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What Should We Think of Sunday?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
April 4, 2022 12:01 am

What Should We Think of Sunday?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 4, 2022 12:01 am

One of the greatest changes in last century of church history is seen in the attitude Christians have toward Sunday. Today, W. Robert Godfrey considers how older views of the Lord's Day can help reorient Christians toward the Bible's teaching on this subject.

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As a historian looking at the time in which I've lived, I would suggest that one of the greatest changes in the Christian church in the last 75 years has been Christian attitudes towards Sunday.

Why is that? What brought about the change in this day that's set aside to worship and rest? Welcome to Renewing Your Mind. I'm Lee Webb.

And I'm from the same generation as Dr. Robert Godfrey. I can remember when stores closed on Sunday. Sunday felt different when I was growing up. Now it feels like any other day, even for many Christians. And that's not good, because remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy is not a suggestion. It's a commandment. So this week we want to realign our thinking on this day that the Lord blessed and made holy.

Welcome. We're beginning a new study, and our new study is focused on the question of Sunday. What should we think about it?

How should we observe it? What does the Bible have to tell us about Sunday in the New Covenant, Sunday for the church? When we look at the history of the church, one of the remarkable things is that almost all Christians through almost all times have worshipped on Sunday.

When you think about how little the church as a whole has agreed on, that's fairly remarkable. From some of the very earliest post-New Testament records that we have, we find that Christians were worshipping on Sunday in the epistle to Barnabas in the second century. The author of that letter is concerned that too many Christians are going to the synagogue on Saturday and then to church on Sunday, and he wants Christians to stop going to the synagogue and just go to church. Similarly, some of the rabbis in the second century were concerned that Christians were going to synagogue. They didn't want the Christians coming to synagogue anymore. But what's clear in even that early controversy is that Christians were worshipping in the church on Sunday. And the question then before us in this study is, why did they do that?

Is it a custom that could be changed? Is it a requirement that the Lord gave his church? And even more, we might press the point, as we will as we go along, is there any relationship between Sunday worship and the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments? Which is another way of saying, is there any relationship between Sunday and the Sabbath of the Old Covenant?

And that's what we want to look at as we go along. This is a question that is important theologically, it's important historically, it's important practically, and most of all, of course, it's important biblically. What does the Bible actually have to say about this matter? But we want to look at all of these ramifications, the theology, the history, the practice, as well as the biblical teaching as we go along so that I hope this series will not just be a kind of intellectual exercise, but we'll see how really practically important this question is and our conclusions are for the life we live as Christians, and particularly as we gather on Sunday to worship. As a historian, looking at the time in which I've lived, I would suggest that one of the greatest changes in the Christian church in the last 75 years has been Christian attitudes towards Sunday. I can remember when I was growing up, my mother talking about her experience growing up in the 1930s.

For some of you, that will seem like ancient history, but it's not so very long ago. My mother growing up and saying that on Sunday, almost no stores were open. On Sunday, she went to Sunday school and then to church, and then she said the family sat around singing hymns most of Sunday afternoon, and then they went back to church, and then she went to youth group meeting after church.

She actually thought it was all a bit too much, but that was her experience growing up, not amongst the Dutch Reformed in Western Michigan, but as a Methodist in California, and I tell that story just to illustrate how much things have changed. In the 1930s on into the 1950s, almost all American Protestant churches were churches that treated Sunday as a holy day. I remember moving from California to Pennsylvania to teach at Westminster Seminary in the mid-1970s, and in the 1970s it was still remarked that there were places in New Jersey where the parks were closed on Sunday.

Kids were not allowed to go to the park and shoot hoops. That was in the Dutch Reformed community. There was another town very famous in New Jersey in the mid-70s where still there were regular conservative Methodist camp meetings in the summer, and that little oceanside community, midnight Saturday night, they put a chain across the only road into town, and you could not drive in or out of town on Sunday. And by the mid-70s that was seen as somewhat peculiar, but certainly not completely crazy. Stores still in Pennsylvania would have sections where you could not shop on Sunday.

They'd kind of rope off sections of the stores. There were certain things you could buy on Sunday, certain things you couldn't buy on Sunday. So, the idea of Sunday as a holy day, as a separate day, as a special day was incorporated in a significant way into American cultural life as well as into American church life. And so, one of the biggest changes of the last 75 years has been a shifting attitude towards Sunday, and this has had great implications for the culture generally. I was reading an article that described how in the 1950s when the National Football League began to grow, there were many people in the 50s who said the National Football League will never succeed because Americans will not watch football on Sunday.

