This is part 4 of a brief series of posts going through what the Westminster Shorter Catechism (in Q.57-62) has to say about the 4th commandment. Question and answer #57 deals with the actual text of the commandment itself (which is found in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The questions that follow explain and interpret the meaning of the commandment.
Question and answer #58 deals with the question of what – the substance of what is required in the fourth commandment – keeping one day in seven holy unto God. Question and answer 59 deals with the question of when – which day of the seven is now to be sanctified.
We now come to question and answer #60, which asks the all-important question – how? What exactly does it mean to sanctify the Sabbath or keep it holy?
Q.60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.
So according to the Shorter Catechism, sanctifying the Sabbath involves at least two (2) things: holy rest and worship. In his book, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture, Puritan writer Thomas Vincent (1634-1678) puts it this way:
“We are to observe and keep the Sabbath as holy, partly by a holy resting, partly in holy exercises on that day.” (p.146)
Vincent there shows us the balance that we must keep between those two things, as well as the right relationship between them. Let us then briefly turn to look at them in order.
First the Sabbath (or Lord’s day) is to be sanctified “by a holy resting all the day.” Not just rest, but a holy rest. So it is clear right at the outset that what is in view here is not mere inactivity or sleep. So what does this holy resting entail? We are to rest “all that day” (not just for an hour or two) from two (2) things: our “worldly employments” (i.e. our work), and our “recreations” (i.e. our play).
And the point here is certainly not just that we are to refrain from sinful work and recreation, as we are always to refrain from those things no matter which day of the week it may be. No, the writers of the Catechism explicitly state that we are to rest from even those employments and recreations “as are lawful on other days.” So we are not to treat the Lord’s day like any other day, whether that be for work or for play.
Some people might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another work day, another day to labor and make money. Time (as the saying goes) is money, and so for some people, a holy resting all the day sounds costly, rather than beneficial. And so such people may need to learn to trust in God’s provision. Is that not the lesson we are to learn from God’s instructions regarding the manna in the wilderness in Exodus chapter 16? There was one day in the week when the manna would not appear – the Sabbath. Exodus 16:26 states, “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” The only day that the people of Israel were allowed to gather extra to save for the next day was on the 6th day. Why? To free them up to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. Even gathering food (manna) was not to be done on the Sabbath.
Others might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another day off, another day to play and have fun. Such people may need to learn to enjoy God more. (And who among us doesn’t need to learn that more?) To use a personal example, I like sports. I enjoy watching some sports on television and occasionally even in-person. (As a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, my sports fandom is often more an exercise in patience and long-suffering than of celebrating championship parades, but I digress.)
Nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional game. But that being said, if I enjoy watching (for example) a football game (yes, even the Super Bowl) more than I enjoy spending time with the Lord and His people in worship, then both my priorities and tastes are out of whack. Again, nothing wrong with sports or entertainment per se (as long as there is nothing inherently sinful involved), but those things should not be in any position to compete for our ultimate affection and enjoyment. And we are to rest from those things on the Lord’s day for our own good.
And that brings us to the second thing that sanctifying the Sabbath involves – worship. The Sabbath is to be sanctified, not just by a holy resting from worldly employments and recreations, but also by “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.” The whole time. And so the former is for the purpose of the latter. In the 4th commandment we are essentially being given a break from our worldly activities in order to free us up for worship.
Now if the first part (the holy resting) seems foreign to most people (even most Christians?) in our day, almost certainly this part (spending the whole day in the worship of God) is even more so. One need only look at the rarity of the Sunday evening worship service in our day to see something of a barometer of that. Structuring the whole day around worship seems like a nearly forgotten art. Sadly, many who were not raised in the Reformed faith (myself included) have had to learn much of this the hard way, with very little in the way of an example to emulate. This was not always the case.
Notice that the worship of God that is commended to us here is both public (corporate) and private (personal and with our family). And so we should make attendance upon public worship perhaps the highest priority of the day, although that by no means excludes time spent alone or with one’s family in prayer, the study of God’s Word, and even song (!). The latter is often closely-related to the former, with time spent considering and discussing the sermon from earlier that day. (How much more might we benefit from even the simplest preaching of the Word if we were to make that our practice!) And here we also see that private worship is no substitute for diligently attending public worship of the church on the Lord’s day. In truth it should not be an either/or proposition.
That might sound like a rather daunting task. Surely there are things that cannot be left undone, even on Sundays, right? And that is where the common-sense exceptions to the rule come into view here in Q.60. It states that the whole time is to be spent in public and private worship “except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” One’s family still needs to eat, for example. The sick or injured must still be cared for. Someone in need must still be shown mercy. (In truth, the Lord’s day may actually provide us with more time and opportunity for this than other days.) And there are occupations or lawful callings in which people cannot reasonably be expected to take the whole day off from their work, which is necessary for the life, safety, and well-being of their neighbors (such as law enforcement, military, or medical personnel, just to name a few).
There is obviously much more that could be said, but I hope that you find this thumbnail sketch from the Shorter Catechism to be a helpful starting point, and perhaps something that may spur you on to more careful study and application of what the Scriptures have to say on this important subject. May we all learn to view this holy rest and worship, not as a burden, but as a blessing.