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Thomas Boston on the Sabbath Day and Acts of Mercy

The Sanctification of the Sabbath

Thomas Boston

Excerpts from An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, with Respect to Faith and Practice, upon the Plan of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, published posthumously in 1773.

I come now to show you how the Sabbath is to be sanctified. The Catechism tells us, “It is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.”

Here I shall show, what it is to sanctify the Sabbath, and what are the parts of the sanctification of it.

First, I am to show, what it is to sanctify the Sabbath. The Sabbath day is not capable of any sanctity or holiness, but what is relative; that is, in respect of its use for holy rest or exercise. So, (1.) God has sanctified that day, by setting it apart for holy uses, designing and appointing it in a special manner for his own worship and service. (2.) Men must sanctify it by keeping it holy, spending that day in God’s worship and service for which God has set it apart; using it only for the uses that God has consecrated it unto.

Secondly, I come to show what are the parts of the sanctification of the Sabbath. They are two; holy rest, and holy exercise.

First, the Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy rest. Therefore it is called a sabbath, i.e. a rest.

1. What are we to rest from? On the Sabbath we must rest.

1st, from our worldly employments. God has given us six days for these; but His day must be kept free from them: “In it thou shalt not do any work.” The works of our worldly calling have six days, those of our heavenly calling but one. We must rest from the former, that we may apply ourselves to the latter. Now, such works are to be accounted, (1.) All handy [manual] labor or servile employments tending to our worldly gain, as on other days of the week, as ploughing and sowing, bearing of burdens, etc., Neh. 13:15, driving of beasts to market, or exercising any part of one’s calling. (2.) All study of liberal arts and sciences. The Sabbath is not a day for such exercises, as the reading of history, the studying of sciences, etc., Isa. 58:13. (3.) All civil works, such as making bargains, unnecessary journeying, traveling to Monday markets on the Lord’s Day, though people wait on sermons, or take them by the way. It is indeed the sin of those that do not change their market days when they so fall out, and a sin in the government to suffer it: but that will not justify those who comply with the temptation, seeing God has given us other days of the week. If they cannot overtake their market after the Sabbath, they should go away before, that they may rest on the Sabbath, wherever they are, Exod. 16:29.

2dly, from all worldly recreations, though lawful on other days. It is not a day for carnal pleasures of any sort, more than it is for worldly employments. Our delights should be heavenly this day, not to please the flesh but the spirit; and sports, plays, and pastimes are a gross profanation of the Sabbath, Isa. 58:13-14.

Now this rest of the Sabbath from these must be, (1.) A rest of the hands from them. The hands must rest, that the heart may be duly exercised. (2.) A rest of the tongue. People should not give their orders for the week’s work on the Lord’s Day, nor converse about their worldly business. (3.) A rest of the head from thinking of it, and forming plans and contrivances about worldly affairs.

But here are excepted works of two sorts:

1. Works of necessity, as to quench a house on fire, etc. 2. Works of mercy, as to save the live of a beast; see Matthew 12. Under which may be comprehended, (1.) Good works, such as visiting the sick, relieving the poor, etc. (2.) Works of decency, such as dressing the body with comely attire. (3.) Works of common honesty and humanity, as saluting one another, I Pet. 3:8. (4.) Works of necessary refreshment, as dressing and taking of meat. (5.) Works having a necessary connection with and tendency to the worship of God, as traveling on the Lord’s Day to sermons, II Kings 4:23.

But in all these things it should be regarded, that the necessity be real, and not pretended: for it is not enough that the work cannot be done to such advantage on another day; for that might let out people on the Sabbath, if it be a windy day or so, to cut down their corn, which God has in a special manner provided against, Exod. 34:21; and that would have justified the sellers of fish, whom Nehemiah discharged, Neh. 13:16-17. And therefore I cannot think that the making of cheese on the Lord’s day can be counted a work of necessity, lawful on that day: for as much might be said in the other cases as can be said in this, viz. that the corn may shake, the fishes spoil, etc. Besides, people should take heed that they bring not that necessity on themselves, by timeously [in a timely manner] providing against it. And when works of real necessity and mercy are to be done, they should be done, not with a work day’s, but a Sabbath day’s frame.

