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Literal, Six-Day Creation and the Local Church

The focus of this article is on the work and discipline of the church, i.e., the local congregation in relation to the six-day literal understanding of the creation account.

  • Charles A. McIlhenny,
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The focus of this article is on the work and discipline of the church, i.e., the local congregation in relation to the six-day literal understanding of the creation account. The church's most celebrated day — the "marketplace of the soul," as the Puritans used to say — is the Lord's Day, and its worship is both public and private. The Christian Sabbath, the Lord's Day, belongs to the Lord of the Sabbath. And to speak of the literalness of the Sabbath day presupposes the literalness of the previous six days as well.

I take a literalist position on the creation account not because I like "literalism," nor because literalism is the only logical-rational defense against irrationalism, liberalism, and cultism; nor do I hold it for some unreasoning "fundamentalist" prejudice against secular science. I take a literalist position on creation because upon investigation of the exegetical argument, I found that this view was consistent with the rest of SCRIPTURE, without apologies to science. And the literalist position is also consistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith which states clearly and concisely, ". . . in the space of six days. . ." (Chap. IV, para. 1).

Literalism and the Law
However, I wasn't always a literalist on Genesis 1. The textual stumbling block to my previous belief in the "day-age"theory came from within the 10 Commandments, "For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it" (Ex. 20:11). It could not be ignored in understanding Genesis 1. When that hurdle was cleared by the blast from Moses' interpretation, I accepted the literal understanding of the creation account. Only then does the Genesis account square with the Exodus text and gives me understanding of what the Sabbath means for my life, my family, and the life of my congregation.

The issue of the literalness of the creation account is no slight matter, especially for the life and work of the church. Without the literal, six-day creation, there is no theology to justify the keeping of either the Old Covenant Sabbath or the New Covenant Sabbath, i.e., the Lord's Day. That's the very point of Moses' literal explanation reminding us to keep the Sabbath day.

Before dealing with this literal application for the local church, a brief argument for the perpetuity of the Sabbath command is important. First, the text of Deuteronomy 41 calls this moral law "his covenant,"implying a singular covenant written in 10 "words"2 — again reinforcing solidarity of the fourth word/commandment along with the other "words" of the covenant. The fourth word cannot be extrapolated without doing damage to this covenant structure itself. Some have suggested that the fourth word is a ceremonial law in the midst of the moral law. Michael Horton argues that this commandment "belongs" in the ceremonial part of the law "rather than the moral part." But where one would rather relocate this law is irrelevant to the fact that it is NOT in the midst of ceremonies but in the heart of the moral law — within the depths of the 10 words of this singular covenant.

Second, the Sabbath is commanded and hallowed by God as part and parcel of the six previous days of the creation account; it can no more be removed than any other day of the week can be dropped from the creation. It is a "creation ordinance" made for man (i.e., mankind — not Jewish man or Christian man).4 There is nothing inherently ceremonial in God's blessing this day; its peculiar ordination as his day of rest transcends the peculiarities of both old and new covenants.

Third, in the light of Mark 2:28 Jesus asserts his Messianic Lordship over the Sabbath day. His reference to the "Son of Man's"5 lordship extends his Messianic rule over this creation ordinance for purposes of redemptive rulership, not extinction of that day. There's nothing implied in Christ's Lordship to expunge the fourth word from the midst of the moral law.

With the assertion of his messianic Lordship, he introduces us to the New Covenant theocratic kingdom which was about to be inaugurated by his "first day of the week"resurrection. As Messianic Lord, he is not bound to the old ceremonies, nor to the specific "end-of-the-week"mode; but instead makes that commandment serve his new theocratic purposes: resurrection on the First Day of the week — and all for the new theocratic kingdom and church called a new creation.

It is the day of the church, the day in which we do the highest and most sacred recreation: listen to God's word preached. It is the day when the church can insist that all God's people unite for worship and even threaten wrath to those in the covenant community who forsake the assembly of themselves. It is the day most intense in self-sacrifice for the sake of covenant worship. We gather not first for our good, but for God's glory, and then for the welfare of our neighbor. We do not have the right to allow for another day of rest — to accommodate busy work and vacation schedules.

It takes self-discipline to keep the literal regular ratio of six days to one day. It is a spiritual discipline at heart with practical implications of time management. How can the work of the family, the job, the school, the vacation, etc., be accomplished within the interval of six literal days

split up by the Sabbath resting? Does my boss have a right to ask of me seven literal days for his work while the work of worship and fellowship gets shortchanged?

Church Discipline
The proper application of church discipline rests on the literalness of understanding the creation account. If the Lord's Day or the Christian Sabbath (as the Westminster Confession of Faith calls it) is left up to the exigencies of the moment or to individual interpretation, why meet on Sunday? If that were the case, the church could well meet on any day as the holy day of the Lord; in fact, each individual Christian could designate his own holy day, his own personal day of obligation to worship — no organized day of worship could be insisted on. Hence the Christian would not "feel" obliged to gather on Sunday, the First Day of the Week — individualism even as to the day of worship would reign. Sadly, this greatly characterizes the state of the church today.

The time of the worship must be regulated if there is to be unity in the church. Who knows when to worship unless it be determined by God? How would anything get done in and for service if each member had his own private conviction about his day of rest? The preacher likes Monday; the Sunday school teachers want Wednesday; the janitor organizes for Sunday; and the ladies missionary society suggests any other day, etc. — how do you regulate the organization of the local covenant community. What becomes of the unity of the Body? What becomes of submitting yourselves one to another?

