Q. 103. What doth God require in the fourth commandment?
A. First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear his sword, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian. Secondly, 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: and thus begin in this life the eternal sabbath.
1. The Idea of the Sabbath
Even as the principle of the First Commandment is that God is one, and that there is no other god beside Him; and the Second Commandment is based on the underlying principle that God is a Spirit, and infinitely glorious; while the Third Commandment emphasizes that God is holy, and that therefore His name is holy; so the Fourth Commandment teaches us that God as the Triune is in Himself a covenant God, and that therefore His people enter into His rest, the rest of His everlasting tabernacle.
It is very important that from the outset we grasp this main idea of the commandment concerning the sabbath of the Lord our God, lest we fall into the error of failing to understand that even in regard to the Fourth Commandment we are not under the law, but under grace, and that we are bound to esteem one day above another and consider the abstaining from our daily work on the first day of the week as having particular religious value and merit. Also the Fourth Commandment we must not treat as part of an external code, but rather as an integral element in the law of perfect liberty, according to which we walk from the principle of regeneration and of the law written in our hearts according to the Word of God revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord, in the midst of the world.
That this is the idea of the exposition of the Fourth Commandment in Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism is evident from its language. Superficially considered, the exposition of the Catechism would seem rather far-fetched and arbitrary; for the commandment emphasizes rather strongly that on the seventh day we shall cease from all labor. Six days we must labor and do all our work, but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath of the Lord our God, we may not do any work, neither personally nor on the part of anyone in our employ. But the Catechism does not speak of this whatsoever, and instead mentions several things that appear to have nothing to do with the Fourth Commandment, such as the maintenance of the ministry and the schools, frequenting the church of God, care for the poor, cease from evil works all the days of our life, and enjoy a foretaste of the eternal rest. Yet, the exposition of the Catechism is no doubt correct. It proceeds from the thought that in the new dispensation one day is not holier than another day, and that to refrain from work is in itself no religious exercise whatsoever. Hence, the idea of the Catechism is that the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord has given us one day of the week which we may empty of all earthly cares and labors, in order to fill it with the things that pertain to the kingdom of God and of His eternal tabernacle.
This idea of the Fourth Commandment as part of the law of perfect liberty was also maintained by Calvin and the early reformers. It is true that there seems to be a discrepancy between such early confessions as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Second Helvetic Confession, on the one hand, and the Westminster Confession of Faith, which dates from 1647, on the other hand. The latter confession appears to teach that the observance of a day as such has moral and religious value. For in chapter 21 it speaks of the sabbath day as follows: “As it is of the law of nature, that in general a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian sabbath.” One cannot fail to observe a different conception of the sabbath in this Westminster Confession from that of the Second Helvetic Confession, which in chapter 24 speaks of the sabbath as follows: “Although religion be not tied unto time, yet can it not be planted and exercised without a due dividing and allotting out of time. Every church, therefore, does choose unto itself a certain time for public prayers, and for the preaching of the gospel, and for the celebration of the sacraments; and it is not lawful for anyone to overthrow this appointment of the church at his own pleasure. For except some due time and leisure were allotted to the outward exercise of religion, without doubt men would be quite drawn from it by their own affairs. In regard hereof, we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord’s day itself, ever since the apostles’ time, was consecrated to religious exercises, and to a holy rest; which also is now very well observed by our churches, for the worship of God and the increase of charity. Yet herein we give no place unto the Jewish observation of the day, or to any superstitions. For we do not account one day to be holier than another, nor think that mere rest is of itself acceptable to God. Besides, we do celebrate and keep the Lord’s day, and not the Jewish sabbath, and that with a free observation.”