2. Who are to rest? The command is very particular.

(1.) Men. [1.] The heads of the family, the heads of the state, master and mistress, are to give example to others. [2.] The children, son, daughter; they must not have their liberty to profane the Sabbath by playing more than working. [3.] Servants, whose toil all the week may tempt them to misspend the Lord’s Day; they must not be bidden profane the Sabbath; and if they be, they must obey God rather than man. [4.] The stranger must not be allowed his liberty: we must not compliment away the honor of the Sabbath.

(2.) Beasts; they must rest; not that the law reaches them for themselves, but for their owners; either because they require attendance at work, or put the case they did not, yet it is the work which must not be done. This lets us see, that where even their work may be carried on, on the Lord’s Day without attendance on them, yet it is not to be done.

3. What makes the rest holy? Respect to the command of God.

Secondly, the Sabbath is to be sanctified by holy exercise.

1. Public exercise; of God’s worship, Isa. 66:23; as hearing sermons, Luke 4:16; prayer, Acts 16:13-14; receiving of the sacraments, where there is occasion, Acts 20:7; singing of psalms, Psalm 92, title. 2. Private exercises of worship, alone and in our families, Lev. 23:3. Neither of these must justle out the other. God has joined them; let us not put them asunder.

And these duties are to be done with a special elevation of heart on the Sabbath day; they ought to be performed with a frame suiting the Sabbath, Isa. 58:13.

1st, Grace must be stirred up to exercise, otherwise the Sabbath will be a burden. Grace will be at its height in heaven, and the Sabbath is an emblem of heaven, Rev. 1:10). 2dly, The heart should be withdrawn from all earthly things, and intent upon the duty of the day. We must leave the ass at the foot of the mount, that we may converse with God. 3dly, Love and admiration are special ingredients here. The two great works of creation and redemption, which we are particularly called to mind on the Lord’s Day, are calculated to excite our love and admiration. 4thly, We should have a peculiar delight in the day, and the duties of it, exchanging our lawful pleasures on other days with spiritual pleasures on this.

The rest without holy exercise is not sufficient.

1. The Sabbath rest resembles that of heaven, which is a rest without a rest, wherein the soul is most busy and active, serving the Lord without weariness. 2. If it were enough, we were obliged to sanctify the Sabbath no more than beasts, who only rest that day. 3. The rest enjoined is not commanded for itself, but for the holy exercises of the day.

Now, it is the whole day that is thus to be spent; i.e. the natural day. Not that people are bound to be in these exercises without intermission all the twenty-four hours; for God has not made the Sabbath to be a burden to man, but that we should continue God’s work as we do our own on other days, where we are allowed necessary rest and refreshment by sleep in the night.

Use. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. This note is put upon it.

1. Because of the great weight of the thing, the Sabbath being the bond of all religion. It is God’s deal-day, wherein his people may expect furniture for all the week.

2. Because we are very apt to forget it, Ezek. 22:26). There is less light of nature for this than other commands. It restrains our liberty in those things that we do all the week. And Satan, knowing the importance of it for our souls, that it is a day of blessing, sets on us to forget it. If you would then sanctify the Sabbath, (1.) Remember it before it come; on the last day of the week, on the Saturday’s evening, laying by work timeously [in a timely manner] to prepare for it, Luke 23:54. (2.) Remember it when it is come; rise early on the Sabbath morning, Ps. 92:2. The morning hath enough ado: worship God secretly and privately: prepare yourselves for ordinances, wrestle with God for His presence thereto, that He may graciously assist the minister in preaching, and you in hearing, and may bless the word to you. Remember it while it is going on, that it is God’s day, a day of blessing, and ply diligently the work of the day, not only in time of the public work, but after, till the day be finished. (3.) Remember it when it is over, to see what good you have got by it; to bless Him for any smiles of His face, or manifestations of His grace; and to mourn over your failures, and apply to the blood of Christ for pardon and cleansing.

