Thank you so much for your special Sabbath issue of May 2007! It was very informative and declared even the position of Calvin, of which I was unaware. But why consider Calvin to be weak and faltering in his position on the fourth commandment? Does not it grace this Reformed teacher that he did not want to go beyond what Scripture has to say on this matter, for it is possible to bind heavier burdens than warranted (Matt. 23:4)? Apparently the scholar concluded that the fourth commandment is mainly ceremonial and felt compelled to bring his opinion in harmony with this finding.

But this is then cause for a host of questions, for by what criterion would a commandment be moral, civil (judicial), or ceremonial, seeing that the Westminster divines considered the fourth commandment to be moral instead?

I thought that only the sacrificial laws were ceremonial because they foreshadowed Christ’s atonement. And, although the Sabbath foreshadows the eternal rest, it does not foreshadow Christ’s passion. Moreover, the ceremonial laws have ceased their enforcement, since the atonement of Jesus Christ once for all is the fulfillment, the substance, the body that was foreshadowed. But the Sabbath, foreshadowing the eternal Sabbath, still awaits its fulfillment after Judgment Day. Thus it comes as a surprise that Calvin considered the fourth commandment to be mainly ceremonial. However, he based that opinion on Colossians 2:16-17, which makes one wonder how to understand this Scripture passage correctly.

Furthermore, Calvin is wary of a ceremonial way of keeping the Sabbath. What would then the difference be between a ceremonial manner and the proper manner? According toIsaiah 58:13 the proper manner of keeping the Sabbath is by calling it a delight. Thus it should be a festive rest, and not an unwelcome interruption of our daily activities (Neh. 13:15-22Amos 8:5). This, however, differentiates between keeping the Sabbath and not keeping it, but it does not differentiate between a ceremonial and a proper manner.

Another surprise is that recreation is mentioned with daily activities in one breath. I suspect that is so because Isaiah 58:13 forbids doing your own pleasure on the Sabbath. However, I think that this is a wrong interpretation. BecauseIsaiah 58 mainly deals with a proper way of fasting, I surmise that there must be a connection between the Sabbath and fasting. Notice then that verse 3 also speaks of finding pleasure. Thus verses 4 and 5 describe wherein people found pleasure, and verses 6 and 7 the opposite of the kind of pleasure that the Lord chooses. This description does not fit the normal perception of recreation.

Concerning the term recreation, it should be kept in mind that it does not mean only leisure but also, more literally and archaically, invigoration and creating anew. Thus recreation does not always mean the pursuit of secular activities such as organized sports, but also denotes a re-energizing by the means that God provides, which suggests that there is a lawful form of recreation. Does not Jesus confirm: “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27)?

Is Jesus even defying the notion of cessation of labor when He says: “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (John 5:17), and when He says that He ought to heal on the Sabbath (Luke 13:11-16)?

The Standard Bearer is for me a most welcome spiritual food for which I want to express my deep gratitude.

Yours in Christ,

Jan Reckman

Aylmer, Ontario

Response: Your thoughtful letter is a welcome addition to the ongoing discussion and debate concerning the fourth commandment and keeping the Lord’s Day.

First, it gives me opportunity to correct something that we were intending to correct anyway, namely, mistakenly identifying Ursinus as the writer of the German version of the Heidelberg Catechism (cf. my article—”The Fourth Commandment: Our Catechism, Calvin, and Ursinus”). Actually, further reading indicated it was Olevianus who translated into the German Ursinus’ Latin original, not Ursinus himself. So Dathenus did not followOlevianus’ lead in this matter.

But second, there is the issue of Calvin and the fourth commandment. You are to be commended for wanting to be as deferential to Calvin as possible. One differs with him only with reluctance. But where necessary, one must still differ and state it is so—for instance, Calvin’s liberal position on divorce and remarriage. As you point out, the 10 commandments (every one of them engraved in stone) are to be distinguished from the ceremonial laws, which had their substance fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. The Sabbath of the fourth commandment has not yet attained its complete fulfillment, heavenly glory.

The key to Colossians 2:15, 16 is to understand that the word Paul used was not “the Sabbath” (singular, as the King James may lead one to read), but the word “of sabbaths” (plural, and with no definite article). He is referring, then, not to theseventh day of the week, set by creation ordinance and later for remembrance of God’s great redemptive event, His deliverance of Old Testament Israel from bondage and death(cf. Deut. 5:15), but to the host of special ceremonial days added by the law of Moses, each of which required cessation from work. There is reason why the “sabbaths” Paul refers to here are listed with new moons and feast days (the literal meaning of the word translated “an holyday” in the KJV). These are days added by Moses (for a time), not what was in place from creation itself.