Theological Implications
What becomes of the "first day" expression if not referring to a literal, 24-hour normal or natural day? Without the literal six-day creation, the first day merely becomes a pragmatic convention; it could have been the second day of the week or the thirteenth day of the month. The "first day" could refer to anything; so what if the resurrection was on the first day? If not a natural 24-hour day, it would lose all time reference.

Denial of the literal, six-day creation doctrine, takes the guts out of the literalness of the First Day of the Week, too. Thus the phrase "the first day of the week" becomes merely a convenient expression — merely a colloquialism with no special significance to the "new creation" or "new life" which Christ brought about on the First Day of the Week.

The Fourth Commandment clearly explains the world as created in six days, and that it was God's example of work/rest which became our example: a mandatory, perpetual warrant which carries over into eternity itself — the final Rest. Not all the commandments carry such ultimate blessing as the fourth. The Fifth Commandment, "Honor your father and your mother,"is simply commanded, though God does not himself keep it. That commandment finds its end in this life.

In Thomas Shepherd's book, Theses Sabbatia, he calls these "days" of creation—"six natural days to labor. . . not artificial, but a natural day, consisting of 24 hours . . . ."7 Such literal understanding of the days implies that even as six days are six, full, 24-hours days, so the Lord's Day

is also a full, 24-hour day, not merely the daylight hours, nor a day limited to the set times of worship service, after which I can do as I please for my own pleasure. We have failed to realize it is the Lord's Day, not the Lord's Moment, or the Lord's Hour!

The literalness of the creation account emphasizes that there is a day set aside for works of piety and mercy and for rest from all the other days of labor. Its time and form are decided by God. What is a day of rest if one will not be a day of rest for everyone else? What becomes of a day of rest of one if others do not participate in it as well? True resting becomes such only when everyone else is also morally called to rest on that same day.

The literalness of the six-day creation account also means consecutive days, not merely pictures or "frames"of six "days"in which one may rearrange the days as he sees fit. Every six days there is a rhythm of rest and work; if not literal, it could be rest to any ratio of work and rest — two days of rest with five days of labor or six consecutive days of rest with 40 some-odd days of work, nonstop! God could have constructed it that way and we'd have to live that way, but he didn't. He gave us the regular, clock-like ratio of so much work to just so much rest.

The regular distributed days of work and rest create an equalized society. Everyone is commanded to rest equally so. When Israel was told to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day because there would be none on the seventh day, they'd better know that each day could be equally counted on and that it wasn't figurative or "framed"days. There would be no food on "that"literal next day. Each covenant household gathered for six regular natural days and on that Sabbath day there was no gathering warranted. With the severe penalty for gathering on that day, the pious Israelite had better know how long a day was figurative! Day-age? Or 24-hour natural day? Or he'd be dead!

In the Old Covenant, God appointed for his people all kinds of Sabbath days, weeks, months, and years. If you didn't know from God what a literal Sabbath individual day was like, you couldn't know weeks, months, or yearly Sabbaths either! The weekly Sabbaths, as well as yearly Sabbaths, were based on the ordinary, regular, literal-day Sabbath. You knew when you would get your inheritance returned but only by way of literal understanding. Your debt would be forgiven in the seventh year, a Sabbath year, which was predicated on the literalness of that original day of rest in Paradise, as explained by Moses in Exodus 20:11.

The apostle Paul required that the churches lay up in store on the first day of the week; so that he would not have to waste time and effort gathering funds while preaching from church to church. To know what the first day of the week was, demanded a literal distinction of time in order to meets the demands of the apostle:

Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem. (1 Cor. 16:2ff)

Sabbath does mean rest. The Lord's Day at the local church can be the busiest day of the week; but if carefully arranged need not be so, especially with love-feasts, agape-meals, pot-lucks, etc., congesting the day. Carefully planned luncheons, simple and uncomplicated, can be the order of the Sunday lunch. Preparation must not intrude into prayer or worship time for members. Preparation for meals should be done at home and possibly the night before. Utilizing modern labor-saving devices can save on the excessive labor. Excessive ministry by the faithful few cripples their ability to rest; spread the work: baby sitting, transporting, vacuuming, light-bulb changing, etc. Remember, the most important exercise of the Lord's Day is submitting to his service by the hearing of the word.

According to Hebrews 4:9, "there remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God"to which we look forward. Each literal Lord's Day reminds us of that future age of eternal rest. The literal Sabbath coming out of six literal days promises a literal and eternal Rest for us in Christ in the future.


1. "And he declared unto you his covenant which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone" (Dt. 4:13).

2. Literally it is not "10 commandments"but 10 "words"of this singular covenant”one covenant with 10 words. The number 10 having the significance of completeness or wholeness.

3. Michael Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom, ". . . I wish to make the case for my conviction that the fourth commandment belongs in what we call the 'ceremonial' rather than the 'moral' part of the law . . . [The 4th commandment] is no longer binding on Christians,"124-5.

4. Mk. 2:27-28

5. Dan. 7:13-14 where "son of man"takes on new prophetic messianic proportions.

6. Heb. 10:25

7. Theses Sabbatia, 218.

  • Charles A. McIlhenny

Charles A. McIlhenny, a graduate of Reformed Episcopal Seminary and Westminster Theological Serminary in CA (D. Min. '87), has pastored the First Orthodox Presbyterian Church in San Francisco since 1973; he is currently also pastoring the Hayward Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel in Hayward, CA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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