Sabbath Keeping in a Post-Christian Culture: How Exiles Cultivate the Hope of Inheriting the Earth

Andy Wilson

As we face the challenge of living in a culture that is increasingly apathetic and antagonistic toward the Christian faith, it is becoming easier for us to identify with the biblical description of Christians as “sojourners” and “exiles” whose true citizenship is in heaven (see Phil. 1:27; 3:20; Heb. 11:13; Jas. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1, 17; 2:11). We feel like exiles when we practice our faith in a society that marginalizes biblical Christianity for being so out of step with mainstream attitudes. This is difficult for us, and it makes us susceptible to the temptations of cultural accommodation and assimilation. If we are going to resist these temptations, we need to engage in communal habits and rhythms that distinguish us from the culture in which we must simultaneously live as salt and light. We need to be regularly reminded that we are characters in a story that is markedly different than the stories imagined and lived out by the people around us. In short, if we are not being transformed by the renewing of our minds, we will inevitably be conformed to this present evil age.

The Habit of Sabbath Keeping

In several recent books, James K. A. Smith has made a compelling case for the formative power of habitual practices that he describes as “pedagogies of desire.”[1] In Smith’s words, “if the heart is like a compass … we need to (regularly) calibrate our hearts, tuning them to be directed to the Creator, our magnetic north.”[2] An emphasis on the shaping power of Christian practices is also a significant element in Rod Dreher’s much-discussed “Benedict Option,” which says that Christians need to look to the traditions of their distinctive communions for the cultivation of Christian identity if we are going to be able to set forth a genuine alternative in our witness-bearing.[3] This stands in sharp contrast to a characteristic tendency in American Christianity: the tendency to think that the way to reach our culture with the gospel is to develop ministry strategies and practices that will appeal to those who are outside the church. The problem with this approach is that when the church’s ministry is shaped by the culture and its concerns, the culture ends up shaping the church and those who belong to it. We need to pay careful attention to the fact that the way we practice and promulgate our faith plays an important role in shaping what we believe and who we are. Think of a swimmer using training drills to imprint the elements of a particular swimming stroke into his muscle memory. Through disciplined repetition, motions that are at first unnatural become second nature. But this will only result in a better swimming stroke if the drills are in continuity with the whole stroke. In the same way, our practices will best calibrate our hearts to God and his truth when they are in continuity with the tradition that we believe to be the best embodiment of biblical Christianity.

One practice from the Reformed tradition that can be of great help in the cultivation of Christian identity is Sabbath keeping. The Sabbath is about much more than taking one day off from work each week. God instituted the Sabbath as a sign pointing to the completion of his purpose for the world. The Sabbath essentially functions as a sign of the gospel. John Calvin expresses as much when he says that the Sabbath is a day when “believers are required to rest from their own works so as to allow God to do his work in them.”[4] The Sabbath calls us to stop trusting in our own performance so that we can receive God’s gracious provision of spiritual rest in the gospel of his Son.

When God tells us to “remember the Sabbath day” (Ex. 20:8), he is not just talking about mental recollection. In Scripture, the word “remember” often has to do with being faithful to one’s covenant commitments. Remembering the Sabbath is about letting it shape us as those whom God has set apart to be his holy people (see Exod. 34:13). In the words of Meredith Kline, “Observance of the Sabbath by man is thus a confession that Yahweh is his Lord and Lord of all lords. Sabbath keeping expresses man’s commitment to the service of his Lord.”[5] In other words, the Sabbath helps reorient us by reminding us that we live in this world as pilgrims whose ultimate allegiance is to another King and kingdom. As such, we strive to enter the final Sabbath rest that awaits the people of God (see Heb. 4:9–11).

As the residual influence of the Christian view of Sunday continues to fade in our post-Christian culture, the habit of Sabbath keeping will be increasingly disruptive to the work and activities that we do alongside non-Christians in the common sphere. This will sometimes raise questions about various aspects of our cultural involvement, and Christians who are committed to observing the Sabbath may not always agree about how to answer all of these questions. Nevertheless, we should never grow weary of the disruption that the Sabbath brings to our this-worldly pursuits. The habit of Sabbath keeping helps us remember that we belong to a kingdom that is infinitely more valuable than anything that this world can offer.

