Practical Lutheranism: What is Sabbath?

Martin LutherI have been reading through the Book of Concord. I think it is vitally important for one who, like me, claiming to be Lutheran to be familiar with the Lutheran Confessions. That is, after all, what we believe and confess. I have been writing a series of posts on Practical Lutheranism based on the Book of Concord. These teachings remain viable and valuable today.

What is Sabbath?

One of the debates that has raged within Christianity (with different levels of flame behind this raging, whether it be a mere flickering candle or a roaring fire) has been the meaning of “Sabbath” and how it is integrated into the Christian life. Volumes have been written, multi-view books published, denominations split or created, and the like on this topic.

Luther’s Large Catechism offered a way forward in this debate, offering an understanding of keeping the day holy that could be lived by the Christian. He wrote:

Accordingly, when you are asked what “You are to hallow the day of rest” means, answer: “Hallowing the day of rest means to keep it holy.” What is meant by “keeping it holy”? Nothing else than devoting it to holy words, holy works, and holy living… [The Sabbath Day] becomes holy or unholy on your account, depending on whether you spend it doing something holy or unholy. How does such sanctifying take place? Not when we sit behind the stove and refrain from hard work, or place a garland on our head and dress up in our best clothes, but… when we make use of God’s Word and exercise ourselves in it. [The Large Catechism, Part I, 87-88, cited below]

Yet Luther, as is so often the case for Luther (and Lutherans), was not content to leave it there. In the spirit of the Lutheran both/and, he expanded this notion of making holy to the whole of Christian life:

Truly, we Christians ought to make every day such a holy day and devote ourselves only to holy things, that is, to occupy ourselves daily with God’s Word and carry it in our hearts and on our lips… For non-Christians can spend a day in rest and idleness, too… but without keeping a single day holy, because they neither preach nor practice God’s Word… [Large Catechism, I:89-90]

Thus, for Luther, we ought to remember Christ’s words: we were not made for Sabbath, but Sabbath for us. Moreover, Sabbath is part of the overall Christian life instead of being relegated to merely one part of the week. Making the day holy is something we ought always be doing: reflecting on God’s Word, singing Psalms, and praying.


Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000).


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


6 thoughts on “Practical Lutheranism: What is Sabbath?

  1. What about going to Church? We don’t necessarily do that every day.

    Posted by Joe | July 25, 2016, 10:49 AM
    • Given Luther was a monk, I don’t think he put much thought into the idea that we don’t go to church every day. He certainly did for much of his life. I think the thrust of his point, though, is not to make a Sabbath day the same as any other day, but to emphasize that all of life ought to be given to love of God. The Lutheran doctrine of vocation points towards this.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 25, 2016, 10:57 PM
      • That may be true about Luther and other monks and church leaders, but didn’t he write his catechisms for a wider audience? Did everyone go to church everyday back then?

        Also when I read the title I thought you were going to give something by Luther on which day is the Sabbath. I’m curious if he offered a defense of it being on Sunday as opposed to Saturday.

        Posted by Joe | July 26, 2016, 9:24 AM
      • Well, several Protestant groups (including, notably, Calvin in Geneva and elsewhere) did integrate daily worship services into the Christian life. Early Lutheran practice varied for all kinds of reasons, such as not having a Lutheran religious leader in one’s town, having different perspectives on what is considered adiaphora, etc.

        So far as whether it should be on Sunday as opposed to Saturday, that’s not really the point of this blog post. What it was about is what it means to have Sabbath rest. I’d like to not derail it into something else.

        However, if you’re asking, Luther opposed insistence on a specific day as Sabbath and believed having a consistent day be Sabbath was acceptable. Specifically, he opposed attempts to make something Law which ought to be Gospel. Thus, when people insist upon causing division over which day must be Sabbath, Luther’s response would have been–and was, in Carlstadt’s case, I believe–that whoever was doing that was like the Judaizers in the early church who attempted to make all Christians follow things like circumcision.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 26, 2016, 9:37 AM
      • Thanks for the informative response.

        Posted by Joe | July 26, 2016, 10:17 AM

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