Sabbath as Discipline

going_to_church

 

In a lecture at the 1979 conference on Liturgy in Reformed Worship at Calvin College entitled, “Choir & Organ: Their Place In Reformed Liturgy,” Nicholas Wolterstorff stated the following:

Characteristically we Reformed people think of going to church as going to sermon. And we think of the sermon as marching orders. In what we do Monday through Saturday, we say, lies the proof and worth of Sunday. For us, the fundamental question to put to the liturgy is always: What did we get out of it?

But in biblical perspective there is clearly a second fundamental reason to assemble for the performance of the liturgy. It is right and proper—in the words of the old Latin Mass, dignum et justum—for us to acknowledge God’s majesty and goodness’s right and proper to sing praises to God for his works of creation and redemption, and for our status as new creatures in Jesus Christ. It’s right and proper to confess our sins. It’s right and proper to continue celebrating the supper of our Lord in memorial of him until he comes again. I know of course that it’s also right and proper to care for the poor of society, to work for peace, to build bridges, to create paintings. It must be said to the Reformed person—emphatically, because he’s so much inclined to forget it—that it is also inherently right and proper to perform the liturgy. This too is obedience. There’s profound truth in speaking of what takes place in our assemblies as a worship service. Worship, let’s not forget it, is part of our rightful service to God. Not only is liturgy for building us up unto obedience. Liturgy is for acknowledging God, in a tone of chastened celebration.

I said that one question to ask of the liturgy is: What did we get out of it? In light of what I’ve just said it’s clear there’s another, namely, How did we do? How did we do in our attempt to acknowledge God with praise and confession, with thanksgiving and intercession? Did we do it at all adequately?

In other words, worship, or the divine service of liturgy, is good in and of itself. Though they do receive as much, it needs no justification on the basis of what effect it has on the sinful agents involved. By extension, the Sabbath day, the day in which we both perform and receive the service, is good in and of itself, needing no justification for either its existence or observation. Worship is obedience. Worship is the primary and principle good work of the individual believer and corporate Church. Granted, Wolterstorff’s transformationalism zigs from two-kingdom zags with all that business about bridges and paintings. Eventually, this line of thought takes huge chucks away from his larger argument. Nevertheless, the point still stands however better propped up by two-kingdom views: the divine service, and its given day, is inherently, intrinsically, naturally and objectively good.

This seems fairly over against more modern notions that demand to know just what we get out of the Sabbath. It gives rise to what I call “Sabbath-as-recharge.” In this schema, the Sabbath is really not much more than a glorified day off. True enough, Sabbath can be located in creation and has its rightful place for creational rest. But as believers we have a citizenry in both kingdoms, it seems to me, and we must emphasize the redemptive bearing the Sabbath has. Sabbath-as-recharge seems to do several things.

First, it tends to neglect the redemptive dimension of the Sabbath for the creational one. In a post-resurrection age, the first day of the week for those who are believers is less about not mowing the lawn and more about living in obedient response to what it means to partake in the age to come. As needful as it may be to a certain extent, I find myself queasy when I hear believers prattling on about certain non/activities on the Sabbath, what should or should not be done. It seems to me that not only do these discussions over-emphasize creational concerns against redemptive ones, but more importantly, they sound like the concerns of latent legalists who, clamoring for rules,  forget that the gospel is about a life of response to the Law of God as covenant-keepers. Most assuredly, I am not one to think that duty and grateful response are mutually exclusive terms. Just ask my kids what their father expects every Sabbath. But whatever disdain I have for any notion of grace militating against obedience, I am equally appalled by legalism of any brand. I tend to think that those who see the Sabbath as recharge or therapeutic have children who “love church” because it has been re-fashioned for them and their felt needs; it is not understood as a spiritual discipline which can cause just as much angst as relief. I cannot help but think these may be the same parents who, taking them for little fools, tell their children broccoli tastes like candy. But children have a way of seeing through silly devices and vain attempts to circumvent obedience as a virtue.

