What is your view of WCF 21.8? Does the Bible teach this view of the Sabbath? How does the WCF's teaching differ from the Continental Reformed position? What is the PCA's position? If the PCA holds to the WCF, how can those who don't agree fully with WCF 21.8 hold the office of elder in good conscience?


What is your view of WCF 21.8?

By my reading, Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8 (cf. WLC 115-120) teaches that the Sabbath (Sunday) is a day on which we cease from our normal labors (jobs, recreations, etc.) and on which we dedicate ourselves wholly to worship, except insofar as we may spend some of our time in works of mercy and necessity. That is, instead of working or playing, we are mainly to be in church and/or in private worship. The acceptable exceptions to this norm include things that can't wait (e.g., taking your son to the emergency room) and mercy ministries (e.g., feeding the poor). It also teaches that we are to prepare our hearts in advance for this day.

Does the Bible teach this view of the Sabbath?

Yes and no. I disagree with the prohibition against normal resting and recreation, and I'm not too comfortable with the requirement that we prepare our hearts in advance. I think the Law points to actual rest as a component of the Sabbath alongside worship, necessity and mercy. And while it may be wise to prepare our hearts, I find no scriptural mandate for this.

Also, although I ultimately conclude that recreation is acceptable, I do recognize that Isaiah 58:13 is a tough passage in this regard. However, as I understand the context of Isaiah 58, the "pleasure" that we are to avoid is sinful (e.g., exploiting workers, neglecting the poor, malicious talk, seeking personal gain). "Pleasure" does not refer to recreations and employments that are acceptable on other days than the Sabbath.

That being said, I do think the Westminster Standards are right on several points. We do need to observe a weekly day of rest from our normal labors (Gen. 2:2-3; Exod. 16:23-30; 20:8-11; 31:15; Deut. 5:12-15; Neh. 13:15-22). We need to congregate on the Sabbath (Lev. 23:3) and to worship (Ps. 92:1). The observance of the Sabbath on Sunday is correct, as are the exceptions of necessity (Matt. 12:1-8 // Mark 2:23-28 // Luke 6:1-5) and mercy (Matt. 12:11-13 // Mark 3:4-5 // Luke 6:9-10; Luke 14:1-5) that draw us into what might otherwise be considered part of our jobs.

How does the WCF's teaching differ from the Continental Reformed position?

The continental position is that the whole Law is abrogated insofar as it pertains to symbols and ceremonies fulfilled in Christ (Belgic Confession, article 25). I disagree with this assessment of the Law (Matt. 5:17-19; cf. Laws in Effect Today). At any rate, many who come from the Continental tradition say that the Sabbath was one such symbol, and that it is now fulfilled by trusting in Christ rather than by observing one day in seven (cf. Heb. 4:1-11). At the same time, the Continental tradition also affirms a weekly Lord's day (note, for example, the categorization of the Heidelberg Catechism into portions that are to be read each week on Lord's day).

I believe that Hebrews 4:1-11 is an important text, but that it has been misused by the Continental tradition as a trump card. Hebrews 4:1-11 teaches that the Sabbath is a foreshadow, a foretaste, of God's kingdom on earth. It also teaches that faith in Christ is a form of Sabbath observance. But it does not teach that faith in Christ is now the only proper form of Sabbath observance, or that faith in Christ is the only thing now required by the Sabbath commandment. The Sabbath commandment requires us to have faith in Christ, to trust in him instead of in our works for salvation. It also requires us to hope in God's kingdom, and to enjoy his kingdom. But it requires these things without abolishing the other requirements associated with resting from our daily labors.

If the PCA holds to the WCF, how can those who don't agree fully with WCF 21.8 hold the office of elder in good conscience?

The PCA officially holds to the WCF on this point. But PCA polity allows men to hold the office of elder without agreeing with every point of doctrine in the Westminster Standards.

When men are examined for ordination, they must declare which statements in the Standards they believe they do not affirm, and the presbytery determines whether or not their beliefs are or are not actually in accord with the Standards. When a belief is determined to be out of accord with the Standards, it is called an "exception" or a "scruple." It does not, however, necessarily bar one from ordination.

Another part of the ordination procedure requires a vote by the presbytery. The presbyters know the candidate's exceptions, and vote whether or not to ordain him despite his exceptions. If he passes, he may rightly hold the office in good conscience.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.