Q: How do we keep the Sabbath holy?
A: We keep the Sabbath holy by resting the whole day from worldly affairs or recreations, even ones that are lawful on other days. Except for necessary works or acts of mercy we should spend all our time publicly and privately worshipping God.
Leviticus 23:3: Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is the Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places.
I want to affirm what I can affirm in this week's catechism before discussing what I cannot affirm. I do believe the Sabbath day is a day of rest. "Resting" is at the very root meaning of the word, "sabbath". The Scripture reference from Leviticus confirms this by telling us the seventh day is a day for "solemn rest". The Lord's Day should be a day where we rest from the labors and cares of our daily lives.
I also want to affirm that there are some necessary works that must be done on the Lord's Day. Now granted, "works of necessity" seems to have become a broader category as the ages have rolled on. Part of that is cultural. Where as 30 years ago, most stores, restaurants, and other places of business were closed on Sundays, we're finding that just about everyone is open and ready for business. Our culture and society has shifted away from a Sunday Sabbath mentality overall, and the reality is this makes things much more difficult for Christians, who have to make livings and work in this society, to refrain from their "worldly affairs". But I would challenge us all to consider deeply our priorities. I can't say whether someone should work or not on Sunday. Even within the Reformed camp, there are varying opinions about the Sabbath and how things have changed in light of our true Sabbath rest being found in Jesus Christ. But at the same time, I would hope that all of us evaluate the activities in our lives that can hinder us from participating in holy rest each Lord's Day. Maybe we need to be more willing to say to our employers, "I cannot work on Sundays." Maybe we need to be more forceful and intentional with our children's sports schedules. Yes, society has changed concerning its values on the Sabbath, but that shift in society is not a mandate for the church to change her values.
Furthermore, I want to affirm that the Lord's Day should be a day set aside for public and private worship. Again we see this confirmed in this week's Scripture passage, "a holy convocation", or in our own modern English, "a holy gathering", or "a holy assembly". The gathered worship of God's people is a vital part of keeping the Lord's Day holy. But so is private worship (which, quite frankly, we should be engaged in every day, not just the Sabbath). The personal reading of Scripture, prayer, small gatherings and fellowship with other believers, all of these are appropriate and right things to do on the Lord's Day.
What I cannot affirm is the language of "recreation". This term is far too broad. I've only sat in on a handful of Presbytery exams since serving as a pastoral intern, but I don't think a single person I've heard examined has not taken exception with this language of refraining from "recreation" on the Lord's Day. Does this mean we are not allowed to take a walk with our family? Does this mean I would not be allowed to enjoy a few hours on a trout stream fly fishing with my father? Does this mean that Calvin broke the Sabbath by coming home from his morning services and playing "lawn bowling"? And if the Divines did indeed mean such prohibitions, my question would be, "why?" On what biblical grounds are such prohibitions put onto the Sabbath?
I believe our tendencies towards "keeping the Sabbath holy" can easily slip into legalism if we're not careful. We tend to judge how we keep the Sabbath holy based upon what we refrain from doing. Instead, let's shift our focus from what we refrain from doing to asking ourselves, "What ARE we doing to keep the Sabbath holy?" Our mentality towards the Lord's Day should not be one of, "Oh well it's Sunday so that means I can't do this or that". No, our mentality should be, "It is the Lord's Day! Today I have the privilege to gather with God's people to praise our great and holy God, to remember and celebrate our risen Lord Jesus Christ! I have the privilege to rest from my labors, to refresh both my body and soul. What a wonderful gift God has given us when he gave us the Sabbath!" When we make this change, when we shift from legalism to seeing the Sabbath as a grace and benefit for man, then I think we will find that we are making much better progress in keeping God's command to "remember the Sabbath and keep it holy".