Rev. Bruinsma is Eastern Home Missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, stationed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It is an age-old question. Is the fourth commandment still in effect for the New Testament church? “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work . . .” (Ex. 20:8-10). Most of the church world no longer concerns itself with this commandment. Most officebearers, as well as lay members, cannot even say which commandment it is, much less recite it.

The excuses for ignoring this commandment are numerous.

The antinomian denies that the law of the ten commandments has authority anymore in the life of the child of God. The law is an Old Testament set of rules that no longer applies to the church today. We are under grace and need not even take into consideration the law of the ten commandments. The commandments are, at best, simply a divine set of guidelines that people should follow as well as they possibly can.

There are others who take the law more seriously, yet who are not at all convicted of it in their hearts and lives. How often one hears the excuse: “I don’t really want to work on Sunday, but what can I do? My boss says I have to. There is no getting out of it.” Likewise, the churches where they are members will preach the seriousness of the fourth commandment, but will not discipline its members when they violate it. This reveals that there is no true conviction of heart that this command is God’s command and must be obeyed no matter what the cost.


Though every man and woman is under obligation to keep this commandment of God, we realize that only those who are sanctified in the blood of Christ are able to keep it. At the cross Christ destroyed the power and dominion of sin and Satan (
Rom. 6:6). Through His resurrection Christ also earned for us a new life (Rom. 6:10, 11). When Christ sends forth His Spirit to work salvation in our hearts, therefore, He works in us the power to fight against sin and to live a new and godly life. This is the work of sanctification. Christ sets us free from the bondage of sin, that we should no longer serve sin. We have been freed to walk according to God’s law. Christ has made us holy: dedicated and consecrated to Him and His service. Grace, then, does not nullify the law but, on the contrary, gives to the child of God the ability and desire to keep the law. “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31).

Being holy, therefore, the believer also understands God’s command to keep Sunday holy (sanctified) unto the Lord. He must dedicate and consecrate this day to the Lord. On that day he must exercise himself in the things of God’s kingdom. This requires ceasing from one’s earthly labors and filling the day with spiritual activities.

Sanctifying Sunday

The child of God who walks in faith knows of his need for this special day of the week. Jesus teaches us in 
Mark 2:27 that, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” God has given to us the fourth commandment in order that we might set aside one day of the week to devote to the things of the kingdom. We need that day! We need it to strengthen and encourage us in our faith. Faith as an activity in the life of the child of God fluctuates. Our knowledge of and trust in God can be strong, but it can also wane. When our faith is weak, then we also are apt to fall into temptation and sin. We need constantly to exercise ourselves in God’s Word and prayer in order that we will remain vibrant in faith. For example, in order to remain physically healthy we need to exercise. When we lie on our sick bed for any length of time, our muscles become weak and our bodies become flabby. Surely, with the health craze of today we can understand the need to exercise our bodies to remain strong.

Would that people understood that this is even more true of our spiritual health! For our faith to remain strong, God has given you and me one day a week dedicated to exercising ourselves in the things of the kingdom of heaven. We must empty that day of all work and all pursuits of earthly pleasure in order to devote that day to the service of God. We must then fill that day with spiritual activities: the reading and study of God’s Word, prayer, and, most importantly, the frequenting of God’s house (Heb. 10:25). Neither is this merely good advice that the Scriptures give us. It is God’s command! We may notdesecrate the Lord’s Day. It is required of us that we devote this day to worship. Our spiritual lives depend upon it! The spiritual decline of an individual and ultimately of a church begins when the Lord’s Day is used (and allowed by the church to be used) for our own pleasure and labor (Neh. 13:15-19Is. 58:13, 14). To keep the Lord’s Day holy means ceasing from earthly labor and pleasure and consecrating this day to exercise in the things of the kingdom of heaven. Again, a person who is holy and sanctified understands what it is to keep Sunday holy and sanctified.

Sunday labor

May I work on Sunday? No. That is the law. “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.” We may not work on the Lord’s Day. Neither may we use this day for our own private, earthly pleasure. When individuals walk contrary to this commandment, the church institute is called to discipline them. The Lord’s Day must be strictly observed. A lax member of the church may not be given any occasion to think that when he/she desecrates the Sabbath Day he has a legitimate excuse. There is none. There are far too many so-called Christians who would rather earn money, if they can find an excuse, than give themselves over to the service of God on Sunday.