The Historical Development, Diminishment, and Recovery of the Lord’s Day

The Sabbath is an important overarching theme in biblical theology. David VanDrunen points out its prominence in the creation account when he writes:

Genesis 1:1–2:3 presents God as working toward and attaining an eschatological goal. The text is permeated with a sense of historical movement that is capped by a scene of arrival. This sense is produced most prominently by the sabbatical pattern that frames the narrative … patterns of sevens or multiples of sevens absolutely pervade Genesis 1:1–2:3.[6]

Everything in the creation account is oriented toward day seven, when the Lord of the Sabbath sits down to reign over his creation-kingdom. The Sabbath is also a key theme in the Gospels, where Jesus’s Sabbath activity announces the arrival of the reality that the day signifies (see Matt. 12:1–21; Luke 4:16–21) and where Jesus invites people to come to him and find rest for their souls (Matt. 11:28–30). Another New Testament book that makes significant use of the Sabbath theme is the epistle to the Hebrews, which speaks of striving to enter God’s rest and living as sojourners until we receive the unshakeable kingdom (see Heb. 4:1–11; 11:10, 13, 16, 38; 12:18–29). This is especially significant when we remember that the main theme of Hebrews is to demonstrate how the new covenant is the fruition and fulfillment of the old covenant. Lastly, the sabbatical pattern also figures significantly in the book of Revelation. The book’s structure and message rely heavily on the symbolic use of the number seven, and the saints are exhorted to persevere in faith until they enter into the rest that will characterize the new creation (see Rev. 6:11; 14:12–13).

Taken together, these and other texts demonstrate that the Sabbath was established as a sign of the end-times rest that is the goal of history. Just as God did his work of creating the world and then entered into his well-deserved rest as Lord over all creation, man was called to complete his assigned tasks of filling and subduing the earth, serving and guarding the garden-sanctuary, and not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in order that he might enter into God’s rest. Tragically, Adam’s fall made it impossible for us to merit God’s rest by our performance, but Jesus has secured that rest for his people in his office as the last Adam. Through faith in him, we gain access to the eternal Sabbath of the new creation.

This explains why the Sabbath moved from the last day of the week to the first day of the week under the new covenant. Christ’s resurrection on a Sunday was the epochal event that marked the beginning of the new creation. This caused the New Testament church to gather for worship on Sundays instead of Saturdays (see Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), and by the end of the first century the phrase “the Lord’s day” had become a technical term for the Christian Sabbath (see Rev. 1:10). While the Saturday Sabbath was terminated because of Christ’s finished work of redemption, there was a recognition among God’s people that a Sabbath sign was still needed in this present age because we have not yet entered into the consummation of God’s Sabbath rest (see Heb. 4:1, 9).

The practice of Sunday Sabbath observance was well established by the end of the apostolic period, as we see in this statement from the second-century apologist Justin Martyr: “We all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day.”[7] In the early fourth century, the conversion of Constantine and the outward Christianization of the Greco-Roman world resulted in the official declaration of Sunday as a public holiday and day of rest. Unfortunately, it also resulted in the church making various concessions to the pagan mind. One such concession was the adaptation of pagan festivals and holidays for Christian purposes. This marked the beginning of the medieval church’s development of its elaborate liturgical calendar of holy days, fast days, and days recognizing various saints. As increasing emphasis was placed upon these days, particularly upon the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, the Christian Sabbath was overshadowed.[8]

In light of this situation, the Protestant Reformers set their sights on the recovery of the Lord’s Day. One of the most important contributions in this area came from the Strasbourg Reformer Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541), a colleague of Martin Bucer. Hughes Oliphant Old summarizes Capito’s argument as follows:

With an appeal to the fourth chapter of Hebrews, Capito claimed that the old Sabbath was a sign of the rest and salvation that would begin with the resurrection of Christ. The old Sabbath was a promise of a day of rest that the Jews under the law had not yet experienced (Heb. 4:8). While that day of rest was the final day of consummation at the end of history, it is, even in this life, already experienced in the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection, which clearly, according to the Gospels, is the first day of the week.[9]

Through the efforts of Capito and other Reformers, the focus of the church calendar in Reformed churches shifted back to the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day. Furthermore, the Puritans’ success in promoting Sabbath observance in seventeenth- century England resulted in most of the English-speaking world being Sabbatarian up until the middle of the twentieth century.

No Place for Fun?

