Rev. Smit is pastor of Immanuel Protestant Reformed Church in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.
The sessions of the Synod of Dordrecht on Friday, May 17, 1619 were filled with deliberations over issues that had been scheduled for treatment the previous day. On Thursday, May 16, Synod decided that it would treat on Friday many different issues, such as missions in the East Indies, infant baptism, marriage, the procedure for the receiving of ministers who came to the Reformed churches from Roman Catholicism, the theological schools, the persecuted brethren from other countries, the Formula of Subscription, which is still signed by our officebearers today, and the removal of the profanation of the Sabbath Day by members in some of the churches.
Among many of its decisions on May 17, 1619, the Synod adopted six statements or formulations to promote and instruct the members of the Reformed churches in faithful Sabbath observance on the Lord’s Day.
The need for these decisions arose from a decline in proper Sabbath observance and a threat to the basic principles underlying proper Sabbath observance. This occasion for the decisions of the Synod of Dordrecht regarding proper Sabbath observance was noted in the record of the Synod near the end of its 163rd session, which took place on Friday morning. The record reads:
When the formulation concerning the removal of the dishonoring of the Sabbath [was discussed], a question is aired concerning the necessity of observing the Sabbath, which was beginning to be agitated in the churches of Zeeland: the professors are requested to consider this question with the brethren of Zeeland in a friendly conference, and to see whether certain general rules can be prepared and set forth by common consent, within whose limits both parties involved with this question may delay [a final decision] until such time that the question can be given further consideration by the next National Synod.¹
This quotation indicates that there were two distinct issues that necessitated the decisions of the Synod regarding proper Sabbath observance. The Synod saw the necessity to oppose the threat of the desecration and the dishonoring of the Lord’s Day and the necessity to oppose those who were questioning whether the observance of the first day of the week as the day of rest was even required by God for the church in the New Testament. If Synod said nothing about these things, the principles of proper Sabbath observance for the New Testament church would have been undermined and the floodgates of worldliness would have been opened wide and engulfed the church in complete Sabbath desecration.
We receive a little glimpse into the seriousness of this problem in the Reformed churches from a letter that was adopted a year later, in 1620, by the particular synod of the churches in Zeeland, a southern province of the Netherlands. The particular Synod of Zeeland (1620), which was held in the city of Goes, adopted and addressed a letter to the Dutch government with the request that the government assist in the maintenance of proper Sabbath observance as much as it was able. From this letter to the authorities we learn generally about the main problems afflicting the Reformed churches, especially in the province of Zeeland, which the general Synod of Dordrecht had addressed a year earlier.
The important part of the letter regarding the problems about Sabbath observance reads:
In the third article of the third chapter of our minutes, this Synod petitioned Your Honors that it may please them to pass laws against the desecration of the Day of Rest and of Roman feast days in this nation. In the first place the Fourth commandment is publicly disobeyed; (being nevertheless of the same value as all other commandments), against which transgression the Lord has threatened in His Holy Word to punish not only persons, but in general whole nations. This is the Day of the Lord which came in place of the Sabbath of the Jews, and was ordained by the apostles. Augustine writing about this, states that if the unhappy Jews kept their Sabbath with so great devotion, how much more must Christians keep this day to the Lord alone.
We know from Church History what Constantine the Great decreed, and how zealous he was to keep the Day of the Lord sacred in all his empire. The Church before him kept the Lord’s Day well, but the Emperor ordained that pagans and sectarians should also keep from doing ordinary labours, and spend the day in public and solemn rest, so the religious services of the Christians would not be hindered by public works and other irregularities. The same Emperor eliminated pagan feast days, although in many instances their place was taken by Romish feast days. Synod judges that it would be edifying to take the remains of the latter away from Reformed nations. For many spent these days in reveling and frivolities, which at times lead to gross sins. It is also no secret that the godly among us, and foreigners visiting this nation from other Reformed countries are offended by the way the Sabbath is desecrated, and other filth and smut remaining from popery is seen.
