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Is the Sabbath still required for Christians?

One of the characteristics of the “New Calvinism” is that it is generally anti-sabbatarian. Is this right?

The Sabbath has been a topic of discussion at our church lately, and recently this excerpt from Tom Schreiner’s book became a nexus for that discussion.

The excerpt is worth reading in its own right, and I’ll presuppose that you have read it; now I wish to add some extra thoughts of my own.

I’ll preface what I’m about to say by acknowledging that covenant theology is complex, and I need to do more reading here. So I reserve the right to contradict myself later.

1. The unity of the Mosaic covenant

(i)

I think the three-part division of the Mosaic covenant (moral, civil, ceremonial) is sometimes useful as a simplistic way of parsing the kinds of laws it contains, or the purposes of those laws. However, it is a system imposed onto the covenant rather than derived from it. It is artificial, and in the strictest sense, if you’re getting into the nature and unity of the covenant, it is simply wrong. I’m not aware of any evidence that the covenant itself draws such distinctions, or that the Jews drew such distinctions.

For instance, all of the Mosaic laws had a moral character by merit of being commanded by God. They don’t all reflect universal moral laws, but they are all moral in character. And this works in reverse: I’m not sure why we should think that what we call the “moral law,” as summarized in the ten commandments, is not also civil and/or ceremonial. Indeed, as Schreiner shows, there’s a very good reason to think that the command about the Sabbath, at least, is ceremonial. Trying to slice and dice the covenant this way just doesn’t work for a thoroughgoing analysis, because all the laws have a moral character, and sometimes the ceremonial and civil laws overlap.

(ii)

Another issue arises here: the fact that the Decalogue stands out in the covenant textually doesn’t mean that it stands out from the covenant legally. The ten commandments cannot be separated from the rest of the covenant as if they were an independent clause which was not made obsolete at the cross. They are directly tied into the rest of the covenant. The covenant has either been made redundant, or it hasn’t. If the ten commandments have not been made redundant, then the rest of the covenant has not been made redundant; but in that case we should be stoning adulterers and sacrificing bulls.

2. Problems imposing the Mosaic covenant on Christians

But if the Mosaic covenant has been made obsolete—and it has (Hebrews 8:13-14)—then the Lord’s day is not the Sabbath. The evidence from history and Scripture which Schreiner cites certainly demonstrates that. However, the most compelling case is simply in how a Christian Sabbath leads to gross theological inconsistency.

For instance, are we allowed to light a fire on the Lord’s day (Exodus 35:3)? If not, why not? Is it because the Mosaic covenant prohibits it? But if we’re determining what constitutes a violation of the Sabbath from the Mosaic covenant, shouldn’t we also be determining what constitutes a punishment from the Mosaic covenant? Exodus 35:2 says that anyone who violates the Sabbath shall be put to death. How can we separate verse 2 from verse 3, as if one is still in effect and the other isn’t? Where’s the warrant for being so radically inconsistent?

On the other hand, if you want to say that lighting a fire is okay on the Sabbath, then you’ve done away with the entire concept of the Sabbath. You’re not observing the Sabbath any more, because the Sabbath is Mosaic. You’re simply taking the idea of a rest day and slotting it into the new covenant. But a rest day—let alone a rest day when you worship—is not the Sabbath, and calling it that is anachronistic. If you’re throwing out the Mosaic covenant, as you should since it is obsolete, then you need some other basis for imposing the Sabbath on God’s people. It certainly isn’t mandated in the new covenant. There is no reiteration of the Sabbath command with a revision of the violations and penalties.

3. Creation mandate

A sabbatarian could answer by saying that the Sabbath is modeled for us in creation (Genesis 2:2-3). That’s why we should observe it. Schreiner really skipped over this, so let’s run with the argument.

(i)

The most obvious problem here is that Genesis doesn’t call the seventh day a Sabbath. The term “Sabbath” is specifically a Mosaic one. So again, it’s anachronistic to say that you get the Sabbath from Genesis. You don’t. You get a rest day from Genesis, on which the Mosaic Sabbath is modeled. So that defeats your typical form of sabbatarianism straight up.

