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Historical & Biblical Reflections

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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April 5, 2022 12:01 am

Historical & Biblical Reflections

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 5, 2022 12:01 am

Many Christians today do not share the high regard for the Lord's Day held by the Protestant Reformers and early Reformed churches. Today, W. Robert Godfrey provides historical perspective on the Lord's Day and its relationship to the Sabbath.

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Many Americans remember a time when people respected Sunday as a day of rest. 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. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind. Over the course of history, there have been different views about the Lord's Day. Some in the church connected it to the Fourth Commandment, which requires God's people to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. But interestingly, the earliest Christians didn't make that connection.

Let's find out more with Dr. Robert Godfrey. We're continuing together our study of Sunday and what the church has historically thought about Sunday. We talked in our first lesson about how much has changed in the lifetime of some of us about Sunday observance, and we want to, in due course, get to the Bible and ask what the Bible says about this. But I thought it would be helpful before we turn to the Bible to look at something of the church's historical reflection on the meaning of Sunday. We talked briefly about how the church fathers wanted to draw a sharp distinction between Sunday and Sabbath. And at the end of last time, we were talking about how Thomas Aquinas wanted to see some relationship between the Fourth Commandment and Sunday practice. And he talks about this in his Summa Theologica. For those of you who want to check up on me and make sure I'm representing him correctly, I'm quoting from the Secunda Secundae, the second part of the second part. I don't know why the second part of the second part isn't the third part, but nonetheless it's not.

The second part of the second part, question 122, Article 5, answer to the fourth objection, just to prove that I really did read this. And there Thomas says, and this is what later becomes quite controversial, Thomas wrote, in the new law, that is the new covenant, the observance of the Lord's day took the place of the observance of the Sabbath, not by virtue of the precept, but by the institution of the church and the custom of Christian people. For this observance is not figurative, as was the observance of the Sabbath in the old law. Hence the prohibition to work on the Lord's day is not so strict as on the Sabbath, and certain works are permitted on the Lord's day which were forbidden on the Sabbath. Now what's interesting there is Thomas is arguing that while there are parallels between the Lord's day and the Sabbath, the Lord's day is not established by precept.

It's not established by law. It's not established by the commandment of God. It's established by, as he put it, the institution of the church and the custom of Christian people. Now that's important because when the Reformation came about, and that's the third period of reflection on this Sunday Sabbath relationship that we want to talk about, when the Reformation came, Calvin and Luther both rejected that the Sabbath controlled our understanding of the Lord's day. Part of that reaction by Luther and Calvin was from their extensive reading of the church fathers, so they were influenced in what they thought by what the church fathers had written in that first period of church reflection. But even more, I think, Calvin and Luther were adamant to deny and reject what Thomas Aquinas is saying here in what I just read because Calvin and Luther wanted to make perfectly clear the church has no right to make any rules to bind Christian consciences and establish holy days.

This was a major confrontation in the time of the Reformation because when the Reformers returned to the Bible and then used the Bible to reflect on what was happening in the life of the church, they realized that all of the holy days that dominated the life of Christian people to the point where really every day was a saint's day by the time the Reformation came about, those were all inventions by the pope and by the bishops of the church. And Calvin and Luther were saying, we are not bound by those decisions of popes to create holy days. The church can't create holy days.

The church can't create laws that bind Christian consciences and threaten them with eternal punishments if they don't keep them. For Zwingli, one of the leading issues leading into the Reformation was the question of could you eat meat in Lent, Lent as the forty days set aside before Easter for repentance and reflection and self-denial. And Zwingli felt very strongly the church was teaching if you don't keep the Lenten fast, you can't be saved. The church has established these holy days. You're obligated to keep these holy days. And the early Reformers were very adamant to say the church can't make holy days. So if Sunday is just a holy day made by the church, it's not a holy day. And now that didn't mean that Calvin and Luther were not committed to worship on Sunday.

And in fact, when you read Calvin carefully, what you see is his practical teaching is very much like what the later Reformed teaching would be on this subject. Sunday is to be given over to worship and to avoiding as much work as possible, as much distraction as possible. But Calvin, like the early church fathers, is reacting against notions of church rule and of holy laws that are imposed upon people for their salvation. And so Calvin at several times says that Sunday is not a holy day. And by that he means it's not a day that the church can establish as holy, as separate, as set apart. Nevertheless, he says, the church observes Sunday because we need time to worship.

We have to withdraw from ordinary life and ordinary work to have that time to worship. So he comes down very close to where later Reformed theology will come in practical terms. But because he's reacting to the claims of the medieval Roman church to power to create holy days, he wants to avoid that and be sure that that is not the case and not the way we think about it. So again, Calvin and Luther can be quoted, and sometimes I think are somewhat quoted out of context, as if they stood against the idea of a continuing meaning of the fourth commandment. They certainly don't believe that. And as if Calvin is at war with a later Reformed tradition on the question of the Sabbath.