Second, as it emphasizes our creational existence, Sabbath-as-recharge seems to end up casting a negative light on our six days. But the fourth commandant begins, does it not, with the command to work and labor? The point may very well be on keeping the Sabbath, but the point also seems built upon an affirmative command. And are we not also commanded to “be in the world but not of it”? The thrust may be to not be of the world, but it also is built upon a positive and good thing, namely to be in the world. Sabbath-as-recharge almost seems to depend on a formulation of our six days as a necessary evil. It is heard that Monday begins that steady decline into a labor hell bent on taking something precious out of us, looking ahead to the coming Sabbath to refresh and enliven us once again. Yet, as Calvinists we should know there is nothing precious within that deserves such coddling. Also, it is interesting to note that when God ordained the Sabbath he did so retrospectively, not in an anticipatory manner; after having worked, God rested. Moreover, just as the Pauline antithesis is between this age and the age to come instead of the Gnostic duality between body and soul, it would seem that our six days and Sabbath deserve the same distinction: the problem with this age—in which we find our six days—is that it is passing away, not that it is inherently evil. The Sabbath points us beyond this passing age to an enduring one. In this way, Sabbath-as-recharge seems to have more in common with a Gnostic dualism than a Pauline antithesis.

Third, if it is not busy casting our six days as a necessary evil, it ironically wants us to see the Sabbath as subservient to them. Wolterstorff again with some disapproval, “In what we do Monday through Saturday, we say, lies the proof and worth of Sunday.” In other words, what really matters is how we live our lives, not how we worship God. Some have observed this as the “worship-as-homeroom” perspective, where we are simply checking in to get our instructions for the coming week. Our six days and the Sabbath are flattened out, the latter being a glorified former in order to bolster them. This is where we get the bias against those who have a high view of the Sabbath as being “hypocrites who only care about what they do on Sunday but live the way they please the other six days.” Here the concepts of liberty are chucked for the tyranny of “what a good Christian should look like” on common days.

The Sabbath, then, does not “recharge” us, at least, not the way the sarx naturally thinks of such things. True enough, Wolterstorff rightly acknowledges the question, What did we get out of it? There is much to be said for the fact that sinners “get something” out of the divine service. We do well to counter that which one finds in the contemporary religious landscape that seems more in keeping with a spirituality of performance than a piety of response: “Ask not what God can do for you, ask what you can do for God” is more American than Christian.

That said, however, it should be rather odd to hear confessionally Reformed believers talk about the Sabbath and worship the way they talk about an activity done in creation. Many amongst us eschew, rightly, a worship service that apes forms of entertainment that are centered on meeting some inward and subjective felt need of sinners. Yet these same folks can be heard saying they “just can’t get enough word and sacrament.” Some are heard to defend morning and evening services to say, “The question shouldn’t be why two services but why not three or four or more!” In such utterances it seems that what ailed Aaron’s sons may be afoot; one thinks of that other Americanism, “If one is good, two is better!” But like the physician to his patient, God has prescribed what he has to sinners for specific reasons. We are certainly nourished by the Sabbath and its resident activities and non-activities, but not in the way we naturally think of being nourished. It seems to always be God’s way. In the theology of the Cross God is revealed by hiding. Paul speaks of God’s magnification through his own diminution. And we feast on proclaimed word, water, wafers and wine. In the same way that we are being sanctified, not improved, the Sabbath has its own objective value not readily discerned by sinners.

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25 Responses to Sabbath as Discipline

  1. John Yeazel says:

    “Moreover, just as the Pauline antithesis is between this age and the age to come instead of the Gnostic duality between body and soul, it would seem that our six days and Sabbath deserve the same distinction: the problem with this age—in which we find our six days—is that it is passing away, not that it is inherently evil. The Sabbath points us beyond this passing age to an enduring one. In this way, Sabbath-as-recharge seems to have more in common with a Gnostic dualism than a Pauline antithesis.”

    This is a very important distinction and something we should always keep in mind. It helps us to keep our priorities centered in the kingdom of God and not in this world which is passing away. That is a hard reality to keep ourselves in. Everything in us works against it. Only staying centered in the Word of God and tasting of the world to come on Sabbath can keep us in this reality which seems like an unreality here.

    You definitely accumulate a completely different perspective if you can stay there. The outhouse is a very lonely place but to those who can maintain their place there ,by the grace of God ,the rewards and insights seem to abound and continue. The problem lies in staying in this reality. The paradox is in that becoming a social outcast you truly find a reality that enables you to keep your sanity while in this world which is passing away.

    We are not called to be relevant but to be different. We beat to the drum of different drummer- it can look odd but to those who see the futility in this world which is passing away it can be very attractive, interesting and thought provoking.

  2. RubeRad says:

    And are we not also commanded to “be in the world but not of it”?

    You say that like there’s a verse.

    How did we do? How did we do in our attempt to acknowledge God with praise and confession, with thanksgiving and intercession? Did we do it at all adequately?

    So the answer “no”, and then what? It’s probably good to shift focus away from “what did I get,” but this formulation seems a bit law-y and works-y.

    “The question shouldn’t be why two services but why not three or four or more!” In such utterances it seems that what ailed Aaron’s sons may be afoot

    Or Peter: “OK then, give me a bath!”

  3. Zrim says:

    Rube,

    So the answer “no”, and then what? It’s probably good to shift focus away from “what did I get,” but this formulation seems a bit law-y and works-y.

    Sometimes I think we can over-react to things and render things “works righteousness” that really are simply about getting things right. This suggestion sounds a bit like those who charge Reformed with being doctrinnaire.

    But why should those who are steadfast in getting doctrine right not also be concerned with getting worship right?

    Yeah, you gotta love Peter, you just gotta.

  4. John Yeazel says:

    Zrim,

    I am intrigued with where you found that correlation between the Gnostic dualism and the antithesis in Paul’s thinking. Was that something that you thought up or did you read it somewhere? I have never heard that or read that anywhere and I think it is an important distinction to keep in mind. Is this one of the major distinctions between Gnostic thinking and Christian orthodoxy? That certainly is an interesting train of thought to follow.

  5. Zrim says:

    John,

    I think the safe answer, since I cannot quote any chapter and verse, is that it was the result of reflecting on what I have read concerning Gnostic dualism and the Pauline antithesis froma Reformed perspective.

  6. And by Sabbath you’re referring to Saturday right?

  7. Zrim says:

    Vic,

    Right. Not.

  8. 😀

    Why not just call it the Lord’s Day?

    This seems fairly over against more modern notions that demand to know just what we get out of the Sabbath. It gives rise to what I call “Sabbath-as-recharge.” In this schema, the Sabbath is really not much more than a glorified day off.

    Can one be content in assuming that the Lord is pleased with us faithfully attending to his means of grace regardless of what we do in between worship services or before and after them, be it rest or recreation? Or should the adoption of a different view be more forthcoming?

  9. Zrim says:

    Vic,

    Why not just call it the Lord’s Day?

    Sabbath, Lord’s Day, Sunday.

    Re the rest of your comment, I’m hesitant about such questions, I always feel baited. When it comes to the fourth commandment I’m more inclined to just keep with the Reformed principle that the Christian life is one of response (and not at odds with duty). Attending the means of grace is non-negotiable; what we do between times of stated worship is certainly not negligible, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that legalism is always crouching.

  10. Indeed Zrim.

    I wasn’t trying to bait you by the way.

  11. Zrim says:

    Vic,

    I know, just a learned response is all.

  12. David Cronkhite says:

    Zrim,
    Great post as usual.
    The Lord’s Day is a wonderful mystery, isn’t it? It is a good gift from God, where it seems latitude is given to work out our own salvation. It is so many things at once. Maybe one analogy is getting to have Dad’s one day of visitation after the great divorce of Genesis 3.