It's almost impossible to think such a discussion could have taken place, and today there are churches that have services on Super Bowl Sunday at halftime so as not to interfere with the real religious experience of Americans watching football. Things have changed dramatically, and they've changed for a variety of reasons. Some people suggest automobiles have a lot to do with that, mobility, an opportunity to do things you couldn't do before. Television certainly has a lot to do with that, entertainment that's available that wasn't available before, the pressure of economics to be able to sell more and therefore the pressure to be open seven days a week. There are a lot of cultural things that have happened to mark these changes, but the changes haven't just been in the culture. The changes have been in the churches as well. Still in the 1970s, I would say almost all conservative Protestant churches in this country had Sunday morning and Sunday evening services that people were by and large expected to attend. I suspect that attendance Sunday night was in most places not quite as big as it was Sunday morning, but nonetheless, almost all conservative Protestant churches really thought that the proper Christian experience was to be in church twice on Sunday. And now we find far and wide in conservative Protestant churches today that there is no second service, that that has changed dramatically in just the last 40, 50 years, maybe even a shorter time than that.

And we have to ask ourselves, what's the consequence of that? Has that been good for the churches? It's fascinated me again as a historian, not making any judgment.

I'll make judgments later. But just as a historian observing the phenomenon, many of the changes that have taken place in the last 50 years in the life of conservative Protestant churches have been defended in the name of evangelism. We will be more evangelistically successful if we make changes.

And yet, what is the truth? The church in America is shrinking. The church in America is certainly far less influential than it has been in the past. The church in America seems, especially the conservative Protestant church, seems to be almost disappearing from the public arena. I've been thinking about that just in this last year of the COVID pandemic and been struck by how, from the government, there has been almost no call to prayer, almost no call to reflect on what this sickness might say about our society and whether we ought to be called in any way to repentance. Now, I'm not naïve enough as a historian to think that all of our earlier politicians were very serious and pious and prayer-filled people. But the character of the country required that whatever they believed personally, they had to at least tip their hat to religion and to what churches said.

Today, that's disappeared. The influence of the churches has withered in our society. And all of the changes that have been made, it seems to me, made in the name of growing the church, have in fact contributed to the shrinking of the church and certainly to the shrinking of the influence of the church. And I think have contributed to the shrinking of the strength of the church internally. It's not just the impact of the church outside itself, but the reality of the church inside itself. I think the churches are less disciplined. I think the churches are less knowledgeable. When I was younger, I was often impressed by how much church-going Protestants knew about the Bible. Their Bible knowledge was amazing. And I think Bible knowledge has seriously declined in the last 20 or 30 years.

And it's declined in part because we are now gathering for worship half as often, many of us. And I've used the analogy, if you were a math teacher in high school, I hope some of you are because I could use the help. If you were a math teacher in high school and your principal came to you and said, now I want you to teach just as much math as ever, but we're giving you half as much time to do it. Would that be easy?

Would it be possible? But that's what the churches have sort of done to themselves. They've given away half of their time for gathering, for teaching, for learning. And not surprisingly, part of the result is that people know less. And even the time that churches have as gathered communities, to a significant extent, a lot of that time has been given over more to entertainment than to education. Well, I'm beginning to sound old and grumpy, aren't I?

I was going to just be neutral and just descriptive. But this is what's happened. This is a change we've seen. And a big part of that change has resulted from a changing attitude towards Sunday. What should we think of Sunday? Should we think of Sunday as a holy day, as a day set apart by the Lord? Should we think of Sunday as in its entirety belonging to the Lord? Clearly, the attitude that says one service on Sunday is plenty is an attitude that doesn't regard necessarily the whole day as belonging to the Lord. Now, I knew a family that only went to one service on Sunday. And they stayed home and very diligently for the rest of the day studied the Scriptures and the Catechism as a family. I know that's true.

They really did that. But most people who are staying home Sunday afternoon and evening, I suspect, I don't have hard evidence for this, I suspect are not spending all the rest of the day studying the Bible and the Catechism. I suspect a lot of them are watching football or even more deplorably basketball.

What kind of a sport is basketball? It clearly discriminates against people who are five foot seven when they lie. So anyway, it really marks a very different attitude, doesn't it, if we say, yeah, we gather for worship in the morning and then the day has freed us to do what we want with. Is that what the Lord teaches us? Is that what the Lord calls us to? What does the Bible say about that?

That's what we're going to try to get into in this class. What does the Bible say about that? But before we get to the Bible, I thought it might be useful just to spend a few minutes thinking about what the attitudes towards Sunday have been in the history of the church.

And I hope you'll find that mildly interesting. And it certainly sets up the discussion that we want to have about the meaning of Sunday biblically. We want to see how the church has thought about Sunday as a kind of background then to our turning to the Scripture and looking into the Scripture about Sunday. And I think we can say that the church has had, very broadly speaking, five periods throughout its two thousand years, five periods of attitudes towards Sunday.

Now, this is painting very broadly. I'm not looking at all distinctions and all of that, but just to give us a sense of how actually in the history of the church there's been significant debate about Sunday. And I want to say just a word about why that debate has taken place. In the first period of the church, the early church, the period of the church fathers, the first few hundred years of the life of the church, the general attitude was that the Sunday worship bore no relationship to the fourth commandment. That was the general teaching of the church fathers. Now, we might be inclined to pause there and say, well, if those early church fathers who had some rather close connections, at least in the early part of the early church, had close connection to the apostles, shouldn't we take very seriously what they taught?