I proceed to show, what is forbidden in the fourth commandment. We are told in the Catechism, that is “forbiddeth the omission or careless performance of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about worldly employments or recreations.”

There are five ways in which this commandment is broken.

First, By omission of the duties required on this day, whether in whole or in part. Many of the Sabbath duties are the duties of every day; but the omission of them, which is always criminal, is more so on this day, because on it we are specially called to them. We sin against this command, then, when we neglect the public or private exercises of God’s worship.

1. Not remembering the Sabbath, before it come, to prepare for it; entertaining a carnal, worldly frame of spirit on the night before, not laying aside work betimes, and composing our hearts for the approaching Sabbath; far more when people continue at their work later that night than ordinary, getting as near the borders of the Sabbath as they can.

2. Neglecting the duties of the Sabbath morning; particularly, (1.) The duty of meditation. Those that are in the spirit on the Lord’s Day, their spirits will be busy, elevated to heavenly things, and conversing with heaven. The two great works of creation and redemption require our thoughts particularly on that day, Ps. 92:5; and we must needs be guilty, when, while God has set these great marks before us, we do not aim to hit them. Has not God made it a day of blessing? should not we then consider our wants, miseries, and needs, and sharpen our appetites after that food that is set before us in ordinances on that day? (2.) Secret prayer. The Sabbath morning is a special time for wrestling with God, confessing, petitioning, and giving thanks. Then there should be wrestling for the blessing on the day of blessing. And the neglect of it is a very bad beginning for that good day. When will they come to God’s door who will not come then? Ps. 92:1-2. (3.) Family exercise. This command has a special respect to family religion. As God will have the family to mind and see to their own work on the six days, so he calls them to mind his together on the Sabbath. Every family is to be a church, especially on the Lord’s Day. And if people came with their hearts warmed from family duties to the public, they would speed.

3. Neglect of the public exercises of God’s worship, Heb. 10:25. By this neglect the Sabbath is profaned. The public ordinances on the Lord’s Day, whatever they do else, they keep up a standard for Christ in the world; and to slight them is the way to fill the world with atheism and profaneness. As it would be the sin of ministers not to administer them, so it is the sin of people not to attend on them. But O how does this profanation abound, by unnecessary absenting from public ordinances! It is not enough to spend the time in private. God requires both; and the one must not justle out the other. Nothing should be admitted as an excuse in this, but what will bear weight when the conscience is sisted before God.

4. Neglecting the duties of the day when the public work is over. The Sabbath is not over when the public work is over. When we go home to our houses, we must keep the Sabbath there too, Lev. 23:3. It ought not to be an idle time. You ought to retire by yourselves, and meditate on what you have heard, on your behavior at the public ordinances, and be humbled for your failings; confer together about the word, renew your calling on God in secret, and in your families, and with variety of holy exercises spend what remains of the day.

Secondly, The Sabbath is profaned be a careless performance of the duties required. Though we perform the duties themselves, we may profane the Sabbath by the way of managing them. Now, it is a careless performance to perform them: 1. Hypocritically, Matt. 15:7, while the body is exercised in Sabbath’s work, but the heart goes not along with it. 2. Carnally, in an earthly frame of spirit, the heart nothing savoring of heaven, but still of the world. Hence are so many distracting thoughts about worldly things, that the heart cannot be intent on the duty of the day, Amos 8:5. 3. Heartlessly and coldly. The Sabbath should be called a delight; a special vigor and alacrity is required to Sabbath duties. But O how flat, heartless, dead, and dull are we for the most part! so that many are quite out of their element on the Lord’s Day, and never come to themselves, or any alacrity of spirit, till the Sabbath be over, and they return to their business. 4. To perform them with a weariness of them, or in them, Mal. 1:13. Alas! is not the Sabbath the most wearisome day of all the week to many? The rest of the Sabbath is more burdensome then the toil of other days. How will such take with heaven, where there is an eternal rest, an everlasting Sabbath? This is a contempt of God and of his day.

