The Sabbath Day and Confessional Subscription
While this discussion has centered more directly around the Sabbath Commandment and the way in which it applies today what really lies at the heart of this conversation is how we as Reformed Christians see the role of the Law in the life of the Believer. How does the Third Use of the Law direct our lives as people saved from eternal death and translated to eternal life? The 4th Commandment provides a simple starting point because as our society has relaxed its civil commands concerning the Christian Sabbath the Church has seen fit to cast off its own standards on the matter. And as we have seen with the 4th Commandment so to we see the same relaxation in more liberal churches of the 7th Commandment and before this with the 2nd Commandment and regulative worship and the use of images (especially the so-called hippie Jesus), etc. The point of this short article is to ask a simple question. Why does the 4th Commandment (likewise the 2nd, but that is a question for a different article) evoke such casual and hermeneutically circuitous responses that we wouldn’t accept for any other of Christ’s Commandments?
Each Minister and Ruling Elder I am sure can go back in the records of their local congregation (assuming their church’s history extends to that point) and find at least one record of a member facing some sort of Church discipline over a particular violation of the Sabbath command. Now 21st Century society is well known to look back anachronistically and in a mocking tone to deride such “legalism” and shortsightedness. But the question that needs to be asked is not “Why were they so strict?” but “Why are we not?” I was by the grace of God drawn out of the apostate PC(USA) while in seminary thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit and the writings of John Calvin. One of the key things that pricked my conscience was the realization that the same hermeneutical and cultural arguments being made for homosexual ordination and then being critiqued by my evangelical professor (Dr. Robert Gagnon) were the same arguments I had heard defending the ordination of women by other evangelicals in the PC(USA). What is instructive about this experience for me when it comes to discussing the 4th Commandment and its abiding validity for the Christian today is how the arguments being made against the keeping of the Sabbath Day Holy as prescribed by our Confession and Catechisms would not be acceptable if used for any other commandment. For instance if you had a ministerial candidate that in his examination sought exception for WLC Q. 142 concerning the sins forbidden in the 8th Commandment because he believed it ok to “engross the commodities to enhance the price” in order to profit himself what would be the reaction of the court? How many would even know this was prohibited in our Standards? Likewise one of the more common exceptions I have heard is to WLC Q. 109 and its forbidding of making of images of the Godhead in our mind. Now the Scriptures are clear and the Reformed churches have always confessed it to be antithetical to the 2nd Commandment to not only not make physical representations of the Godhead but also to not “image” them in our own minds. Another good example of this is WLC Q. 139 because of its so-called “legalistic language”. We are reminded the Divines thought it necessary to repeat to Christians that if they were going to follow God’s commands concerning Adultery that it also included removing themselves from “all corrupt or filthy communications, immodest apparel…lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays…”. Now when this language in the Confessional Standards is brought up what do you think the response would be in a Presbytery? Laughter? Squinting eyes? Guffaws? The point is there is much in our Confessional heritage that we choose to ignore because we have allowed the culture to define our Confessional subscription and we don’t really know what we are confessing. That is to say in all this that what we find Confessionally necessary and that which we pawn off and list as being “out of date”, “legalistic”, etc is much longer than simply the 4th Commandment and is really at the heart of this debate. The 4th Commandment just provides an easy point of argument because it deals with something so central to the life of the Church.
What I would like to see come out of this is an honest and Biblical debate as to what purpose the Confession has for self-professed confessional Christians today. Even though we say in taking exceptions we promise not to teach these exceptions we however have seen that this is not the case. Do we really believe and hold to the Westminster Standards, the Confession of Faith and her Shorter and Larger Catechisms in toto or only to parts of them? If this is so why do those who think the Confessions are legalistic on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th Commandments not use our governmental structure to see these things changed, as the ARP, PCA, and OPC’s forefathers did with WCF 23? If again these words in our Confessional standards are legalistic and tend towards Phariseeism then those who find them unbiblical should see that they are removed from our Standards, because if they are not a Biblical summary of the truths of Holy Scripture we shouldn’t confess them. Because again this really isn’t about the 4th Commandment alone, but how we as Confessionally Reformed believers understand the Law, especially in its 3rd use, and our day-to-day lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” – Matthew 11:29-30
Rev. Benjamin P. Glaser is pastor of the Ellisville Presbyterian Church (Independent) and an Ordained Minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.