With this latter view of the sabbath Calvin agrees, as is evident from his commentary on “Ye observe days. He adduces as an instance one description of ‘elements,’ the observance of days. No condemnation is here given to the observance of dates, as in the arrangements of civil society. The order of nature out of which this arises, is fixed and constant. How are months and years computed, but by the resolution of the sun and moon? What distinguishes summer from winter, or spring from harvest, but the appointment of God,—an appointment which was promised to continue to the end of the world? ( ) The civil observation of days contributes not only to agriculture and to matters of politics, and to ordinary life, but is even extended to the governments of the church. Of what nature, then, was the observation which Paul reproves? It was that which would bind the conscience, by religious considerations, as if it were necessary to the worship of God, and which, as he expresses it in the epistle to the Romans, would make a distinction between one day and another ( ).:
“When certain days are represented as holy in themselves, when one day is distinguished from another on religious grounds, when holy days are reckoned a part of divine worship, then days are improperly observed. The Jewish sabbath, new moons, and other festivals, were earnestly pressed by the false apostles, because they had been appointed by the law. When we, in the present age, make a distinction of days, we do not represent them as necessary, and thus lay a snare for the conscience; we do not reckon one day to be more holy than another; we do not make days to be the same thing with religion and the worship of God; but merely attend to the preservation of order and harmony. The observance of days among us is a free service, and void of all superstition.”
Yet, although in the new dispensation we do not consider one day more holy than another, and although we do not consider it specially religious or of any value of merit to spend the sabbath day in idleness,—yet, on the other hand, we should not fail to observe that the sabbath day originally is rooted in the creation ordinance, and that it was given to the New Testament church in order to be filled in a special measure with the things of the kingdom of God and of His everlasting covenant. Man was not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath for man, And the Lord Jesus Christ is Lord also of the sabbath. The keeping of the sabbath is a highly spiritual matter, an act of faith and hope, that can be performed only by the Christian that professes in word and walk that he has become a stranger in this world, and [looks forward to the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that fadeth not away, to the eternal sabbath that remaineth for the people of God.
Bearing this in mind, it cannot be denied that the desecration of the sabbath in our day is an evil that is assuming alarming proportions. And the danger is more than imaginary, that the Christian pilgrim, as he lives in and travels through this strange land, will defile his garments and adopt the habits of the world. And many causes and circumstances have, especially in late years, concurred to aggravate this danger. The wave of abnormal economic prosperity that is sweeping especially our country surely does not prove to be a spiritual blessing for many children of God, but is rather conducive to a spirit of worldly-mindedness by which also they were overcome to a greater extent than they realized or were willing to admit. Everybody is prosperous in the things of the world. All had sufficient means to seek after, and in a measure to obtain the commodities and even the luxuries necessary for the enjoyment of this present life. Not to possess an automobile is an uncommon thing. Young and old spend their time of leisure between the wheels. Home life is destroyed. Family fellowship becomes a strange thing. The family altar is forgotten. If one is not on the road to enjoy a ride, he can find his home connected with every conceivable place of amusement by means of the radio and television, which has become as common as the auto. Man has become amusement crazy. Life seems to be without care and worry. The things of this present time occupy a chief place in our hearts and minds. The things heavenly recede into the background, and appear gradually with less frequency above the threshold of our consciousness.
With such a spirit of frivolous worldly-mindedness and practical materialism, the sabbath is no longer remembered, and desecration of the first day of the week has become customary. Even as the sabbath is ordained for the purpose of lifting up the pilgrim stranger in this world to things spiritual and heavenly, so it can easily be pressed in the service of the world and serve the purpose of enjoying the things earthly and material better than any other day of the week. And even as this desecration of the sabbath itself has its source in a spirit of worldly-mindedness, so it exerts a reflex influence upon the minds and lives of the people of God, so that it becomes less heavenly-minded and more attached to the things of the world. The true significance of the sabbath, that it was not ordained for recreation and pleasure seeking, that its chief purpose is not even that we might rest from our daily toil and labor, but that on that day we should exclusively be occupied with the things spiritual and heavenly, that so it might have a sanctifying influence on our whole life in the midst of the world and that we might have a foretaste of and more and more fervently long for the eternal sabbath,—this true import and significance of the weekly sabbath is less and less understood.