Thirdly, The Sabbath is profaned by idleness. God has made the Sabbath a rest, but not a mere rest. He never allows idleness: on the week days we must not be idle, or we misspend our own time. On the Lord’s Day we must not be idle, or we misspend and profane God’s time. Thus the Sabbath is idled away and profaned. 1. By unnecessary, unseasonable sleeping in that day; lying long in the Sabbath morning, going soon to bed that night, to cut God’s day as short as may be; and much more sleeping in any other time of the day, to put off the time. 2. By vain gadding abroad on the Lord’s Day, through the fields, or gathering together about the doors, to idle away the time in company. It is very necessary that people keep indoors on the Lord’s Day as much as may be; and if necessity or conveniency call them forth, that they carry their Sabbath’s work with them. 3. By vain and idle discourse or thoughts. We must give an account of every idle work spoken on any day, far more for those spoken on the Lord’s Day, which are doubly sinful.

Fourthly, The Sabbath is profaned by doing that which is in itself sinful. To do those things on the Lord’s Day that ought not to be done any day, is a sin highly aggravated. Thus the Sabbath is profaned by people’s discouraging others from attending ordinances, instead of attending themselves; swearing or cursing on that day, instead of praising God. The better the day, the worse is the deed. How fearful must their doom be who wait that time for their wicked pranks, as some dishonest servants, and other naughty persons, who choose the time that others are at church for their hidden works of dishonesty; because then they get most secrecy? And indeed the devil is very busy that way, and has brought some on to commit such things on the Sabbath day as have brought them to an ill end.

Lastly, By unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about worldly employments or recreations. The Sabbath is profaned, 1. By carnal recreations, nowise necessary nor suitable to the work of the Sabbath; such as, all carnal pleasures, sports, plays, and pastimes, Isa. 58:13. 2. By following of worldly employments on that day, working or going about ordinary business, except in cases of necessity and mercy, Matt. 24:20. Though, where real necessity or mercy is, it is an abuse of that day to forbear such things, as sometimes the Jews did, who being attacked on the Lord’s Day, would not defend themselves. 3. By unnecessary thoughts or discourse about them; for that day is a day of rest for them every way; and we should neither think of nor talk about them.

O let us be deeply humbled before the Lord under the sense of our profanations of the Sabbath! for who can plead innocent here? We are all guilty in some shape or other, and had need to flee to the atoning blood of Jesus for the expiation of this and all our other sins.

I come now to consider the reasons annexed to the Fourth Commandment. And these, according to the Catechism, are, “God’s allowing us six days of the week for our own employments; his challenging a special propriety in the seventh; his own example; and his blessing the Sabbath day.”

This command God has enforced by four reasons,

1. The first reason is taken from the equity of this command. God has allowed us six days of seven for our own business, and has reserved but one for himself. In dividing our time betwixt himself and us, He has made our share great, six for one. Consider the force of this reason. 1st, We have time enough to serve ourselves in the six days, and shall we not serve God on the seventh? They that will not be satisfied with six, would as little be satisfied with sixteen. But carnal hearts are like a sand bed to devour that which is holy. Nay, 2dly, We have time enough to tire ourselves on the six days in our own employments; it is a kindness that we are obliged to rest on the Lord’s Day. Our interest is our duty, and our duty is our interest. It is a kindness to our bodies and souls too. And shall we not be engaged by it to sanctify the Sabbath? 3dly, There is time enough to raise the appetite for the Sabbath. It comes so seldom, though so sweet to the exercised soul, that we may long for it, and rejoice at the return of it. It is sad if six days’ interval cannot beget in us spiritual appetite. 4thly, God might have allowed us but one day, and taken six to Himself. Who could have quarreled the Lord of time? Has he reserved but one for six, and shall we grudge it him? The sentence of David in the parable against the rich man that took away the poor man’s ewe lamb, is applicable here: “The man that hath done this thing shall surely die; and he shall restore the lamb fourfold,” etc., II Sam. 12.

