Stop “Observing” the Sabbath.


Ok I admit it…that is a clickbait title…Sorry. Allow me to explain.

To be honest…I am tired of this “debate,” but since I get the questions more often than not, I will play along.

Recently, I received the following from an anonymous person:

“Sunday is a family time day and well as a church day. How do you spend that family time?

If you had an opportunity some sort of sporting event like a hockey game, or a soccer game – would you go if you had free tickets for your whole family? Then I guess that leads to the question – do you run to to the grocery store for an item that you need for dinner? What do you find so wrong with do that?

I had to restrain the grammar Nazi within while reading this, but alas, I too often fail at proofreading! Besides, I fully expect there to be at least a couple mistakes in this post as well! 🙂

Often, I receive questions about the 4th commandment, mostly asking what I believe concerning the question of “Sabbath Observance,” and whether or not the view imposed on the one asking is not legalistic. Those who ask are typically young people who feel restrained by their parent’s “archaic rules,” or on occasion they are bored judgmental trolls looking for an argument. Either way, this topic has started many heated debates among my friends and family, both within and outside of my “Reformed” circles. This topic is also a subject of much debate within the Evangelical Church at large today. I am going to do my best to answer some of those questions and present the position where I stand on this all-important topic.

Our grandfathers called it the Sabbath, our fathers called it Sunday... And we call it the weekend.

Our grandfathers called it the Sabbath, our fathers called it Sunday… And we call it the weekend.

The first question we need to ask is this: Is the 4th Commandment valid for Christians today?

The first debate we find in Christian circles about the 4th commandment is whether it is even valid for today. Is observance of the 4th commandment still required in the context of New Testament Christianity? There is heated debate among theologians on this point, so how I expect to sort it out is beyond me. Men such as Calvin, Augustine, John MacArthur and RC Sproul differ on this point, and all hold to very high views of Scripture and have very solid biblical arguments for their stances.

For instance, Macarthur holds to the view that the Old Testament Sabbath law had been abolished in all its forms. RC Sproul, teaches that because the Sabbath was instituted originally not as a Mosaic law (given to Moses in the 10 commandments) but at creation, so in this view the 4th commandment is a moral law as long as creation is intact.

I came across the following in a sermon by Dr. Wes Bredenhof:

The Fourth Commandment did not drop out of the sky on Mount Sinai.  It wasn’t like the people of Israel were gathered before the mountain and had never heard of the Sabbath before…

There are two indicators in the Fourth Commandment itself that tell us that it was not a new commandment.  The first is in the word “Remember.”…  That indicates that the Sabbath day is not something new…

The other indicator has to do with the reference to creation…  In Exodus 20, God refers to creation as the roots of the Fourth Commandment.  “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”  Of course, that refers back to the beginning of Genesis 2.  And note that the Fourth Commandment repeats what we find there.  God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy.  The Fourth Commandment is rooted in creation.

My answer: Yes, I believe that the 4th Commandment is valid for the Church today, because I believe that it, though defined and emphasized as a “Mosaic law,” was first instituted when God rested after creation. Therefore, I believe it is a creation ordinance, as opposed to a “Mosaic” ordinance and is currently applicable in some way.


Which leads to the question: Which day is the Sabbath to be observed? How come not the Saturday?

Some teach that because the Sabbath was instituted on the seventh day of creation, when God rested, and that we should follow that example. These are groups known as “Strict Sabbatarians.” Seventh Day Adventists, some small christian sects as well as some messianic Jews adhere to this view.

Others have insisted that the New Testament changed the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week pointing to the importance of the resurrection of Jesus on that day. They also point to the New Testament practice of Christians coming together on Sunday as the Lord’s Day for worship. Those who hold to the view that Sunday is the new Sabbath, are generally considered “Christian Sabbatarians.” The Puritans and many Reformed folk fall into this category – including many in the Canadian Reformed Churches.

Still others, like John Calvin, have argued that any day of week is fine as long as if all of the churches would agree, because the point of the “day of rest” was for the coming together of believers for corporate worship and for the observation of rest.

My current stance: While there are 3 views noted here, I tend to lean towards agreement with John Calvin on this point.  I believe that there is a “day of rest” and that it is commanded of us in the 4th commandment, but I believe that it can be any day of the week as long as all the churches agree on that day – which since the founding of the early church has been Sunday.   

Now to the point which the original question gets to…

Question: How do I spend Sunday?

imagesBy going to church, visiting friends for lunch or taking a nap if the kids will let me, going to church again, having dinner with family…devotions…it is nice.

Would I go to a sporting event? No.

Would I run to the store for an item we need for dinner? No, I would eat something else. I will, however go to the store for medication and ginger ale for my sick kid, and I have done so without guilt or shame – and there are some who would scold me for that.

Anyway…let’s pare the original questions all down to one simple question.

Question: What is permissible on the day of rest?

I believe this is the wrong question. Haha!

So why did I choose it? Cuz that seems to catch the gist of the original questions.