Despite the clarity of Scripture on the question of proper Sabbath observance, there is always a question that arises in connection with Sunday labor. Are certain types of labor allowed on the Lord’s Day? It is true that earthly labor on Sunday is not itself sinful, as are, e.g., drunkenness and adultery. It is not that if I perform any kind of earthly labor on the Lord’s Day I am automatically desecrating that day. To say that would bring the child of God under the bondage of the law again. It would place him in the camp of the Pharisees who, for example, insisted that keeping the Sabbath properly consisted, in part, in how far a person might travel on the Sabbath Day (Sabbath Day’s journey—about 1,200 yards). If a person took one step beyond that, he was desecrating the Sabbath. The church may not pass all kinds of little rules to govern that day. To pass a rule, for example, that it is a sin for a person to ride a bicycle on Sunday precludes a person’s motive for riding that bike. What if he needed to do so as a necessary means of transportation to carry him to church?

Are not there many tasks that we perform on Sunday that are of an earthly nature? We drive our cars to and from church. During the winter, oftentimes the church sidewalk needs shoveling before the people arrive. The wife prepares the Sunday afternoon meal. Then there is also the cleanup afterwards. People get sick on Sunday and require, at times, a doctor. Fires occur. Houses are robbed on Sunday, requiring the labor of civil servants. The list can go on. There are many mundane earthly chores that we find as a necessity on Sunday. The church must be careful not to fall into a legalistic approach to proper observance of the Lord’s Day. “No reformed person, therefore, ever took the stand that all labor on Sunday is as such to be condemned as sin” (H. Hoeksema—Standard Bearer, vol. 18, p. 198). Jesus Himself reveals this to us in His many debates with the Pharisees over proper observance of the Lord’s Day. There are works of necessity to be performed on Sunday. It was on the Sabbath Day that Jesus and His disciples entered a field and picked and shucked corn to eat (Luke 6:1-5). In Luke 14:5 Jesus asks the legalistic Pharisees, “Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?”

Jesus also emphasized that works of mercy may be performed on the Lord’s Day. This is clear from the many miracles that Jesus performed on the Sabbath Day. Before healing a man with a withered hand Jesus asked the Pharisees this question: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). Christ, who is the Lord of the Sabbath, therefore, teaches us that there are certain earthly labors that can be done on Sunday.

This has been the position of Reformed churches too. The Synod of Dordt, 1618-’19, adopted several points regarding proper Sunday observance. The last of these points reads as follows: “The 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” (Post-Acta, 164th Session, Synod 1618-’19). In the Standard Bearerarticle of Rev. H. Hoeksema we quoted earlier, he writes: “That even so there are things that cannot be put to a stop on Sunday. There are ‘necessary things,’ as well as works of mercy that must be performed on Sunday just as well as during the week” (p. 198). Classis West of the Protestant Reformed Churches, in its September 1983 meeting, confirmed this position as well when confronted with an appeal regarding police labor on Sunday.

There are a couple of matters that need emphasizing at this point, however. First, it takes a mature Christian to understand the matter of Sunday labor. One who walks in faith is not too easily persuaded to sacrifice his Sunday for work. He is jealous of that day. He knows his need for that day. He is not one who readily gives up the spiritual exercise of that day because he knows the consequences for his spiritual life. Indeed, there are lax “Christians” who would use the principle that works of necessity and mercy are permissible on Sunday as an excuse to allow themselves to work almost any job. “After all,” he would reason, “if my boss requires me to work on Sunday, then I guess my job is a work of necessity.” Such a Christian is weak at best. He certainly is not living as one who is of a sanctified heart. The command of God is sure: “. . . in it thou shalt not do any work.” No one ought to take that command lightly. The believer seeks to obey it in all earnestness.

The second matter that needs emphasizing is an important aspect of proper Sunday observance. We are called on that day to frequent the house of God. We may not neglect the “assembling of ourselves together” (Heb. 10:25). The preaching of the gospel is a necessary means of grace in the life of the child of God. He needs to sit under the preaching because God has chosen it as the power unto salvation (I Cor. 1:18 ff.). Even works of necessity and mercy ought never stand in the way of the consistent use of the means of grace. When these works begin to interfere on a regular basis with my sitting under the preaching of the Word, then there is a serious problem and I ought to reevaluate my job. It is striking that the decision of Classis West in September of 1983 reads in part, “because police work is a work of necessity it is a work in which the child of God is permitted to be engaged if this work does not occasion the neglect of the means of grace on the Sabbath Day (emphasis mine—W.B.).” The believer must understand his need to sit under the preaching of the Word. No manner of work ought to stand in the way of this important means of grace.

Sunday is a day of rest. It was given to us by God for that reason. Christ has established the command to keep this day holy by making us holy unto the Lord. In a day when the observance of the Lord’s Day wanes, let us remember the Lord’s Day and make it holy unto the Lord.