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).
Is The Christian Sabbath Distinct Or Just Another Day?
The medieval church church calendar, as it had developed by the 16th century was complex, layered, and even burdensome. The church began with the major liturgical seasons, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity.1 Then there were the days between the holidays (so-called ordinary days). On top of that add saints days. By the 14th century there was a saint for every day of the year. The medieval church year and calendar, should a Christian attempt to keep it rigorously and Christians were meant to keep it as a matter of obligation, was far more burdensome than the old Israelite religious calendar under Moses and David.
The Reformed also had to contend with a group of “Seventh Day” Anabaptists, who held to the Saturday Sabbath. Then there were the Antinomians, who argued that the moral law is no longer in force.
The Reformed theologians and churches had to work out their understanding of the Christian Sabbath against this complex background. How to recognize and account for the continuity of the Sabbath principle, which is grounded both in creation and redemption, without falling into a new Jewish legalism, without replicating the burden created by the medieval church, and without falling into Antinomianism?
The authors and editors of the catechism recognized that there is both continuity and discontinuity in the Christian Sabbath. The 1 in 7 (or 1 and 6) pattern carries over from creation and redemption (even from Moses), but there are clearly changes. In the New Covenant we meet on the first day of the week. The resurrection has inaugurated a new creation and thus a new day. The Seventh Day groups missed that point. The Antinomians failed to appreciate that the Sabbath is not just grounded in Moses and thus gone as Moses in fulfilled. They, like many evangelicals today, did not appreciate the role of creation (nature) in Christian ethics. Yet the Protestants had just emerged from a tyrannical, legalistic, conscience-binding system. They did not want to move from one legalism to another.
This background and these concerns help us understand why the catechism frames the Lord’s Day (Christian Sabbath) as it does. We live as Christians 7 days a week and yet Sunday, “the day of rest” is distinct. We do not have 365 saints days. We do not have a complex church calendar. We recognize redemptive history but mainly we observe the Christian Sabbath (Lord’s Day). This day is unique in that on it we rest, we attend worship, make use of the means of grace, and give alms (poverty relief within the congregation). Those things do distinguish the day. We must work the other days.
Sunday is different. It is the beginning of eternity. That distinguishes it from the other days of the week but it does not distinguish it from the rest of our existence. On Sunday we enter into another world, temporarily. When we are gathered together for worship, we are assembled as citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Phil 3:20). The congregation is the divinely-authorized embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven and her ministry is the authorized representation of the King. That is different from the other days.
Yet, there are ways in which the Christian Sabbath is not unique. It is a day in which to concentrate on sanctification but that sanctification is to spill over into all the days of the week. Hence the phrase “all the days of my life.” Though we rest physically on the Lord’s Day, we learn to rest, as it were, spiritually from our sins. We “rest from” our “evil works” all our remaining days. What the Holy Spirit begins to do in us on the Sabbath continues the other days of the week.
So, there are ways in which the Christian Sabbath is distinct from the other days of the week and ways in which the Sabbath is just another day. It is not an either/or question but a both/and question.
1. See Martyn Whittock, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages.