The Priceless Gift of the Lord’s Day
Written by William Macleod
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Reformed Practice - Sabbath Observation
Recently, in one of the better Christian periodicals, I read an article on the Sabbath Day which I very much enjoyed until I came to a paragraph towards the end. The writer had presented ten reasons why we need to celebrate the Lord's Day. They were excellent, well-reasoned, practical and edifying. Then came the following which in my opinion undermined all that had been said before:

But does this mean I can't watch TV, kick a football around on the lawn, travel, or buy a newspaper on a Sunday? We must be careful not to replace the pleasure and joy of keeping this day holy with legalistic rules that God has never given us. This is where the Pharisees went wrong. Rather we ought to approach the Lord's Day with a sense of delight by asking not, 'What can't I do?' but rather 'What can I do for God's glory on this special day?'


Legalism

How often the term 'legalism', or as here the adjective 'legalistic', is bandied about today! It is vital to have a clear understanding of this word. 'Legalism' is simply giving to the law a place it should not have. Essentially it is trusting in the law for salvation, looking to the observing of the commandments as a way to justify oneself in the sight of God. The Pharisees were legalistic as illustrated by the one whose prayer Jesus outlined: 'God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess' (Lk.18:11-12). The Pharisees saw others as sinners but themselves as righteous. Writing to Titus, Paul the ex-Pharisee states: 'Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost' (Tit.3:5). Legalism did not die out with the ancient Pharisees but is very much alive today. It is the natural religion of man. Most people think, 'If I keep God's commandments and do good I will get to heaven', but the Bible makes plain, 'There is none righteous, no, not one' (Rom.3:10), and the Apostle adds, 'By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin' (v20). So legalism is the opposite of evangelicalism – it is trying to save oneself by keeping the commandments.

Does that mean we do not need to keep the Commandments?

Many Christians today are hostile to the keeping of commandments. Some argue that we are 'not under the law but under grace' (Rom.6:14). The belief seems to be that observing the commandments does not matter since by God's amazing grace all our sins are washed away. Paul responds: 'Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness' (Rom.6:15-18). How could someone who is dead to sin live happily in it? And sin is simply the 'transgression of the law' (1Jn.3:4). Others argue that the commandments belong to the old covenant which has passed away and so are no longer binding. The Apostle however repeatedly makes plain that the moral law is still in force. For example when addressing children on their need to obey their parents he quotes as his authority the Fifth Commandment, 'Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth' (Eph.6:2-3).

But can we not be too pernickety in keeping the Commandments?

Jesus states: 'If ye love me, keep my commandments' (Jn.14:15). The implication is plain. We keep His commandments because we love Him and the more we love Him the more carefully we will keep His commandments. The details of the law are important. Jesus warned in the Sermon on the Mount, 'For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven' (Mt.5:18-19). The Pharisees and legalists keep the commandments in order to earn salvation and to gain favour with God, but the true Christian does so out of love and appreciation for all that the Lord has done for him. The care with which you keep the details of the commandments is a measure of your love to Christ.

But was there not a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over keeping the commandments?

Jesus and the Pharisees were often in conflict over commandments but it was always over human laws and additions of the Pharisees as over against the divine laws recorded in Scripture. For example the Pharisees asked Jesus: 'Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?' (Mt.15:2-3). The problem was that the Jews were making laws and giving them a position equal to God's laws – indeed in many cases above God's commandments. There was nothing in the Scriptures about washing your hands before you eat however beneficial the custom might be hygienically. Jesus also asserts: 'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess' (Mt.23:25). Sin is a transgression of God's commandments, not human customs or man-made laws.

But was there not a conflict over the Sabbath?

Some people think that Jesus did away with the Sabbath. The Jews surrounded the Fourth Commandment with many commandments of their own to try to strengthen observance. They failed to realize that it is just as evil a sin to add to God's Word as it is to subtract from that Word (Rev.22:18-19). When the disciples on the Sabbath were hungry walking through standing corn and plucked and ate the corn the Pharisees criticised them. When Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath they took counsel against Him how they might destroy Him because they viewed Him as a Sabbath-breaker (Mt.12:14). Jesus was teaching that there are works of necessity and mercy which are legitimate and appropriate on the Sabbath. Careful keeping of the Fourth Commandment actually involves caring for men and animals on the Sabbath. Jesus is our example in the way He kept the day holy.

Is it alright to watch TV on the Sabbath?

Watching TV could seldom be described as a work of necessity or mercy. This day is to be kept holy for the Lord. It should be spent, not in worldly entertainment – 'doing thy pleasure on my holy day' (Is.58:13). Rather it is a day to take a break from such things and to enjoy God. It's a day for the public and private exercises of worship. It should be spent in reading His Word and books based on the Scriptures, listening to sermons, meditating on God's mighty works, singing His praises, praying and fellowshipping together around the things of God. Sadly plenty of worldly thoughts enter our hearts anyway without adding to these from a TV screen.

What about kicking a football on the lawn?

I suppose the idea here is playing games with your children. But surely we have enough time for playing with our children on the other six days? Rather from their earliest years we should train our children to understand that the Lord's Day is different. Just as we don't do our weekly work on the Sabbath so our children should learn not to do their weekly games on that day. If kicking a football on the lawn is legitimate where does one draw the line? What if neighbours' children come along? There is so much pressure on our children to participate in Sunday sport. Rather let us strive to interest our children in studying the Bible and in getting to know God personally.

Sunday travel?

It is becoming increasingly common for Christians to use the Lord's Day for travel. Now sometimes necessity requires this, eg men who are preaching away from home or medical staff or relatives caring for the sick. But is it right to use the Lord's Day for holiday travel? The day should be spent in the worship of the Lord. Airports, trains, buses and ferries do not provide an environment which encourages worship. Hour after hour behind the wheel of a car is scarcely conducive to resting in the Lord. Let us spend the Lord's Day in the house of the Lord with His people and in our homes delighting in our beloved Saviour. Do not despise the Sabbath by using it for travel but show your love for the Lord by treasuring His Day as the best in the week, not to be wasted in travel.

Buy a newspaper?

How can any Christian find it an edifying way to spend the Sabbath, reading the gossip in the Sunday papers? Will this bring us nearer to Christ? Will it feed our souls? Will it help us to keep the day holy? Do we not have sufficient good reading material to keep us going on the Lord's Day? Never were there so many good books available as today and yet sadly the Christian public in Britain were never reading less. There are huge resources available to us both in print and on the internet and yet some Christians yearn after the celebrity news, features, sport, etc of the newspapers. Are they really Christians? It can't be right and will not bring blessing. Closely related there is another problem. Buying a paper requires someone to work selling papers. This is not a work of necessity and if we are buying such goods on the Sabbath we are encouraging others to work on that day in direct contradiction of God's law.

Conclusion

We should view the Lord's Day as a great gift and blessing given to us by God. The Sabbath was made for man (Mk.2:27) and we need it. Yes we must stress the positives, asking, What can I do on the Sabbath and how can I enjoy it more? But God's commandments all have a negative side too. There is a turning away from certain behaviour as well as a performing of other matters. No one sums it up better than the Lord Himself: 'If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it' (Is.58:13-14).

 

Rev. William Macleod is the pastor of the Knightswood Free Church of Scotland Continuing, in Glasgow, Scotland, UK. He is the editor of his denomination's magazine, the Free Church Witness, and is Principal of the Free Church Seminary, Inverness.  This article was previously printed in the Free Church Witness and is republished here with permission.