Heidelberg 103: The Christian Sabbath (1)

sabbath-post-itIf there was a time when the church needed to stop its business, to rest, to worship, and to set aside time for the care of the poor in their midst, that time is now. At no time in its history has the church been so distracted, pulled in so many competing and contradictory directions and so alienated from the creational and redemptive pattern as it is today.

That is a large claim but that it is reasonable appears with just a little knowledge of history. Prior to the industrial age, the world operated largely on an agrarian schedule. Farmers work hard but the pace of life is typically a little slower in rural, agrarian cultures than it is in urban and suburban culture. An agrarian culture is naturally (no pun intended) more in sync with natural patterns. The rise of the industrial age put a great strain on the creational pattern and the post-industrial age might have offered some relief but for the natural inclination of fallen humans to fill time with everything but rest, worship, and ministry to the suffering in their midst.

Roughly contemporary with the rise of industrialization, Evangelical theology, piety, and practice was being revolutionized. Where in the 16th and 17th centuries, “evangelical” meant “confessional Protestant” (Lutheran and Reformed) by the mid-19th century “evangelical” came to denote one of the revivalist traditions. Further, much of evangelical theology and piety was increasingly colored by a Dispensational reading of Scripture that emphasized discontinuity between the various epochs of redemption and between the old covenant and the new. Neither the revivalism nor Dispensationalism was particularly known for its doctrine of natural law. Rather, Dispensationalism particularly was all about eschatology and the rest of nineteenth-century evangelicalism was heavily influenced by what Reformed folk should regard as an over-realized eschatology. Now, a sound theology should account for both creation and redemption (nature and grace) but since the 18th century evangelical theology has struggled to do that.

Because American evangelical theology and biblical interpretation lost the old Protestant ways of thinking about nature and grace it is not surprising that, through the 20th century most evangelicals should also have lost any notion of the Sabbath. For most evangelicals the Sabbath became identified with the old covenant, with Moses, and the one thing they knew about Moses and the old covenant is that it is not for today. So, the theology behind Sabbath practice was decimated and before long the practice followed, as it always does, the theology.

In contrast to modern evangelical theology, confessional Reformed theology does not regard the 4th commandment as passé. The fourth commandment says:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates: 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.

In the Heidelberg Catechism We interpret the 4th commandment thus:

103. What does God require in the fourth Commandment?

In the first place, God wills that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained, and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church, to learn the Word of God, to use the Holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms. In the second place, that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.

That there is a Sabbath is evident in the first chapter in God’s Word. According to Scripture, he worked. as it were, for six days, six mornings and evenings, and rested the seventh. Have you ever stopped to wonder why Scripture says that God “rested”? Was he tired? No. The God of Scripture is not a projection of human personality into the cosmos and he’s not a pagan Greco-Roman deity. He is not a creature. He spoke into nothing and made all that is by the power of his Word.

The Lord was setting a pattern for us. That’s the teaching of Exodus 20:8. The Lord created for six days and rested one. That pattern is built into creation, into the nature of things. It was instituted even before the fall. It was instituted before Moses. The Saturday Sabbath was be Mosaic but the Sabbath pattern, the 6 and 1 pattern existed long before the 613 Mosaic commandments and the temporary, typological national covenant with Israel at Sinai. That is why the Lord referred to the creation pattern at Sinai, in the 10 commandments. The 4th commandment is grounded in creation. All humans should observe the creational 6 and 1 pattern in the same way that all humans should observe the laws against idolatry abusing God’s name, respecting authority, against sexual immorality, against theft, against lying, and against coveting. The Sabbath pattern is just as permanent, just as built into the nature of things, as universal as they are.

The Sabbath pattern, the 6 and 1 pattern, was also re-stated in Deuteronomy 5, and grounded in redemption. Thus, Christians, who have been redeemed from the Egypt of sin, by Christ the Passover Lamb, have a double reason to observe this 6 and 1 pattern. Deuteronomy 5 reminds us that we should remember that we too were slaves and those we should remember those who work for us. It is no good observing the 6 and 1 pattern for ourselves but not for our employees. The Sabbath is for everyone. Would that all businesses were as mindful of their employees as Chick-Fil-A (and giving their employees a Sabbath does not seem to have hurt their business).

It is understandable that, for many Christians, the Sabbath is a real difficulty.  It is so because it seems to be so identified with the Mosaic law. Now that the Mosaic law has been fulfilled, now that the civil and ceremonial laws have been fulfilled and have expired, now that they have been abrogated, it seems to many that the Sabbath also must be done, that, in the new covenant there is no sabbath. If the Sabbath is grounded in creation and redemption, then perhaps we should not identify the Sabbath pattern, the 6 and 1 pattern, exclusively with the old, Mosaic covenant. Yes, Moses is fulfilled an abrogated but the Sabbath is not essentially Mosaic. It is essentially creational just like marriage.

When our Lord was asked about marriage and divorce in heaven “He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.’” In Matthew 19:8 our Lord normed the Mosaic law with creation. In other words, creation is logically prior to Moses. Creation is permanent. The old, Mosaic covenant was temporary. Here is one of the problems with those who want to get rid of the Sabbath altogether, who think that in the new covenant there can be no 6 and 1 pattern, no Sabbath pattern: they are not norming Moses with creation but rather they are wiping out creation with heaven or eschatology. They have an over-realized eschatology. They want too much of heaven now.

The sabbath is a difficult but not an insoluble problem. The key is creation. This is the part of the equation that people often overlook. Why does God reveal himself as having “rested” on the seventh day? He reveals himself as having rested even before the fall. He calls the sabbath day holy even before the fall. In other words the 6 (work) and 1 (rest) pattern is built into creation before we ever get to sin, salvation, or grace. In grace (or salvation or redemption), the 6 and 1 pattern is reinforced in Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20. The latter connects the Sabbath again to creation. In Deuteronomy 5 it’s connected to salvation. In the new covenant the Christian Sabbath is inaugurated in the new creation, in the resurrection of Christ. The pattern changes. It becomes 1 and 6. We begin on the first day with rest/resurrection and live out of that for 6 days.

Next time: Implications of the fourth commandment.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    “…that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.”

    Referring to the quote above, is the Sabbath kept everyday or one day according to the Heidelberg catechism? Is my either/or question really a both/and?

    It seems that the Heidelberg Catechism is teaching that believers observance of the 4th commandment “all the days of my life” is the beginning of participation in the new creation. I’m trying to square the 6 and 1 pattern (creational pattern) and the observance of the eternal Sabbath “all the days of my life.” The 6 and 1 pattern seems to point back to creation while the HC seems to point ahead to the eternal rest in the new creation that believers begin now “all the days of [their] life.”

    I will have to read Ursinus commentary on the HC, but any insight would be helpful.Thank you for your efforts on the Heidelblog. They are appreciated.


    Paul E. Ruchtie

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