I don't think that's true. There is a difference. There is a different emphasis. There is a different theologizing of Sunday, but the place where they come down is really quite similar. Now it is true that by the late sixteenth century, Reformed theology is beginning to think quite differently or express itself quite differently from the way in which Calvin had expressed himself. And part of that, I think again, sort of like with the church fathers reflects a somewhat less controversial time vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic Church. As Reformed theologians begin to study the fourth commandment, reflect on the fourth commandment, look at the full range of biblical material, they come back to a position somewhat more like Thomas Aquinas', at least in the sense of making a distinction between a ceremonial element of the fourth commandment and the moral element of the fourth commandment.

And they begin to highlight and emphasize more the seriousness of the claim of the whole day being given to God. And by the seventeenth century, Reformed theologians have become very adamant and very strict in their teaching on the fourth commandment. And that will be the teaching that dominates the belief and the practice of most conservative Protestant churches from the seventeenth century down to the middle of the twentieth century. So that we could say is a sort of fourth period, fourth episode in which the Sunday observance more and more is called a Sabbath, a Christian Sabbath in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The chapter that covers our understanding of Sunday is called the Christian Sabbath. And so the connection between Sunday and Sabbath becomes quite close in later Reformed theology. And that practice then dominates the piety, the life of Christians through those centuries. And as a result, I think we can say, whether we're persuaded by their arguments or not later, as a result, I think the Reformed churches create the best educated laity in the history of the church, because there's time, time to study, time to learn, time to read the Bible, time to read pious works.

And it's remarkable. And sometimes we hear stories about the seriousness of Sabbath observance, and sometimes we smile about it. Sometimes maybe it was a little over the top, a little legalistic. I know people in the Dutch Reformed community who could remember when their fathers or grandfathers didn't shave on Sunday. That was work to be avoided.

It was certainly true that a lot of food preparation was done on Saturday. At least the potatoes were peeled on Saturday. I was talking to some really wonderful conservative Presbyterians from Scotland, and to this day they do not wash dishes on Sunday.

That's a work that can be avoided. Now, I've talked to my Dutch friends. I've not found any Dutchman so pious that they didn't wash dishes on Sunday.

I think there's a sort of neatness built into the Dutch that they just couldn't rest with dirty dishes in the sink. So there are differences of opinion. There can be a kind of strictness about this that maybe does border on legalism in the lives of some, but it all illustrates that these people began to try to save the time God had given them to give to pious exercises. Apparently there was some debate on whether you can take a nap on Sunday. Some of the Presbyterians didn't want a nap on Sunday because that was wasting time. I think sometimes some of these folk worked so hard on Sunday they didn't rest at all, and I think the commandment provides rest as well as worship.

But anyway, we'll talk about some of those things more as we go along. So we have these differing attitudes in the history of the church towards Sunday and its relationship to the fourth commandment and to the Sabbath, some wanting to stress the dissimilarity of Sunday and Sabbath, some wanting to stress the similarity of Sunday and Sabbath, and I think there can be no doubt of the great blessing not only to the churches and individual Christians, but also to the society in general where the Sabbath came to be rather strictly observed. Think of all the people who didn't have to work on Sunday, who could be home with their families.

Think of all the people who, you know, didn't have to go into businesses, feel the pressure of business. I remember spending a Sunday afternoon with a Dutch family. The man was a baker, and he was closed on Sunday, but he talked somewhat bitterly of all the people going to the other bakeries in town on Sunday. So it was a blessing when everyone shared in the observance of that day, and everyone was able to rest and give their thought to God. But we have to acknowledge that in the history of the church, not everyone has embraced that understanding of Sunday and the Sabbath, and today we live in a period where that conviction has disappeared far and wide. In the 70s still, 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. And even in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, there has been growing uncertainty about exactly what the Bible teaches about the Sabbath. As far back as the 1970s, there was an organization called the Reformed Ecumenical Council, tried to bring Reformed churches from all around, conservative Reformed churches from all around the world together for consultation, and they appointed a study committee on the Sabbath, the relationship of the fourth commandment to Sunday. And even in the 1970s, that study was divided, some saying we're obligated to the fourth commandment as Christian people, others saying we're really not.

There's no such obligation. So we have to go into this study recognizing there are well-meaning people on both sides of this question. Now, I'm not going to conclude this study by saying both sides are equally right. I don't think that's true, but we want to be charitable to others.

