Friday, 13 February 2009

Recovering the Reformed Confession Part 7 - Keep the Sabbath Wholly

You might have heard these types of sound bites emanating from your evangelical friends:

"Sunday morning should be an overflow of your private devotions throughout the week."

"It's hypocrisy to break bread when you're private quiet times are a mess."

"Sometimes it's good to take time out from church just to have some alone time with you and God."

"It's not what you get out of church, it's what you put in."

"God isn't interested in Sunday Christians."

In true sound-bite fashion, they sound preachy, punchy and pious, but upon reflection in the light of the Reformed Confession they are more pompous, preposterous

In Chapter 8 Clark bemoans the loss of the second Sunday service in contemporary confessional Reformed churches. "Classical Reformed practice was to hold two worship services on the Lord's Day. In recent years, however, the second service or vespers has fallen on hard times. It is becoming more difficult to find a second service. Judging by anecdotal evidence, a significant number of Reformed congregations have eliminated the second service." (p293) He goes on to note that this is a problem "not really peculiar to our age" but rather one that has challenged Reformed churches since the establishment of the second service in "the earliest stages of the Reformation in the 1520s and 1530s." (p294)

Essential to a recovery of the Reformed practice of the second service are two conditions. "The first and necessary condition is to recover the confessional doctrine of the Christian Sabbath. The second and sufficient condition is our doctrine of the Word and sacraments as the divinely appointed means of grace." (p295)

Clark proceeds to give a biblical account of "the Sabbath" as something grounded in creation before it was ever re-published in the law of Moses. He says, "The sanctity or uniqueness of the seventh day is grounded in God's resting, that is, his 'stopping' and entering into his Sabbath rest. The entering into rest by Elohim is regarded by the text as a deliberate, message-laden act. It sends an implicit message to his analogues: 'You are my image bearers. I 'worked' for six days and rested the seventh. You do the same.'" (p299)

So Sabbath is a creational institution. Clark goes on, "Our Lord not only taught the permanence of the creational (i.e. moral) law (Matt. 5:17-19) and never repealed the creational pattern (which he himself instituted) of setting aside one day in seven, but he also kept Sabbath perfectly every day, having loved his Father and his neighbour (Rom. 5:19). Our Lord was crucified on (Good) Friday and spend the old Sabbath in the tomb, in another sort of rest. He was raised, however, 'on the first day of the week' (Matt.28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1)."

He continues, "The old covenant festival calendar was determined principally by redemption, so it is fitting that the new covenant calendar would be determined by the first act or the new creation (2 Cor.5:17; Gal. 6:15; Col.1:15)." (p303)

Clark also notes the historical pattern of the Christian Sabbath. Most surprising to me was his quotes from Calvin and Luther. Have you ever heard the claim that these two reforming giants were not Sabbatarians? Well if we're talking about typological Jewish Sabbath keeping, the claim is accurate. Yet in practice, they seemed to advocate the keeping of a Christian Sabbath.

Here's just one Calvin quote to whet the appetite:

If we turn Sunday into a day for living it up, for our sport and pleasure, indeed, how will God be honoured in that? Is it not a mockery and even a profanation of his name? But when shops are closed on Sunday, when people do not travel in the usual way, its purpose to provide more leisure and liberty for attending to what God commands us that we might be taught by his Word, that we might convene together in order to confess our faith, to invoke his name, [and] to participate in the use of the sacraments. (p314)

After discussing the history of the Christian Sabbath, Clark goes on to demonstrate the unified confessional approach to the Lord's Day. Despite some pitting the Heidelberg Catechism against the Westminster Standards, there is remarkable consensus.

Traditionally, I would have poo-pooed a chapter on the Christian Sabbath. My neo-Lutheran, New Covenant approach to law and gospel forbade me from dividing the law into civil, ceremonial and moral. I thought this distinction a quaint reformed innovation that lacked any real scriptural substance. To cut a long story short, I came to the realisation that, if you reject the threefold distinction in theory, you certainly end up applying it exegetically and practically. (For instance, what will the New Covenant exegete do with the command not to have sex with animals in Leviticus? Interpreted through Christ, it stays the same, i.e. a moral command to leave hamsters alone. Whereas, ceremonial washings and the stoning of adulterers are no longer binding laws.)

Also, horror stories from various parties (Isle of Lewis Presbyterians, West of Scotland Closed-Brethren) about Sabbath legalism and the absolute misery imposed on Christian kids by over-scrupulous parents made it convenient for me to jettison the whole idea. Nevertheless, if we view the Sabbath as merely the freeing up of a day to meet with God, hear his word and feed on Christ, while enjoying some rest, then surely that is a good thing? For a man like me, who burned out so spectacularly, I'm not so opposed to the idea of "The Lord's Day" anymore.

