Heidelberg 103: The Christian Sabbath (2)

sabbath-post-itThere are three parts to the Christian faith: theology, piety, and practice. Theology is what we confess and teach the Scriptures to reveal. Piety is our relation to God and practice is the practical outworking of those things. There is a Reformed theology, piety, and practice. On this see Recovering the Reformed Confession. The catechism addresses all three. Since we have laid out the basic framework of the Christian Sabbath, as grounded in both creation and redemption (nature and grace), let us consider the teaching of the catechism in particular.

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 (Heidelberg Catechism).

The Lord’s Day is for 10 things: 1) The ministry of the gospel, 2) Education of Ministers, 3) Rest, 4) Worship, 5) Learning God’s Word, 6) Using the Sacraments, 7) Prayer 8) Mercy 9) A Day for Being Sanctified, 10) A Day for Anticipating Heaven.

The first purpose of the Lord’s Day is to participate in the ministry of the good news. The late-modern, American, democratic spirit does not like to recognize special offices in the church. With remarkably little biblical evidence we speak freely of “every-member ministry” as if it were obviously taught by precept and example in the New Testament. Scripture does explicitly teach (two or) three offices: minister, ruling elder, and deacon. Some American Presbyterians speak of two offices: elder and deacon but they distinguish between ruling and teaching elders. Paul describes himself, Tychicus, and Epaphras, (Rom 15:16; Eph 3:7; Eph 6:21; Col 1:7; Col 4:7) as ministers. He implicitly distinguishes Timothy from the elders and gives him distinct duties from the presbyters (2 Tim 4:1–4) so that he is fairly classed with with the pastors rather than the elders.

The offices of elder (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 22:5; 23:14: 24:4; 25:15; Titus 1:5; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:17, 19; 1 Pet 5:1) and deacon (Acts 6:1–6; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 10, 12) are easily seen in the New Testament.

The administration of the gospel belongs to the office of minister (or pastor). The oversight of the ministry belongs to the elders and to the deacons belongs the administration of the ministry of mercy in the congregation.

The Christian Sabbath (Lord’s Day) is the one day in seven set aside for public worship and the official proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the keys of the kingdom.

When the catechism mentions “schools” it alludes to the necessity of the education of ministers. We know this from Ursinus’ exposition of the catechism. Education also encompasses catechetical instruction in the congregation. This brief but pregnant reference to education witnesses to the Reformed conviction that the ministry must be educated. This conviction distinguishes us from evangelical theology, piety, and practice which, since the 2nd Great Awakening, has tended to seen the education of pastors as unessential—a second blessing. This conviction is our inheritance from the broad Christian tradition. Until quite recently, the church has always valued an educated ministry. The Reformation traditions struggled mightily to educate ministers so that they could read God’s Word in its original languages and preach the law and gospel faithfully. In our time that conviction seems to be weakening. We will all come to regret it if we waste this inheritance.

By “rest” the catechism refers to a fundamental break with the work week. It means to stop our business, our commercial activity, and even organized sports. The point here is not to bind the conscience but to remind us that the Sabbath (Lord’s Day) is distinct from the others. May one or a family go for a bicycle ride or a walk? That’s a matter of Christian liberty. Whether one might one engage in organized sports between services is a matter of wisdom but if one has to choose between the public worship of the Savior and sports, shopping, or work, the choice should be clear.

Worship refers to the public assembly of God’s people in stated services. Christ has granted to his church authority to call God’s people together for public worship on the Christian Sabbath (Lord’s Day). God’s people ought to long to be together (communio sanctorum) to call on God’s name. In worship the Lord speaks to his people through the Word and they respond to him with his Word. It is a holy dialogue.

We also gather to hear the announcement of the law and the gospel and to participate in the sacraments. In the Word we are grounded again in objective, divinely-revealed reality. We are re-connected with nature, as described by God, and God’s free favor (grace) earned for us by Christ and as revealed to us in Christ.

One advantage of setting aside one day in seven is that we there is space and time for prayer. Yes, we can pray as we do other things but it is also important to set aside time to nothing but pray and the Sabbath is that divinely-ordained day. This is an essential part of Christian piety, communing with God, around his Word together as congregations, as families at table, and privately. Without setting aside time, the practice of prayer tends to wither and become infrequent.