2. The second reason is taken from God’s challenging a special propriety in the Sabbath day; “But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God”. All days are his; but this is his in a peculiar manner, Rev. 1:10. He has set a mark on it for himself, to be reserved for himself to himself. Consider the force of this reason. 1st, If we have a God, it is reasonable that God should have a time set apart for His service, “the Sabbath of the Lord thy God”. The heathen had days set apart for the honor of their idols; though the dumb idols could not demand them, yet they gave them. Papists have days set apart for saints, who are to them a sort of gods, though some of them, as Paul, have forbidden it. And will you not keep holy the Sabbath of the Lord thy God? 2dly, It is sacrilege, the worst of theft, to profane the Sabbath day. It is a robbing of God, a stealing from him that is consecrated to him, and that is dangerous, Prov. 20:25. We justly blame the churches of Rome and England, for robbing the people of a great many days which God has given us; but how may we blame ourselves for robbing God of the day he has kept from us, and taken to himself? Alas! our zeal for God is far below our zeal for ourselves. They stick to their saints’ days, but how weary are we of God’s days? Mal. 3:8.

3. The third reason is taken from God’s example, who, though he could have perfected the world in a moment, yet, spent six days in it, and but six days, resting the seventh, taking a complacency in the work of his own hand; and this is an example to be imitated by us. Consider the force of this reason. 1st, God’s example proposed for imitation is a most binding rule, Eph. 5:1. “Be ye followers of God.” What God does is best done, and we must labor to write after his copy. 2dly, The profaning of the Sabbath is most eminent and signal contempt of God and of his works. Did God rest on the Sabbath, taking a complacency in the six days’ works? Our not doing so is an undervaluing of what God so highly esteemed, slighting of what He so much prized, and consequently a contempt of Himself and His works too.

4. The fourth reason is taken from His blessing the Sabbath day. His blessing of that day is His blessing it as a mean of blessing us in the keeping of it. It imports,

1st, The Lord’s putting a peculiar honor on it beyond all other days. It is the “holy of the Lord and honorable”. The King of heaven has make it the queen of days. Therefore it should be our question, What shall be done to that day the King delighteth to honor? Let us beware of leveling that with common things which God has advanced so far above them.

2dly, That the Lord has set it apart for a spiritual blessing to his people, so that in the sanctification of that day we may look for a blessing, Isa. 56:6-7; nay, that the Lord will multiply his blessings on that day more on his people than any other days wherein they seek it. So that, as the Lord requires more on that day than on any other days, He also gives more.

3dly, That the Lord will make it even a spring of temporal blessings. He will not let the day of blessing to be a curse to people in their temporal affairs. They shall be at no loss in their worldly things by the Sabbath rest, Lev. 25:20, 22. Conscientious keepers of the Sabbath will be found to thrive as well otherwise as those who are not. The force of this reason is, (1.) God’s honor by keeping that day, that we may get his blessings on it showered down upon us. So that the profanation of the Sabbath is like profane Esau’s rejecting the blessing. (2.) Our own interest. Is it a special day for blessing, and shall we not observe it? It is an unworthy mistake to look upon the Sabbath as so much lost time. No time is so gainful as a Sabbath holily observed. And indeed the great reason of the profaning of the Sabbath may be found to lie, [1.] In carnality and worldly mindedness. The Sabbath is no delight to many. Why? Because heaven would be no heaven for them, for they savor not the things of God. The heart that is drowned in the cares or pleasures of the world, all the week over, is as hard to get in a Sabbath frame, as wet wood to take fire. [2.] Insensibleness of their need of spiritual blessings. They are not sensible of their wants, and hence they despise the blessing. He that has nothing to buy or sell can stay at home on the market day, and the full soul cares not for God’s day. [3.] The not believing of the blessing of that day. They that think they may come as good speed any day in the duties of the day as on the Lord’s Day, no wonder that they count God’s day, and the duties of it, as common.

