Why I Am (sort of) a Sabbatarian

Bill Evans head shot

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on TheAquilaReport on August 14, 2012, and is reprinted here by permission. It has not been updated, but it is timely in light of the recent overture to the PCA General Assembly asking that a committee be appointed to study the recreation clause in WCF 21.8.]

The issue of Sabbath observance has again been raised in helpful fashion by John Stevenson his UK blog and by Iain Campbell on Ref21.  A variety of important questions are discussed in these posts, including the continuing relevance of the fourth commandment, the transfer of the Mosaic Sabbath to the Christian Lord’s Day, and the normative role of Reformed confessions.

Stevens argues that the fourth commandment of Sabbath observance was a function of the Mosaic Law revealed at Sinai, that it has been fulfilled in Christ, that it is therefore no longer binding on Christians today, and that there is no reason to think that the Mosaic Sabbath was somehow transferred to the first day of the week.  Not surprisingly, he rejects the Westminster Confession’s teaching on the Sabbath.

Campbell responds by (correctly, I think) noting that there is good reason to conclude that the Sabbath ordinance is not merely a function of the Mosaic Law revealed at Sinai, and that the Sabbath principle is more prominent in both the Old and New Testaments than Stevens allows.  He goes on to contend that the fourth commandment has continuing relevance for Christians today, and to argue “that the position that best suits the biblical evidence is precisely that of the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the Sabbath of Sinai becomes the Lord’s day of the resurrection.”  On balance, my sympathies lie more with Campbell, but with certain important qualifications that seek to do justice to Stevens’ legitimate concerns.

The position Stevens presents has been most extensively developed in D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath Day to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), and it has become, as Campbell admits, the dominant position among British Evangelicals.  As we would expect, Stevens places considerable weight on Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:17, passages that may appear to teach that Sabbath observance is no longer an obligation.

In the first, the Apostle Paul speaks of the religious observance of special days as a point of contention between the weak and the strong, contending that both those who observe and those who do not do so “in honor of the Lord,” and that each “should be fully convinced in his own mind” (ESV).  In Colossians 2:16-17 Paul declares, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”  As Stevens notes, this shadow/substance language seems to imply that the Sabbath is, in some sense at least, fulfilled in Christ.

Not surprisingly, some have argued that Paul is not referring to weekly Sabbath observance in these passages on the grounds that the Sabbath is included in the Ten Commandments, and that the Ten Commandments are to be viewed as a timeless statement of God’s moral law for his people (see, e.g., John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 257-259). Thus Murray argues that the special days of Romans 14:5 are other Levitical festivals and not the weekly Sabbath.  It must be admitted, however, that these arguments have something of an air of special pleading: Paul can’t really mean what he appears to say because that would conflict with the traditional Presbyterian view of the Ten Words.

Of course, this has been a point of contention within the Reformed tradition, with English-speaking Presbyterians historically viewing the Mosaic Sabbath as transferred to the Christian Lord’s Day, while Continental Reformed people have often been more flexible in their observance of the Lord’s Day.

As noted above, another issue in dispute is the role of the Reformed confessional tradition on this matter, and in particular the position of the Westminster Standards, which present a rigorous view of the Sabbath.  According to the Larger Catechism, those observing the Sabbath are to “spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up with works of necessity and mercy) in the publick and private exercise of God’s worship” (WLC Q. 117).  Conversely, they are to avoid “all omissions of the duties required, all careless, negligent, and unprofitable performing of them, and being weary of them; all profaning of the day by idleness, and doing that which is in itself sinful; and by all needless works, words, and thoughts, about our worldly employments and recreations” (WLC Q. 119). So much for a day of rest!

Even more to the point, if I am reading the scholarly literature correctly there seems to be a consensus among historians that the Puritan approach to the Sabbath reflected in the Westminster Standards is distinctive in the seventeenth-century context for its rigor and that this distinctiveness is to be at least partly explained in terms of the social and economic context of seventeenth-century Britain.

Another problem here has to do with the fact that attempts to apply and enforce the sabbatarianism of the Westminster Standards have led to frequent conflict and disagreement among Presbyterians.  Two well-known historical examples will serve to make the point.  In 1722 a Presbyterian minister was defrocked by New Castle Presbytery in Pennsylvania for bathing in a creek on the Sabbath, and in 1927 the redoubtable sabbatarian John Murray was excluded from the ministry of the Free Presbyterian Church in Scotland because he refused to exclude from the Lord’s Supper parishioners who used “public transport” to get to church on Sunday morning.  Today, it is my distinct impression that even the most ardent of Presbyterian sabbatarians do not observe the Sabbath with anything like the rigor demanded by WLC QQ. 115-121, but no theological explanation or justification for this has been forthcoming.  To his credit, Mr. Campbell decries those who are “overly prescriptive and legalistic in their approach” to the Sabbath, but he gives us little help as to how we may arrive at a more sensible approach.  All this suggests that it is not enough simply to trot out the Confessional materials as some sort of trump card.  They must be interpreted.

The question then is this: What sort of theological framework will enable us to affirm the continuing validity of the Sabbath while, at the same time, allowing us to do justice to the Pauline teaching that the Sabbath is in some sense fulfilled in Christ, and to the general New Testament implication that the coming of the Messiah makes a difference in how God’s people observe the Sabbath?  Moreover, it would also be good to avoid tedious conflicts about Sabbath observance that, frankly, smack more of Rabbinic Judaism than the glorious freedom of the gospel.

A way beyond this impasse is evident as we examine the Sabbath commands in the two Ten Commandments passages (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5).  We quickly notice that the Sabbath is commanded in both versions, but for different reasons.  In Exodus 20:11, the Sabbath command is rooted in the order of creation.  In that sense it is a creation ordinance.  Jesus alluded to this fact when he declared in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”  Thus the Sabbath is part of the structure of the created order.  As human beings we need to rest from our daily pattern of labor one day a week.  When we fail to do this, we pay a heavy price!

In Deuteronomy 5:13-15, however, we find that the Sabbath command is grounded in God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Because the exodus from Egypt is a type of the greater redemption to be accomplished by the Messiah, the Sabbath is also a redemptive ordinance that points forward to the coming of the Messiah.

By recognizing this twofold creational/redemptive significance of the Sabbath, we can affirm the truth in both Reformational positions.  As a creation ordinance the Sabbath has continuing relevance.  It is indeed a wonderful blessing to human beings.  As a redemptive ordinance, it is to a great extent fulfilled in the work of Christ (Colossians 2:16-17), though we continue to look forward to our eternal Sabbath rest (see Hebrews 4).  Thus, as Christians we should observe the Sabbath, but we need not do so with the rigorous exactitude of the Mosaic Law’s provisions, for these are fulfilled in Christ.

In the current discussions two important questions are often conflated: whether the Sabbath is relevant for Christians today and how the Sabbath is to be observed.  Both are important, and proper attention to the funding of the fourth commandment in the two versions of the Ten Commandments helps us to do justice to both of these questions.