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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Are We Required to Attend Church on Sunday?

The very fact that we have to address this question, even in evangelical circles, demonstrates the true measure of the church’s worldliness. It is not a superstitious attachment to days, but respect for the Lord’s generous service to us, that gives us one day in seven to be swept into the drama of redemption. When the holy day is reabsorbed into the common week, the church is bound to be reabsorbed into the world’s bloodstream.

In the Old Testament, the weekly Sabbath is anchored in creation (Ex 20:8-11) and God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt (Dt 5:12-15). The apostolic church met on Sunday, “the first day of the week,” also identified as “the Lord’s Day” (Jn 20:19, 26; Ac 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10).

After the apostles, the twin dangers of antinomian neglect of the weekly assembly and “Judaizing” legalism already reared their head. Addressing the latter problem, Ignatius reminds the Magnesians, “If then, those who lived in antiquated customs came to newness of hope, no longer keeping the Sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s day—on which also our life arose through him and his death (though some will deny it), and by this mystery we received the power to believe…(Mag. 9:1). At the same time, the Lord’s Day continued to occupy its princely status in the weekly schedule. Constantine declared it an official day of rest in 321, launching a civil application of the fourth commandment that lasted even into twentieth-century Europe and the United States.

In the medieval church, myriad regulations—civil and ecclesiastical—had been attached to the Lord’s Day, along with a host of celebration, holidays, and rituals that Scripture does not authorize. The Reformers rejected this return to the shadows of the law. In fact, Luther tended to distinguish sharply between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Yet he called each Lord’s Day “a little Easter.” It is not the day itself that sanctifies, but the ministry of the Word. For that very reason, though, his Larger Catechism insists upon the regular participation in the weekly assembly.

Calvin saw a threefold purpose for the Sabbath institution: 1) as a sign of the final rest that would come with Christ; 2) to maintain church order, and 3) to offer relief for workers. Calvin’s view (Institutes 2.8.31-32) is essentially the same that can be found in Luther’s Large Catechism.

Both reformers argue that while the moral obligation continues, the ceremonial aspect of the commandment, including the rigorous restricts attached to it, are abolished in the new covenant. Like Luther, Calvin emphasized that every day believers receive Christ as he is given in his Word and that we would attend daily services if we were not so sluggish. Knowing our weakness, God sets aside one day for the ministry of Word and sacrament. The same view is found in the Heidelberg Catechism:

First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath (Q. 103).

In addition, our Church Order (originating at the Synod of Dort) states that although the consistory may call for other gatherings on special occasions, “Worship services shall be held in observance of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost…” (emphasis added).

The Westminster Confession embraced explictly the “one-in-seven” principle, anchoring the Christian Sabbath in creation, “to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week; and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.” There is no list of forbidden activities, but the general requirement to exchange ordinary “worldly employments and recreations [that] are lawful on other days” for “public and private exercises of his worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (Ch. 21). The Confession allows for public services “on special occasions,” but Puritans generally opposed the celebration of Christmas and other holy days. When one examines the ways in which these days were abused (not unlike today), this approach is quite understandable.

Reformed churches came to argue that Christ’s resurrection was sufficiently epoch-changing that it moved the weekly Sabbath to Sunday. Dutch Reformed theologian J. Douma warns, however.

The distortion of the Sabbath given in the casuistry of the Pharisees finds its mirror image in various casuistries related to what we may and may not do on Sunday. Every gospel—whether concerning the exodus from Egypt or concerning Christ’s redemption—can be made into a law.” This happened in the church, especially during the Middle Ages, “because the church no longer grasped the gospel of the fourth commandment. And this, after Christ’s own instruction about the Sabbath, is even more blameworthy” (121-2).

Paul warns against the superstitious attachment to holy days (Rom 14:5), particularly when people fail to realize that the old covenant Sabbaths and festivals were pointing to Christ as the reality (Col 2:16-17; see also Gal 4:10). This is the point, too, of Hebrews 4: an everlasting rest in Christ, that is signified by the various sabbaths under the old covenant. The Lord’s day is never said explicitly to be the Sabbath in the New Testament, but the fact that the former is set aside by the apostles singles Sunday out as the divinely ordained festival of Christ’s resurrection. As J. Douma points out, these passages clearly indicate that “the Jewish Sabbath has ceased” (136). He adds a comparison with circumcision:

Christ is the fulfillment of circumcision. The shadow has disappeared; but precisely for this reason, something else could replace the Old Testament sacrament, something which, just like circumcision, signifies and seals the covenant: baptism. Christ is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. That shadow too has disappeared, but in its place something else could arise which, just like the Sabbath, commemorates liberation. Anybody wanting to maintain the fourth commandment without keeping time with the clock of redemptive history must stick with the Jewish Sabbath. But then such a person will catch no glimpse of the true, liberating intention off the fourth commandment…The shadows of circumcision, Passover, and Sabbath made room for the signs of baptism, Lord’s Supper, and Sunday (137).