There are, besides the license given in these lands to desecrate the Sabbath, many, who work for employers, hindered from hearing, or reading God’s Word to exercise godliness to which they are heartily inclined. The fourth commandment also clearly dictates the powers that be, to persuade (aanporren) civil servants to hallow the Sabbath. Moreover there are some who noticeably defy the Day of Rest in that they make an open show of their travels, hard work and other vain dealings on the Lord’s Day. It is our hope that The Honorable Lords will seriously ponder this, and in their pious wisdom and zeal find ways and means, to truncate the above mentioned faults.²
The letter of the Synod of Zeeland (1620) illustrates that the problems about Sabbath observance were serious and widespread problems. This helps us to understand that for the peace and prosperity of the churches the Synod of Dordrecht was compelled a year earlier to defend the principles and practices of proper Sabbath observance.
After the regular recess for the midday meal, the Synod of Dordrecht reconvened on Friday afternoon, May 17, in its 164th session. After several hours of deliberations, the Synod adopted the following six formulations “concerning the removal of the dishonoring of the Sabbath.”
Translated into English, the formulations are as follows³:
1. There is both a ceremonial and moral element in the fourth commandment of the divine law.
2. The ceremonial [element] is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of the same day was especially enjoined upon the Jewish people.
3. The moral [element] is that a certain and definite day be set aside for worship, and for the purpose that as much rest as is necessary for worship and for pious reflection upon it [be provided].
4. The Jewish Sabbath having been abolished, Christians must solemnly keep Sunday [in the original Dutch it is “the day of the Lord,” RJS] holy.
5. This day has always been observed from the time of the apostles in the ancient Catholic Church.
6. This day must be so set aside for worship that on it people may rest from all ordinary labors (excluding those that love and present necessity demand) together with all such recreations that hinder worship.
Recognizing those decisions as part of our Reformed heritage, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1881 re-adopted those six decisions of the Synod of Dordrecht in order to make clear that they were decisions that she embraced as her own and that each of her members must embrace in his confession and walk of life. Again in 1926, the CRC, when considering a concrete case about proper Sabbath observance, reiterated the decisions of 1881 and declared that these were her interpretation of the confessions regarding proper Sabbath observance.4
Although the decisions that the CRC took in 1926 are not binding upon our Protestant Reformed Churches, nevertheless the CRC’s decision of 1926 shows that the 1881 decisions of our mother church regarding proper Sabbath observance as taught by the Synod of Dordrecht are a part of the Reformed heritage of our own Protestant Reformed Churches. We are obliged to embrace the six Sabbath observance formulations of our forefathers in 1619 and 1881 as true to the Word of God and our confessions.
What do these decisions demand of us, who seek to walk in the good traditions of our Reformed forefathers? First, it demands of us that we fight earnestly the current spiritual pressures against proper Sabbath observance. Some of the problems against which the Synod of Dordrecht and the Synod of Zeeland wrote are the same problems that churches face today. Are we, then, guarding diligently proper Sabbath observance and faithful attendance of the means of grace on the Lord’s Day from the potential intrusions and the hindrances of vacation, entertainment, leisure, and even business pursuits? Are we using the entire day as much as we are able “for worship and for pious reflection upon it . . .?” In faithfulness to the Word of God and in harmony with the instruction of our Reformed forefathers, we must.
Second, the decisions of the Synod of Dordrecht demand of us that we defend the principle that the first day of the week must be set aside as the day of rest for the New Testament church, and oppose the false idea that observance of the Sabbath on the first day of the week is a man-made custom or simply a matter of Christian liberty.
Finally, this heritage demands that we promote by instruction and example in our homes the proper honor for the Lord’s Day as the day for worship in God’s house and for meditation upon the heavenly and spiritual things of the kingdom of Christ. That is important because we need the Lord’s Day for the maintenance of our spiritual health and growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
May God keep us faithful to the old paths in which our Reformed forefathers have led the way, in order that we may be preserved in faithfulness to our Lord on the day to be set aside for worship to our covenant God.
¹ P. Biesterveld and H.H. Kuyper, Ecclesiastical Manual Including the Decision of the Netherlands Synods and Other Significant Matters Relating to the Government of the Churches, translated by Richard R. De Ridder (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 216.
² Abraham Vande Velde, The Wonders of the Most High (a 125 Year History of the United Netherlands 1550- 1675), (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1997), pp. 106-108.
³ Ecclesiastical Manual, p. 218.
4 J.L. Schaver, The Polity of the Churches (Chicago: Church Polity Press, 1947), p. 34.