What We Believe

The Sabbath and Christian Living

Ryan M. McGraw

New Horizons: May 2021

Churches Planting Churches

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Churches Planting Churches

One Church Planter’s Journey

The Sabbath is not a popular subject. Even using the term brings thoughts of disunity, contention, and legalism to the minds of many. Some church members want their pastors to teach about the Sabbath more than what is appropriate, while others hope that he will stop bringing it up.

Yet the fact that the Sabbath belongs among the Ten Commandments means that every Christian, Reformed or not, thinks about it on some level with rhythmic regularity. The fourth commandment is:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exod. 20:8–11)

One good way to develop a healthy view of the Sabbath is to understand its place in the law of God and the Christian life.

The Westminster Larger Catechism tells us, among other things, that the Sabbath enables us “better to keep all the rest of the commandments” (Q. 121). My goal here is to illustrate why this is the case by showing how the Sabbath helps us to know and worship God according to the first table of the law and how it increases our love for others through the second table of the law. Ultimately, as a day dedicated to worship, the Sabbath exemplifies and promotes a life of communion with Christ in self-denial.

If you are looking for a convincing argument that there is a Christian Sabbath and that it is Sunday instead of Saturday, then this is not the place to look. If you are looking for a full biblical argument against worldly employments and recreations on the Lord’s Day, then, again, keep looking. This has been done elsewhere. The point of this short article is to connect the dots between the Sabbath and Christian living more broadly.

The Sabbath and the First Table of the Law

All Ten Commandments are intertwined. In this regard, the Sabbath is both common and special. It is common because it is not unusual for the breaking or keeping of one commandment to entail the breaking or keeping of others. It is special in that it sets a context for the public worship of God, without which true religion would likely soon be forgotten. WLC 121 wisely calls the Sabbath “a short abridgement of religion” in light of its connections to creation and redemption in Exodus 20:8 and Deuteronomy 5:14–15. The Sabbath helps us to keep the first four commandments by setting an appropriate time and context for worship.

The first four commandments are like a four-stringed instrument made to be played in tune. The first commandment teaches us whom we should worship. The second commandment teaches us how we should worship him. The third commandment emphasizes the respect we owe to him in worship. The fourth commandment stresses the time set apart to worship him exclusively. While we worship the true God as God and our God, and we reverence his name in every area of life (Rom. 12:1–2; 1 Cor. 10:31), he commands us to set the Sabbath apart as “holy” (for example, in Exod. 31:14), focusing our attention on worshiping him directly for one whole day in seven. Just as a holy marriage gives exclusive rights of husbands and wives to each other, so a holy day gives exclusive rights of the Lord and his people to each other.

By learning to worship God directly and exclusively for one whole day in seven, we are better able to worship and serve him indirectly in every other area of life. The Sabbath teaches us to set our minds on things above, where Christ is seated (Col. 3:2), to long for our room in the Father’s heavenly household (John 14:2), and to yearn by the Spirit for the full possession of what we have in title now (Rom. 8:23, 26). Setting aside our worldly employments and recreations once a week for the purpose of worship teaches us how to engage in our worldly employments and recreations the rest of the week as acts of worship. Devoting some time exclusively to worship helps us better to view all our days as part of a life of worship. On the Sabbath, we honor the triune God as the object of worship, in the right way, with right hearts, and at the right time.

The Sabbath and the Second Table of the Law

The Sabbath helps us keep the second table of the law better as well. This should not surprise us, because we love others when we love God and keep his commandments, and we love God and keep his commandments by loving others (1 John 3:14; 5:1–3). Sin teaches us to love ourselves first, then to be kind to others, and then to add religion if we think it is helpful in promoting these first two goals. The Sabbath teaches us to love the Lord our God first, to love our neighbors for his sake, and to love ourselves last. Inverting the sinful order marks friendship with God in his Son, by means of his Word and Spirit.

The God-centered and Christ-exalting focus of the Sabbath enables us to love our neighbors better. What better way is there to love other believers than to edify one another in public worship and in the fellowship of the saints? Heads of household should lead in family worship daily, but especially on the Lord’s Day. Does this not flow naturally from being transfixed with how to glorify God best and how to serve our wives and children for his sake? The Sabbath should also lead us to pray for our enemies and to invite our unbelieving friends to come and behold the glory of the Lord among us. Hospitality stretches the blessings of public worship around the table as we invite believers, and even unbelievers, to see the Father’s works, in the body of his Son, with the presence of his Spirit, in his holy temple.

We need not only pursue works of necessity, such as by feeding our families, our friends, and ourselves, but we can pursue acts of mercy as well. Some families in our local congregation do this by going to a local nursing home to minister to those who are lonely and in need. When we seek the glory of God and the good of others above what we think is restful for us, then the possibilities for mercy and evangelism in the context of worship are more than we can pursue.

Even our private worship on the Sabbath day forces us out of ourselves in Christ-honoring self-denial. We must prioritize public worship as the place and time when the triune God meets us the most powerfully. Yet we must know the Lord for ourselves, and, if we have families, we must lead our family members to know him. When we have had a bad week at work, or have struggled with teaching our children, or are concerned about our finances, or are anxious over how to care for aging relatives, the Sabbath makes us pause to meditate on our Savior instead as both Creator and Redeemer. We should meditate intentionally in private, in families, and in public worship, on his suffering and obedience for us. We should exult in his glorious resurrection and what this means for this life and for the world to come. In short, we should be so preoccupied with the Son of Righteousness that we dispel, if only for a day, the darkness that threatens to consume us.

This requires a measure of self-denial and trust. This weekly rhythm is precisely what we need to refocus our lives. Our problems do not dissolve with meditation, but meditating on the great works of our Savior corrects our spiritual vision and keeps us on the right path. This will make denying our desires for our worldly employments and recreations on the Sabbath more natural as we look to the self-denying Savior. Doing so, in turn, will take our gaze off ourselves and remind us that others need a day of worship as well.

Delighting in the Lord of the Sabbath

The Lord designed the Sabbath to teach us to long for glory. The Sabbath is not the entirety of the Christian life, but the Sabbath is a vital component of healthy Christian living. Through it, we delight in the Father as the head of our household. In it, we have communion with Christ our Savior in his humiliation and exaltation. By it, the Spirit renews us in the image of God as those who worship in Spirit and in truth. By dedicating a day to worship, we honor the object of worship through the public means that he has appointed, with reverent hearts, at the appointed time. By meditating on God’s great works through his Son and their application to us by his Word and Spirit, we learn better both to love God and to love others.

The Sabbath should be a delight to us because the Lord of the Sabbath is a delight to us. The more we delight in the Lord of the Sabbath, will we not be better equipped to serve and love the Lord’s people and those outside the church as well?  

The author is professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. New Horizons, May 2021.

New Horizons: May 2021

Churches Planting Churches

Also in this issue

Churches Planting Churches

One Church Planter’s Journey

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