Heidelberg 103: The Christian Sabbath (3)

Recovering the Reformed Confession103. 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).

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  Then there were the Antinomians, who argued that the moral law is no longer in force.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.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. “The Reformed also had to contend with a group of “Seventh Day” Anabaptists who held to the Saturday Sabbath that the Reformed worked out their view of the Christian Sabbath.” Is this a run-on sentence? it seems to be missing some words.

  2. Have Lutherans historically been in agreement regarding the Christian’s observation of the 4th commandment? Has there been any recent developments which have caused them to move away from older teaching and practice?

    I ask because one or two books that present various perspectives, specifically on the Lord’s Day, seem to suggest that Lutherans are not in agreement with the Reformed. I haven’t read the books, I only looked at descriptions of the books.

  3. And on the Sabbath if there is no need for poverty relief within the congregation, we should be doing it outside the congregation. What a gift it is to serve. Good works resultative of God’s grace.

    • Then look for other Christians outside your congregation. And if your congregation is composed of only wealthy or middle-class people, then perhaps you should question whether or not your church is discriminating when it comes to who is being evangelized. Perhaps there is nothing wrong if there are none with need, but it is worth considering.

  4. You’ve said in another post that Ursinus saw the 4th Commandment as partly moral and partly ceremonial. Would you agree with that? Have you read Bownd’s book, recently republished? He has an excellent section showing how the commandment is only moral. What are your thoughts?

    • Alexander,

      That’s not only Ursinus’ judgment. It was the judgement of the Synod of Dort:

      The Synod of Dort on Sabbath Observance

      Session 164, May 17 PM
      Trans. R. Scott Clark

      Rules on the observation of the Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, with the agreement of the brothers from Zeeland the following concepts were explained and approved by Doctor Professors of Divinity.

      1. In the fourth Commandment of the divine law, part is ceremonial, part is moral.
      2. The rest of the seventh day after creation was ceremonial and its rigid observation peculiarly prescribed to the Jewish people.
      3. Moral in fact, because the fixed and enduring day of the worship of God is appointed, for as much rest as is necessary for the worship of God and holy meditation of him.
      4. With the Sabbath of the Jews having been abrogated, the Lord’s Day is solemnly sanctified by Christians.
      5. From the time of the Apostles this day was always observed in the ancient Catholic Church.
      6. This same day is thus consecrated for divine worship, so that in it one might rest from all servile works (with these excepted, which are works of charity and pressing necessity) and from those recreations which impede the worship of God.

      Source: H. H. Kuyper, De Post-Acta of Nahandelingen van de nationale Synode van Dordrecht in 1618 en 1619 gehouden een Historische Studie (Amsterdam, 1899), 184-6.

      I’m reading Bownd now on the “Sabbath’s Day journey” and he quite missed the point. The historical information is very helpful but the gospel writers were using an accepted expression. They were not, thereby, teaching that Christians are bound to the rabbinical conception of a “sabbath’s day” journey. This is the very sort of thing against which our Lord himself complained. I quite agree with him when he wrote, “But I have stayed too long in this argument” (p. 212).

      Bownd’s argument (p. 69ff) that all the decalogue is moral and not ceremonial proves too much. The 5th commandment, “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” is manifestly ceremonial. There is no land promise attached to the 5th commandment any longer. The land to which we aspire is not Canaan, but heaven and our inheritance of that land is not conditioned upon our obedience but upon Christ’s obedience—he is the Israel of God!—for us. That is the good news. Now, we who believe want to obey and do obey out of gratitude for our Lord’s free grace.

      Particularly re the Sabbath, there were laws (e.g., Ex 16:23; Nu 15:32) and punishments (e.g., death, Ex 31:14-16) that were ceremonial, i.e., typological and temporary.

      Was the creational Sabbath a Saturday? He presses this question. He comes perilously close to Adventist arguments.

      When he argues that resting from sin is the fruit of Sabbath keeping I think he reveals a flawed view of sanctification. Our obedience is the fruit of our sanctification, which is, in the first instance, dying to the old man and being made alive in the new (HC 88-90). Observing the Lord’s Day (Christian Sabbath) is the fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in us, not the reverse.

      It’s clear that Bownde, though he does not seem to say so explicitly, was not pleased with the judgment of Dort (he used some of the same language the Synod did) nor with the Heidelberg.

  5. I think his argument about Sabbath keeping and sanctification is that the Sabbath is the primary day appointed for the partaking of the means of grace. By requiring us to cease from our labours and our recreations, He removes those obstacles fallen man is only too keen to put up between God and man. Of course his argument assumes that sabbath keeping is a universal command to all men, believer or heathen. If one doesn’t hold to that view one might not see it that way.

    The creational sabbath was the seventh day. That’s Saturday, right? I disn’t think this was controversial…?

    • Alexander,

      This is the difficulty. When does good advice become conscience-binding and a rabbinical “fence around the law”?

      Yes, the 7th Day was the creational Sabbath, and thus there was continuity with Moses, but we must be careful not to argue for the 7th Day in a way that makes it and the Mosaic observation of it perpetual. We are not under Moses. In their zeal to urge sabbath observance, some in our tradition have seemed to forget that we are not under Moses.

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