Why is it the wrong question? Because when we seek to discover how close to the line we can walk, our hearts are probably not focused on the Lord, but on ourselves. So it doesn’t really matter what the answer is to that question.

Obedience is a narrow road, we are taught, and disobedience is a wide road.

Because we are fallen people struggling against sins and shortcomings, we find it easy to convert the law of God into a list of things we are not supposed to do…which is just plain and simple legalism. Some people may say that we need extra rules and regulations to guard the day of rest because there is a slippery slope that we can get stuck on which will lead us into inevitably breaking the 4th commandment. This is exactly why the Pharisees had so many extra rules…no joke…look it up… We don’t want to make the same mistake the Pharisees did. There is no slippery slope…you’re either sinning or not. On the flip side some of us just toss out the rules all together which is Antinomianism. Both are distortions of the law, and both are sin.

It has been said that we “Reformed” Christians are very good at not doing what we are not supposed to do rather than doing what we are supposed to do.

What do you suppose that means?

In relation to the 4th commandment, I would say that means we are very good at reducing the day of rest to all the things we’re not allowed to do.

pharisee-cartoonMany of us it seems, toil endlessly at coming up with the definition of “labour” so we can make sure we (and our fellow believers) don’t do it on Sunday. It is good to honour God by obeying His laws, but when we make the 4th commandment only about what we can’t do, or what we shouldn’t do, we entirely miss the point of the Sabbath rest. When we miss the point that God is trying to make, we sin. Sin is, after all “missing the mark.” So, when we spend our whole focus on trying to figure what we can’t do on Sunday, we are sinning, and we come perilously close to legalism, if we have not already crossed that line.

If we divide the Ten Commandments into prohibitions and commands, the Sabbath observation would end up with the commands, not the prohibitions. The 4th commandment is less about what we are forbidden to do and more about what we are commanded to do. So, what are we commanded to do? We are commanded to work 6 days, and we are commanded to rest.  Let’s read what that old reformation document, the Heidelberg Catechism, teaches concerning the 4th commandment:

103. Q. What does God require in the fourth commandment?

that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained
and that, especially on the day of rest,
I diligently attend the church of God
to hear God’s Word,
to use the sacraments,
to call publicly upon the LORD,
and to give Christian offerings for the poor.
that all the days of my life
I rest from my evil works,
let the LORD work in me through his Holy Spirit,
and so begin in this life
the eternal Sabbath.

I love this beautiful explanation. But…wait. There’s nothing in there about not working, or…uh… wheres the part about wearing a suit all day? Can we go to the park? Can I buy medicine or not!?!?!



May I stretch our “Reformed” brains for a second? God does not merely command that we refrain from work on the Lord’s Day. No, it is far deeper than just refraining from labour and commerce: we are to rest.





What do you suppose that means?

If you refuse to go to the office to work on Sunday, but you spend the entire worship service thinking about the papers on your desk, are you really resting?

If you refuse to study on Sunday, but stress about your final exam all day, are you really resting?

If you refuse to go to the store to buy that spice you need for dinner, but spend the entire worship service thinking about what you could substitute for it, are you really resting?

If you refuse to go to a hockey game on Sunday, but spend all service eager to get home to watch it, are you really resting?

Rest isn’t simply ceasing from labour and commerce; it is also ceasing from worry, from stress, from all the things that take our focus off of God, off of Jesus who has completely paid for our freedom. True resting in the Lord is to delight in Him. Not only on Sunday, but on all the other days of the week.  If we delight in our relationship with Jesus Christ as we work the other 6 days, then we will desire to rest on the Sunday, to hear the preaching, to join with other Christians.

I know there is a right way to obey the 4th commandment. I know there is a correct answer to this question that divides all of us Evangelical and Reformed Christians – even us Canreffers all have different views. Do I know what that answer is?

If Calvin and Augustine are at odds, if Macarthur and Sproul don’t agree, how could I, a third year undergrad, possibly know? At the end of the day, the key question which we must come back too is the question of the gospel of salvation: Are we resting in the finished work of Jesus?

Sabbath, I believe the new testament teaches, is not something to be merely observed but rather it’s something to be celebrated and delighted in. So stop “observing” the Sabbath. Celebrate it. Delight in it.

We celebrate the victory that Jesus has obtained for us! So, celebrate the day of rest to God’s glory, rest in the finished work of Christ, and adhere to the position your church (or your parents) has stated. Yes that last part too…for part of living for God is in honouring our father and mother and those in authority over us, which includes the Church (there is commandment in there somewhere…)

We do well to view the Sunday as a “get to” not a “have to.” We don’t have to go to church… We get to celebrate what the Lord has done by going to Church!  My family tries to honour the 4th commandment out of gratitude, by going to both Sunday worship services and not working or shopping on Sunday, unless it is necessary, but I will go to the park for a picnic and play a game of pick up soccer after church. Some of my brothers and sisters won’t even change out of their Sunday best, let alone play soccer; should I then charge them with legalism? Or should they charge me with antinomianism? I think not.

I hope I did the question justice.

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