  13. Zrim says:

    David,

    Thanks. Yes, it is many things at once, good point. That is an interesting analogy. Sure won’t play well with pietists though. Now I like it it even more.

  14. RubeRad says:

    Why not just call it the Lord’s Day?

    SC 59: the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath. LC and WCF mention “Lord’s Day”, but Westminster primarily uses the word Sabbath.

  15. Vic says:

    Is calling the Lord’s Day the Christian Sabbath exclusive to the Westminster Assembly?

  16. Chris Sherman says:

    “And we feast on proclaimed word, water, wafers and wine.”

    I am wondering why the Sabbath/Lord’s Day does not fall under the category of sacrament. Is it not also a means of grace, given for us to partake?

    I realize WCF and the HC only qualify the Lord’s Table and Baptism as sacraments, but the Sabbath almost seems to fit the same qualifications.

    Just curious…

  17. Zrim says:

    Chris,

    You just signed yourself up for a task: ask a Reformed theologian this question and return back here to me with the answer–I’m curious, too.

  18. sean says:

    “feast on proclaimed word….”

    Now, someone’s just lying to themselves or trying to be funny.

  19. Chris Sherman says:

    ok, I asked Calvin. Here’s what he said in his commentary ( http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom23.ix.xviii.html) on Ezekiel 20:20

    “What he had said generally concerning the commandments he now applies again to the Sabbath, and not without reason. For, as we said yesterday, God not only wished by that day of rest to exact from the people what was due to him, but he rather commands it for another purpose, namely, that his Sabbaths should be sanctified. But the manner of keeping it holy was formerly explained, since mere rest was insufficient. God was not satisfied by the people’s resting from their occupations, but the inward sanctification was always the chief end in view. And for this reason he also repeats again, that they may be a sign between me and you to show you that I Jehovah am your God. In this passage God bears witness, that if the Jews rightly observed their Sabbaths they should feel the effects of that favor which he wished to be represented thereby. For we said that the Sabbath was a sacrament of regeneration: now therefore he promises the efficacy of his Spirit, if they did not shut the door by their own impiety and contempt. Hence we see that sacraments are never destitute of the virtue of the Spirit unless when men render themselves unworthy of the grace offered them.

  20. Zrim says:

    Thanks, Chris.

    While he says “the Sabbath [is] a sacrament of regeneration,” I’m not sure at all that means there are three sacraments. Is that what you were implying, that the Sabbath joins the font and table somehow, or did you mean something else, because the Reformers were pretty clear that there were only two.

  21. Chris Sherman says:

    Actually, I wasn’t intending on implying anything. I was just trying to come to some conclusions about Sabbath, prompted in part by your original post. I think I shall have to dig a bit deeper into what Calvin was saying.

  22. Chris Sherman says:

    There is a footnote in the commentary referring to this at ccel.org -but i am not sure who wrote it.( I’ll try to track it down)

    Dissertation Sixteenth

    THE SABBATH A SACRAMENT AND A MYSTERY.

    Ezekiel 20:13, 14

    We have already cautioned the modern reader of Calvin not to be startled at his assertion, that “the Sabbath is Sacrament.” We have in these days become so thoroughly imbued with the notion that; there can be but two Sacraments, that we reject at once the possibility of, third. This causes us again to call the reader’s attention in detail to the principles expressed in the note to the 20th verse of this chapter.

