In the 2015 film Concussion, one character makes the following claim: “The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.” The sentiment of such a statement is clear: Americans love football more than the worship of God. While this to be expected of the unregenerate, what do we say about the church’s infatuation with football (or, to put it more broadly, entertainment)? Ian Crouch, writing for The New Yorker, points to this theme as a key component of the movie:
This might be the movie’s most subversive message: not that the NFL stood in the way of scientific research about the health of its players, but that it occupies a false place within the religious and patriotic beliefs of so many of its fans, whose Sabbath routines are timed perfectly so that Sunday service ends just in time for kickoff.
When Charles Spurgeon ministered, the church met three times on Sunday to hear the Word preached. In our day, even a second service is uncommon. But if we were to have an evening service every Sunday in this nation, there is no question which day would receive the lowest attendance: “Super Bowl Sunday.” R. Scott Clark has aptly written on that day of mourning. My focus here, however, is not on that one specific Sunday, but on our overall vision for the Lord’s Day, fifty-two times a year.
The Blessing of the Fourth Commandment
“How is the sabbath or the Lord’s day to be sanctified?” Thus reads the one hundred and seventeenth question of the Westminster Larger Catechism. Say what you will about them, the men who wrote these questions and answers took seriously the application of God’s Word to all of life. The answer to this question reveals a sobriety regarding the Lord’s Day that is lacking among many today:
The sabbath or Lord’s day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God’s worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day. (Westminster Larger Catechism)
Keeping the Lord’s day set apart (“sanctified”) as a day of rest finds its roots in the fourth commandment. The core of the fourth commandment is all about setting a pattern of work and rest: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:9-10).
Rather than “making it our delight to spend” the day in “God’s worship,” we sometimes balk at the idea of setting apart one day in seven. Oftentimes we view God’s commandments as hindrances to our joy. We think his rules are burdensome. But that is not how we should view any of his commandments, including the command to rest one day in seven. The writers of the Westminster Larger Catechism understood that we are prone to give too much time and attention to good, but not eternally significant, things. Thus, they urge us to apply the fourth commandment by resting from “worldly employments and recreations.” It may seem a strange thing to say that we need to rest from recreation and entertainment (movies, sports, social media, travelling, etc.). But those things, while perhaps proper in moderation, are prone to be used to excess. Having a day of rest from all those things is like having a built-in fast to help regulate our spiritual lives.
Instead of viewing the Lord’s Day as oppressive, consider it as the freedom from having to do anything else. We get the blessing of having the main part of the day consist of fellowship, prayer, singing, Bible reading, and theological discussion. Does this mean you cannot go for a walk? Bike ride? Go to the beach? I leave that for you to decide. In fact, husbands and fathers, that responsibility is especially directed to you as the “governor” of the family (see question 118 of the Westminster Larger Catechism). But before we simply say that “anything goes” because there is not a list of specifics in the Bible, remember the pith of the law: set a pattern of rest. Are the decisions we make about how we spend the Lord’s day based on a thoughtful, prayerful attempt to apply God’s Law? Or are we simply doing whatever comes naturally?
Christians have historically understood the Lord’s Day to be a blessing, not a curse. Nevertheless, men can make any law into a curse by twisting it. Jesus rebuked improper application of God’s Law when he chastised the Pharisees for binding men’s consciences where the Word of God had not done so. Therefore, I am careful not to bind someone’s conscience. I do not have a list of forbidden activities for the Lord’s Day. However, the law remains: rest. The application of this law—though they may have run a bit further than others—is where the Westminster divines excelled. I think the church would be best served by seeking to make the Lord’s day a delight and get as much out of our holy resting as we possibly can.
Setting Godly Patterns
The Lord’s Day is all about a pattern. It is to be the one day in seven which is distinct from the others. My wife teaches our children all the major subjects and one of the things they must learn is how to distinguish between things. You know the exercise. A series of items are presented and the young student must answer, Which one is different from the rest? Could our children do that with the days of the week? What is different about Sunday? Is it merely that there is a church service in the morning and then the rest of the day is no different than any other? Are we making full use of the blessing of having one day that can be set apart from the others, allowing us to be especially focused on the things of the Lord?
One of the greatest benefits to following God’s Word regarding resting on the Lord’s day is the pattern we set for our children. Our generation is becoming more and more illiterate and restless. The thought of sitting and listening to a theological book for even one hour seems almost barbaric when we have the curative technology of Netflix to sooth our troubled souls. In this fast-paced, immediate-gratification culture, one of the greatest blessings we give our children by training them to rest from certain recreations on the Lord’s day (and instead spending time being instructed from God’s Word) is that they are being disciplined to set a pattern of redeeming the time. A pattern that can stay with them for their entire lives.
Practical Ways to Keep the Lord’s Day Set Apart
Practically, what might it look like to keep the Lord’s day holy, especially for a family with young children? I offer my practice not as the standard, but simply as an example of someone trying to be thoughtful about this topic. The easiest way I can share our practice is to break it down by things that we only do (or do more of) on Sunday and things that we do not do on Sunday (which we would potentially do other days).
What We Try to Do:
- Have a time of instruction in the Bible and catechism in the morning prior to the church service
- Attend the public gathering of the church!
- Possibly invite fellow Christians over for a meal and fellowship (this time will usually include Bible reading, possibly of an entire book, and discussion)
- Read an entire book of the Bible as a family (sometimes just with my wife)
- Read an old sermon (Charles Spurgeon or George Whitefield)
- Conduct family worship (this happens every day, but we may spend more time on Sunday)
- Spend down time reading other theological books
- Discuss biblical doctrine with children, playing “Bible trivia”
What We Seek to Avoid:
- Watching secular television—that means no football (or soccer)! (We will occasionally watch Christian programs that are meant to instruct, but even these will be limited.)
