This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(103) Q. What is God’s will for you in the fourth commandment?
A. First, that the gospel ministry and schools for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I diligently attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments,to pray to the Lord publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.
Saint Augustine was right to call human hearts restless. That’s a sad word. Restless people are constantly active, unable to find peace as a result of anxiety or boredom. Restless people roam, desire, and covet, but do not arrive, achieve, or obtain (James 4:2).
The fourth commandment can cure restlessness. It offers to focus our labors so that we use our energies profitably every day of the week. And it promises weary, aimless people genuine rest in this life and in the life to come. Truly, the fourth commandment should delight us (Isa. 58:13); it’s the first law in the Decalogue that’s put positively!
The fourth commandment is unique: it teaches God’s eternal will through a form—the Jewish Sabbath—that Christ has fulfilled. This is why it can be controversial. We might overemphasize either its old form or its fulfillment in Christ. But here is a good guide: “We are bound to the Sabbath … as it respects that which is general, but not … that which is particular.”[i] In general the Sabbath law teaches us how to order our energies for God’s glory. In the first three commandments, we learn who to worship, how to worship, and the language of worship. Now we learn the routine of worship. The fourth commandment does not give us a day off from diligence. It focuses our diligence. We strive so that we might rest in God.
Honor God’s Day with Diligent Work
Scripture’s expectation is that worship is congregational (Ps. 68:26). We must not forsake assembling as the church (Heb. 10:25) but “diligently attend the assembly of God’s people.” Here are four reasons to work at assembling.
“To learn what God’s word teaches.”
God begins, preserves, continues, and completes his work in us “by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises.”[ii] The whole congregation must be devoted “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).
“To participate in the sacraments.”
“We have in the sacraments another aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel.”[iii] Deliberately failing to use the sacraments is like slapping away the hand that feeds you.
“To pray to the Lord publicly.”
God’s people pray in private. But we also raise our voices “to God with one accord” (Acts 4:24 NKJ). Communal, liturgical prayers “passed on from generation to generation” give “voice to the deepest and holiest promptings of the heart” and can unite God’s people in a common purpose.[iv] Even when only the minister vocalizes prayer, he verbalizes the heart expressions of those gathered.
“To bring Christian offerings for the poor.”
We tithe to show thankfulness to God (Ps. 50:14) and to support the work of the ministry (2 Cor. 9:12). The Lord’s Day is a fitting day to show the obedience of our “confession to the gospel of Christ” through God-honoring generosity (2 Cor. 9:13).
Have you considered how much you might “lose by not regularly attending the assemblies of God’s people”? “The very sermon that we needlessly miss, may contain a precious word in season for our souls. The very assembly for prayer and praise from which we stay away, may be the very gathering that would have cheered, and established, and quickened our hearts.” To be a growing and prosperous Christian, never be absent from God’s house without good reason.[v]
Because of the importance of gathering, the catechism begins this lesson in an unexpected way. To profit from gathering as God’s people we must also maintain “the gospel ministry and schools for it.” Part of why we gather on the Lord’s Day is to institutionally ensure the integrity of pure worship. If the gospel ministry is God’s special means of opening his kingdom, then the church must prepare, send, and support competent ministers (Rom. 10:15). Something like theological seminaries have always helped commit gospel truth to faithful men who will teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). We honor the Christian Sabbath by insisting on qualified ministers, supporting and praying for good seminaries and students to fill them, and “[providing] honorably for the minister of the Word and his family.”[vi]
The fourth commandment calls us to work at worshiping God.
But it also calls us to rest.
Honor God’s Day with Diligent Rest
There is a literal, pragmatic kind of rest demanded by the fourth commandment. You cannot honor God if you are working seven days a week. Refusing to take a weekly Sabbath nearly guarantees a godless life.
But the catechism focuses on another way that the fourth commandment teaches us to rest. “Every day of my life” God wants me to “rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.” The Jewish Sabbath anticipated something more—though not less—than a weekly break from manual labor. Hebrews chapter four uses the language of the fourth commandment to urge us to enter God’s rest. The seventh day of rest and the promised land of rest both illustrate a greater rest. “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). The Sabbath invites us to stop striving according to the flesh and let God work through us. We gain rest by holding fast our confession of faith in Jesus, and confidently drawing “near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16). The fourth commandment confirms that we can’t work enough to become right with God. We need a mediator, the “great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14).
If we stress the physical rest of the Lord’s Day we might miss God’s point. The Pharisees argued with Jesus about the Sabbath because they were not resting in God but in their works, including their work of rest. The fourth commandment primarily “represent[ed] to the people of Israel spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them.” Becoming godlier means putting to death our own will. The Sabbath law teaches us to “be wholly at rest that God may work in us.” This means “we must yield our will; we must resign our heart; we must give up all our fleshly desires. In short, we must rest from all activities of our own contriving so that … we may repose in him.”[vii]
The fourth commandment teaches that God liberates his people without their help and sustains them even while they rest. The Lord’s Day is a “festive day of rest” because it helps us get over ourselves and delight in God.
[i] Ursinus, Commentary, 563–64.
[ii] Canons of Dort, 5.14.
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.1.
[iv] Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 36.
[v] Expository Thoughts on John, vol. 3 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1987), 454–455.
[vi] URCNA CO art. 10, https://www.urcna.org/church-order.
[vii] Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.28–29.