Reformed Baptist Fellowship

“How to Observe the Lord’s Day” by John Owen

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 22, 2013 at 9:16 am

John Owen

A Summary Study and Paraphrase by D. Scott Meadows

John Owen (1616-1683) was one of the greatest theologians of the Puritan era, and perhaps, even since the apostles. He defended the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Day found in The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order, 1658 (Congregationalist), which he helped to write:

As it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, be set apart for the worship of God, so by his Word, in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept Holy unto him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s Day; and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.

This Sabbath is then kept Holy unto the Lord, when men after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an Holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy (Savoy XXII.7-8).

This language is familiar to Reformed Baptists because the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith says exactly the same thing. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646, Presbyterian) also agrees.

Many challenges to this consensus of Reformed Christians about the Lord’s Day pestered the churches, and still do. Owen and others responded with massive, scholarly, and exegetical treatments that have stood the test of time.

One of the most popular libels against Lord’s Day observance is that it is necessarily legalistic and burdensome. Owen’s winsome counsel about this subject exposes that harangue. Many people who are less familiar with the writings of Owen and other Puritans may be surprised how carefully they warn against legalism, and plead for deep spirituality in the whole Christian life, including the Lord’s Day.

If my summary study and paraphrase of Owen’s advice brings him before today’s Christians for a fresh consideration and appreciation leading to a recovery of sound doctrine and practice, I will be gratified. I heartily encourage all to read Owen for themselves, in his own words. His style of writing may be challenging, but with the Lord’s blessing and sustained effort to grasp Owen’s meaning, most should be able to profit immensely.

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“How to Observe the Lord’s Day” by John Owen

Since many have written about the many specifics of these duties, I will just rehearse them briefly.[1]

Saturday Evening Preparation

Necessity. Strictly speaking, Saturday evening is not part of the Lord’s Day, but there are good reasons to use it for preparation.

Because God is great and holy. We are about to have special dealings with God on Sunday. Reverence requires special preparation for this (Eccl 5.1; Lev 10.3). God does not love our rushing into His presence without the right attitude (Heb 12.28-29). It is not enough to show reverence with our bodies; we must gain a reverent frame of mind.

Because we are distracted and entangled by other things. Even those who live for the Lord all week long are typically working in some nonreligious calling which largely occupies their minds. Workdays can desensitize us to the things of God. Even though we should consecrate every moment and activity to God, yet many of them are not so conducive to heavenly-mindedness. We should pray always, but there is a benefit in special, preparatory prayer for the Lord’s Day. We ought to rid our minds of secular, earthly business as much as we can each Saturday evening. If we are not very careful about this, we will be unprepared to worship as we should on Sunday. Faithfulness on Saturday promotes blessing on Sunday.

Specifics. I offer three qualifications before my three particular directions.

Qualifications

These are intended as helpful directions, not strict rules. If you find better ways to prepare on Saturday evening for observing the Lord’s Day, I have still realized my purpose.

I am not saying these are commanded for Saturday evening in particular, but only that they are commanded generally, and they have a very useful application on Saturday evening.

If we are truly unable to do these things on a particular Saturday evening, we should not think we have sinned, but only that we have lost a good opportunity.

Guidance

Meditation. Dwell on God’s majesty, holiness, and greatness. Remember Him as the Author of our sabbatical rest. Remember His work that brings about our celebration of His ordinances, especially redemption through our Lord Jesus Christ. Ponder the importance, the reasons, and the purposes of the Lord’s Day to follow. Reflect on its holy privileges, advantages, and duties. A thorough understanding of these things helps us make more of them than the one who just knows that Sunday is sacred time. Deliberate meditation on God and His love like this frees us to worship at our best without distraction.

Supplication. Pray specifically about the duties of the Lord’s Day. Prayer is preparation for every duty. Prayer is the main way we express dependence upon God in Christ. Prayer is necessary for bringing our hearts to a sense of our own spiritual poverty and our desperate need of God’s grace. A season of prayer prior to the Lord’s Day is an indispensable means for the greatest blessing. We must thank God and celebrate His goodness in giving us this gift. Besides thanksgiving, offer petitions for two main things. 1) For grace to fear Him and delight in His worship, to come to Him with humility, love, joy, and peace, and to remedy our defects of insufficient diligence, steadfastness, and mental discipline. 2) For a removal of evils confronting us in worship, like Satan’s temptations, mental distractions, and offenses against persons and things, which offenses hinder true worship (Rom 8.26-27).

Instruction. The duty of teaching households as such how to worship the true God falls especially to their heads, as we see from God’s commending Abraham (Gen 18.19). Household heads should occasionally instruct their families how to keep the Lord’s Day. Neglecting this has led first to mere formality and then to utter neglect of the Lord’s Day.

Sunday Observance

In Public. Public observance is primary. Private observances are secondary, whether by an individual or a family.

Public duties. We must attend to and perform all parts of solemn worship commanded by God for sacred assemblies, precisely obeying His revealed will in Scripture. One end of this day is to give glory to God. This is why He has given us specific ordinances and duties. Without these we might have become creative in worship, but that would offend Him. Therefore He has fully stated what we are to do for worship on the Lord’s Day, and how to do it, so it may be acceptable to Him and glorify Him. It is not my purpose to spell out all the biblical parts of church worship, but I would offer some general advice.