The key to a Christian use of the Lord’s Day is not drawing up a list of what can and cannot be done, but to give the whole day to basking in God’s Word, loading ourselves up with the treasures of Christ. Churches themselves are making this more difficult, as they trim down the public worship to a single service of an hour or so. Some churches suspend worship on “Superbowl Sunday”; others incorporate the new holy day into the service. Yet even in “rightly ordered” churches, the question has to be asked, especially by pastors and elders: Are we preparing a feast each week or are we contributing to the trivializing of the Lord’s Day and then blaming the people for not taking it seriously enough?

The Puritans called Sunday “the market-day of the soul.” On this day, we come and buy wine and meat without cost. We set aside our ordinary activities and past-times; we are not primarily doers but receivers on this day, although there may still be works of necessity and mercy. What are we indicating about where our ultimate treasure lies when we give ourselves to sports, shopping and entertainment on this day? Has nothing changed with Christ’s resurrection from the dead? Is there no new creation and new family to which we belong, with Christ as its first-fruits and head? Are there no means of grace through which the age to come is breaking into this passing age? Is there no place on earth today, no time in our weekly routine, in which the Spirit is at work uniting sinners to Christ, justifying and renewing them by his Word? It has become fashionable to pit “being the church” against “going to church,” but there is no church for us to “be” apart from the assembly that God is erecting in the wilderness by his Word and Spirit. We go to church to receive the means of grace, precisely so that we can be the church in the world.

There are Ten Commandments, not Nine. The ceremonial and civil laws attached to the moral law are no longer binding, but the moral law itself remains in effect forever. We can no more reject or treat lightly the fourth commandment because of legalistic distortions than we can dismiss the other commandments against murder, adultery, theft, and so forth. Charles Hodge observes, “The fourth commandment is read in all Christian churches, whenever the decalogue is read, and the people are taught to say, ‘Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law'” (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 1946], 324). If God has commanded something, it is to be obeyed; abuse of the command doesn’t abrogate it. John Murray puts the question well: “Why should insistence upon Sabbath observance be pharisaical or legalistic? The question is: is it a divine ordinance? If it is, then adherence to it is not legalistic any more than adherence to the other commandments of God” (“The Sabbath Institution,” Collected Writings, Vol. 1 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976], 214).There is a wide spectrum of interpretation even in Reformed and Presbyterian circles today with respect to the Lord’s Day. As I’ve indicated above, that is nothing new. Calvin would not have countenanced the sort of sabbatarian casuistry exhibited in Puritan New England any more than Luther approved the lax observance of the Lord’s Day in sixteenth-century Germany. I have changed my own position in (The Law of Perfect Freedom), convinced now that the Lord’s Day is grounded in creation as well as redemption.

    Nevertheless, we should all be able to agree on the following points:

  • The New Testament prescribes the Lord’s Day as the weekly gathering of the Lord’s people for the means of grace and public worship;
  • The New Testament insists upon the regular attendance upon these public means of grace. We need a whole day to be bathed again in the powers of the age to come in the communion of saints;
  • The moral intent of the fourth commandment remains in effect, but the ceremonial and civil aspects are absolete;
  • The ceremonial aspects are obsolete because the types and shadows have been fulfilled in the reality, which is Jesus Christ. Any celebration of the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day that is not filled with this festive delight in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel is just another superstitious ritual.
  • The carelessness for the Lord’s Day is ultimately a carelessness for the means of grace and the communion of saints, which is part and parcel of the Gnostic and antinomian spirit of our age. Christ has not done away with forms, structures, and tangible means any more than he has surrendered his body to the grave. As B. B. Warfield expressed the point, “Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought the Lord’s Day out of the grave with him on the resurrection morn” (“The Sabbath in the Word of God,” ed. John Meeter, Selected Shorter Writings—I [Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970], 319).