‘Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labour, 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’ (Exodus 20:8-11).
While one would certainly conclude that the entirety of the Ten Commandments are being ignored or watered down by our culture, sadly we find that even the church is watering down some of the commandments. As I have noted in other ‘Letters from America’, the American church is under attack, especially in relation to the Bible’s standard of marriage. While this battle wages in our minds and across the headlines, there is another battle, perhaps a much more important one, that is being waged, and I fear that the church is retreating in this skirmish.
This battle is, namely, the struggle for honouring the Lord’s Day as a sabbath to the Lord our God. As the fourth commandment states, we are to ‘remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God’. This commandment was a stumbling block for the Israelites (Exodus 16; Numbers 15; Matthew 12; Mark 2; etc.) and the church still struggles and debates over it to this day. I write to you therefore, brothers and sisters, to explain how this battle has been and is being, waged in the United States.
I must briefly go back to the origins of this important issue in the United States. As Reformed evangelicals in Britain and America, we owe much to the Puritans. As Dr Packer notes in his book A quest for godliness, the Puritans were the pioneers, so to speak, of the ‘English Christian Sunday’ (p.235).
During the latter part of the 16th century, the English spent their Sundays ‘frequenting bawdy stage plays, May games, church ales, feasts and wakes’, and much more (R. Baxter, Works, III: 904; quoted in Packer, p.235).
The Puritans sought to follow God’s Word in all that they did and that certainly included observing the sabbath day, beginning on Saturday night. English and Scottish Puritans combined to write the Westminster Standards. Their stance was: ‘This sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of [God’s] worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy’ (Westminster Confession of Faith, 21:8).
As Great Britain began colonising the new world, many Puritans sought a new life in North America. They brought their Bibles and Westminster Standards with them. However, the centres of Puritan influence in America were small and limited to certain colonies in the north-east. These colonies were largely constituted as a result of religious persecution under the Stuart monarchs. Some of the other colonies were founded for economic reasons and therefore had less Christian influence.
By the beginning of the 18th century, colonial America was anything but devout. Clergy had difficulty impressing the importance of the sabbath on their parishioners (Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the cape of heaven: religion, society and politics in colonial America; New York: Oxford University Press, 1986; p.6). But with the arrival of the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield in the 1730s and 1740s, the Lord worked marvellously to call sinners to himself. By 1768, even Boston city officials had little difficulty in exhorting the city to observe the sabbath day (ibid.).
While there was almost nationwide obedience to the fourth commandment at the end of the American Revolution, by the middle of the 19th century there was considerable declension. Rev. Robert L. Dabney, a southern Presbyterian minister during the American Civil War, wrote a long treatise on the Christian sabbath that is certainly worth considering.
He describes the observance of the sabbath in his day: ‘It must be confessed that the Christian world now presents an anomalous condition touching the sabbath. Strict Protestants usually profess in theory the views once peculiar to Presbyterians, and admit that the proper observance of the sabbath is a bulwark of practical Christianity.
‘But their practice does not always correspond with their theory. In actual life there is, among good people, a great uncertainty, with a corresponding confusion of usages, from great laxity up to the sacred strictness of our pious forefathers’.
It would be safe to say that this attitude is certainly the same amongst American Christians today.
In today’s society, the culture does anything but observe the sabbath day. Very few businesses are closed on Sunday (Chick-fil-A being a notable exception), and you have to really put your foot down in many vocations to set aside Sunday as a day of rest. One of the more pervasive issues besetting the American church is how it actually views the sabbath. It used to be the case that almost every church held services morning and evening, but now, even among conservative Presbyterian churches, this is not the norm.
While the preaching of the Word of God, thankfully, remains strong in evangelical denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Southern Baptist Convention and Reformed Presbyterian denominations, the practice of honouring the sabbath day in the way the Westminster Divines stated is slowly dying out.
Among non-denominational churches, there is an absence of an evening service, but many churches have two morning services to accommodate their large number of members. Not only is the number of times we meet on a Sunday dwindling, but the Puritan practice of observing ‘an holy rest all the day from their own works, words and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations’ is dying out.
There is no doubt that to many Americans, including Christians, Sunday has become a family day, a day where recreation is pursued in much the same fashion as it was in 16th century England. Within the PCA there is much flexibility in this regard, in contrast to a denomination like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which holds unreservedly to the Westminster Standards. There was, in fact, an overture presented to the General Assembly of the PCA this June to request a study committee with the purpose of changing the language of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms in regard to the clause mentioned previously. The overture suggested taking out the wording about resting from our ‘recreations’. This created much concern among PCA elders, especially friends of mine who hold a more Puritan view of the sabbath. We want to conform the confessions to our present predilections, rather than conform our lives and our practice to what our church fathers wrote. So we were very thankful to God that the PCA General Assembly rejected the overture.
Son of Man
The standards are admittedly not Scripture, but they were written by wise men who spent years debating and studying the Scriptures. The Christian sabbath is already at a decline in the American church and such a change would only worsen it. Please be praying that our love for the Lord’s Day would increase and that the PCA and other churches will stand firm.
It was Jesus who said, ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27-28). The sabbath is meant for our growth in grace and rest in the Lord. It is ultimately a glimpse of heaven, where we will all physically worship before the King of kings and sup with him at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Sadly in our day and age, we have flipped this verse and made man the lord of the sabbath, doing whatever is pleasing in man’s eyes. Let us conform our lives and hearts to the Word of God and pray that the Lord will renew our hearts in love for his Day.
This article was first published on Evangelical Times on August 2015 and shared with their permission. All rights reserved. Subscribe to ET’s newsletter here.