In our brief series of posts examining what the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches regarding the Sabbath, we now come to Q.61, which asks:
“What is forbidden in the fourth commandment?”
What is positively required by the commandment was dealt with at length in the previous three questions (Q.58-60). Now we see the flip side, so to speak – what we are not to do on the Lord’s day. The catechism’s answer to the above question is as follows:
“The fourth commandment forbids the omission, or careless performance, of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”
So the first thing that is forbidden is the “omission . . .of the duties required.” Blatant disregard for the Sabbath and for worship (both public and private) is in view here. We must not neglect to observe the holy rest and worship that is required. (See Q.60.) This happens, for instance, when we fail to faithfully attend public worship on the Lord’s day. This is what the writer of the book of Hebrews admonishes us about:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV, italics mine)
‘Neglecting to meet together’ in public worship is all too common in our day, but apparently that is nothing new. Even back in the first century that was already “the habit of some” (v.25). For various reasons some professing believers simply don’t make it a priority. Some attend worship once or twice a year (around Easter or Christmas), and consider that sufficient to fulfill their obligation. This should not be. If this describes you, consider the words of the 4th commandment as well as Hebrews 10:25, and take those words to heart. Don’t waste your Sundays on lesser things.
Lest we content ourselves with mere church attendance, the second thing that we are told is forbidden here is the “careless performance” of the duties required. We are guilty of this when we go through the motions (even the correct motions, so to speak!) in worship. In others words, just showing up is a good start, but it is not enough. Our hearts and minds must be engaged in what we are doing. This is the kind of thing that is spoken of by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah:
” . . . this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13, ESV)
They said all the right things, but it was all just for show; their hearts were not truly into it. How often do we commit similar sins in worship? How often do we say, pray, or sing all the right things, while our hearts are far from God? Probably far more often than most of us would like to admit. There is often much to be repented of and forgiven even in our worship!
The third thing that is forbidden in the 4th commandment is “profaning the day.” What does it mean to “profane” the day? Q.61 outlines a number of the ways that we might do so. The first of those is simply “idleness.” A day of holy rest is not a day of inactivity; it is not intended to be a wasted day!
Another way to profane the day is by doing that which is inherently sinful. Of course, that holds true for every day of the week, but you could say that the offense is aggravated or made worse by doing those things on the Lord’s day! We are certainly not supposed to live wickedly Monday through Saturday, while saving our holiness for Sundays (or for an hour or two on Sundays) – that is rightly called hypocrisy. But we should be especially mindful of resting from our evil works on Sundays.
The last way of profaning the Lord’s day that the Shorter Catechism mentions is “unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.” What does that entail? One obvious example comes to mind – watching sports on Sundays. Assuming (I hope) that we don’t just skip church altogether for the sake of watching our favorite NFL team, do we hurry home from church on Sundays so that we can watch the game? Or, perhaps I refrain from watching my favorite football team (yes, the Eagles) on Sundays, but do I still find myself checking on the score or following the game online? (Guilty as charged, at times.) Do we spend our time discussing work-related things unnecessarily?
Does that sound like an impossible standard to try to live up to? Does it sound unattainable? Sure it does. But what are we to do about that fact? Are we to throw our hands up in the air and give up on making any sincere or serious effort at obeying the law of God in these things? Certainly not. You would never dare to apply that logic to the commandment against adultery, would you? (I sincerely hope not.) Would you call someone a “legalist” because he or she took the implications of the 7th commandment seriously, and sought (however imperfectly) to refrain even from lustful thoughts? Of course not, right? Well, the same principles clearly apply to the 4th commandment!
So what are we to do? If need be, we must repent of our transgressions of the 4th commandment. If you have neglected the gathering together of the Lord’s people for public worship, resolve by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to do so no longer. Make worship on the Lord’s day your priority. And seek to delight in it as well (Isaiah 58:13). That is something that may take some time to cultivate and learn; and it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. But it is well worth the time and effort required.