And I think that's a fair question, something we ought to think about. But it's always very important when you look at a theological position that someone has taught to ask, why did they teach that? What was the context of their teaching?

What seemed to be the motivation and stimulus for that teaching? Why did the church fathers seem to make such a strong distinction between Sunday as the Lord's Day and the Jewish Sabbath? Well, the reason they made that strong distinction is because they wanted to make clear that the church was not bound by Jewish regulations. They wanted to make a sharp break between Jewish practice and Christian practice. And they made that break so strong that they basically said the teachings of the fourth commandment, remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, were irrelevant to the church.

They did not apply to the church. And the purpose of that, the importance of that, was to establish that the Jewish community would not control the life of the new church. That the church would not be bound by all sorts of Mosaic regulations. And as we'll see when we look into the New Testament, there were those voices in the church that wanted to bind the church to things Mosaic. And the fathers wanted to be clear that that was not true, that they were not bound to those things. So, the fathers developed their attitude very much in the context of a conflict between church and synagogue, between Old Covenant and New Covenant, between the effort of how does law apply and where does it apply.

So, that was sort of the first period, the first attitude. These people all worshiped on Sunday. These people all stressed the importance of Sunday, but they were hesitant to draw a connection to the fourth commandment. Then when we come into the Middle Ages, and the great spokesman, the person we all turn to when we want to know what the Middle Ages thought, is Thomas Aquinas. And Thomas Aquinas in his great work, the Summa Theologica, his summary of theology.

When you see the volumes and volumes and volumes of it, it doesn't seem like much of a summary. But nonetheless, his summary of theology, he has a whole section on the Ten Commandments. And in that, he represents where a good bit of the medieval church stood. And what we see there is, I think, a more careful and thoughtful reflection on the relationship of the church to the Ten Commandments. In other words, the Middle Ages no longer felt so threatened by the synagogue.

The Middle Ages no longer felt so threatened by a potential mosaic legalism. I think they could actually stand back and with a little more distance reflect on what the Ten Commandments were really saying. And so it's intriguing that Thomas Aquinas wants to see a close connection between what we call the fourth commandment.

If you go and read Thomas, as I'm sure you'll all go home and do, you'll want to do that right away. What you'll discover is that Thomas calls the fourth commandment, the third commandment. The Roman Catholic Church numbers the commandments differently from the way we do. We as Protestants are inclined to say they number it differently so they won't have to think so carefully about the commandment not to make graven images. They combine what we call the first and second commandment into one commandment. And then they divide the last commandment into two, two commandments against coveting, because they have to come up with ten.

We all have to come up with ten. So, in any case, that's getting off the track. The important thing is Thomas sees the fourth commandment as still speaking to the church. Thomas sees the fourth commandment as relevant to our understanding of the Lord's day. He distinguishes Lord's day from Sabbath, but he says the commandment still applies to us because in the fourth commandment, speaking now from our point of reference, in the fourth commandment there is a moral and a ceremonial element.

Now, some of you may have heard that language before. We as Reformed people borrowed that language or continued to use that language from Thomas. There's a moral and a ceremonial element, Thomas says.

The ceremonial element is the requirement to meet on the seventh day and to keep it strictly. The moral element is that there needs to be time to worship God and that time is on the Lord's day. And I think Thomas here, we may not agree with Thomas at every point or in every particular, but I think Thomas is rightly seeing that there is continuity on the issue of time for worship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. And he is, I think, in a less conflict-driven world, standing back and seeing more deeply into how the Ten Commandments can continue to help guide and instruct the church. So there's much value in what Thomas is saying about the fourth commandment, but there's also a problem. And we need to pause there and so you'll have to come back next time to see what the problem is in Thomas and the fourth commandment. And we will look forward to that message tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind.

We hope you'll join us. You know, if we fail to see Sunday as sacred, it's time to ask the question, have we lost something vital along the way? In his new video teaching series, Dr. Robert Godfrey explores Scripture's teaching on the Sabbath, how Christians throughout history have observed it, and he helps us appreciate the refreshment the Lord's day can bring to our lives. This is the first time we're offering this new resource, so I hope you'll contact us today to reserve your copy. There are six messages on one DVD, and we will send it to you for a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries.

You can make your request online at, or you can call us at 800-435-4343. Your gifts are the fuel that allows us to provide Christians around the world with sound biblical teaching, like you heard today. We're reaching places like Iran, the Philippines, and remote parts of the African continent. So on their behalf, let me thank you for your generosity to Ligonier Ministries. Well, here's a preview of our study tomorrow. Conservative Methodists, Baptists, as well as Presbyterians and Reformed, shared a common conviction about the Sabbath. That has largely disappeared. I think in most broadly evangelical churches today, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who had regard for the Sabbath. There are some, but nowhere like what used to be the case. I hope you'll join us Tuesday for Renewing Your Mind as Dr. Robert Godfrey continues his series, The Lord's Day, Sabbath Worship and Rest. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-12 13:48:17 / 2023-05-12 13:56:44 / 8

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