Calvin on the Sabbath - Rev. C. Bouwman

See also Sabbath Sanctity In A Secular Society by Rev. C. Bouwman


In discussions relating to the Sabbath and how today’s Christian ought to keep the Sabbath, one hears from time to time references to the thoughts of John Calvin on the point. Calvin, I once read in a reformed periodical, "strongly opposed any suggestion of an observance of days and a literal abstention from work or recreation on the basis of it being commanded by the 4th commandment." In the Catechism, the article continued, the church echoes this position, for LD 38 makes no mention of not working on the Sunday; LD 38 explains the fourth commandment in terms of resting not from work but from evil. So: the Christian may give himself to work and recreation on the Sunday as long as this work or recreation does not interfere with the worship services.

The question I wish to address in this article is this: what in fact does Calvin say?


In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin begins his treatment of the fourth commandment with these words (II,8.28):

"The purpose of this commandment is that, being dead to our own inclinations and works, we should meditate on the Kingdom of God, and that we should practice that meditation in the ways established by him. But, since this commandment has a particular consideration distinct from the others, it requires a slightly different order of exposition. The early fathers customarily called this commandment a foreshadowing because it contains the outward keeping of a day which, upon Christ’s coming, was abolished with the other figures. This they say truly, but they touch upon only half the matter. Hence, we must go deeper in our exposition, and ponder three conditions in which, it seems to me, the keeping of this commandment consists.

First, under the repose of the seventh day the heavenly Lawgiver meant to represent to the people of Israel spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them. Secondly, he meant that there was to be a stated day for them to assemble to hear the law and perform the rites, or at least to devote it particularly to meditation upon his works, and thus through this remembrance to be trained in piety. Thirdly, he resolved to give a day of rest to servants and those who are under the authority of others, in order that they should have some respite from toil."

This opening paragraph requires a number of comments.

In the first sentence quoted above, Calvin claims that at the heart of the teaching of this commandment lies the conflict between spiritual meditation on the one hand and our own sinful inclinations and works on the other. Calvin sees the human race as so corrupted by sin that no man has it in him to spend his days in contemplation of God and His saving work in Jesus Christ. With the fourth commandment, says Calvin, God gave to Israel an opportunity one day in seven to step back from the works of this life and focus attention specifically on the Lord God. The Sabbath, then, is an institution belonging to the fallen world.

Calvin, in agreement with the early fathers, saw in the fourth commandment a "foreshadowing" of Christ’s coming. Specifically, the pattern of one day free from labour after six days of toil foreshadowed for Israel the deliverance which Christ would obtain from bondage to sin and Satan. Since Christ has set His people free from bondage to sin and Satan, the Sabbath as a sign is fulfilled. So God’s people today need not rest one day after six days of labour; instead, in the New Testament dispensation God’s people may rest every day – not from work itself but from evil.

Calvin, in disagreement with the early fathers, saw more in the fourth commandment than they did. "They touch upon only half the matter." Calvin sees three "conditions" requiring attention in a consideration of the fourth commandment. They are:

the matter of "spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them" (see points 1 and 2 above);

the need for "a stated day" on which the people of God may "assemble to hear" the Word of God;

the will of God to give "a day of rest to servants".

Calvin appears to be unclear in his own mind why in the fourth commandment God gave one day free in seven (as opposed to, say, one in five or nine). He says:

"If anyone dislikes this interpretation of the number seven as too subtle, I have no objection to his taking it more simply, thus: the Lord ordained a certain day on which his people might, under the tutelage of the law, practice constant meditation upon the spiritual rest. And he assigned the seventh day, either because he foresaw that it would be sufficient; or that, by providing a model in his own example, he might better arouse the people; or at least point out to them that the Sabbath had no other purpose than to render them conformable to their Creator’s example. Which interpretation we accept makes little difference, provided we retain the mystery that is principally set forth: that of perpetual repose from our labors" (II.8.31).

On the basis of his indefiniteness on this point, Calvin later says that it matters not to him which day of the week the New Testament church meets together for worship. Stronger, even a pattern of one in seven could be changed to a pattern of one in five….

Calvin is insistent that God wishes His children in all times and places to assemble together. However, Calvin does not base this habit on the fourth commandment. He says:

"Meetings of the church are enjoined upon us by God’s Word; and from our everyday experience we well know how we need them. But how can such meetings be held unless they have been established and have their stated days? According to the apostle’s statement, "all things should be done decently and in order" among us [1 Corinthians 14:40]" (II.8.32).

Notice Calvin’s argument. Both Scripture and experience teach us that we need to meet as church. How shall the frequency and dates of the meetings be determined? Calvin finds the answer not in the fourth commandment but in Paul’s "decently and in order" argument.

In fact, Calvin would prefer that distinctions between days be removed altogether, and that God’s people assemble "daily". He recognises, however, that the weakness and spiritual immaturity of many in this broken life makes the realisation of this ideal impossible. So, setting aside one day in seven provides for a partial realisation of the ideal, of which all people are capable (II.8.32).

