John Calvin on the Fourth Commandment: God Does Not Treat Us Harshly Nor Excessively Crowd Us

In his second of two sermons on the fourth commandment (preached from Deuteronomy 5:13-15), John Calvin responds to those who suggest that we are commanded to work six entire days each week (i.e., we are not allowed to work 5 days of 8 hours each, or 4 days of 10 hours each, etc.) when the fourth commandment says “Six days you shalt labor and do all your work.” But what is more, Calvin uses this opportunity to give a firm but loving exhortation to those of us who feel tempted to fill up the festive day of rest with any activity (whether unnecessary work or unworshipful relaxation) that would detract from filling our thoughts and actions with the worship of the Triune God:

And when he says, “Thou shalt work six days,” our Lord shows us that we must not begrudge giving and dedicating one specific day to him, seeing he has given us six for one. It’s as if he were saying: “Is it asking too much of you to choose one day which can be fully reserved for my service in order that you might do nothing else in it but read and practice my law, or at least hear the doctrine which can be preached to you, or come to the church in order that you might be confirmed there by the sacrifices which are offered in it, or to call upon my name and confess that you belong to the company of my people? Is it not fitting that you should do that, seeing that you have six entire free days for taking care of your needs and business affairs? Therefore, when I act with such humanity toward you, asking not for seven but only one day, does it not amount to unacceptable ingratitude when you invest that time as if it were badly employed, or behave parsimoniously toward me over the seventh part of time? I give you all your life; the sun never shines on you but that you ought to be able to recognize my goodness and that I am a generous father toward you. For I cause my sun to shine in order to give you light for your path, in order for each of you to pursue your needs. Therefore why shouldn’t I have one day out of seven [in which] each person withdraws from his affairs in order that you might not be enveloped by such worldly solicitude so as to be unable to think of me?” Thus we now see that this statement about working six days was not given as a commandment, but it is rather a permission which God gives in order to reproach men for their ingratitude, unless, as he has indicated, they observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.

Now from this we need to glean a good and useful admonition, that when we are slow to obey God, it is helpful to remember his gracious favors. For what could better stimulate our zeal for following what God commands than the thought that he does not treat us harshly nor excessively crowd us?

John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Ed. & Trans. Benjamin W. Farley; Baker, 1980), pg. 117.

As I read this, I have to remind myself that Calvin was not writing to Christians in Southern California in the 21st century! As Paul reminds us: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor 10:13). May God stir our hearts to gratitude and help us to render appropriate thanks via our Lord’s day activities for his wondrous mercy to us!

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

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