While our family lived in Victoria, a campaign called S.O.S (Save our Sundays) was launched by some prudent shop proprietors and other business leaders to try to curtail Sunday trading. Most of those involved were Christians and their reasoning was Biblical and clear: To prevent legalised slavery for both workers and proprietors. Their basic premise was that God Himself had given every one, great or small, a day of rest, thus neither employers nor public demand should be allowed to rob people of it. Despite being a classic David and Goliath scenario, the campaign met with some success and it was a significant factor in helping to prevent the total abandonment of the Sabbath to commercial interests.
Sadly some of the opposition to S.O.S. came from Christians, two main arguments being voiced most often: Firstly that it was a form of legalism to force all people including non-Christians to observe the Lord’s Day, secondly that “you can’t enforce morality”. Though these objections to the prophetic task of the church tend to make the consistent Christian’s platelets bubble and boil, they must be answered none the less, especially as similar notions everywhere abound.
The latter statement is heard so often in regard to any attempt to restrain evil in society that it almost has the force of truth. If morality cannot be legislated then we can have no law at all, for what is law unless it is the regulation of moral behavior? Surely it is a moral requirement that we do not kill, rob or slander our neighbor. However these laws cannot make men good, they simply protect the weak from the (potential) criminal or oppressor. Retaining Sabbath laws which reflect Biblical law, protects those who would otherwise be made slaves.
As for the charge of legalism, since the Sabbath was given for the good of men, keeping the Lord’s Day is nothing short of practicing mercy. Ultimate benefit for mankind is derived also through the steadfast keeping of the day by the consistent Christian, providing a constant witness which recalls the miracle of creation and the greater miracle of salvation thus reminding men of their Maker and their Redeemer. This too is a mercy since men will frenetically keep doing their business despite heading towards destruction as in the days of Noah, when they also refused to observe anything they did not ‘believe in’.
In any case, the charge of legalism in our times constitutes a straw man since we would be fooling ourselves if we claimed that over observance is a serious problem among Christians today. As JC Ryle points out, the reality is that we are generally lackadaisical rather than zealous when it comes to keeping the Sabbath holy. The good bishop is rather incisive when describing ‘modern’ attitudes to Sabbath keeping, yet he penned his observations over a century ago.
It is common temptation to practice ‘loop hole’ theology whereby we seek to have our cake and eat it too; we heartily advocate a rest from our daily (paid) work yet we do not rest from all sorts of other work and worldliness. The Lord’s day is seen as a day of recreation, pleasure, socialising, or even just idling. For some there is qualm about using the time to prepare for the ensuing week, whilst “pulling the bull out of the pit” constitutes the Rolls Royce of loopholes when we seek to do some really serious Sabbath breaking! Since “keeping the Sabbath holy” remains the fourth the commandment, it must have continuing significance for us today and we cannot casually brush aside our duty concerning it. Many volumes have been written on the theological questions of how much this law has been fulfilled in Christ, the changing of the day from the seventh to the first day of the week etc. These can be interesting, controversial or purely academic however what is pressing for us is how should we, as covenant families, ‘remember’ the day?
Children can sometimes see our duty to God as a burden and keeping the Sabbath is a prime issue of contention. Many folk tell of being restricted to boring or petty activities in the past which more often than not caused chafing against the ‘stiff collars’ and practices of the day. This is a pity and a lost opportunity since the patters and attitudes that are established in childhood are often established for life. As my dad used to say “everything we do is by habit, so we ought to have good habits.” It is thus needful to teach children why we keep the Sabbath so that they will keep a good habit and pass it on to the next generation. It is the distinguishing mark of the God-fearing community that seeks to honor the Lord by keeping a day of rest and worship. The rush of secularism ever threatens this privilege we have. Most important is to engender a love of the Lord’s day and to look forward to it with gratitude. A while ago a busy mother commented to me that before she returned to a faithful habit of regular worship (she had back-slidden during her student days), she treated the Lord’s day like any other day. She had no break from her exhausting routine. The reintroduced day of rest and worship was a very real blessing and it became the highlight of her week. She often-times almost wept with relief, Sunday could not roll around soon enough! From her perspective, it was not deprivation but a joy. This attitude of thanks-giving and joy we need to demonstrate in our homes.
