Calvin Preaches About the Sabbath

Calvin’s rejection of the Sabbath as a new covenant ordinance is used by many contemporary Christians to alleviate their obligations on the Lord’s Day.  The thought goes something like this: “The Sabbath ordinance from the OT has been done away with. Therefore no day is to be elevated above another. We can work and carry on commerce on any day we wish, as long as we attend a worship service at some point. And Calvin the great reformer agrees with us.” Calvin’s position has been the subject of much debate. Richard Gaffin thinks Calvin’s position is different from that expressed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Even if that is the case, and not all agree it is, in practice there was little difference between Calvin’s position and that of the Puritans even though the theology behind the practices was not the same. This is an important point because many Christians today are not as concerned with Calvin’s theology of the Sabbath as they are with finding a way to justify their own loose 21st century Sunday practices. Over at TCI, they explain why  the underlying theology is different and yet it worked out the same by looking at Calvin’s view of the two kingdoms. My goal in this post is to show one example of Calvin preaching about the Sabbath and the expectations he gave to his people as he did so. Here are several paragraphs from Calvin’s sermon on Deuteronomy 5:12-14 preached in 1555. He has just finished giving a long explanation of how the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ and calls upon his congregation to trust in God and kill the sins in our lives. He is preaching justification by faith and sanctification in the first part of the sermon.  Then he follows with these long paragraphs that I have broken up for easier reading.

Now we must come to the second point which emphasizes that the Sabbath day was a type of civil order for the training of the faithful in the service of God. For that day was ordained in order that people must assemble themselves to hear doctrine of the law preached, to participate in the sacrifices, and to invoke the name of God. With respect to that, it applies to us as much as to the ancient people. For although the figurative aspect has been surpassed, I affirm what Paul says in the Letter to the Colossians: that nevertheless what is said of this order still applies and has it usage.

And what is this order? It is to assemble ourselves in the name of God. Indeed it is true that that must always be done, but because of our weakness, even because of our laziness, it is necessary for one day to be chosen. It we were as ardent in the service of God as we should be, it would not have been necessary to ordain one day of the week, for without a written law each would have assembled himself morning and evening in order that we might have become increasingly edified in the Word of God. And whereas we are so inclined toward evil that nothing is required to debauch us, that practice would still be necessary for us; thus we have need of assembling ourselves every day in the name of God. But what is the actual case? We see with what great pain people assemble themselves on Sunday and how necessary it is to use force to retain a large part of the world. Thus seeing such a weakness in ourselves, let us acknowledge that this order was not given solely to the Jews in order for them to have a certain day on which they might assemble themselves, but at the same time it applies to us. 

Nevertheless, we have to note that there is more and that indeed it would be a meagre thing to have a rest regarding physical activity, but not involving anything else. What is necessary then? That we should strive toward a higher end than this rest here; that we should desist from our works which are able to impede us from meditating on the works of God, from calling upon his name, and from exercising his Word. If we turn Sunday into a day for living it up, for our sport and pleasure, indeed how will God be honored in that? Is it not a mockery and even a profanation of his name? But when shops are closed on Sunday, when people do not travel in the usual way, its purpose is to provide more leisure and liberty for attending to what God commands us, that we might be taught by his Word, that we might convene together in order to confess our faith, to invoke his name, and to participate in the use of the sacraments. That is the end for which this order must serve us. 

Now let us consider whether those who call themselves Christians require of themselves what they should. There is a large group which thinks that Sunday exists for the purpose of enabling them to attend to their own affairs and for one thing and another. The rest glut themselves and are shut up in their houses because they do not dare display manifest scorn on the streets; in any case, Sunday is nothing more than a retreat for them in which they stand aloof from the church of God

Now from the foregoing we see in that attitude we hold all Christianity and the service of God. For what was given to us in order to help us approach God, we use as an occasion for alienating ourselves from him even more. And as a result we are led astray. We must recover it all. Is not such a diabolical malice in men? Would to God that we had to look hard for examples and that they were more rare. But as everything is profaned, we see that the majority hardly care about the usage of this day which has been instituted in order that we might withdraw from all earthly anxieties, from all business affairs, to the end that we might surrender everything to God. 

Here are a few other quotes from the sermon.

We no longer have this figure and shadow for the purpose of keeping a ceremony as rigid as it was under the bondage of the law. Rather its purpose is to gather us in order that according to our weakness we might be trained to devote ourselves better to the service of God, that we might have this day fully dedicated to him to the end that we might be withdrawn from the world, as we have said, that is serve us for the rest of our life. 

In order to demonstrate the liberty of Christians, the day has been changed, seeing that Jesus Christ in his resurrection has delivered us from all bondage of the law and has severed that obligation.

Here is the final section of the sermon.

It [the Sabbath] was a day of the week in which they [the Jews] were to rest, today, having understood that it was abolished with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have the spiritual rest that we might dedicate ourselves fully to God, renouncing all our senses and all our affections. In addition, we have the external order-insofar as it applies to us- which exists for the purpose of enabling us to set aside our affairs and earthly business in order that, abstaining from everything else, we might meditate on the works of God and be trained to recognize the favors which God bestows on us. Furthermore, it inspires us to recognize the grace which he daily offers us in his Gospel that we might be conformed to it more and more. And when we have spent Sunday in praising and glorifying  the name of God and meditating on his works, then throughout the rest of the week, we should show that we have benefited from it.

The entire sermon is worth reading. Here is what Calvin preached to his congregation about their obligations on Sunday. Calvin expected commerce and business to cease. He expected Sunday to be entirely set aside for the worship and praise of God. He chastised those who chose to disregard the day and spend it wrapped up in earthly affairs. The lack of bondage to the Old Testament Sabbath laws did not alleviate the obligation to have one day entirely devoted to the Lord. Calvin does not have a problem with saying the Old Testament Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ and yet the New Testament saints still must gather weekly for an entire day of worship, rest, and fellowship. In practice, Geneva would reprimand and at times discipline those who violated the Lord’s Day.

Sunday in Geneva did not look like the practice of contemporary Christians who spend the Lord’s Day in regular business and commerce or who spend Saturday doing as they please and then show up for a 6 pm worship service so they can spend Sunday doing as they please. At times, I agree with those who think the Sunday restrictions of our fathers in the faith were too tight. However, we cannot read back into Calvin what we wished he would have said and done. Calvin did not support the Sabbath as a continuing ordinance. But one can also see, especially in his sermons, that Calvin would have considered current Sunday practices by Christians as loose and making a mockery of God and His Word.