Tag Archives: The Lord’s Day Act

The Synod of Dort and the Sabbath

The following is a talk I did for the Dort 400 Conference held in Caruaru, Brazil on March 22, 2019.  The Portuguese version can be found here.  Especially for some of the historical material, I acknowledge my indebtedness to Daniel Hyde’s article, “Regulae de Observatione Sabbathi: The Synod of Dort’s Deliverance on the Sabbath,” published in the 2012 issue of the Puritan Reformed Journal.  

It was Sunday August 3, 1924 in Jamestown, Michigan, USA.   Pastor Henry Wierenga had not even been the minister of the Jamestown Christian Reformed Church for four years.  This was his first congregation.  Back in those days, every Christian Reformed Church had a morning and an evening service.  In the evening service, it was the custom to listen to a sermon based on the Heidelberg Catechism.  On Sunday August 3, 1924, Pastor Wierenga was at Lord’s Day 38.  He was preaching about the Fourth Commandment.

In his sermon, Pastor Wierenga said that the Sabbath commandment was not applicable in the New Testament era.  He maintained that Sunday had no special status in the New Testament and it was not to be seen as a replacement of the Jewish Sabbath from the Old Testament.  Christ had fulfilled the Sabbath, which was entirely ceremonial.  The Fourth Commandment has no moral requirement for Christians today.  Therefore, he said, Christians are under no obligation to regard the day as special.   They might still choose to worship on this day, but every day was equally holy.  If one desired, one could certainly work on Sunday or do anything that one might do on any other day of the week.

Pastor Wierenga’s consistory did not like what they were hearing.  The elders completely disagreed with their minister.  The matter was brought to a classis.  The classis appointed a committee to investigate.  This committee advised the elders in Jamestown to ask Rev. Wierenga to preach on Lord’s Day 38 again.  They asked him and he did this on December 7, 1924.  His second sermon was no better than the first.  The elders were still concerned and so was the classis committee.  On February 20, 1925, the Jamestown Christian Reformed Church suspended their pastor for teaching false doctrine.  Then on March 6, 1925, he was deposed by Classis Zeeland.

Henry Wierenga decided to appeal his suspension and deposition to the Christian Reformed Synod in 1926.  However, his appeal was denied.  His deposition was upheld.  The Christian Reformed Synod agreed that it was right and proper for Wierenga to have been disciplined for his views on the Sabbath.  During all these discussions, a decision of the Synod of Dort was mentioned many times.  It was at the heart of the Wierenga case.

We naturally remember the Synod of Dort because of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons were the response of the Synod to the Arminians.  However, it is often forgotten that this Synod discussed many more things.  They decided on many more things.  The Synod began in November of 1618 and finished in May of 1619.   On May 17, 1619, in the 164th session, the Synod of Dort issued a doctrinal statement about the Sabbath.  Unfortunately, for us today, this is one of the most neglected contributions of the Synod of Dort.  But this doctrinal statement was well-known in the Christian Reformed Church in North America in 1924-1926.  It had been well-known before that too.  In fact, the Christian Reformed Church had adopted the Synod of Dort’s decision on the Sabbath already in 1881.

The Synod of Dort on the Sabbath

Let’s just take a quick look at what the Synod of Dort decided on the Sabbath.  We will take a quick look now and then come back for a closer look later.  There are six points:

  1. There is in the fourth commandment of the divine law a ceremonial and a moral element.
  2. The ceremonial element is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of that day imposed especially on the Jewish people.
  3. The moral element consists in the fact that a certain definite day is set aside for worship and so much rest as is needful for worship and hallowed meditation.
  4. The Sabbath of the Jews having been abolished, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.
  5. Since the time of the apostles this day has always been observed by the old catholic church.
  6. This day must be so consecrated to worship that on that day we rest from all servile works, except those which charity and present necessity require; and also from all such recreations as interfere with worship.

I first want to explain the background of this decision.  Then we will come back and look at the decision itself.  We will also look at whether it is biblical and how it is relevant for us today.

Background

After the Reformation took place in Europe in the 1500s, there was a healthy understanding in Reformed churches of the importance of God’s law, including the Fourth Commandment.  They understood that our salvation is through grace alone.  We are only saved because of what Christ has done for us.  Then we respond to God’s grace with love and thankfulness expressed by a Christian life.  We respond to the gospel by taking God’s law seriously as the guide for our lives.  The Holy Spirit makes us love God’s law and want to follow it.

For example, the Reformer Heinrich Bullinger preached a sermon on the Fourth Commandment.  He explained that the Fourth Commandment still applies to Christians today – through it God commands us to rest and worship.  Bullinger explained that if you go about your daily work on Sunday as if it is a normal day, you are sinning against the Fourth Commandment.  He also said that if you stay in bed all day and refuse to go to worship God, you are also sinning against the Fourth Commandment.[1]  Bullinger was not alone – this was the standard way for the first Reformed churches to understand the Fourth Commandment.

