to church once, even when it’s offered twice…. The Bible says that in the last days people are going to be lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God . . . .” Yohannes Mengsteab insisted, however, “It does not matter what day to do worship. We could meet on Friday if the congregation wanted to.”
What is the “Reformed” view of the Lord’s Day? The topic seems to assume that there is a single “Reformed” position in opposition to views of other churches. Fact is that there are two widely divergent views on the question both claiming to represent what is properly Reformed.
The Reformed Ecumenical Synod was requested by the Reformed Churches of Australia to make a study of the “exegetical, doctrinal and pastoral aspects” of the fourth commandment. An appointed study committee presented a majority and minority report to the Synod of 1972 (Sydney, Australia). That Synod appointed another committee with a more specific mandate to report to the Synod of 1976 (Capetown). That committee likewise was divided and presented two differing reports. The Synod of 1976 carefully evaded the differences when it adopted the following:
“1. That Synod express its thanks to the Study Committees for their reports and the Free Church of Scotland for its communication.
“2. That Synod, recognizing the varying viewpoints on this issue that have existed for many centuries among the Reformed churches, advocate a brotherly forbearance on the part of member churches towards each other, free of a judgmental attitude, on this issue.
“3. That Synod take note of the Material (the two Study Reports and the Communication) and the evaluation, and recommend them to member churches for study and appropriate action.
“4. That Synod adopt the Message to the Churches.”
In reading the two lengthy reports of the minority and majority committees, it becomes very apparent that there is a great difference of opinion among the Reformed churches, and, according to these reports, a difference that has existed also through the New Testament age. Calvin himself is quoted as supporting both (conflicting) views.
The majority report of the committee insists on a loose view of Sunday. These quote Calvin from theInstitutes II, viii, 34, where he taught that “it really does not matter which day it is, just as long as there is one; but in the preceding paragraph (11, viii, 33), he serenely states that the ancients substituted the Sunday for the sabbath.
“When the Anabaptists accuse him of being a Judaist, he writes: ‘We do not celebrate it with most minute formality, as a ceremony . . . but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the Church”‘ (R.E.S., Acts 1976, p. 216).
The conclusion of this report is, “Nowhere in the New Testament, however, do we find the idea that the celebration of the day of the Lord has come in the place of the celebration of the sabbath, or that the Sunday and the sabbath are essentially one. On the contrary, the New Testament states that there is now freedom in regard to the sabbath, which belongs to the Old Testament shadow. The celebration of Sunday, which goes back to the oldest church, possesses an essentially different character than the celebration of the sabbath. The necessity of Sunday celebration is not based on the sabbath commandment, but is associated with the need for mutual encouragement and admonition in the church” (p. 233).
The report finally states, “That for many centuries the Sunday has also been a day of leisure time has been a rich blessing. Although it is not a matter of divine command, our Sunday rest is, nevertheless, a divine gift. It may one day be again taken away from us (e.g., by an anti-Christian government). Then we would no longer have the duty to abstain from our daily labor. However, the church must continue to assemble together on that day” (p. 236).
These, then, who claim to be sons of the Reformation insist that Sunday is a nice time to worship God—but not an essential time. It is nice to abstain from labor, but it is not essential.
The minority report supports that view of Sunday to which we traditionally have held. The report recommends that, “The RES calls upon its member churches to continue observing the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, worship and celebration, recognizing it as a ‘creation-redemption ordinance’ whose festive character has been shaped by the historical—redemptive continuities and discontinuities of God’s way with his world as revealed in Scripture; a Day which, looking backward, commemorates God’s rest as the climax of a finished creation, the interim redemption of God’s people at the Exodus; the transforming power of Christ’s resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; a Day which, looking forward, eagerly anticipates the eternal sabbath rest which awaits the people of God upon a new earth under new heavens” (p. 205-6).
The minority report concludes by reminding, “The New Testament, rather than listing rules for the Lord’s Day, highlights the freedom we have in Christ. In that freedom we must decide what is compatible with the rest of the Lord’s Day in the light of the guidances of the Old Testament and the example of our Lord. Christians have the liberty regarding certain debatable things, among which are activities which some Christians deem permissible on the Lord’s Day and others deem not permissible.” (p. 208).
Whatever some “Reformed” teachers present, we must continue to maintain that Sunday is the New Testament “Sabbath,” the “day of rest,” the day which must be kept holy according to the fourth commandment. The fourth command itself ties the Sabbath of creation with that mentioned in the commandment.
The ten commands were written by God’s hand in stone. Nine without question remain fully valid for the New Testament age as well as the Old. It would be very strange if the fourth could be part of the type and shadow of the Old Testament—no longer valid for today.
We must follow the tradition of those Reformed fathers who insisted on maintaining Sunday as Sabbath—a day of rest in which one refrains from labor. This position is becoming ever more difficult to maintain since many businesses today insist on Sunday labor. Observance, however, is not merely a negative thing. We are positively to worship God with His people in His house of prayer. We are to contemplate through the day God’s marvelous works—and especially that work of Calvary. We are to perform works of mercy such as visitation of the sick and widows.
The consequences of adopting the more liberal position concerning the Sunday-sabbath are clearly evident. Sunday labor is becoming increasingly popular with “Reformed” Christians. The same is true with respect to Sunday activities: Sunday becomes a family day to be spent at the beach or some entertainment center. It becomes a time to enjoy sports on television or even by attending the event itself. At the same time, those churches maintaining this view of Sunday find that not enough people attend a second service to make it worthwhile. Even the one service in the morning shows increasing problems with attendance. If one can “worship” God every day of the week and in all that one does, why bother with church services?
Faithful observance of Sunday as the day of rest, the Lord’s Day, has its spiritual rewards. One is renewed for another week of labor. There is increase in a knowledge of God’s Word—and consequently also comfort in what that Word declares. To lose the Sabbath would be to lose all for which the Reformation stands. To maintain it properly, not legalistitally, promotes spirituality and godliness.
Prof. D. Engelsma, in his pamphlet, “Remembering the Lord’s Day,” begins by stating, “The Dutch have called Sunday, ‘God’s dike.’ In the Netherlands, the dike keeps back the threatening seas and, thus, preserves the Hollanders from watery destruction. So, the Lord’s Day holds back the raging waves of materialism, earthlimindedness, and pleasure-madness that threaten to engulf the Church and the Christian.” Those who would pursue this subject more in detail, would do well to read the whole of that pamphlet.
The Reformation gave back the Bible to the church. Proper observance of Sunday gives God’s people the opportunity to hear in the preaching and through study at home what God has to say to His people in that Word.