Churches · Life Application

The Synod of Dort on the fourth commandment

From Sabbath to Sunday?

Is the Sunday the Sabbath day of the New Testament? This is a question that is being discussed widely among Christians. Even among those who claim to stand in the reformed tradition[i], there are those who believe that keeping the Sunday as a day of rest is not a biblical command. In 2005, the synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, which were until two years ago our sister churches, adopted a position as formulated in a report, in which they claimed that the Sunday as a day of rest is a good tradition. It is a tradition which came into the churches under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that we as much as possible should keep the Sunday as a day of rest. However, the Sunday as a day of rest is, according to this report, not based on a biblical command[ii].

Westminster Confession

In discussions about this topic people sometimes refer to the difference between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Larger Catechism. Some claim that Lord’s Day 38 does not explicitly speak about not working on Sundays, while the Westminster Larger Catechism gives explicit prescriptions.

Answer 116 in the Larger Catechism says:

The fourth commandment requireth of all men the sanctifying or keeping holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in his word, expressly one whole day in seven, which was the seventh from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, and the first day of the week ever since, and so to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian sabbath, and in the New Testament called the Lord’s Day.

In answer 117, the catechism then states that we should rest not only from works that are always sinful, but also from all other worldly employment and recreation which is lawful during the week, except works of necessity and mercy.

Based on this difference between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Larger Catechism, some conclude that there was more room in the continental reformed churches for different opinions about the fourth commandment than in the Presbyterian churches.

Heidelberg Catechism

However, there are a few things we have to keep in mind here. In the first place, when reading Lord’s Day 38, we note that the Catechism does speak about keeping the Sunday as day of rest.[iii]

In the second place, we should take into account that the Westminster confessions were written a century after the Heidelberg Catechism. The 16th century, in which the Heidelberg Catechism was written, was a time of formulating doctrines, as a result of the Reformation and in response to the Roman Catholic Church. In the 17th century however, confessions and other Christian writings, usually go much more into detail about parts of the doctrine and the commandments. Would it not be possible that the difference between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster confessions has more to do with the different time in which they were written than with a real difference in doctrine?

The six rules of Dort

At this point it is good to look at how the ecclesiastical assemblies in the seventeenth century speak about the fourth commandment.

For this article I will focus on the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619. The synod dealt with this subject because there was some unrest in the churches about the interpretation of the fourth commandment. This synod adopted a set of six statements about the Sabbath, which previously had been drawn up by a number of professors and approved by the churches in Zeeland.

In the 164th session, the synod gave approbation to the following six statements:[iv]

  1. In the fourth commandment of the Law of God, there is a ceremonial element and a moral element.
  2. Ceremonial was the rest on the seventh day after the creation, and the strict observance of this day, which was imposed especially on the Jewish people.
  3. Moral is, that a certain day has been set apart for worship, and with that as much rest as is needed for worship and the holy meditation on this worship.
  4. While the Sabbath of the Jews has been abrogated, the Christians shall now solemnly hallow the Sunday.
  5. Since the Apostles this day has always been kept in the old Catholic church.
  6. This day must be dedicated to the worship, so that on this day one must rest from all labour (except those of mercy and of necessity), as well as from all recreation that would hinder the worship.

Although not everyone considers these six rules as a solid defense of the Sunday as day of rest, these six rules of the Synod of Dort have been a guideline for the churches throughout following generations. Even the synod Amersfoort-Centrum 2005 refers to these six rules in article 26.

In response to an appeal the synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 2005 agreed with the appellants that the six rules of Dort did have the status of a decision (which the churches had to accept as settled and binding), but took away from that by declaring in the same sentence that it was not a doctrinal statement. It just considered them as something of not much value that could be ignored. This synod refused to say that ministers and churches were bound by this decision. This decision looks contradictory in itself, but did give the synod the opportunity to continue on the way of reinterpreting the fourth commandment while at the same time trying to appease the appellants. 

Same as Westminster Confessions

These statements show that the Synod of Dort, which was convened in the same century in which the Westminster Confessions were drawn up, does explicitly mention the same things as the Westminster Larger Catechism. These statements also make it clear that keeping the Sunday as day of rest was seen by the reformed churches as an obedience to the fourth commandment. Although here it is not explicitly said by the synod that the Sunday (first day) has come in the place of the Sabbath (last day), statement 3 clearly does imply it. Also the argument sometimes mentioned in discussions that the Sunday only became an official day of rest during the second half of the Middle Ages[v] is not supported by these rules of the Synod of Dort. Rule 5 is abundantly clear. These rules were drawn up by professors, whom we may assume knew what they were talking about. Therefore, based on these six statements we cannot but conclude that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands took the fourth commandment very seriously by keeping the Sunday as the New Testament day of rest.

The synod of Dort made this importance also clear in a couple of other ways.

Ecclesiastical feast days

One way I already mentioned in my previous article about ecclesiastical feast days[. The synod of Dort intended to limit the number of special days besides the Sunday. Where the government gave in to Roman Catholics in the Netherlands and allowed or even ordained a number of Christian feast days in addition to the Sunday, there the synods in the Netherlands in the sixteenth and beginning seventeenth century urged the government to abolish those feast days. The argumentation as used already by the synod of Dort in 1578 was, as I wrote in my previous article: “it would be desirable that only the Sunday were kept as special day, because God had ordained to work six days and to keep the Sabbath Day as day of rest.” The thought here was that having more special days than only the Sunday, could give the idea that the Sunday as day of rest was only a human institution just like those other days. It was important for the churches in those days, to clearly keep the Sunday as a special day, separate from all other days of the week. This is something we should still emphasise in our churches as well, as I pleaded in my previous article.

Rest on Sunday

The Synod of Dort also decided in the 177th session[vii] to send a letter to the government of the Netherlands to express the grievances that came up in the synod and heartily urge the magistrates to deal with these grievances at their earliest convenience. In this letter, the synod implored the government to bring an end to the profanation of the Sabbath day by all kinds of trade activities, feasts and other entertainment, weddings, dances, comedies, games, hunting, fishing, etc[viii]. All these activities were damaging to the reformed worship and the government should forbid them sternly.

This all shows that the Synod of Dort took the fourth commandment very seriously and any suggestion that the reformed churches always left room for other opinions about the Sunday and the fourth commandment is not supported by what the Synod of Dort decided. It appears that at least in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the generally accepted conclusion was that the Sunday is the continuation of the Sabbath day, and that in the knowledge of the churches of those days this had always been the case in the Christian churches since the time of the apostles. This is a powerful testimony which we should take to heart.

[i] For example: in a book edited by Dr. D.A. Carson, otherwise known for his often solidly reformed writings, A.T. Lincoln concludes that the “literal Sabbath day of rest has been abrogated and has not been transferred to Sunday.” See D.A. Carson (editor), From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, a biblical, historical and theological investigation, Eugene, Oregon, 1982, page 404.

[ii] Report of ‘Deputaten Vierde Gebod en Zondag’ to General Synod Amersfoort-Centrum 2005, included in the Acts of this synod as Appendix II-1, available on the internet:

[iii] For more about this I refer to a clear and succinct article from the hand of prof. Geertsema published in Clarion 33.1

[iv] See the PostActca, in the version published by P. Biesterveld and H.H. Kuyper in 1905 and available online: page 268.

[v] R.J. Bauckham in D.A. Carson(editor), page 287, and page 303: “Sunday rest became a general law of the church when it was incorporated in the Decretals of Gregory IX (1234).”

[vii] 27 May 1619, see the Acts: page 283

[viii] Ibid page 289