(ii)

Secondly, most sabbatarians believe that Sunday is the first day of the week. Given that God sanctified the seventh day, if they get their sabbatarianism from Genesis then they’re celebrating the Sabbath on the wrong day. Now, in a sense, this is an arbitrary distinction; a simple solution would be to simply declare that Monday is the first day of the week (indeed, I view Monday that way). Yet it does reveal another inconsistency in sabbatarianism. Sabbatarians are doing the Sabbath wrong if they think the creation mandate is really a mandate rather than merely a pattern. If you think Sunday is the first day of the week, and you are working purely from the creation mandate, then you should celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday.

(iii)

Couple this with the point Schreiner makes about how there’s no clear basis whatsoever for changing the Sabbath day under the new covenant. The Lord’s day is not equivalent to the Sabbath; rather, it is the day after the Sabbath. It is not the Christian Sabbath, but the Christian day of worship. But in that case, you have the bizarre situation (if you’re working purely from the creation mandate) where sabbatarians should rest on Saturday and then worship on Sunday!

(iv)

This raises another problem, with regard to what we can we infer about the requirements of the Sabbath from Genesis 2:2-3. The text says the day is set apart for God (made holy) because God rested. The Mosaic law interprets the pattern as setting the day apart for God by resting completely. (I’m not using the Mosaic law to prescribe the Sabbath here; rather I’m interpreting Scripture with Scripture to learn more about what it means to set the day apart.) Nowhere, to my knowledge, does the Bible indicate we should worship on the Sabbath.

But if we dedicate the day to God by resting, and rest is not prescribed by a legal code, then what constitutes rest comes down entirely to the individual’s conscience (I’ll pick this idea up later again because I think it is critical). The upshot is that you cannot make a case, like sabbatarians sometimes try to make, that we can’t—for example—go shopping on the Sabbath, but we can write letters to missionaries. This is the very essence of legalism, because I can assure you that my wife finds shopping restful and writing letters to be hard work.

So if we take the creation mandate as a real mandate (even though it is not stated as such), then putting these points together, sabbatarianism = engaging in personally restful activities on the last day of the week. But that isn’t what Christian sabbatarians believe, so again, their case falls apart.

4. The nature of moral laws

This does raise an interesting question about how we determine the moral law at all. What constitutes the moral law? How do we know if Genesis 2:2-3 is an implicit command, for example? Or, if the ten commandments are not binding on the Christian because the old covenant is not binding on the Christian, then how do we know that murder is wrong, for instance? While this might seem like a problem with my view, what we actually find when we examine other parts of the Decalogue confirms what I’ve been saying, because we find that the ten commandments are not universal moral laws.

This isn’t obvious at first blush, because Christians read them very shallowly. They unconsciously abstract the Decalogue into universal laws, because they don’t read them like Israelites. You seldom see serious contextualization, and this flattens the commandments out in the kind of way that leads to sabbatarianism. Let me show you what I mean by using the first three commandments:

i. “You shall have no other gods before me”

How often do you see Christians actually exegete this within the worldview of an ancient Israelite? How often do you see anyone acknowledge that what this means is actually that an Israelite was not to break fealty to Yahweh by putting his trust in any other spiritual being—beings the Bible generally takes to be real? How often do you see Christians understanding this in terms of Israel, as a nation, being allotted to Yahweh while the rest of the nations are assigned under the rulership of other spiritual beings? Most Christians would deny that this is what’s happening at Babel, as described in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, ESV (compare Deuteronomy 32:16-17).

Yet that’s the whole point of the first commandment: being an Israelite is defined by being God’s possession out of all the people on earth; so to look to another god for assistance was, in essence, to deny one’s membership within the community. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay for non-Israelites to worship other gods—the universal moral law holds true that only God is worthy of worship. But the first commandment is not a statement of this universal moral law; it is a specific application of that law to Israel.

ii. “You shall not make for yourself an idol”

How many Christians interpret this in terms of actually creating a likeness of a god, into which he believes the spirit of that god enters due to the connection that the likeness establishes? Most Christians don’t know anything about sympathetic magic or the theology of representation which was common to the ancient Near East. They interpret this commandment in terms of not loving other things more than God. And of course, we should not love or trust in other things more than God, because God is the most worthy of love, and the source of all blessings—that is a universal moral law. But this isn’t what the commandment itself says. Idolatry in the Bible is always about trusting in other spiritual beings to provide for you; and the couple of times it’s not, it’s about achieving the same end through money. So again, the second commandment is a specific application of the universal law, tailored to Israel’s situation.

iii. “You shall not take up the name of Yahweh your God for a worthless purpose”

Most Christians interpret this in terms of saying things like “Oh my God.” But again, while that is wrong because it devalues the infinitely valuable, it isn’t what the commandment is about. The commandment is primarily about using God’s name as a kind of incantation, in the way that you see in Acts 19:13 for instance, and in the way that Catholics today use phrases with the name of God (or a patron god, aka saint). So again, the universal law is to avoid treating God as worthless by treating his name as worthless; but the universal law is not stated in the ten commandments—rather, it is again a specific application of that law given for Israel.

The point of going through the commandments like this is to demonstrate that, as given, they are unique to Israel and actually irrelevant to us in the strictest sense. There is simply no danger that genuine Christians are going to start worshiping other spiritual beings, or that they are going to craft idols, or that they are going to use the name of Jesus as an incantation in magic. Although all these things are indeed morally wrong, it is not because they themselves are universal laws that apply to the church. Rather, it is because they are specific applications that reflect those universal laws—but they are set in the context of Israel’s covenant relationship and cultural environment. So while we can extrapolate universal moral laws from them, they themselves are not intended as such; they are intended as Israel’s laws. The same goes for laws like murder and adultery; indeed, for the entire Mosaic code, because the entire Mosaic code is for Israel. It has been made obsolete because Israel has been made obsolete. The shadows have passed away because the reality has come.

But the fact that the specific application of universal moral laws for Israel has been made obsolete doesn’t mean that the universal laws themselves are obsolete; nor that the Mosaic code isn’t useful for pointing us to those laws.

5. How do we distinguish universal moral laws from others?

(i)

The issue here becomes fairly obvious when you try to demarcate the “moral” laws from the civil and ceremonial ones. Usually, it’s just “obvious” which ones are moral. Don’t murder. That’s a moral law because we’re made in the image of God. Don’t commit adultery. That’s a moral law because God designed us for a covenant relationship with one woman. Don’t have gay sex. That’s a moral law because God designed us to have sex with women, not men. It goes back to God’s design for man—natural law. That’s something that God has built into us. But if it is built into us, then we don’t need the Mosaic code to know the universal moral law. We can know it from conscience, and from applying other parts of the Bible. (I’m not saying that conscience is sufficient; I think you need revelation as well to get this completely right—I’m just saying you don’t necessarily need the Mosaic code itself.)

(ii)

Back to the question of Sabbath observance specifically, it is far from obvious that we should take it as a universal moral law. The ten commandments don’t indicate that they are all to be taken as applications of universal laws. That’s an assumption imposed onto them by theologians operating within a certain covenantal interpretive grid. But what reason do we have to accept the assumption?

It is certainly good sense to have a day off each week; we know that just from knowing ourselves. There is an obvious sense in which a kind of lowercase sabbath is necessary for us, and so it would be cruel to withhold it. But a lowercase sabbath is a far cry from the kind of thing sabbatarians have in mind.

Moreover, it isn’t part of human design to dedicate a specific day each week to God through resting. That isn’t something we learn just from knowing ourselves, nor from revelation if we are not begging the very question at issue, assuming the very thing we are supposed to prove. A believing attitude to days of the week, absent any other revealed information, would surely be to dedicate them all to God, regardless of what specific activities were done on them. And that is certainly a refrain Paul takes up, not just in Romans 14:5, but also in places like Colossians 3:23 and Ephesians 6:7. So my impulse is to see natural theology pointing away from sabbatarianism, even though it does point to the general idea of a day of rest.

