Monday, January 26, 2015

Sabbath Observance...

There's a post titled Legalism or Law-loving at the Green Baggins blog. It's one of those conversations which can lend itself to people talking past each other. Disagree with the writer and you're liable to be labeled an antinomian. Agree whole heartedly and you're sure to be looked upon as embracing a legalistic direction.

The focus in the early comments of the post has been on the Sabbath commandment, an area of doctrine where it's not uncommon for ministers and elders who subscribe to the Westminster standards to express scruples. Turning to John Calvin, I find his thoughts on Sabbath observance to be both thought provoking and helpful inasmuch as he can hardly be described as antinomian. His teaching on the Sabbath highlights a concern regarding the place of the law in the Christian life and the finished work of Jesus Christ. That concern is whether the Old Covenant and New Covenant are basically to be understood as in a contrast or a continuum. In other words, are they essentially an antithesis, one of covenant law-demand and the other of Christ-alone-fulfillment? Or is the New Covenant the more powerful means, vis-a-vis the Old Covenant, wherein believers themselves can now fulfill the covenantal moral law? I would suggest that the latter view is problemmatic in that it has too high of a view of our sanctification and thus impinges upon the federal headship of Jesus as the 2nd Adam who alone fulfills the obedience-probation for the elect. Holding to the former view emphasizes the grace of "It is finished" by Jesus's obedience and death, yet doesn't minimize or undermine the obligation upon believers for obedience to the moral law. But it does, it seems to me, lay the right perspective for an humble obedience that is pleasing to God solely on the basis of Christ's blood and righteousness (WLC 97, 149; WCF 16).

Excerpts from John Calvin's Institutes regarding the Sabbath:
Strange and monstrous are the longings of our pride. There is nothing which the Lord enjoins more strictly than the religious observance of his Sabbath, in other words resting from our works; but in nothing do we show greater reluctance than to renounce our own works, and give due place to the works of God. 
Thus in Exodus: "Verily my Sabbaths shall ye keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that does sanctify you. Ye shall keep my Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever does any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever," (Exodus 31:13-17.) 
Ezekiel is still more full, but the sum of what he says amounts to this: that the Sabbath is a sign by which Israel might know that God is their sanctifier. If our sanctification consists in the mortification of our own will, the analogy between the external sign and the thing signified is most appropriate. We must rest entirely, in order that God may work in us; we must resign our own will, yield up our heart, and abandon all the lusts of the flesh. In short, we must desist from all the acts of our own mind, that God working in us, we may rest in him, as the Apostle also teaches, (Hebrews 3:13; 4:3, 9.) 
It may seem, therefore, that by the seventh day the Lord delineated to his people the future perfection of his Sabbath on the last day, that by continual meditation on the Sabbath, they might throughout their whole lives aspire to this perfection.

... he foresaw it would be sufficient, or in order that his own example might operate as a stronger stimulus; or, at least to remind men that the Sabbath was appointed for no other purpose than to render them conformable to their Creator. It is of little consequence which of these be adopted, provided we lose not sight of the principal thing delineated, viz., the mystery of perpetual resting from our works.

Still there can be no doubt, that, on the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ceremonial part of the commandment was abolished. He is the truth, at whose presence all the emblems vanish; the body, at the sight of which the shadows disappear. He, I say, is the true completion of the Sabbath: "We are buried with him by baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life," (Romans 6:4.) Hence, as the Apostle elsewhere says, "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ," (Colossians 2:16, 17;) meaning by body the whole essence of the truth, as is well explained in that passage. This is not contented with one day, but requires the whole course of our lives, until being completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God. Christians, therefore, should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days.

The Sabbath being abrogated, there is still room among us, first, to assemble on stated days for the hearing of the Word, the breaking of the mystical bread, and public prayer; and, secondly, to give our servants and laborers relaxation from labor. It cannot be doubted that the Lord provided for both in the commandment of the Sabbath.

They complain that Christian people are trained in Judaism, because some observance of days is retained. My reply is, That those days are observed by us without Judaism, because in this matter we differ widely from the Jews. We do not celebrate it with most minute formality, as a ceremony by which we imagine that a spiritual mystery is typified, but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the Church.

Paul informs us that Christians are not to be judged in respect of its observance, because it is a shadow of something to come, (Colossians 2:16;) and, accordingly, he expresses a fear lest his labor among the Galatians should prove in vain, because they still observed days (Galatians 4:10, 11.) And he tells the Romans that it is superstitious to make one day differ from another (Romans 14:5.) But who, except those restless men, does not see what the observance is to which the Apostle refers?

They did not desist from manual labor on the ground of its interfering with sacred study and meditation, but as a kind of religious observance; because they dreamed that by their cessation from labor, they were cultivating the mysteries which had of old been committed to them. It was, I say, against this preposterous observance of days that the Apostle inveighs, and not against that legitimate selection which is subservient to the peace of Christian society. For in the churches established by him, this was the use for which the Sabbath was retained.

superstition is dreaded, there was more danger in keeping the Jewish Sabbath than the Lord's day as Christians now do. It being expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, orders and peace, in the Church, another day was appointed for that purpose.

It was not, however, without a reason that the early Christians substituted what we call the Lord's day for the Sabbath. The resurrection of our Lord being the end and accomplishment of that true rest which the ancient Sabbath typified, this day, by which types were abolished serves to warn Christians against adhering to a shadowy ceremony.

The whole may be thus summed up: As the truth was delivered typically to the Jews, so it is imparted to us without figure; first, that during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit; secondly that every individual, as he has opportunity, may diligently exercise himself in private, in pious meditation on the works of God, and, at the same time, that all may observe the legitimate order appointed by the Church, for the hearing of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and public prayer: And, thirdly, that we may avoid oppressing those who are subject to us.


  1. Does this mean you won't be watching the Super Bowl, Jack?

  2. I won't be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday nor do I watch football (let alone any TV) on any Sunday...

    1. Good on you, Jack! Wish I were as disciplined as you.

    2. Re: the 4th commandment and all the others - I "doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed." We're all miserable offenders made acceptable only by the blood of Christ our Savior.

    3. Amen! His blood and righteousness make the foulest sinner (me) clean. The Gospel is good news!

  3. But neither does Jack accuse those who disagree with him about Sabbath (and who watch Downton Abbey) "antinomians". The issue is not as simple as saying, "but it"s one of the ten commandments" because the distinction between "moral" and "ceremonial" (seventh day, first day) was problematic for both Luther and Calvin, because that was a distinction the Romanists used against them.

    The lust of the flesh is subtle. The trouble with “taste not touch not” is when people think that their tasting not and touching not brings them some blessing which the righteousness of Christ could not bring. There is nothing wrong with tasting not and touching not. Simply because we do not agree with another person about what God’s law teaches is no excuse to call that person a legalist.

    But a person is a legalist, even if he has a right interpretation about what God’s law teaches, if that person thinks that his obeying that law brings him a blessing which the righteousness of Christ did not cause.

    The law of God should not be blamed for legalism, even though God has predestined the abuse of the law. When a person thinks that his not tasting and his not touching brings him blessing, that person is not only a legalist but also an antinomian, because that person is thinking that God is satisfied with something less than perfect obedience and satisfaction of the law.

    The only way that God can be pleased with the good works of a Christian is when the Christian knows that these good works are blessings from Christ’s righteousness, not a supplement to Christ’s righteousness.