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Calvin, the Lord’s Day, and the Liberty of the Church

Though it triggers some Presbyterians to say so out loud, John Calvin was not a Sabbatarian. He did have a strict Sunday practice (and thus he most likely did not go lawn bowling on that day…), but this was always explained as a matter of human and not divine law. In fact, Calvin argues that the early Christian Church had the liberty to pick its own day and that the choice of “the Lord’s Day” in opposition to the “Sabbath” was likely a pastoral way to guard against superstition while still honoring the basic preference for a one day in seven sacred assembly:

The clause rendered on one of the Sabbaths, (κατὰ μίαν σαββάτων,) Chrysostom explains to mean — the first Sabbath. In this I do not agree with him; for Paul means rather that they should contribute, one on one Sabbath and another on another; or even each of them every Sabbath, if they chose. For he has an eye, first of all, to convenience, and farther, that the sacred assembly, in which the communion of saints is celebrated, might be an additional spur to them. Nor am I more inclined to admit the view taken by Chrysostom — that the term Sabbath is employed here to mean the Lord’s day, (Revelation 1:10,) for the probability is, that the Apostles, at the beginning, retained the day that was already in use, but that afterwards, constrained by the superstition of the Jews, they set aside that day, and substituted another. Now the Lord’s day was made choice of, chiefly because our Lord’s resurrection put an end to the shadows of the law. Hence the day itself puts us in mind of our Christian liberty. We may, however, very readily infer from this passage, that believers have always had a certain day of rest from labor — not as if the worship of God consisted in idleness, but because it is of importance for the common harmony, that a certain day should be appointed for holding sacred assemblies, as they cannot be held every day. For as to Paul’s forbidding elsewhere (Galatians 4:10) that any distinction should be made between one day and another, that must be understood to be with a view to religion, and not with a view to polity or external order. (comment. on 1 Cor. 16:2)

Calvin is explaining Paul’s instructions about the collection in 1 Cor. 16:2. The Greek there would literally read “on one of the Sabbaths…” though many modern translations render this “on the first day of the week.”1 Calvin takes it as meaning a Saturday where the Christians are holding a sacred assembly. He explicitly rejects the argument made by Chrysostom that this is just a figurative way to say the Lord’s Day, and then he gives some very interesting thoughts as to why the early church moved its sacred assemblies from Saturday to Sunday.

Notice this line: “the Apostles, at the beginning, retained the day that was already in use, but that afterwards, constrained by the superstition of the Jews, they set aside that day, and substituted another.” This seems to indicate that Calvin believed the Apostles initially did select the Sabbath–the same day that the Jews held their assemblies–for their day of special worship, but that they later changed the day to the Lord’s Day, that is Sunday, in order to avoid superstition. When we combine this with what Calvin says in his Institutes, it becomes clear. There he says:

For in the churches established by him, this was the use for which the Sabbath was retained. He tells the Corinthians to set the first day apart for collecting contributions for the relief of their brethren at Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:2). If superstition is dreaded, there was more danger in keeping the Jewish sabbath than the Lord’s day as Christians now do. It being expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, orders and peace, in the Church, another day was appointed for that purpose. (Inst. 2.8.33)

Calvin argues that Paul allowed the Corinthian Christians to meet on the Sabbath, even though it might run the risk of confusion with Judaism, but that the church collectively changed this custom shortly afterwards in order to protect against superstition.

Returning to his comments on 1 Cor. 16:2, Calvin says that the keeping of one day in seven was a matter of “common harmony.” He adds that this is not “religion,” by which he means a divine law or a thing offered to God as a sacrificial work, but rather an instance of “polity or external order.” This distinction only makes sense if one understands Calvin’s two-kingdoms doctrine appropriately. The leaders of the church cannot actually legislate laws in the spiritual sense. They can only testify what God has already legislated. Thus, for Calvin, the church cannot call things divine law unless they are plainly laid out as divine law in the Scriptures. And this means that the Church cannot call its Lord’s Day practice divine law. It is not “religion” to keep Sunday as the day of sacred assembly.

But Calvin does think that the church can make human laws, and this is where it can make Sunday laws. If the Lord’s Day is explained as a matter of order– common harmony–then the church can ask you to submit to its rulings. It cannot ask you to confess that this ruling is divine law. It cannot call it spiritual worship. But it can ask you to submit as a principle of obedience. What the people do on Sunday is worship, but the fact that they do it on Sunday is not. Such is Calvin’s use of key terms.

Understanding these distinctions makes Calvin’s position–often thought to be confusing and contradictory–intelligible and consistent. He does not believe that the 4th Commandment requires Sunday-observance. He rejects this claim. But he does believe that Christians should go to church on Sundays and submit to the requests of the officers of the church as to when worship is held and what sort of conduct and behavior is appropriate around them. This is a matter of human law in the earthly realm. The church has the freedom to make these laws, so long as they do not call them divine laws, and individuals Christians ought to submit, not because their conscience is bound, but because they want to promote order and harmony.

  1. The argument is that “Sabbath” is actually a reference to a seven-day period. This is possible, but certainly not indisputable.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

2 replies on “Calvin, the Lord’s Day, and the Liberty of the Church”

Hey Steven, this is Chris Brown–a fellow RTS Jackson grad and minister in Tunica, MS. I enjoyed the read! I came to a similar conclusion about Calvin’s views while in Seminary, after reading Gaffin’s work on Calvin’s Sabbath views. But after discussing it with several friends, friends who had also read the work, they suggested I misunderstood Gaffin’s conclusion. Have you, perchance, read Gaffin’s work on this?

Hi Chris,

Sorry for taking so long to reply. Yes, I have read Gaffin, and I think he basically tries to have a both/and approach. He concedes that Calvin does not hold to the strict Westminster view on a theological level, but then he tries to close the difference by showing that Calvin has all of the basic ingredients of the Westminster view and that he practiced an essentially Sabbatarian lifestyle.

But Gaffin does not give detailed attention to Calvin’s use of the two kingdoms or his distinction between divine law and human law.

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