Remember the Sabbath

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There was time again to go to church and keep the rest of the day “apart”—just like in the days of my supervised youth. But I wondered, is doing nothing the best way to keep a day holy?

I don’t recall my parents sitting me down to explain just what we kids could and could not do on Sunday. We learned by example and fell in step with the prevailing home and church standards. Sometimes we learned the hard way: a reprimand, a scolding, a shaming.

On Sunday mornings we marched to and from church for our weekly dose of three points and an application. After eating the roast and roasting the sermon, we lapsed into languor until it was time for the evening service. For kids, there was little about Sunday to look forward to. It was a day of refraining, of avoiding, of not doing.  

As we grew older, we chafed at the restrictions and argued with our parents, wanting to know why our friends’ folks sometimes drove their car into the countryside on a Sunday afternoon while we had to stay home to read the Sunday school paper or play Chinese checkers. Buying groceries on Sunday was out of the question, as were throwing a softball or riding a bicycle.   

The fabric of my piety became progressively tattered as I grew into adulthood. I became a doctor-in-training and discovered that illness and calamities are not acquainted with the fourth commandment. Once established in practice, though, my life became more orderly and predictable. There was time again to go to church and keep the rest of the day “apart”—just like in the days of my supervised youth. But I wondered, is doing nothing the best way to keep a day holy? 

While walking in our garden one Sunday afternoon, marveling at God’s way with tulips and daffodils, a cluster of dandelions challenged my piety. As I tugged at the stubborn roots, the rectitude of my youth tugged at my conscience. Guilt-induced disquiet waged war with a longing to be free from legalism. I wondered how to square Yahweh’s explicit carvings on Sinai’s stone tablets with the lessons his son taught on the subject centuries later: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” 

I have gone from pulling weeds on Sunday to pruning back unruly shrubs and even, on occasion, to mowing the grass. After church we sometimes join friends for Sunday brunch at a restaurant. I do not wear a WWJD bracelet, but I do wonder how Jesus would react. Pulling weeds and eating out are not matters of necessity like healing leprosy or staving off starvation. Would Jesus condone my “work”—though it feels like play—in the garden? What about playing a round of golf?

At what point do we Christians lose our distinctiveness from unchurched neighbors, from the self-serving, consumer society we live in? Help me, Lord, to determine your will for my life.

About the Author

Hank Ottens is a retired orthopedic surgeon and an active gardener, photographer, and singer. He attends Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Mich.

See comments (4)


I am disappointed that in all the years we spend going to church and studying the Bible and it's application for our life we still have such a misunderstanding of the purpose of something as simple as the Sabboth.  If nothing else we know that the Sabboth is a all recreation of the creation.  Six days labor and one of rest.  However this rest is not about recovery, it's about sufficiency.  God rested because he was done with creation.  And so we too should labor for six days and rest on the seventh in the knowledge and trust that God will sustain us through the seventh.  That we can trust in God that six days is enough time to get done all that needs to get done.  Like Israel in the desert, there was enough food on Saturday for two days.  They could trust God would provide again for them on Monday.  So too for us, come Monday there will be time to run our businesses, do our shopping, cleaning, gardening or whatever.  If we use Sunday as our 'catch-up' day we miss the point of it's intended purpose.  To point is back to the sufficiency of time God has given us the other six days.  Not to go too much beyond this, but even the year of Sabboth where Israel was to not plant crops or the years or reset where all debt and land was to return to its original Family was God's way of returning us to rely on him, not ourselves.  Sabboth is not merely about reverence, but about sufficiency and trust.  

People will know we are Christians by our love and Scripture assures us that "whoever loves others has fulfilled the law"(Rom.8:13). Feel free to enjoy Sunday as any other. Under the new covenan of grace believers don't observe one day of rest a week - they rest year-round in Christ's finished work. In Christ, we find no greater rest.  

I really appreciate Hank's wrestling with these questions about the fourth commandment. A few thoughts:

  1. There is a massive generation gap on this issue. I don't think I can think of any issue where generations are more divided in their experience and theology as Sabbath observance. Many older members of the CRC were raised under strict, pharisaical sabbatarianism while many younger members were raised to see Sunday as no different than any other day (shopping, eating at restaurants, even church attendance was optional). I've seen it several times where a Baby Boomer speaks against the joyless and legalistic "old way," but fails to maintain the importance of the sacredness of the Lord's Day.
  2. Christians of all denominations tend to think of the 4th commandment in an extremely narrow way. While evaluating whether or not we've obeyed the commandent there is one question: Did I go to church today? We don't do this with any other commandment. Just as I need to battle against temptation toward greed, lust, dishonesty, and selfishness I need to fight against believing the world's false teaching concerning work and rest. I believe that as we learn what we're called to enjoy on the Lord's Day the sabbatarianism of the past and the antinomianism of the present will be corrected and God's people will once again "call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable."

Thanks, Hank, for a thoughtful article questioning the practical implications of the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath holy.  What does this command mean for us today?  Total rest or business as usual?  John Calvin, in his own catechism and his Institutes of the Christian Religion said the fourth commandment is different from the other nine because the fourth is a command to keep a ceremony of the law.  And as he points out, and we all know, the ceremonies of the Old Testament have been fulfilled and abolished in Christ.  Calvin pointed out that the physical rest of this command today only applies to slaves.  Colossian 2:16 and 17 says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”  Sunday, distinct from the Old Testament Sabbath, is a day to worship.  Other than that, Christians are not bound by the necessity of rest.  As our catechism points out every day is a day to ponder the wonder of God.  To limit that to Sunday is an act of Sabbatarianism, or making the Lord’s Day the same as the Sabbath.  Other than worship, Sunday is a day to enjoy God and his world.  Certainly there is some freedom in applying this to our own lives.