Use. Let me exhort you then to beware of profaning the Sabbath. Learn to keep it holy. And therefore I would call you here to several duties.

1. Remember the Sabbath day, before it come, to prepare for it, and let your eye be on it before the week be done. Timeously [in a timely manner] lay by your worldly employment, and go not near the borders of the Lord’s day, and strive to get your hearts in a frame suitable to the exercises of this holy day.

2. Make conscience of attending the public ordinances, and waiting on God in his own house on his own day. Loiter not away the Lord’s day at home unnecessarily, seeing the Lord trusts to meet his people there. This will bring leanness to your own souls, and grief of heart to him that bears the Lord’s message to you.

3. Before you come to the public, spend the morning in secret and private exercises, particularly in prayer, reading, and meditation; remembering how much your success depends upon suitable preparation. Put off your shoes before ye tread the holy ground.

4. Make not your attendance on the public ordinances a by-hand work, and a mean for carrying on your worldly affairs. If ye come to the church to meet with some body, and to discourse or make appointments about your worldly business, it will be a wonder if ye meet with the Lord. If ye travel on the Lord’s Day, and take a preaching by the way, it may well cheat your blinded consciences; it will not be pleasing to God, for it makes his service to stand but in the second room, while your main end is what concerns your temporal affairs. Among the Jews no man might make the mountain of the house, or a synagogue, a thoroughfare. And beware of common discourse between sermons, which is too much practiced among professors.

5. When ye come home from the public ordinances, let it be your care, both by the way and at home, to meditate or converse about spiritual things, and what ye have heard. Retire and examine yourselves as to what ye have gained, and be not as the unclean beasts, who chew not the cud. Let masters of families take account of their children and servants how they have profited, catechise and instruct them in the principles of religion, and exhort them to piety.

6. When ye are necessarily detained from the public ordinances, let your hearts be there, Ps. 63:1-2; and do not turn that to sin which in itself is not your sin. And strive to spend the Lord’s Day in private and secret worship, looking to the Lord for the upmaking of your wants. As for those that tie themselves to men’s service, without a due regard to their having opportunities to hear the Lord’s word, their wages are dear bought, and they have little respect to God or their own souls; and I think tender Christians will be loath to engage so. But, alas! few masters or servants look further than the work or wages in their engaging together! A sad argument that religion is at a low ebb.

7. Do not cut the Sabbath short. The Church of Rome has half holidays; God never appointed any such; it is one whole day. Alas! it is a sad thing to see how the Lord’s Day is so consumed, as if people would make up the loss of a day out of Saturday’s night and Monday’s morning, which they do by cutting short the Lord’s Day.

8. Lastly, Labour to be in a Sabbath day’s frame. Let the thoughts of worldly business, far more worldly words and works be far from you. To press this, consider, (1.) It is God’s command, whereby he tries your love to him. This day is as the forbidden fruit. Who does not condemn Adam and Eve for eating it? O do not profane it any manner of way! (2.) Heaven will be an everlasting Sabbath, and our conversation should be heaven-like. If we grudge the Lord one day in seven, how will we relish eternity? We are ready to complain that we are toiled with the world: why then do we not enter into his rest? (3.) The great advantage of sanctifying the Lord’s Day. He has made it a day of blessing. It is God’s deal-day; and keeps up the heart of many through the week while they think of its approach. (4.) Lastly, Ye will bring wrath on you if ye do not sanctify the Sabbath. God may plague you with temporal, spiritual, and eternal plagues. Many begin with this sin of profaning the Lord’s Day, and it brings upon them the wrath of God, both in this world and that which is to come.

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