With all due respect, we say again, Calvin did the Reformed churches and saints no favor when he lost sight of the binding character of the fourth commandment, with its call to lay certain activities aside on one day of the week, namely, the first day, and then tried to argue for a strong Lord’s Day keeping anyway based on precedent and common sense, of all things. What this would mean practically is that officebearers are to leave the question about what a man may busy himself with on the Lord’s Day to each member’s judgment and pleasure. And if a few members can buy, sell, and play on the Lord’s Day, you may be sure the spiritually immature will be right behind, beginning with the youth. In the New Testament, officebearers are still dealing with sheep, prone to follow others. Calvin, normally the shrewdest of men, seemed to lose sight not only of the reality of believers’ human nature in this instance, but also of the fact that in the New Testament there are many carnal that also remain in the church. One does not have toimagine what such will justify and busy themselves with on the Lord’s Day if all an officebearer can appeal to is their judgment and ‘spiritual’ wisdom. That is painfully evident from what secular activities members of Reformed churches are engaging in on Sunday these days. And then, in this one instance, they appeal to Calvin besides. The other 99.9% of his biblical teachings and positions they ignore and cannot apologize enough for. But in their Sabbath laxity and abuses they are ‘Calvinistic!’ For shame.

Calvin, however, did give them a crack in the door.

But our particular concern is that this absence of authoritative prohibition crept into the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the fourth commandment. It must be explained how this came about. Ursinus’ reliance upon Calvin is the explanation. Thank the Risen Lord that He saw to it that the fathers of Dordt and of Westminster corrected this matter and did not rely on the exegesis and biblical perspective of any one man, no matter how gifted and generally correct he might have been.

Ceremonial remembrance would be doing such things Moses’ law required on such days, namely, offering certain kinds of sacrifices, and on occasion performing certain washings as well. Properkeeping means being occupied precisely with those activities of which the Heidelberg Catechism speaks. Frequenting worship services, feeding one’s soul, and visiting the needy and lonely in their distress loom large. This is exactly what theIsaiah 58 passage to which you refer has in mind (cf. vv. 6, 7). One can do this every day of the week, but special time and opportunity are afforded on the Lord’s Day certainly. And should this not be a delight, rather than some burdensome law that simply stifles and forbids? We cease from doing any number of things, in order to free ourselves for those things most needful for our souls and the souls of others. And the spiritual find it a delight. If one does not, it is time to check one’s spiritual pulse.

As for forbidding “recreation,” it depends on what comes under the label “recreation.” In common PRC parlance it refers to things connected with games and sports. Already in early Protestantism the church was warning against bowling and golf and such secular activities intruding into the Lord’s Day. With every activity engaged in on the Lord’s Day the question should be asked, am I by this activity trying to stimulate my physical heart or my spiritual heart. That is, is one doing what one is doing primarily with one’s spiritual heart and vigor in mind? And then give an honest answer to your Lord. As selling at the marketplace would fall under Isaiah’s condemnation of “doing one’s own pleasure” on the Lord’s appointed sabbath, so would pursuit of sports and games. Spiritual fasting requires more than refraining from eating certain foods. It has reference to all kinds of things that delight my fleshly appetites, but which must be put aside.

The two passages you cite, quoting words of Christ (John 5:17and Luke 13:11-16), are powerful passages for proper Sabbath keeping. When Jesus told the Pharisees that both He and His Father work on the Sabbath day, He was not referring to manual labor, or to doing things for an income or material gain, but He was reminding us that the forbidding of labor is not the same as forbidding being active on the Lord’s Day. There are things we are called to do, things we are to be busy with on the Lord’s Day—and those things have to do with the Father’s business. What the Father’s business is on the Sabbath is made plain by Christ’s healing the sick on the Sabbath—works of mercy in the physical realm, and having to do with the gospel in the spiritual. When Christ said “Walk!” or “See!” He was preaching the gospel. Activities having to do with the gospel are not only permitted, but required on our Sabbaths. And manual labor for material gain is not to interfere.

We are grateful for your high regard for the Standard Bearer. May the Lord bless you Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day.