Monday 16 January 2017

The Westminster Standards and the Lord's Day (also known as the Christian Sabbath)

The Westminster Assembly which met over several years in the 1640's in London was the last of the Reformation synods to pen Reformed Catechisms and a Confession. This meant that, by being at the end of the line of theological development, that they were able to pen mature doctrinal standards building on the previous works of the Reformers. These works upon which they built, were Martin Luther and the German Reformation, including the Heidelberg Catechism. The Synod of Dort in the Low Countries which resolved the Arminian controversy, as well as the work of Zwingli, Bucer and others in Switzerland and elsewhere.

One of the "high watermarks" of the Westminster Standards was the clarity of thought and teaching on the Lord's Day, also known as the Christian Sabbath. It was in the Westminster Confession and the two Catechisms that this teaching reached a climax, most likely in the history of the church. The blessing of the Lord's Day, rightly understood and practiced, has shaped the Protestant church since, at least up until the last generation. An American Presbyterian minister told me in recent years that this is the first generation in North America (USA) where the whole church has not practiced the Lord's Day with two services. Why is that? This generation has more time than ever before, but seemingly less time for the worship of the Triune God.

"If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honourable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14

The Westminster Confession has a whole chapter (21) "Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day". The last two of eight points teach the Christian Sabbath. The Westminster Larger Catechism expounds the Fourth of the Ten Commandments (Remember the Sabbath Day) and there are seven questions and answers on this Commandment (questions 115-121). The Shorter Catechism similarly expounds the same Fourth Commandment with six questions (57-62).

An important question emerges for every professing Christian. Why do we go to church on the Lord's Day (Sunday)? How do you answer that question? The correct answer from the Bible is that we go to church on the Sabbath to worship the Triune God by the command of God. To wilfully and persistently to fail to do so, is putting yourself in the danger of what the Bible calls covenant unfaithfulness. However, this commandment is for the profit of our souls, it is to be a delight; the whole day is to be put aside for the personal and public exercises of worship, communion with the Lord and with his saints. In short; Call the Sabbath a delight!

Two of the Puritan divines who excelled in their teaching on the Lord's Day were Thomas Watson and George Swinnock.

George Swinnock: “A thanksgiving day has a double-precedency of a fast-day. On a fast-day we eye God’s anger; on a thanksgiving day we look to God’s favour. In the former we specially mind our corruptions, in the latter God’s compassions; therefore a fast-day calls for sorrow, a thanksgiving day for joy. But the Lord’s day is the highest thanksgiving day”.

Thomas Watson: “How highly should we esteem and reverence this day!. It is more precious than rubies. God has anointed it with the oil of gladness above its fellows. On the Sabbath we are doing angels’ work, our tongues are turned to God’s praises. The Sabbath on earth is a shadow and type of the glorious rest and eternal sabbath we hope for in heaven, when God shall be the temple and the lamb shall be light of it”.

My aim in this blog post is the recovery of the joyful delight of honouring the Lord's Day by Christians everywhere. This includes church ministers and elders. The practice of a single service on the Lord's Day by churches today, is a sign that much recovery of Christian truth is needed. Our priority in the church is first to please the Lord, not people. People may say I am not interested in the Lord's Day or in two services, but churches must do what Jesus Christ said in Revelation 2:25 "Only hold fast what you have until I come".

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