When the Westminster Confession of Faith says that “the whole time [of the Lord’s Day, or Christian Sabbath]” should be taken up in the public and private exercises of His worship (and in the duties of necessity and mercy, which is a topic for another post), how are we to understand this? Ashbel Green tackles this question in his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Vol. 2 (1841):
That our whole time, on the Sabbath, is to be spent in "the public and private exercise of God's worship," with no other exceptions, than those which we are afterwards to notice.
"God's worship," you will observe, includes in it, not only acts of prayer and praise, in which it immediately and more especially consists, but also every thing calculated to dispose us to those acts, and enable us to perform them with enlightened and holy ardour; and indeed, whatever has a tendency to promote the honour and glory of God.
The exercises suitable for the Sabbath are so many, that I can do little more than name them, and furnish you with some hints, on which you must enlarge for yourselves.
Green then lists the chief devotional activities that are consistent with Biblical Sabbath-keeping, such as:
Meditation. — This is a duty too little practised, or thought of, by Christians generally. The Psalmist says — "My meditation of thee shall be sweet, I will be glad in the Lord." Meditation, intermingled with devout ejaculations and aspirations of soul, is exemplified in many of the Psalms, and should form a part of a Christian's exercises on every Lord's day. The subjects of meditation are the works, the government, and the providence of God, his providence in relation to our own lot in life particularly, and more than all, the glorious plan of redemption, as a whole, and in its various parts and aspects.
Self-examination. — This is a duty which no Christian should neglect on the Lord's day. He should, if I may so speak, settle his spiritual account with himself, on the regular return of this day. He should examine, generally, whether he is in a gracious state, consider whether he is gaining or losing in religion; and should particularly go over the past week, to mark his defects, to observe the temper he has been in, the example he has set, to repent of what was wrong, and to form good resolutions for the future.
Secret prayer and praise. — Although no real Christian can neglect secret prayer, habitually, on any day of the week, yet he should perform this duty more frequently, particularly, and extensively, on the Sabbath, than he ordinarily can on other days, unless they be days specially set apart for the purpose of prayer. It is in secret prayer and praise, that the soul of the believer holds converse and communion with God; and what so proper as this, on the day which he claims as his own: and when this converse and communion is very sensible, no exercise so fully antedates heaven, the sabbatical "rest which remaineth for the people of God."
Reading the Holy Scriptures, and other books of devotion. — This, although it should be, to some extent, and as circumstances favour, an employment of a portion of our time on other days, yet it demands a special attention on the Sabbath. As far as practicable, method should be adopted in this, as in every other important concern. Let me advise you, my young friends, to confine yourselves principally, if not wholly to reading, studying, and meditating, on the word of God, in the former part of his day; to read some sound, doctrinal and practical writer, in the latter part; and to leave sacred poetry (except psalms and hymns,) with religious periodicals, to the evening. By pursuing this course, you will avoid the danger, which seems to be real and imminent at the present time, that the numerous publications of a periodical kind, will exclude almost every other sort of religious reading. Should this unhappily be realized, the rising generation, whatever zeal they may possess, will be greatly deficient in that sound doctrinal knowledge, which is the only sure basis of consistent, stable and exemplary piety.
Family devotion and catechetical instruction. Family devotion, you are aware, consists of prayer and praise, connected with the reading of the Holy Scriptures. These exercises should, ordinarily, be somewhat more extended on the Sabbath than on secular days: and the reading of some pious commentator, such as Henry, Burkitt, or Scott, on a portion of the divine word, will also he profitable. By catechetical instruction, I mean especially a due attention to the Shorter Catechism of our church, which every member of the family should be able accurately to repeat without book, and which the younger members should recite, and hear a portion of it explained by the head of the family. It will be well, if they can add the scripture proofs, and better still, if they can add to both the Larger Catechism. These were once common attainments, in pious families of our church; and I am persuaded that whatever has taken their place, is not for the better, but the worse. But in catechetical instruction, I also include a questioning of the children of the family, on a previously prescribed portion of the Bible; requiring an account of what other books they have read; and examining them, as to what they can remember of the discourses they may have heard in public. It is this family instruction, which must, in most cases, be principally communicated and acquired on the Lord's day, and which more than any thing — I had almost said, more than every thing beside — contributes to raise up a generation of well in- formed and steadfast Christians. It was this which long distinguished the best reformed churches, and for it, I am persuaded, no adequate substitute ever has been, or will be found
Public worship. — This is an important and essential part of the exercises of the Sabbath, to all who can avail themselves of it. Alas! that there are so many parts of our country, in which the privileges of the sanctuary cannot be enjoyed. But great is the criminality of those who neglect these privileges, when placed within their power. The command to such is explicit, " Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is;" and the pretence too often made, that the Sabbath may as well be employed without going to the sanctuary, as by attending there, is utterly vain and inexcusable. Nothing but the want of health and opportunity, can justify the omission. In religion, the blessing of God is every thing, and he will not confer it on those who disobey his command. Nor is it a formal attendance, but one truly devout, that God requires. We should, in ordinary circumstances, always make special prayer for a blessing to ourselves and others from the ser- vices of the sanctuary, immediately before going to them, if this be practicable; and for a blessing on what we have heard, immediately on our return to our retirements. But although I thus inculcate the duty of public worship, I cannot forbear to say, that I think there are some Christians, who greatly err, in endeavouring to spend almost the whole of the Sabbath in public. Much of it should be spent in private, in those exercises which I have already specified. Two attendances on public worship are, as a habit, as many as will be profitable, to those who seek to employ their holy time in the most advantageous manner.
Religious conversation is the last exercise, that I shall mention as proper for the Lord's day. This should take place when Christian friends are together on this day, and whenever we go to, or return from, the house of God in company, unless we pass the time in silence. Conversation on news, or politics, or other secular subjects, though mournfully common, is a real profanation of the day, in any part of it, and peculiarly so, immediately before, or after, the services of the sanctuary. By this evil practice, all serious thought and good impressions are often prevented; or banished or effaced, after they have been received. The conversation of Christian families, while taking their meals together, ought also to be on religious subjects. Often a profitable topic may be furnished by the sermons they have heard — not however if they be subjected to severe criticism, but when so treated as to impress the sacred truths which have been heard in public.
As Sabbath-time is the most precious time of the week, may we consider how best to spend the whole day in these activities listed by Ashbel Green and so to honor the Lord on his holy day.