Clark then moves to the sufficient condition for the Reformed recovery - the means of grace. He basically argues that if our theology of how God gives grace to his people is flawed, then our attitude to church will be flawed. I used to think that "the quiet time" was the principal receptacle that God had ordained in the life of the believer for the accumulation of "grace and power". If you didn't pray every day, or have a solid time of Scripture meditation every day, then you were walking in disobedience and God would be pretty concerned about you.

On top of walking around with a whole load of guilt on my shoulders, this type of thinking also made church superfluous. What was the point of turning up on a Sunday if you could have just as good a time in private prayer or meditation? (By the way, if communion is merely "remembering the Lord", I can do that at home too).

Clark argues that the Reformed have always viewed God's means of grace as public and not private. The Heidelberg Catechism states that "The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts through the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it through the use of the holy sacraments." The Belgic Confession speaks of the sacraments as "the means by which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit." (p333)

Indeed even when the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q88 speaks of prayer as a means of grace, we should realise that it speaks of prayer "in the context of the public worship service." (p329)

This leads Clark to the startling conclusion that "perhaps attendance to the second service is actually a better indicator of spiritual maturity than are the calluses on our knees or the wear on our Bibles." (p330)

This type of statement would send your average "spiritual formation" evanglical into a tail spin. "What? You mean my prayer rope isn't a means of grace?" To which the Reformed reply is, "No, it's got about as much grace-giving power as a turd."

It would shock many but, in my opinion, it should lead to the liberation of many too (as it did me). God wants you off the evangelical treadmill. Stop trying to impress him. Stop timing your private prayers. Stop going to church with the attitude, "it's really what I put into it that matters." Stop seeing church as an optional extra, a mere appendix to your private spiritual life that you grace with your presence if you've got nothing better to do. Stop wondering if you should break bread because you don't do daily readings. Stop seeing the Christian life as a private thing between you and God. Stop burning yourself out on the Lord's Day with church activities which are not related to word/sacrament ministry.

Start rather, seeing church as the climax to the week. See it as a restaurant, not a gym. See it as a place where you feast on Christ and are given sustenance for the week. You're like Elijah, burned out after his exertions, with the Lord saying on Sunday, "Rest and eat (the body and blood of my Son), because the week is too long for you."

Ever since my Reformed conversion I come across the same response from my evangelical friends when I tell them about the means of grace, "That's amazing, I've never heard that before." Find out about this for yourself and read the book.


Petrus Dathenus said...


I too am enjoying reading Dr. Clark's fabulous work. Your thoughts are very helpful and edifying and your blog is well done.


Brad Lindvall

Ben, Melbourne said...

Dear Nick,

Thankyou for your posts on Scott Clark's book. I have just read it myself, and found it wonderfully refreshing and exciting, but it has been an added bonus to read the book in the light of your own perceptive comments.

Just one tiny bone to pick though. Now that you have Reformed convictions, do you not think that you may need to re-examine your opinion of confessionally Reformed bodies like the 'wee Frees'? I grew up in the Free Church myself, admittedly in Australia not on Lewis, and so am aware of the possibilities for legalism you speak of. At the same time, as I reflect on my early years and on the experience of people I have met from that background, there has continued to be a wonderful emphasis on the Gospel and a concern for a confessional approach to many areas of church life, especially worship.

It would be sad if, in the process of recovering the Reformed Confession for ourselves, we became guilty of a subtle super-spirituality that rejects genuine survivals of that tradition, though they may have inevitable flaws and excesses.

Nevertheless, keep posting Nick. You are an encouragement to many of us.

Nick Mackison said...

Dear Ben,
Good to hear from you.

Please don't misunderstand the tone of my review. I was merely stating that, in the past, I'd heard negative things about presbyterians on Lewis with respect to the Sabbath and that I'd been quick to believe these reports.

That doesn't mean I have a super spiritual attitude towards the 'Wee Frees'. Since my Reformed awakening I have come to love what they confess, to love what they write (especially the works of Donald McLeod) and to love their piety.

I would go so far as to say, Glasgow needs more Free Churches. So, in short, I am for these confessionally Reformed bodies you speak of.

Thanks for your kind words about my reviews tho!

Thanks for the encouragement.

In Him

Ben from Melbourne said...


Thankyou for your reply - I can see that I was reading too much into a passing comment.

Keep up the good work!


Victor said...

Great post! I agree with it for the most part. What I am not wholly convinced of is Dr. Clark's argument in RRC that prayer is also a means of grace. I am not a learned individual in the least sense but I have looked at Scripture and have yet to see where prayer is taught as a means of grace.