Luther On the Lord’s Day

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Every thinking pastor wrestles with a handful of issues over the course of his ministry; perhaps even coming down on one side and then the other as he grows in knowledge and understanding. One of the issues I’ve wrestled with is the place of the Lord’s Day in the life of the New Testament believer. As a Bible believing Christian I felt caught between two principles of Scripture. On the one hand, the Bible says:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9 ESV)

The Bible plainly teaches that a person is saved by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ and not by works of the law.

Furthermore, the Apostle Paul said that it was a betrayal of the Gospel of grace to return to works of the law as if they added anything to the salvation that is ours through Christ. He said in Galatians 4:9-11:

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Galatians 4:9–11 ESV)

To observe the days, months, seasons and years of the old Jewish system is, in essence, to turn away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ – obviously I don’t want to do that.

And yet.

The Bible also says:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25 ESV)

That makes it sound like regular gatherings of the local church are still necessary – increasingly necessary – in order to stir one another up in love and good works. Moreover, it appears that the New Testament church met regularly in large and small group settings in order to hear teaching, build relationships and partake of the Lord’s Supper. Acts 2:42-47 records:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47 ESV)

The early Christians gathered together on a regular basis and it appears that however often they assembled, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, enjoyed pride of place in their schedule of meetings. Acts 20:7 for example records:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7 ESV)

So what should a pastor say to his people about the observance of the Lord’s Day?

Is it a law to be kept?

Is it a sin not to attend?

Does everything the Old Testament says about the Sabbath translate to our New Testament Sunday observances?

Where should I come down on this issue as a pastor?

I admit to finding the ditch on both sides of this very narrow road over the course of my life and ministry and I happily acknowledge my debt to the wisdom and insight of Martin Luther. In his commentary on Galatians Luther writes these words, reflecting on Galatians 4:9-11:

Here some men may say: If the Galatians sinned in observing days and seasons, how is it not sin when you do the same? I answer: We observe the Lord’s day, the day of His Nativity, Easter, and such feasts, with all liberty. We burden not consciences with these ceremonies, neither teach as the false apostles did that they are necessary to righteousness, or that we can make satisfaction for sins by them; but we keep them to the end that all may be done orderly and without tumult in the Church, and that outward concord (for in spirit we have another concord) be not broken. We chiefly observe such feasts to the end that the ministry of the Word may be preserved, that the people may assemble themselves at certain days and times to hear the Word, to come to the knowledge of God, to have communion, to pray together for all necessities, and to give thanks to God for all his benefits both bodily and spiritual. And it was for this cause above all, I believe, that the observance of the Lord’s day, Easter, and Pentecost was instituted by the fathers.[1]

Based on Galatians 4 and informed by Luther’s counsel I would suggest that pastors and elders ought to teach the following principles to their people:

  1. That it is good, helpful and encouraging for the believers to gather together regularly for the ministry of the Word, the observance of the sacraments and for fellowship with one another.
  2. That it is helpful to the cause of unity to identify one meeting per week in particular as the primary meeting of the church to which all members should strive to attend.
  3. That Sunday, the Lord’s Day, be recognized as the most suitable day for the primary meeting of the church in remembrance of the resurrection of the Lord.
  4. That other meetings should be made available for the encouragement of brothers and sisters who by reason of employment cannot attend the primary gathering.
  5. That the principle of Sabbath rest; one day in seven; be observed by all for the good health and ordering of the body.
  6. That Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Sunday be set aside for particular reflection and thanksgiving upon the principal acts of our redemption.
  7. That the Lord’s Day, special days and all other meetings of the Lord’s people be viewed as a gift, a grace and an opportunity and not a legal obligation upon the believer.

Practically speaking, I think this means promoting and enjoying these regular times of worship but not presenting them as binding upon the individual members of your church. If a member of your church is frequently absent from the regular gatherings an elder or a pastor should meet with the member to determine the reason for this absence. The goal of the meeting should be to determine the motivations of the heart. Does the member not understand the importance of sitting under the Word? Does the member not understand the importance of the ordinances and sacraments of the church? Does the member not understand his or her need for Christian fellowship? Is the member perhaps unable to attend due to health or due to restrictive employment? Many of our less advantaged members are obligated by shift work to miss many Sunday morning meetings – are they aware of other opportunities to sit under the Word and to engage in Christian fellowship?

If these observances are a matter of grace and liberty, as Luther contends, then they ought not to be a matter of discipline unless the believer has demonstrated a contempt or disregard for the assembling of God’s people that gives evidence of a proud or neglectful spirit.

A truly Spirit filled person will not need to be threatened or disciplined into attending church. The Spirit-filled person craves the pure spiritual milk of the Word, they delight in the sound and sight of the Gospel and they long for the encouragement and comfort of God’s people. Therefore, whereas once they were driven to these meetings, now they find themselves delighting to do “that which once they did and learned against their will.”[2]

Thanks be to God!

 

Pastor Paul Carter

To hear a full podcast episode from Pastor Paul on Galatians 4 see here.


[1] Martin Luther, Commentary On Galatians (Grand Rapids: Fleing H. Revell, 1988), 270-271.

[2] Luther, 226.

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