The Lord’s Day is also a day for mercy. As I understand The Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles the official ministry of mercy of the church is directed to the church but certainly Christians in the capacity as believers and private persons are obligated to show mercy to all of God’s image bearers (humans) and to other creatures as well. To quote Chariots of Fire, “the Sabbath is not a day for playing football” (soccer) but it is day for showing mercy to those in need in our congregations and beyond. Mercy takes time and the Sabbath is that time.

Sanctity takes time. Setting aside time for worship, prayer, and acts of mercy leads to sanctity. God uses his ordained means of grace to help us grow gradually into conformity to Christ. The Sabbath is the day when those means are administered. The Sabbath is  day for contemplating the greatness of our sin and misery (by nature) and the wonder of God’s grace to us in Christ. It is the divinely ordained day for giving ourselves over to being sanctified in a way that simply is not possible, in the same, in the other days of the week. Obviously, believers want to serve God 7 days a week. We are always, daily seeking to die to sin and to be renewed in grace but on the Lord’s Day we are able to devote ourselves to it uniquely.

Finally, the Christian Sabbath is day for anticipating the new heavens and the new earth. It is thought by some, perhaps many that the new heavens and the earth are principally a renewal of our cultural life but the picture we get from Scripture is rather different and our catechism leads to think of the new heavens and the new earth more in cultic (religious worship) terms than cultural (e.g., plowing) terms. The glimpses we are given of heaven are distinctly religious rather than cultural. The saints and the angels are in worship not at work. The Lord’s Day is an anticipation of being before the face of the living God. Remember, we were created to live in blessed communion with God. Sin ruined that but grace is restoring us and preparing us for that communion, which Christ as earned for us.

Next time: Is Sunday Distinct or Just Another Day?

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  1. So would you say that the Heidelberg is in opposition to the Westminster Standards, which explicitly command a resting from recreations and even thoughts and conversation concerned with worldly affairs, the whole day?

    • Alexander,

      No, I don’t think there are two Reformed views of the Sabbath.


      I agree with the divines and I think the authors of the catechism so as well. I’m only offering pastoral advice against the background of widespread, perhaps almost universal neglect of the Sabbath. In our time the Sabbath is regarded as a burden rather than as a gift. This is a great mistake but immediately people ask “what about this?” and “what about that?”

      I’ve never seen a consistory discipline someone for taking a walk on the Sabbath. Even Mr Murray walked on the Sabbath.

      I think organized sports on the Sabbath are a mistake but I doubt that a consistory would discipline someone unless they missed public worship because of them (which happens).

      I understand the background of the Book of Sports and the intent of the divines. I’m with them but I also want to try to help people see that the Sabbath is not burden but a gift.

  2. I formerly attended a church where the senior pastor was a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was taught by Dr. Schreiner, a professor at SBTS, that as Christians we do not need to observe the Sabbath. This pastor, in turn, taught this to his congregation.

    “When discussing Passover, I noted that believers are not required to observe the feasts, festivals, and special days of the Old Testament calendar. This includes the Sabbath, even though the Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8-11). Such a judgment surprises some, but it must be recognized that the entirety of the Old Testament law is abrogated in Christ.”

    -Thomas R. Schreiner, “40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law” page 91

    I would like to hear your comments on Dr. Schreiner’s teaching.


    • Hi Todd,

      This is a widely-held modern evangelical view. It is flawed by some bad assumptions and more fundamentally the wrong framework. There is good reason not to accept the assumption that the Sabbath began with Moses. No, the Sabbath began in creation. It’s right there on the pages of Scripture, in Genesis 1. God is said figuratively to have “rested” after the work of creation. Ex 20:8 explains what that means. Like marriage, the Sabbath is a creational (not Mosaic) institution. If so, it existed before the Mosaic law (the so-called 613 commandments) and it persists after the Mosaic laws were fulfilled and abrogated. The same is true of the moral law and marriage.

      Obviously this is a complex issue and a combox is no place to try to sort it out. I have addressed these issues in several places. Start with the chapter on the Christian Sabbath in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      Here is a library of posts on this topic. Start with the three posts on Heidelberg Catechism 103.

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