Hence, we will first of all ask the question: what if the idea of the weekly sabbath?
The sabbath in the deepest sense of the word is threat of God. This is abundantly proven from the holy Scriptures. It has its beginning in the rest of the Lord on the seventh day, after the six days of creative work in which the heavens and the earth were finished. For on the seventh day God ended His work which He made, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. sabbath for rest, And it is also true that the first reference in the phrase “my rest” is to the land of Canaan. Yet, from it is evident that this “my rest” has also a higher, an ultimate meaning, and that essentially it is expressing the very idea of the sabbath. For the author of the epistle to the Hebrews applies the text from directly to the final rest of the sabbath, that remaineth for the people of God. The unbelievers in the desert could not enter into God’s rest because of their unbelief, : “Let us therefore fear, lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.” . And when finally the author writes, “There remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God,” he uses the very word sabbath for what is translated “rest” in our language. The sabbath, therefore, is God’s rest, the sabbath of the Lord thy God. It is the rest of God for which we are admonished to labor, in order to enter therein. .. And because of the rest from all His work which He had made, on that seventh day He blessed and sanctified it. . This is referred to in the Fourth Commandment: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” For that reason it is called in the Ten Commandments “the sabbath of the Lord, thy God.” ; . In we read: “Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein; it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings.” And in we read: “If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shall honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words, then shalt thou delight in the Lord.” In it is said: “Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.” It is true that in this latter passage the original Hebrew does not use the word
This must necessarily determine the true implication of the notion of rest. The word sabbath means literally: rest. And the primary notion appears to be that of ceasing and desisting from work. However, we should not make the mistake of confusing the idea of sabbatic rest with that of complete idleness. Idleness and rest are by no means identical. The former is sinful, and always condemned in the Word of God. Strictly speaking, man that is created after the image of God cannot be idle in the sense that he ceases from all activity and labor. Even though he should stretch his body on his bed, so that he refrains from all physical labor, he would still be busy thinking and willing, planning and desiring; and it would prove to be an absolute impossibility for him to force himself into a state of complete inactivity. Neither is the chief purpose of the sabbath that we refrain from all earthly labor. Nor is there anything especially meritorious or holy in the mere fact that on the sabbath day we cease from our weekly toil. To raise this notion of desisting from work to the primary and main idea of the sabbath was the error of Phariseeism, always severely condemned by the Lord. It is very evident that one may completely refrain from doing any work on the first day of the week, and yet so crowd the day with his own work, with speaking his own words and following after his own pleasure, that for him the day becomes of all days most unholy. It is therefore important that we bear in mind from the outset that rest and idleness are not identical. In fact, that we desist from daily labor on the first day of the week has its purpose in the positive notion that we should fill the day with other activities, with the work of and for the rest.
Rest is the entering into, and the enjoyment of a finished and perfected work. In this sense the rest is absolutely of the Lord. God is never idle. He is pure activity. With all His glorious and infinite being He is unceasingly, from eternity to eternity, active. As the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, three in persons, one in being, He lives the life of infinitely perfect action. Yet in God is the rest. There is in Him no labor or toil, no struggle and strife to reach a certain end, to accomplish a certain work. For His work is eternally finished and perfected. From everlasting to everlasting He lives the infinitely perfect life of covenant fellowship and divine friendship within Himself. From eternity to eternity, the Father generates and gives life to the Son. Yet this divine activity of eternal generation is eternally perfect. From everlasting to everlasting the Son is generated by the Father. Yet with infinitely perfect love the Son cries eternally, “Abba, Father.” Eternally the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Yet this procession is eternally finished and perfect. God is infinite action, and at the same time perfect rest. His action is rest, and His rest is action. And in this eternal rest of perfect action, in the which there is never a momentof idleness, He rejoices with the divine joy of eternally entering into perfect covenant fellowship with Himself. This divine covenant life of God, eternally active, eternally perfect, the infinite love life of God, is the rest of God, the divine and eternal sabbath of the Lord.