(iii)

Apropos (ii), if the Sabbath as Sabbath—ie, as a day dedicated to God through complete rest—is revealed only in the Mosaic code and in Genesis 2, and the Mosaic code is being disregarded because it’s obsolete, then the only hope for sabbatarianism is the creation mandate (so-called). The problem is that there’s pretty good reason to doubt that Genesis 2:2-3 is a mandate. It mentions in passing God making the seventh day holy, but why?

Surely it is for the purpose of setting up the Sabbath observance in the Mosaic covenant. Genesis and Exodus were written by the same fellow. No other part of the Bible, that I know of, describes Genesis 2:2-3 as a mandate, nor indicates in any other way that it is something all people should observe. But if the Sabbath observance in Genesis 2 is there purely to serve the end of establishing a basis for the Mosaic code, and the Mosaic code is obsolete, then we can’t conclude anything about Genesis 2 establishing a moral law for all time and all people.

This is especially confirmed in Acts 15 when the council of Jerusalem rules on the role of the Mosaic code for Gentile Christians. One of the key Mosaic observances which separated Gentiles from Jews was the Sabbath. Yet the council, in speaking specifically to practices which the Gentiles would be expected to get wrong, does not so much as mention the Sabbath.

(iv)

This isn’t to say we couldn’t err on the side of caution by observing a Sabbath all the same. We could. And absent other evidence, we should. But the New Testament scuttles this approach, because it explicitly says that the Sabbath was a shadow of the things to come and is fulfilled in Jesus. Therefore, we can in good conscience treat all days equally; and we should not let anyone judge us on that account.

So the whole trajectory of Scripture seems to point in the opposite direction to sabbatarianism. Without wanting to fall off the other end into new covenantal theology, I think it’s quite clear that sabbatarianism is a rehearsal of the basic error of Presbyterianism: treating the covenants as more conterminous than they actually are. If baptism is not the new circumcision (and it’s not), then the Lord’s day is not the new Sabbath either.

6. The law of love

I realize these headings are somewhat arbitrary because we’re really still on the same topic of figuring out the moral law, but if we are indeed under the law of Christ or the law of love, rather than under the Mosaic law (1 Corinthians 9:21; James 2:8), then I think that will issue in something a bit like sabbatarianism, inasmuch as the law of love will naturally reflect the Mosaic law, since the Mosaic law is summed up in love (Matthew 22:37-40).

For example, if we love God and each other, we will come together on at least one day a week to worship him together. Or, if employers love their employees, they will give them a day off each week. Etc. Because love does no wrong, it is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). But that isn’t sabbatarianism. We could come together more often than one day a week; indeed, it is completely consistent with the law of love to esteem all days the same! Or, we could give our employees two days off; or two half-days instead of one whole day, or whatever, and that would also be consistent. Paul defines sin, rather significantly, in Romans 14 as “whatever does not proceed from faith.” If we link faith with being a slave of Christ, and being a slave of Christ means we are freed (1 Corinthians 7:22)—from the law, and thus from sin—then what we are actually under is not any written law at all, but our own consciences in relationship to Jesus. In other words, what is right for one is what he concludes, from his relationship with Jesus, that Jesus would want—through studying his word, through prayer, through teaching etc. And what is sin for him is doing what he concludes Jesus would not want. And that is actually a far more stringent law in many ways than the Mosaic covenant, where the inclination is to say, “Hey, well it’s not written down, so it must be okay.”

TL;DR

When we examine the trajectory of Scripture, the nature of the law and the covenants, I think it’s very hard to conclude that we must observe the Sabbath, where “Sabbath” picks out the Mosaic day dedicated to the Lord by complete rest. What we instead find is that we should observe something Sabbath-like, something in the spirit of the Sabbath—but how this works out in the life of any given person will differ, being prescribed by conscience rather than written law.

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