I think people who may disagree with me are clearly wrong, but nonetheless our good people are usually trying to do right. But it is good for us to pause then and really ask, what does the Bible say? Because that's ultimately what's crucial, isn't it? We as Reformed people, we do not want to impose any simply practice that's a tradition on people, even if it's a good tradition. We don't want to impose on people a tradition that the Bible doesn't impose. We might argue there are useful things to do that would be good to do, but we can't say they're required to be done if the Bible doesn't say it. And so we want to look carefully at that, but I think it's useful at the beginning to remember how strongly the Bible expresses itself when it comes to the Sabbath. And I read this with full recognition that we have to decide whether this still applies to us, but as we go into this question, we need to see how very seriously it's expressed in the Bible.

So let me read to you from Exodus chapter 31 at verse 12 and following. And the Lord said to Moses, you are to speak to the people of Israel and say, above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep my Sabbath because it is holy for you. Anyone who profanes it shall be put to death.

Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. Now that's really strong language, isn't it?

Strong language about the penalty. If you don't keep the Sabbath as a member of the nation of Israel, you'll be put to death. Strong language about how it's to be observed above all other days or all other commandments. Above all you should keep my Sabbath because when you rest you remember that I, the Lord, sanctify you.

I, the Lord, make you holy. So, the resting is intimately related to the Lord's working in our lives. Our resting is an opportunity for us to recognize that we don't work to save ourselves.

God does all the work to save us. And that's why the Sabbath is at the very heart of the covenant God makes with his people. And so, in light of that really strong language, we need to take this question seriously.

How much of that language applies to us? How much of that language should inform what we think about Sunday? And that leads us then to wanting to reflect on the Bible. What does the Bible say about these issues?

And I think as we go into this, there are three great questions I want to look at with you as we look at the Bible. These, I think, are the crucial questions to determine where we'll end up on the proper relationship we should see between Sunday and the Sabbath. The first question, I think, is, is the Sabbath in the Old Testament simply a Mosaic institution? Did Sabbath come only from Moses?

Was Sabbath initiated only at Sinai? As we consider that question, I'll try to make clear why I think it's so important. But that's the first question. The second question is, what are we to make of those texts in the New Testament that seem to teach that all days are alike in the New Covenant? If you've ever considered this issue before, if you've ever talked to anybody who doesn't stress the importance of the Fourth Commandment, you've probably heard these verses referred to. How do we understand these verses?

And that's an important question, isn't it? We want to be biblical. We want to believe all that the New Testament teaches us. So, does the New Testament teach us? Does the New Testament teach that in the New Covenant all days are alike?

We want to look at those verses that seem to teach that and ask, what do they actually mean? And then thirdly, we want to look at the question, does the New Testament anywhere teach that we're obligated to keep Sunday as a Sabbath or to worship on Sunday? So, we have one Old Testament question, what's the origin of the Old Testament Sabbath? And I think that's an important question because it reflects on whether the Sabbath continues or ends in some sense. And then we have two New Testament questions. Does the New Testament teach that all days are alike?

If it does teach that, that's pretty much a clear answer to our question, isn't it? And maybe Thomas Aquinas was right, that Sunday worship is just a matter of custom and church teaching. And then the sort of corollary question is, does the New Testament anywhere teach that we're obligated to see Sunday as a holy day and to worship on that day alone?

So, those will be the questions that we'll be looking at in the next section of our study because we want to know what the Bible says. We want to know what the Bible teaches and we want to ponder then that fourth commandment because just like Exodus 31, the fourth commandment in Exodus 20 is strong. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

The Westminster Confession says it says that because we're so prone to forget. Remember, 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.

What does that mean? How are we to understand that? That's what we'll come back next time to begin with and looking at that question, what is the origin of the Sabbath in the Old Testament? Our understanding of the Sabbath influences how we worship and how we spend our time on Sunday. The message we just heard is from Dr. Robert Godfrey's latest teaching series, The Lord's Day, Sabbath Worship and Rest. In six messages he explores both Scripture and the practice of Christians through the centuries to help us appreciate the day that the Lord blessed and made holy. You can request this series today with your gift of any amount, and we will add it to your learning library right away. We'll also send you the DVD.

Just go to to make your request, or you can call us at 800-435-4343. You'll find more helpful resources on The Lord's Day when you subscribe to Table Talk magazine. When you type Sabbath in the search bar at, you'll find more than 200 articles on the topic. You'll also have access to a growing library of back issues when you subscribe. Well, did the Israelites start keeping a Sabbath day because Moses told them to, or does the Sabbath go back even further, all the way to creation? Dr. Godfrey will address that question tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind, and we hope you'll join us.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-11 20:57:37 / 2023-05-11 21:06:13 / 9

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