When the Reformation first came to the Netherlands, the region was under Spanish control.  Of course, that meant that religiously it was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.  But eventually there was the Dutch Revolt.  Led by leaders like William of Orange, the Dutch rebelled against their Spanish rulers.  They were not successful in the southern part of the Netherlands – what we today call Belgium.  But the story was different in the north, the modern day region we call the Netherlands.  The important thing for us is that politics and religion were connected.  Many of the leaders in the Dutch Revolt were Reformed.  After the Dutch Revolt, many of the political leaders in the Netherlands continued to be Reformed.

However, that does not mean that the Kingdom of the Netherlands was actually Reformed.  In 1587, Reformed church members only made up 10% of the population in the Netherlands.  By 1622, after the Synod of Dort, it was still less than 25%.  As you can imagine, being a minority meant that the Reformed churches were not always able to influence society the way they wanted to.

This was also true when it came to honouring the Fourth Commandment.  Most Dutch people ignored it.  And the rulers did little or nothing about it.  Before the Synod of Dort, Sunday was just like another day for most Dutch towns and cities.  In fact, some conservative Reformed preachers started calling it “Sin-day” (Zondendag) instead of “Sunday” (Zondag).  The Reformed churches were concerned that the society in which they lived did not care about God’s good law, and their rulers, even if they were Reformed, made no effort to change it.

That brings us to 1619 and the Synod of Dort.  The topic of the Sabbath came up quite late in the Synod.  It was mentioned on May 1, 1619, in the 148th session.  The Canons of Dort had already been adopted.  The revised text of the Belgic Confession had been adopted.  And finally, on this day, the Heidelberg Catechism was discussed and all the theologians agreed that it was biblical.  Now the interesting thing is that the official Acts of the Synod of Dort do not mention anything being said about the Sabbath in this session.  Our information about this comes from correspondence sent by someone from the British delegation to the Synod.

As you know, the Synod of Dort was international in character.  Amongst the countries represented was Great Britain.  One of their delegates was Walter Balcanqual.  He sent reports to Sir Dudley Carlton, who was the British ambassador to the Netherlands.  Towards the end of the Synod, he simply sent the notes of his secretary to the ambassador.  In these notes of the 148th session, we read that the British delegates had publically noted how the Sabbath was neglected in the city of Dort.  They took offense at this on the floor of the Synod.  They urged the Synod to ask the civil magistrates to ban business on the Lord’s Day or Sabbath.  There is nothing in these notes to tell us whether there was further discussion at that moment.  This does tell us, however, that the official Acts of the Synod of Dort do not record absolutely everything that was discussed.  Sometimes there are gaps.

Others raised the issue afterwards.  There were only 17 elders at the Synod of Dort.  Part of the reason for that low number was that all the synod’s work would be done in Latin, and most elders did not speak Latin.  One of the elders delegated from Classis Zeeland was Josiah Vosberg.  He was a lawyer, a well-educated man, and thus he spoke Latin.  Zeeland was a province of the Netherlands where the Sabbath controversy was most intense.  Josiah Vosberg was on the orthodox side.  He made a motion that the Synod should take up the question and make a statement on it.  So, notice:  besides the Canons of Dort, this was one of the most important accomplishments of the Synod.  And the motion for it did not come from one of the academic theologians or ministers, but from a godly elder.

The involvement of the international delegations ended on May 9, 1619.  All the international delegates returned to their home countries, but the synod continued.  Without the foreign delegates, the Synod of Dort now focussed on several issues that only had to do with the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  One of those issues was the Sabbath.  Since it had been raised as a question, the Synod decided to discuss it properly.

There were two aspects to the issue as raised at the Synod.  There was the political question and then the theological question.  The political question came first.  In the 163rd session on May 17, the Synod decided to urge the Dutch government to develop new, stricter legislation regarding the Sabbath.  The Synod did not specify what they meant by “stricter.”

Concerning the theological question, the Synod decided the following:

When the formulation concerning the removal of the dishonouring of the Sabbath [was discussed], a question is aired concerning the necessity of observing the Sabbath, which was beginning to be agitated in the churches of Zeeland: the professors are requested to consider this question with the brethren of Zeeland in a friendly conference, and to see whether certain general rules can be prepared and set forth by common consent, within whose limits both parties involved with this question may delay until such time that the question can be given further consideration by the next National Synod.

We can note that these “general rules” were meant to be a temporary answer.  They hoped the matter could be revisited at another synod soon.  However, as it turned out, there was not another national synod in the Netherlands for many, many years.