Now it is God’s eternal good pleasure to prepare a rest for His people in Christ Jesus, a rest which should be a reflection and a manifestation of the rest of His own divine covenant life. This rest of God’s perfected covenant with us is the sabbath that remaineth for the people of God. And this is the essential idea of the weekly sabbath in the new dispensation.
We must remember that it is the eternal purpose of the Triune God to establish His covenant with us. Unto this end He ordained, them whom He foreknew, to be conformed according to the image of His Son, that lie might be the firstborn among many brethren, and that they might, be able to stand in covenant relationship with. Him. And whom He thus foreordained, He also called, justified, and glorified. . The glory of the exceeding great promises which God gave unto His people is so great that by these they even are made partakers of the divine nature. . According to God’s purpose, they are chosen in order that they should be holy and unblameable before Him in love, ; that they should be renewed after the image of God in knowledge of Him, , in true righteousness and holiness, ; that they might have fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, ; that they might be in the Father and in the Son, ; that they might know Him, love Him, walk with Him and talk with Him, enter into His secrets, eat with Him and drink with Him, dwell in His house, yea, know Him as they are known, see Him face to face, and be like Him in perfection, ; ; ; ; ; . They shall be the temple of God; and they shall be His people. . In that perfect rest, where the tabernacle of God shall be perfectly realized, the covenant and kingdom of God shall be identical. For in that tabernacle of God shall be “the throne of God and of the Lamb; and His servants shall serve Him: And they shall see His face; and His name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.” . That heavenly rest, that perfect, though creaturely, reflection of God’s own sabbath, of His divine covenant life, that perfected fellowship of friendship with the living God, is the sabbath which God prepares for them that love Him. And into that rest of God they enter. This entering into God’s perfected work, into His rest, His sabbath, is the idea of the weekly sabbath, according to Scripture.
Of that sabbath, indeed, our whole life in this world must be a manifestation. For also in the midst of the world we must be friends of God. For the friendship of the world is enmity with God. And whoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. . As friend servants of God we are to walk worthy of the calling wherewith we are called with all lowliness and meekness, be followers of God as dear children, walk in love as Christ has loved us, walk as children of light. ; . Antithetically we are called to live from the principle of regeneration, according to the Word of God, and be blameless and harmless, the sons of God without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom we shine as lights in the world. . Even now our conversation must be in heaven, where is our real citizenship, and from whence we also look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. . We must not seek the things that are on the earth, but the things that are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God, and set our affections on them only. . In respect to these things there is no difference between one day and another. But the things of this present time, the cares and anxieties of the world, our daily toil and labor, have a tendency to draw us downward to the things of the earth. And the battle with the devil, the world and sin is hard. Neither are we as yet perfectly delivered from sin, but the motions of sin still dwells in our members. Hence, we should consider it a great blessing of our covenant God that on one day of the week we may rest from our daily toil, separate ourselves in a special sense from the world about us, and gather with the people of God, to set our mind wholly on the things that are above. Such is the idea of our weekly sabbath. The vacuum that is created by desisting from our daily toil is no end in itself. Neither is one day holier than the other. But the rest from our daily labors must serve the purpose of creating the proper opportunity for the church of Christ in the world to occupy itself wholly with things spiritual and eternal, to set its mind entirely on the things which are above, to be busy with the exceeding great promises only, and thus to be strengthened for that battle that must necessarily be fought if our whole life is to be reflection of the eternal sabbath and we are to be the friends of God in the midst of the world, blameless and without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.
This is evidently the fundamental idea of the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 38. Instead of emphasizing what we may not do on the weekly sabbath, it insists, that we are called to fill the whole day with the things concerning the kingdom of God. The ministry of the gospel and the schools must be maintained. On the day of rest I am called diligently to frequent the church of God, to hear His Word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call on the name of the Lord, and to contribute to the relief of the poor. Thus devoting the weekly sabbath entirely to the things of God’s covenant and kingdom, it will bear fruit for our entire lives, so 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: and thus begin in this life the eternal sabbath.”