- Doing home-school lessons
- Going out to eat (we want to rest and encourage others to rest as well)
- Going to commercial recreation sites (though a walk in the park or an outdoor picnic might be fitting)
- Doing house chores beyond what is necessary
- Playing board games with the children
Other ideas for things to do on the Lord’s day might include acts of mercy, such as reading the Bible at a nursing home or sharing the gospel in public places. As far as getting prepared for Sunday, W. Robert Godfrey said that among the Dutch Reformed Christians there used to be “a lot of reflection on getting enough rest…preparing Saturday evening, so that one comes prepared and reflective to the Word of God…[even] peeling potatoes Saturday night [in order to have less work to do on Sunday].” He also mentioned that some Scottish believers even waited until Monday to wash the dishes!
With four young children (ages 4 to 10), I understand that children can get restless. Despite the fact that our children have been trained (at least I’d like to think they have been!) to sit still for 30-60 minutes every single night for family worship, they sometimes need to stretch their legs, even on the Lord’s day. If we are not doing a specific time of instruction (reading the Bible or a sermon), they can go outside and burn some energy. In the end, no two families’ practices will look exactly the same. That’s not the point. The point is for Christian families to take seriously the good law that God gave his people: set apart one day to rest. What an opportunity we have to avail ourselves of the Lord’s day, spending it in fellowship with other Christians as we gather together to edify one another, resting from the normal pace of our lives, and redeeming the time by filling our minds with God’s truth. I believe that fathers should be leading their families every single day in biblical instruction, but even if every father only took one day (Sunday) out of seven and devoted it entirely to the instruction of his children in God’s Word, what a difference that would make for our nation!
Three Closing Points of Application
First, I recognize that some people’s jobs require them to work on Sundays. Sometimes this cannot be avoided in our society. However, as a culture, we should be seeking to return to the pattern that used to prevail in our nation: most places of employment were closed on Sunday. Charles Spurgeon once said that he would “do anything that is right to stop Sunday labor and sin.” He urged Christians to not “unthinkingly [keep] your fellow creatures at work when they ought to be at rest.” In fact, Spurgeon thought so much about this that he even urged Christians to think about how their behavior on Saturday nights might impact other people’s ability to set apart the Lord’s day. In one sermon he speaks of a fictional, but paradigmatic, laboring man who is too exhausted to fellowship on Sunday due to the habits of Christian shoppers late Saturday night:
“But sir, there is one more stone in my path [to taking Christianity seriously]. Can you take that away? I am so engaged in business that it is utterly impossible for me to attend to the concerns of my soul. From Monday morning to Saturday night, or rather till Sunday morning, it is work, work, work. And I scarcely seem to throw myself upon my bed, before I have to rise in the morning and resume my tasks. You invite me to come to your place of worship on the Sabbath morning. And do you wish me to go there to sleep? You ask me to come and listen to the minister. If you fetched an angel from heaven and gave him Gabriel’s trumpet with which he could wake the dead, then I might listen. But I require something almost as powerful as that to keep my poor eyelids open. I should be snoring while the saints were singing. Why should I come to mar your worship? What is the use of the minister telling me to take the yoke of Christ upon [me], because his yoke is easy and his burden is light? I know not whether Christ’s yoke be easy, but I know that the yoke the so-called Christian population puts upon me is not easy. I have to toil as much as if I were a slave. And the Israelites in the brick kilns of Egypt could hardly have sweated more fearfully under the taskmasters’ lash than I do. Oh sir, this is the great stone in the midst of my path and it so impedes me that it is all in vain for you to talk to me of Christianity while this obstacle is in my way.”
Spurgeon then addressed his hearers:
I tell you all, that this barrier is like the great stone that was laid at the door of the sepulcher of the dead Christ. Unless you try to remove it, where is the hope of getting these people under the sound of the word? It is for this reason that I came this evening to preach a sermon on behalf of the early closing movement…I do think, Christian people, that you ought to take this stone out of the path of those who are [outside of the church]. And to do so you must put a stop to that evil but common custom of visiting shops and houses of business at a late hour. If you make a man work so many hours in the six days (really it is twelve days in six, for what is it better than that when he has two days labor crowded into every one), how can you expect the Sabbath to be kept sacred by him?
If you have to work because your employer does not honor the Lord’s day (or you work in a field of necessity, such as law enforcement or healthcare), that is understandable. However, let us seek to do all that we can to keep the Lord’s day set apart.
Second, it is important for wives to respect their husband’s decisions regarding use of the Lord’s day, especially if the husband is seeking to be diligent in setting a pattern for the family. Inevitably, many decisions will be based on prudence, not law, and a wife may ask herself (or her husband), “Do we have to do it like this?” The answer to that question is probably, “No, it doesn’t have to be done like this.” However, God has placed the primary responsibility for keeping the Lord’s day holy on the head of the household (the husband). He must answer to God for how he has managed the family. Therefore, part of the wife’s duty is to joyfully submit to her husband’s leadership in this area, encouraging him in his decisions.
Third, if you have not been faithful in seeking to apply the fourth commandment in your home, do not despair. If you have young children, they will come to respect you for your consistency and earnestness. If your children are older, it may take some more time and patience to help set new patterns, but do not grow weary in well-doing. My three older children already understand the pattern. My four-year-old is still learning. When he says, “Can we watch Zoboomafoo?” the other children kindly remind him, “No, today is the Lord’s day.” It is encouraging to see them helping him to understand the pattern that we have set in our home. There is no need to argue or complain about what we will be doing on the Lord’s day. The pattern is set. And patterns are good things, especially those given to us by our Creator.