Professors Johannes Polyander, Franciscus Gomarus, Anthonius Thysius, Sibrandus Lubbertus, and Antonius Walaeus were those appointed to meet with the Zeeland delegates.  Now one of the amazing things is how quickly they worked.  The Synod broke for lunch.  When they returned for their 164th session in the afternoon on the same day, there was a proposed set of rules.  We do not know how long the discussion took that afternoon on the floor of synod, but we do know the outcome.  The Rules for the Observance of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day were officially adopted by the Dutch Reformed churches.

Looking Closer at the Rules

Now I want to take a closer look at what the Synod of Dort decided.  Each of the rules is short, but they actually say a lot.  I will go through each of the rules, explain them, and make a few comments.

  1. There is in the fourth commandment of the divine law a ceremonial and a moral element.

In theology, we speak of a three-fold division of the law.  This is an old division which was recognized even long before the Reformation.  In the law of God, there are ceremonial, moral, and civil aspects.  The ceremonial law was for Israel and pointed ahead to Christ.  This included things like the sacrifices for sin.  After Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law, we can still learn from it, but it does not apply to us like it did to Israel.  The civil law is similar – it was for Israel as a nation in their own context.  There are general principles that are still important for us, but the details are not always binding on us.  However, the moral law is always binding.  The moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments.  When we talk about the Fourth Commandment, there are ceremonial aspects, but there are also moral aspects.  Only the moral aspects are binding on us as Christians today.

  1. The ceremonial element is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of that day imposed especially on the Jewish people.

So what exactly is the ceremonial aspect of the Fourth Commandment?  The Synod of Dort recognized that there are two parts to it.  The first is the original day of the week for the Sabbath.  Originally it was the seventh day or Saturday.  Of course, this is reflected even in the Portuguese name for this day (sabado).  This day was the day God rested from his work of creating, thereby setting a pattern.  The second ceremonial aspect is the “strict observance” that was given in the Old Testament for this day.  For example, there was a command  in Exodus 35:3 that the Israelites were not to light a fire on the Sabbath.  That is “strict observance.”

  1. The moral element consists in the fact that a certain definite day is set aside for worship and so much rest as is needful for worship and hallowed meditation.

Next, the Synod identified the abiding moral aspect of the Fourth Commandment.  Here there are three things that need to be mentioned.  There is the principle of a “definite day.”  One day per week must be set aside, or regarded as holy.  Second, this definite day is to be set aside for worship.  It is a day for worship.  But third, it is also a day for rest.  So putting it all together we have a definite day for rest and worship.  This is permanently binding on us.

  1. The Sabbath of the Jews having been abolished, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.

This part of the decision deals with the progress of redemptive history.  The Synod acknowledged that the Sabbath of the Jews (i.e. the strict rest and worship on the seventh day) has been abolished.  The day to be honoured has now shifted to the first day of the week – it is the “day of the Lord” as Scripture calls it in Rev. 1:10.  It is the day Christ rose from the dead.  It is the day that changed everything, including the calendar.  We “solemnly hallow” this day in his honour.  How we do that is mentioned in the sixth point.

  1. Since the time of the apostles this day has always been observed by the old catholic church.

History and tradition are important for Reformed believers.  While it is not binding on us, we do recognize that it if there is a long history of thinking a certain way about a theological issue, we should not throw it away without thinking carefully.  We need to understand why believers in history thought the way they did.  We need to compare their thinking with what the Bible says.  When it comes to the Fourth Commandment, the Synod of Dort pointed out that ever since the time of the apostles, the church has observed Sunday as the Lord’s Day.  There is a long tradition of understanding that the Fourth Commandment still applies to us today, but now it applies to the first day of the week instead of the seventh.

  1. This day must be so consecrated to worship that on that day we rest from all servile works, except those which charity and present necessity require; and also from all such recreations as interfere with worship.

The final part of the Synod’s decision speaks about how to properly set apart the Lord’s Day.  The focus of the day is to be on worship.  That echoes the approach of the first part of Lord’s Day 38 in the Heidelberg Catechism.  The Catechism called it “the day of rest” (in German: “the festive day of rest”).  But aside from that, the Catechism said nothing more about physical rest.  The Synod did.  In order to keep the focus of the entire day (not just the church services) on God, we are to rest “from all servile works.”  What are “servile works”?  That is a term with an ancient history in the Christian church.  It was used in the Latin Vulgate translation of Leviticus 23:7.  It originally referred to physical work of the kind done by servants.  In history, if you had servants, servile work would often mean every kind of work.  You would get your servants to do just about everything.  The English Standard Version of Leviticus 23:7 translates the Hebrew expression there as “ordinary work,” and I think that captures for today what “servile works” really are.  It is ordinary work.  It is the work you would be called to do at any other time.  Traditionally that would be physical work, but in our day, that is going to naturally expand to include all types of work.  Now there are two exceptions.  There are works of charity.  If you have to work to help someone out on a Sunday, you are not breaking the Fourth Commandment – in fact, you should!  This was taught by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 12:9-13.  He said that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  Then there are also works of necessity.  We need ministers to work at preaching, we need police officers to enforce the law, we need nurses and doctors to take care of the sick.  They have to do this work also on the Lord’s Day.  It is no sin.  Finally, we can note that the Synod said that all recreations that interfere with worship are also ruled out.  So, as an example, you can go for a walk on Sunday, but you cannot go for a walk when God calls you to be in church.