    A number of words occur in theological discussions which are not met with in Holy Scripture. Among these are the words Sacramentum, Persona, Trinitas, Unitas. If these were merely translations of equivalent Greek words found in the New Testament, all difficulty would cease; but they are not although they express the ideas of the Apostles correctly, if taken in the sense in which they were originally used. The Protestant of these later times, if he would understand them aright, should study their use in the Schoolmen, and by the leading writers of the Church of Rome, and then, approach the writings of the Reformers. Lawrence’s Bampton Lectures have already been mentioned: besides these, Bishop Davenant’s Determinationes of theological questions, when Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, are a valuable specimen of the subject-matter of theological dispute in the days immediately preceding his own. (See edit. 1634, and also 1639, in Lib. of Queen’s Coll., Cam.) The greatest mistakes have been committed by English writers on Theology in consequence of their unconscious subjection to a traditional phraseology. It may fairly be called a slavery to words. They have lost sight of realities, through anxiety for a verbal orthodoxy. This has led them to look for spiritual realities where riley are not to be found. In tracing the cause of this, we find it to arise from our receiving so many of our theological expressions through the Latin Vulgate. And not only are the words, but the ideas, of the Reformers tinctured by their education under the religious philosophy which they rejected. Calvin, for instance, in Ezekiel 20:16, uses the phrase “guttam pietarts;” in Ezekiel 20:20, “guttam fidei;” and in Ezekiel 20:19, “suis commentis inficiunt legem ipsius,” the two former expressions implying that piety and faith are qualities within the soul, measurable by quantity’ and the latter, that the fictions of man can in any way affect the purity of the law of God. Instances of this kind are here pointed out, that we may be aware of the principle on which Calvin’s expressions on many interesting points frequently rest. Other words as well as sacramentum are used by Calvin in a sense rather different from their modern meaning. For example, virtus and virtutes, doctrina and religio, occur throughout these Lectures, and sometimes need a circumlocution for their English equivalents. In Ezekiel 20:29 religio occurs for respect paid to idols, and “mysterium“ must be taken rather in its classical than its familiar meaning. The Greek μυστηριόν was translated “sacramentum“ in the copies used by Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose. Tertullian accordingly calls the doctrines of the Trinity and of our Lord’s Incarnation “sacramenta.” Prudentius uses it for “the whole Christian doctrine,” as St. Paul does the word μυστηρίον 1 Corinthians 4:1. It is sufficient to point out this difference in the use of terms, that no reader may judge Calvin hastily, but rather be led to discover the error or the unsoundness in himself. Those Reformers who were more strenuous Nominalists than Calvin, did not deny the realities of the faith but they thought for them where they are only to be found: not in rites, and words, and creeds, and ceremonies, but in the inner soul of man; in our moral and spiritual nature; in the character and revelation of God; in the teachings and guidings of the Holy Spirit; and in the renewed lives and peaceful deaths of all who are new-created in Christ Jesus their Lord.

  23. Chris Sherman says:

    more, sorry for the long posts (this one should have posted before the last one)

    274 At a period when the controversy concerning the efficacy of sacraments is revived with all its former virulence, and the authority of Calvin is often called in to decide between conflicting statements, the language of this passage is worthy of special notice. It would startle some of our modern critics to find Calvin calling the Sabbath “a Sacrament of regeneration.” In treating this class of subjects, it is essential to ascertain the exact ideas of the medieval controversialists, and to perceive how very different they were from our own. For example, Protestants of the present day would pronounce any man unsound who allowed of more sacraments than two, while Romanists would require all men to admit them to be seven; yet Calvin would have no objection to the assertion that there are seventy. He used the word for what is now currently expressed by the phrase “the means of grace.” All aids and helps to the cultivation of the life of God in the soul have been termed sacramental; and by using the word in a comprehensive sense, the assertion is strictly true. Sabbaths are to us, as well as to the Jews, means of grace, conducive to regeneration. Calvin also asserts that these means of grace are never destitute of the Holy Spirit’s virtue, except we render ourselves unworthy of the grace which they contain. ….

  24. Raymond Coffey says:

    How does one get a copy of Wolterstorff’s essay referred to in the original post? Is it available online? Thanks.

  25. Zrim says:

    Raymond, sorry, it was a hard copy given to me by a friend.

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