There are some wonderful and practical ways we can do this. One family that I know always celebrates the Lord’s day by having a special breakfast. Although this is a simple joy, it is one that is making a deep impression and a family memory is being created. Godly traditions help teach Christian life patterns. Since we are looking forward to the Great Marriage Feast with the Bridegroom, special fare should be part of the fore-taste of our eternal Sabbath rest. Just as the Lord Jesus was generous with both quality and quantity of wine at the wedding at Cana, so we see our faith is not a mean one, not one which forbids tasting and handling, rather God gives life in abundance. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full:” (Jn 10:10b) The traditional Sunday roast is doubtless a relic of that idea.
The sense of celebration is heightened by us wearing our Sunday best which reflects the donning of wedding garments. We would be ashamed and feel out of place if we wore work or sports clothes to an earthly wedding, especially if the bride and groom were dear friends or family. Surely we would not wish to insult the happy couple or their family by a slovenly appearance! How much more would not we want to please and glorify our heavenly Father and His Son, the Bridegroom with a demonstration of honor and respect. That would be a joyful response and the overflow of a glad and thankful heart. So why not wear those garments that are set apart for the occasion of meeting together with the other guests, our brethren, the house of God.
A party is just not a party without music and song. A great God-given means of recalling God’s gifts and mercy to us is to sing of them. This is why God filled His Scripture with songs: the song of Moses and the sons of Israel, the song of Miriam, the Psalms, the songs of Mary, Zechariah, Simeon and of course the song of Moses and the Lamb. When we sing together we rejoice as families or covenant communities, marveling at God’s goodness to us. Even when we sing of our sorrows, our hearts are lifted to remember the Lord. At our house, no matter how lack-lustre the singing may begin, we mostly go for longer than intended, always having to sing “just one more please, its my favorite!” It is a wonderful way to mark the Lord’s Day.
Despite the chafing of forced inactivity as retold by disgruntled forebears, there is a proper place also for quiet rest. Reading or even napping (not during the sermon however!), are needful to revive and renew our vigor. Why should we feel guilty about using the day to rest physically? Surely the Lord knows all our frailties and needs and provides for them as One who shared our humanity. (Heb.2:17) Those who can not or will not rest eventually succumb to stress reduced illness, such as heart attack, stroke, ulcers, etc., surely that is one of the signs of our times. (Is.57:20,21) People are driven by ambition or avarice to working around the clock, yet even sadder are those who never rest from fun and leisure. There are those who socialise until the wee hours, haunt the gym, jet-set or even risk their lives climbing mountains and diving to the depths of the oceans, searching for relaxation at a break-neck pace!
Children can assuredly benefit from the discipline of quiet restraint, learning also to be considerate of others. A friend remarked to me that she was very impressed with the children of Hong Kong where she lived for a time as a missionary wife; because of the very limited space available, children learned at a very young age to respect other people’s ‘space’. One Chinese mother needed to tend a stall whilst caring for her children. Her youngest child’s world consisted of a kitchen chair, on which he even slept! In contrast, my friend found the amount of space needed by the children of her own country and the noise they generated quite astonishing and not a little un-nerving. Teaching children to sit quietly during worship services can be disruptive to others but if the training begins at home during regular quiet times as part of the Sabbath observance, much of the difficulty can be avoided.
There may be other ways that the Sabbath can be used ‘profitably’ for the glory of God and to promote Godly character. The day should not be squandered or endured but used to do good (Matt. 12:12). Are we compelled by fear of law to keep the Christian Sabbath holy? As our Lord Jesus pointed out, the Sabbath was made for the man not man for the Sabbath! God intended it for our good and thus it is a great blessing. The sons of Israel had to be compelled to keep the day holy because they were in the shadows. They did not have as we do, the full revelation and knowledge of the completed work of Christ. With that greater knowledge and privilege comes greater responsibility. Do we need to be driven to that great fountain of rest? When we enjoy our Sabbath it is a foretaste of our heavenly rest (Heb. 4:9,10). But we also rest now in the completed work of Christ. What is demonstrated by our obedience is trust and gratitude, which is the opposite of legalism or Pharisaism. S.O.S was a well chosen banner for the battle to preserve Sunday as a day or rest and worship, for by saving our Sundays it will also ‘save our souls’ by preserving the privilege of going to the house of the Lord. This is life and health and peace!
Your Sister in Christ
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised May
2000 / Copyright 2000