Let me make two more general observations about these rules.  First, the Synod of Dort did not go into exhaustive detail about every aspect of interpreting the Fourth Commandment.  There is still some room for minor differences of opinion.  For example, we know that two of the professors involved with writing these rules had different views on the origin of Sabbath-keeping.  Thysius was not sure where it came from, but Gomarus insisted that it did not come from creation/Paradise, but came from Israel’s time in the desert.[2]  These rules are concise, but not overly precise.

Yet, second, they are precise where they need to be and where we need to be.  They precisely distinguish and identify the ceremonial and moral aspects of the Fourth Commandment.  They identify the Lord’s Day as a day to be set apart for rest and worship.  These rules speak clearly of exceptional work:  works of charity and necessity.  These are wise and biblical rules for Christ’s church.

Relevance for Today

Are Reformed churches today bound to this doctrinal decision of the Synod of Dort?  Reformed churches hold to the Canons of Dort.  They hold to the decisions of the Synod of Dort that were made against the Arminians or Remonstrants.  However, that does not mean that they hold to every other decision made by Dort.

We can go back to the Christian Reformed Church in North America for a moment.  In 1881, a Synod of the Christian Reformed Church decided to adopt Dort’s decision on the Sabbath.  From that point forward, Dort’s decision officially belonged to them as well.  They regarded the decision as an official interpretation of Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Not only every office bearer, but also every member was bound to it.  I am not aware of any other church having done that.  Since the CRCNA did that, when Pastor Henry Wierenga started teaching falsely about the Fourth Commandment, they could quite easily suspend and depose him.

Today as Reformed churches, we could adopt Dort’s decision if we wanted to.  If there were a need or a desire, a church could make a proposal to take it over and make it our own.  But we could also simply receive it as part of our history and tradition.  We can and we should read it, study it, and learn from it.  Pastors can use it as a guide for their teaching and preaching – I certainly have done that in my ministry.  As I mentioned, it is a good, solid statement of Reformed thinking about the Fourth Commandment.

There is one more thing I want to say about the relevance of this decision.  Especially in North America, you will sometimes hear people speak about two different views of the Sabbath.  They will say there is the Puritan view of the Sabbath, which is very strict, and then there is the Continental view of the Sabbath, which is looser.  Daniel Hyde has done a good study on this and he has compared the Synod of Dort’s decision with some Puritan thinking about the Fourth Commandment.  He concluded that “Dort can be called a moderately Puritan position on the Sabbath.”[3] I agree.  Historically speaking, the so-called “Continental view” is much stricter than many modern people realize.  And, I would say, it is biblical.

Conclusion

I grew up in Canada.  I can remember a time when all the stores were closed on Sunday.  There was a law called the Lord’s Day Act.  It reflected Canada’s Christian heritage.  When unbelievers started pressuring the government to remove the Lord’s Day Act, many churches and Christians protested.  I even have an article at home written by Billy Graham trying to argue for the holiness of Sunday, keeping it as a day of rest and worship.  In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada voided the Lord’s Day Act.  They said it was unconstitutional, that it was an infringement on the freedom of religion.  Something strange happened after that.  Many Christians started shopping on Sundays, working on Sundays, going to professional sports events on Sundays.  Before long, many Christian churches were teaching that the Fourth Commandment only applied to the Jews.  Do you see what happened?  Many churches changed.  Why?  Because of better insight into the Bible?  No, because these churches became like the culture.  Then they shifted their explanation of the Bible to fit their culture.  When that happens, a church is losing its salt and light.

That will have an impact on the preaching of the gospel.  The French philosopher Voltaire once said that if you want to destroy Christianity, you have to destroy the Sabbath.  The French tried to do that in the time of the French Revolution, but they failed.  How ironic that Christians themselves would try to destroy something which will lead to the very destruction of our faith!  If the Sunday is no longer hallowed as a day of rest and worship, the churches where the gospel of salvation is proclaimed will steadily empty.  People will always find something better to do than go to church regularly.

Brothers and sisters, God gave us Ten Commandments, not nine.  The Synod of Dort has reminded us that the Fourth Commandment is still God’s will for our lives as his people.  Let us listen to God’s law – it is good for us, it is good for society, it is good for the gospel, and it serves for God’s glory.

[1] Bullinger, Decades (vol. 1), 262.

[2] See Leiden Synopsis, vol. 1, 521.

[3] Hyde, “Regulae…,” 180.