Many Christians have an allergic reaction to the notion of Sabbath keeping because they think of it as something dour and joyless that is epitomized by a long list of activities that are prohibited on Sundays. There are probably instances when overly scrupulous Christians do things that contribute to this impression. More likely, an aversion to Sabbath keeping stems from being immersed in a culture that has an insatiable demand for distraction and entertainment. Living in such a context, we need to realize the danger of what Neil Postman famously described as “amusing ourselves to death.” In fact, if we are not careful, our use of entertainment media may not be the harmless diversion that we think it is. Consider the role that has been played by popular culture and social media in bringing about our society’s widespread acceptance of LGBT ideology. Most people have not embraced this way of thinking because they have been persuaded by any rational argument but because of the emotional argumentation that is embedded in the media that they regularly consume. As Alan Jacobs explains:

The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice. In America today, churches … have access to comparatively little mindspace…. If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation.[10]

This should make us more thoughtful and more careful when it comes to the role that our culture’s information, entertainment, and social media complex plays in our lives. It also gives us good reason to consider taking a break from such things on the Lord’s Day.

Sabbath observance clearly requires a cessation from activities that would interfere with our gathering together with God’s people in covenant assembly for public worship. (see Lev. 23:3; Heb. 10:25) One matter that has been debated within the Reformed tradition is the question of whether or not any kind of recreational activity should be permitted on the Sabbath. This disagreement stretches back to the formative period of our tradition, with the Synod of Dort (1618–19) and the Westminster Assembly (1643–49) providing slightly different answers to the question. While Dort said that recreation was permitted as long as it did not interfere with public worship,[11] Westminster said that we must abstain from recreation so that we can use the whole day for the exercises of public and private worship.[12]

Many church officers in confessional Presbyterian churches disagree with the Westminster Confession on this point because we think that it goes beyond the teaching of Scripture. The only passage that could potentially support a prohibition of all recreation on the Sabbath is the following text from Isaiah 58:

If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa. 58:13–14)

Is this a rebuke for failing to devote the entire Sabbath day to the exercises of public and private worship? While the Westminster divines thought so, the problem with this interpretation is that it is difficult to see how earlier generations of Israelites could have known of such a requirement, since there is no mention of it in the Mosaic law. For this reason, Isaiah 58:13–14 is best interpreted as a rebuke for conducting business and oppressing workers on the Sabbath, which is consistent with the way the term “pleasure” is used earlier in the same chapter (see Isa. 58:3). That being the case, there is no biblical warrant for a prohibition against recreation on the Sabbath and we are free to engage in enjoyable and relaxing activities on Sundays as long as they do not interfere with public worship. Of course, we should also remember that reverent participation in public worship involves preparation beforehand and reflection afterward, a consideration that should give shape to our overall focus each Lord’s Day.

Another factor that relates to the contemporary application of the fourth commandment has to do with the difference between theocratic and non-theocratic contexts in redemptive history. Israel’s situation under the Sinai covenant was theocratic, which meant that all of that nation’s cultural activities were marked out as sacred. The situation for God’s people today is non-theocratic, which means our cultural activities belong to the sphere of God’s common grace. While we are called to do all things to the glory of God, our common cultural activities are not holy in an institutional sense but are part of the structure that God uses to uphold the world until he brings his plan of redemption to its appointed end. This leads Meredith Kline to the following conclusion about contemporary Sabbath keeping:

Since the Sabbath is a sign of sanctification marking that which receives its imprint as belonging to God’s holy kingdom with promise of consummation, the Sabbath will have relevance and application at any given epoch of redemptive history only in the holy dimension(s) of the life of the covenant people. Thus, after the Fall, not only will the Sabbath pertain exclusively to the covenant community as a holy people called out of the profane world, but even for them the Sabbath will find expression, in a nontheocratic situation, only where they are convoked in covenant assembly, as the ekklesia-extension of the heavenly assembly of God’s Sabbath enthronement. That is, Sabbath-observance will have to do only with their holy cultic (but not their common cultural) activity.[13]

In short, Kline is saying that in the church age the fourth commandment relates only to the gathering together of God’s people for public worship on the Lord’s Day. While the entire day should be ordered in a manner that supports our participation in the church’s corporate gatherings, the entire day is not strictly bound by the Sabbath command. If this is correct, then debates about what can and cannot be done on Sundays boil down to whether or not an activity hinders our participation in the public worship services to which we are called by the church’s elders.