Prefer solemn, public worship to private worship. Usually these need not interfere with one another, but if they ever do, we must choose the public worship, because it is one of the main reasons God has set apart the Lord’s Day as His own. They are in the wrong who neglect public worship unnecessarily, even from attendance on individual or family worship, for they are setting up their own choice and wishes against God’s wisdom and authority.

Prefer churches where we can best accomplish the biblical purposes of the Lord’s Day, as long as you do not violate other aspects of divinely-appointed order. It is legitimate to seek the best helps to our faith and obedience. We should use the most fitting means for our growth in spiritual light, knowledge, and grace.

Worship with reverence, seriousness, order, diligence, and attention. These inner traits of true worship are very important, even though we cannot digress to explain and defend them here.

Helps to public duties. In devoting a whole day to God’s worship, we must beware of common problems which could undermine its spiritual usefulness.

Beware of making public worship last so long that even the godly get sick and tired of it. Account must be taken of two things: 1) The limited capacity of some, whether through physical weakness or even a degree of unwillingness. A wise pastor would rather allow stronger sheep to fall short of their maximum edification than compel weaker sheep to keep pace with them, so ruining the weak. It would be better if we had many people saying church services were too short than to have a few sincere worshipers who really are discouraged by being overburdened and therefore get nothing out of protracted meetings. Seneca said of one great orator, “We were afraid he would end.” Preachers should study such brevity. 2) Also take account of the spiritual edge of people’s religious affections. We should sharpen this, and tediousness will dull and ruin it.

Use physical refreshments so we can feel strong and well in our worship. God does not require fasting and weight loss on this day. The Old Testament law against cooking food is not a requirement for our observance of the Lord’s Day. This would wrongly reintroduce the seventh day Sabbath precisely and impose on Christians the law and the spirit of the Old Covenant. However, a few basic principles must be remembered: 1) Do not prepare or eat food when you should be participating in public worship. 2) Always practice self-control so that you do not even begin to sin, and so that your do not lose alertness from a full belly. 3) Be careful to eat and drink with seriousness and moral purity. We should always do this, so no one should consider it burdensome on the Lord’s Day.

Work very hard to make this day spiritually beneficial. This kind of effort is not only lawful on the Lord’s Day, but required as a part of its observance. Naps are not a religious part of the Lord’s Day except as they help us to attend to its duties. Even long travel is allowed if necessary to attend a good church or fulfill any other Lord’s Day obligations. All pains and labors on the Lord’s Day are lawful if they help us keep it as we should. One man may please God by traveling far on this day, while another might be sinning.

Do works of love and necessity. Visit the sick. Relieve the poor. Help the distressed. Rescue perishing people or even animals. Feed your cattle. We all know these things are legitimate on the Lord’s Day, and many have written to defend them.

Be careful about sports and recreations. Good sense about these on Sunday is found in ancient legislation of emperors and nations. We can summarize the best sentiments by reminding you that the Lord’s Day is supposed to be full of joy in Him that He might be praised and glorified.

In Private. Keep in mind these three simple principles: 1) The time for performance of individual and family religious duties is before or after church. 2) Private Lord’s Day observance includes prayer, Bible reading, meditation, and follow-up teaching after church. 3) Take into account every one’s conscience, ability, and opportunity.

To God alone be the glory! Ω


[1] Source: The Works of John Owen, Vol. 18, Exercitation 6, “The Practical Observance of the Lord’s Day” (#11-20).

  1. This is excellent. Worthy of being printed up and shared with one’s family during worship time the night before Sunday.

  2. “Good sense about [sports and recreation] on Sunday is found in ancient legislation of emperors and nations.”

    What good sense? What legislation?

  3. For those who don’t have access to The Works of John Owen, Vol. XVIII, here is the original source:

    [5.] For sports and such like recreations, and their use on this day, I refer the reader to laws of sundry emperors and nations concerning them. See of Constant. Leg. Omnes cap. de Feriis; Theodosius and Arcadius ibid.; and of Leo and Authemius, in the same place of the Code; of Charles the Great, Capitular., lib. 1:cap. 81, lib. 5:cap. 188. The sum of them all is contained in that exhortation which Ephraim Syrus expresses in his Serm. de Diebus Festis:

    “Festivitates dominicas honorare studiose contendite, celebrantes eas non panegyrice, sed divine; non mundane, sed spiritualiter; non instar gentilium, sed Christianorum. Quare non portarum frontes coronemus; non choreas ducamus, non chorum exornemus; non tibiis et citharis auditum effeminemus, non mollibus vestibus induamur, nec cingulis undique auro radiantibus cingamur; non comessationibus et ebrietatibus dediti simus, verum ista relinquamus eis quorum Deus venter est, et gloria in confusione ipsorum.”

  4. Would any Latin scholars out there offer us all a smooth, modern translation of the last paragraph? I have a general idea of the content but would not dare publish any attempt of mine at translation.

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