I note: this accommodation to the brokenness of this life does not do much justice to the authority of (one of) the ten commandments.

As logical consequence of the above, Calvin does not consider the shift from Sabbath observance on the last day of the week to observance on the first day of the week as decreed by God (II.8.34). The shift instead came about by the will of the New Testament church. Calvin agrees that their decision to have God’s people come together on the first day of the week was a happy decision, since Christ arose on this first day of the week.

As Calvin draws to a close his discussion in the Institutes about the fourth commandment, he gives this summary:

"To sum up: as truth was delivered to the Jews under a figure, so is it set before us without shadows. First, we are to meditate throughout life upon an everlasting Sabbath rest from all our works, that the Lord may work in us through his Spirit. Secondly, each one of us privately, whenever he has leisure, is to exercise himself diligently in pious meditation upon God’s works. Also, we should all observe together the lawful order set by the church for the hearing of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and for public prayers. In the third place, we should not inhumanly oppress those subject to us" (II.8.34).

The reader will notice much of the above discussion repeated in Calvin’s conclusion. His closing words on the matter are these:

"But we ought especially to hold to this general doctrine: that, in order to prevent religion from either perishing or declining among us, we should diligently frequent the sacred meetings, and make use of those external aids which can promote the worship of God."

Notice how this closing word focuses on the practical element of the fourth commandment. This is a rule, according to Calvin, valid for all people at all times.

Calvin, of course, wrote much more than simply the Institutes. From his hand have come also commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, as well as various tracts, letters and –not to forget- catechisms. Especially throughout his commentaries Calvin has commented at length about the Sabbath, specifically where he had to deal with passages of Scripture that speak of the Sabbath. Yet in all that Calvin writes further about the Sabbath, nowhere does he depart substantially from what he has written in the Institutes. Repeatedly we find the same three emphases as mentioned above, with the accent on the first of the three, the "spiritual rest".


The careful reader will have perceived in the above points that I disagree with Calvin’s exposition of the fourth commandment.

In point 1 above, I draw attention to Calvin’s claim that the conflict between spiritual meditation on the one hand and our own sinful inclinations and works on the other lies at the heart of this commandment. This claim presumes that the fourth commandment can only function in an environment of sin. Yet the Lord has told us in Gen 2 that He kept the Sabbath. And in the reason for the Sabbath as given in the fourth commandment on Mt Sinai (Ex 20:8-10), God specifically connects the human Sabbath day to the divine Sabbath of Gen 2. It is a basic error in Calvin’s teaching about the Sabbath that he failed to reckon with the Sabbath as a creation ordinance.

Furthermore, it is certainly true in the fourth commandment the Lord would teach His people that they need to rest from sin. But this instruction holds true for every commandment! When God says in the sixth commandment that I am not to murder, He tells me not only never to take my neighbour’s life but also to love the neighbour, and show patience, peace, gentleness, mercy and friendliness to him. When God says in the seventh commandment that I am not to commit adultery, He tells me not only to avoid unchaste behaviour but also to be as pure and as faithful as He is pure and faithful. That is to say: with every command God instructs us to rest from (particular) sin. By loading the fourth commandment with an instruction that holds valid for all the commandments, Calvin in fact missed the fine point of the fourth commandment of God’s covenant.

This is not to say that I see nothing in Calvin's insistence that God gave to Israel one day off from work per week as a symbol of the total rest-from-evil that God has promised His people in Jesus Christ. Calvin’s argument has merit, and in LD 38 the church rightly supplies an echo. But to say that the element of rest-from-evil forms the heart of the fourth commandment is truly saying too much.

Again, that the Lord permits a less "stringent" command than He actually would wish on the basis of the weaknesses of fallen man, simply does not do justice to the nature of God’s commands. In none of the other commandments does God allow for human weaknesses. The Lord Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, exposes the depth of the commandments with these words, "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt 6:48; see also vss 21-47).

In Calvin’s writings about the fourth commandment, he nowhere does justice to the second side of the command, namely, the instruction to work. This is understandable since he lays such emphasis on the concept of "spiritual rest". But the Lord intended more in the fourth commandment than an instruction pertaining to one-day-rest; in the command God also gives instruction about six-days-work. In fact, one may rightly say that the one-day-rest was intended to give focus and purpose to the six-day-work. The whole ambit of the cultural mandate, then, comes into focus here.


The reader will understand that I do not intend these critical comments to erode appreciation for Calvin. He was and remained a man of God, greatly used by God as a blessing for His catholic church. But Calvin, like anybody else, was a child of his times, and reacted to the apostasy of his day. His teachings on the Sabbath were a vast improvement over the works-righteousness teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of his time, but did not do full justice to the Word of God.

Rev. C. Bouwman

See also Sabbath sanctity in a secular society by Rev. C. Bouwman

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