Making the Most of the Sabbath

When we organize our lives around the Sabbath as the temporal symbol of the new creation, we experience a weekly rhythm that consistently points us back to the eternal heritage that is being kept for us in heaven. One of the ways we can make the most of the Sabbath is by bookending the day with morning and evening worship services, a practice that has deep roots not only among the Reformed but in the entire Christian tradition.[14] While this practice is not explicitly commanded in Scripture, it is noteworthy that Psalm 92, which is identified as “A Song for the Sabbath” in its title, speaks of worshipping the Lord “in the morning” and “by night” (v. 2). Also of significance is the fact that in Israel’s regular burnt offerings a lamb was offered in the morning and another in the evening (see Num. 28:1–8). Attending morning and evening worship services each Lord’s Day helps us to order the entire day around the gathering of God’s people in covenant assembly.

The habit of regular attendance at morning and evening worship might seem like an inconvenience to some Christians, especially if they live a considerable distance away from their church. While there can be circumstances that make it too difficult to attend both services on a regular basis, we should keep in mind that there are a lot of things in life for which we are willing to be inconvenienced. Parents are often willing to go to great lengths for the sake of their children’s education and extracurricular activities. Some people commute a considerable distance just to get to work each day. We all adjust our schedules in order to accommodate the things that are important to us. Shouldn’t we be willing to organize our Sunday schedules around the public worship services to which we are called by those who have spiritual oversight? It is true that this will have an impact on what you do on Sundays. A gathering with family or friends may have to be cut short. Some activities may have to be ruled out altogether. Such decisions can be difficult, but making them helps us to set our minds on the things that are above rather than the things that are on earth. We need to remember that Christians who cease to be heavenly-minded are not far from ceasing to be Christian.

I can testify to the benefits of attending morning and evening worship each Lord’s Day. While I grew up in the church, evening worship did not become a regular habit for me until our session made the decision a number of years back to add a Sunday evening service to our weekly schedule. I doubt that I am fully aware of the extent to which this practice has been of help to me, my family, and our congregation. I can say that having to preach twice as many sermons has improved my preaching and forced me to be more disciplined with my time throughout the week. I also know that those who attend both of our Sunday services benefit from double exposure to the preached Word, something that is especially significant given the low level of biblical literacy among professing Christians in our day. Lastly, I am grateful that my children are growing up without knowing anything other than the practice of bookending the Sabbath by declaring God’s steadfast love in the morning, and his faithfulness by night.


The Sabbath is certainly not meant to be a burden to us. On the contrary, it has been given for our benefit. That being the case, we should make good use of this gift so that we can receive its blessings in full measure. As Isaiah 58 reminds us, calling the Sabbath a delight is really about delighting in the Lord himself. And when we delight in the Lord, we take comfort in his promise that we will not remain exiles forever. In his appointed time, he will make us “ride on the heights of the earth” (Isa. 58:14).


[1] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 21–22. While Smith’s critical analysis of the contemporary church and his argument for the shaping power of historically-rooted worship are helpful, it should be noted that many of his examples of “pedagogies of desire” are at odds with historic Reformed worship and piety.

[2] Smith, 20.

[3] See “Benedict Option as Meanness?” Rod Dreher, accessed October 9, 2016, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/benedict-option-meanness/.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541 ed., trans. Robert White (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014), 139.

[5] Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, (Overland Park, KS: Two Age Press, 2000), 39.

[6] David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 70–71.

[7] “First Apology of Justin, the Martyr,” § 67, ed. Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 287.

[8] See Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Calvin and the Sabbath (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 1998), 14–20; Hughes Oliphant Old, Guides to the Reformed Tradition: Worship That Is Reformed according to Scripture (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 34–35.

[9] Old, Guides to the Reformed Tradition, 35–36.

[10] “Questions for the Critics of the Benedict Option,” Alan Jacobs, accessed October 9, 2016, http://blog.ayjay.org/uncategorized/questions-for-the-critics-of-the-benedict-option/.

[11] “The Synod of Dort on Sabbath Observance,” R. Scott Clark, accessed October 9, 2016, http://rscottclark.org/2012/08/the-synod-of-dort-on-sabbath-observance/.

[12] See WCF 21.8.

[13] Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 81.

[14] See R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 338.

Andy Wilson is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Laconia, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, April 2017.

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Ordained Servant: April 2017

The Centrality of the Sabbath

Also in this issue

Calvin on the Sabbath: A Summary and Assessment[1]

Reformed Confessions: The French Confession of Faith (1559)

Geerhardus Vos: Family Life, the Kingdom of God, and the Church

The True Doctrine of the Sabbath by Nicholas Bownd

Sweet Revenge: Digital Meets Reality: A Review Article

Reading for the Common Good by C. Christopher Smith


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