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The day the church forgot

May 2015 | by Mark Johnston

The past 30 years have witnessed huge moral and spiritual changes, not just in the life of our nation but also of the church.

Much of that change is a reflection of the cultural revolution that started to sweep through the Western world when the so-called Baby Boomers of the late 1940s and 1950s began to come of age in the 1960s.

The church, despite its valiant efforts to resist what was happening, in many ways could do little to stem the tide. However, arguably, it unintentionally played a part in this seismic moral and spiritual shift. Through its own complacency, it assumed its position and influence within the nation, enjoyed for centuries, would simply continue. But there has been one major change during this timeframe for which the church bears more responsibility than many Christians care to admit: it has been the wholesale downgrading of the place of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, not merely in the life of the nation, but, more significantly, in the life of the church. And that is true, not just in the broader church, but in evangelical churches particularly.

Global problem

This phenomenon is by no means confined to Britain, but is something that has taken on global proportions in the church. And far from being seen as a bad thing by many Christians, it has actually been welcomed and encouraged. So much so, that the subject is rarely raised and, even when it is, is often summarily dismissed. To benignly accept this as the new status quo for the church would be a tragedy, both for the church and for the world to which it is called to minister.

And, for that reason, it would be good for us to re-explore this theme through this column’s three articles. The scale of loss bound up with abandoning the notion of one day in seven being a special day of rest was pressed home in America quite recently, not by a Christian but by a Jew. In his book Gift of rest: rediscovering the beauty of the Sabbath, former US Senator Joe Lieberman struck a surprising chord with the American public. For a generation worn out not only from the demands of the workplace but those of family life and leisure pursuits as well, he spoke words of sanity into the increasingly insane existence of our 21st century world.

Explaining the rationale behind the book, he says his purpose in writing wasn’t ‘to recharge our batteries so we can work harder, but to recharge our souls so we can live better’. A similar note was sounded in Britain last autumn with a highly publicised call from the Chief Rabbi for Jews around the country to support ShabbatUK on 24-25 October — a call which won public backing from Prime Minister David Cameron.

Sabbath beauty

Christians often complain that the idea of a day of rest is dying because people no longer want it, but the impact of these two initiatives from our Jewish neighbours would suggest otherwise. There is a weariness of soul deeply embedded in the life of our generation and it longs for the kind of relief that mere recreation cannot provide.

The question then becomes, ‘How can we as Christians rediscover “the beauty of the Sabbath” for ourselves, so that we can share it with those around us?’ Surprising though it may seem, the answer doesn’t begin by focusing narrowly on the day itself, but on what fills it with significance. The recurring ‘Achilles’ heel’ of Sabbath appreciation in Bible times and throughout church history has been the tendency to reduce it to a religious institution shaped more by tradition than biblical truth.

When that happens, the day is reduced to nothing more than the ‘rules and regulations taught by men’, for which Jesus condemned so much of the religious observance encouraged by the Pharisees (Matthew 15:9). They had taken something good — a gift of God, given for the good of humankind and indeed of creation itself — and turned it into a mechanical observance that became oppressive.

Redemptive history

A key factor in recovering a biblically balanced understanding of the Sabbath is seeing the extent to which it is woven throughout the message of the Bible as a whole. It is one of the major themes — intimately bound up with the central theme of redemption — that runs literally from Genesis to Revelation. It is too big, and its various aspects so intricately bound up with each other, for it to be dissected into its component parts, for the church to use or discard at its own pleasure.

To use technical terminology, we need to grasp the place of the Sabbath in the flow of redemptive history and appreciate what it contributes to the way we are to understand redemption itself.

Supremely, this means understanding how it is designed to lead us to Christ (or, more accurately, to God through Christ), not just to find salvation, but also to enjoy its benefits in union and communion with the triune God.

In that sense, the Sabbath is a gospel issue, bound up with the gift of salvation God has provided through his Son. His promise of rest for the weary (Matthew 11:28-30) cannot be divorced from the day of rest with which he has blessed creation.

The author has ministered in Ireland, Camberwell and Philadelphia, USA, and is currently Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff. He is also a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust.

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