Granting an exception because some variance is considered non-essential is one thing. Changing the language of the Westminster Confession to match our preference for what we want to do on the Lord’s Day is something different altogether. Creating a version of the WCF that would be unique to the PCA is not a move to be considered lightly.
The North Texas Presbytery of the PCA has overtured the PCA General Assembly to appoint a study committee to revise the Westminster Confession of Faith’s language regarding the Sabbath. The reasoning is simple: It has become fairly common practice for Presbyteries to grant exceptions to men coming for ordination who object to the WCF’s prohibition of “worldly recreations” on the Lord’s Day. Furthermore, church leaders seem confused about what the WCF means by “worldly recreations.”
I’m deeply concerned. Granting an exception because some variance is considered non-essential is one thing. Changing the language of the Westminster Confession to match our preference for what we want to do on the Lord’s Day is something different altogether. Creating a version of the WCF that would be unique to the PCA is not a move to be considered lightly. Yes, our Book of Church Order does provide a way to amend the WCF and we all agree that the WCF is not Scripture. But our standards have only been changed twice in the past 360 years and they have never been altered by the PCA, which is only 40 years old.
Perhaps we ought to back up and think about what’s wrong with “worldly recreations” on the Lord’s Day in the light of what we’re called to do on the Lord’s Day and always. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Yet this does not give us some license to do whatever we please on the Sabbath. All of God’s commandments are given to us for our good. In this respect, the Fourth is no different from the other nine. Yet just because God gives us His moral law as a gift to bless us does not mean we can manipulate the law to serve our desires.
The Fourth Commandment is one of two positive commandments in the Decalogue. God calls us to “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” This means that the whole day is set aside for God and is not just another ordinary day. We are then told that, in order to keep the command, we must rest from work ourselves and grant rest to our family members, servants and all within our communities. (“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.“)
What is significant about the current state of the PCA is that the common exception granted is for “worldly recreations” and not for work. Perhaps this is because the language of the Fourth Commandment is so clear (“On it you shall not do any work”) that we hesitate to grant an exception that so directly contradicts the explicit words of the command. Yet we are not told in the Fourth Commandment to only grant rest to ourselves. On the contrary, the rest is to include “your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.”
Surely “the sojourner who is within your gates” is likely not a believer and will not honor God on this day anyway, so why not let him work? Why concern ourselves with whether or not the stranger rests?
To help us consider this, let’s consider this question: How do the two great commandments relate to the Fourth Commandment? The two great commandments – to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul & strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves – are the summary of the whole moral law. How do they relate to the Fourth Commandment?
Well, if we love God and we know that He has made a certain day holy, first by creation and then by the re-creation of the resurrection, how can we refuse to honor the day as holy? What does it mean to love God if we will not honor the day He has set aside for worship and rest? Is it too much to give the Lord the whole of one day in seven? If we say it is, what can we possibly mean when we say that we love Him?
Likewise, if we love our neighbors as ourselves, how can we rightly deny to them the rest which we grant ourselves on the Lord’s Day? How is it loving I rest from labor myself but refuse to grant such rest to my neighbor?
What is love? Love is doing what is best for my neighbor, seeking to meet my neighbor’s needs, even at great cost or inconvenience to myself. The Fourth Commandment tells me that what is best for my neighbor is to rest on the Lord’s Day. This is especially true in the light of Jesus’ words that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” If the Sabbath is a gift for my good, why would I withhold the gift of Sabbath rest from my neighbor?
The biggest objection I have to “worldly recreations” is that people seem eager to engage in leisure activities that do not focus their own hearts and minds on the Lord and that require others to work in order to serve them. From where I sit, that looks an awful lot like a failure to love God (“Do I really need to think about God all day long, just because it’s His day that He calls me to keep holy?“) and a failure to love neighbor (“I am not going to work on the Lord’s Day, but the restaurant people, the department store people, the football people, etc. can all work to serve me and make sure I’m well-fed and entertained.”)
The call to keep the Fourth Commandment is really nothing less than a call to love God by honoring His day and to love others by giving them rest. “Worldly recreations” are to be avoided because they keep us from this call to love. The way to overcome legalism is not to engage in self-indulgence but to focus our hearts and minds on love grounded in gratitude for God’s good gifts, including the gift of the Sabbath.
Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Faith PCA in Cheraw, S.C. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.