I am convinced from the Scriptures that the authority of the Ten Commandments is not to be restricted solely to the era of the Mosaic Covenant. The Decalogue reflects not just the moral code of Ancient Israel, but also serves as a summary of the righteous conduct God calls His people to pursue in all lands, times, and cultures. Although it is certainly true that the New Covenant has brought with it extraordinary liberty as compared to any other administration of God’s dealings with man, we err if we equate liberty with a relaxation of God’s view toward our sin. Calvary has won us forgiveness from our sins against God and neighbor; it has not won us license to commit them without restraint.These truths are largely self evident concerning the prohibitions against clear vice or compulsions toward worship and love for God, but are more controversial in regards to the ongoing application of the fourth commandment. It is not the intention of this post to parse out which elements of the Sabbath are abrogated along with the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel and which represent the timeless and therefore abiding moral law of God. That is another project for another time.
Here I simply wish to point out five reasons why I believe the whole issue of a Christian Sabbath has become controversial in our day. Rather than going to the Scriptures and studying the issue on its own merits, people often develop views on the Sabbath because of extra-biblical concerns and assumptions, and then go the the Bible in search of confirmation. I’m not trying to offend conscientious brothers and sisters who disagree with me on this issue by suggesting that they are duplicitous in their argumentation, rather I simply want to share some of those observations I have noticed which seem to lie behind their conclusions. Often our own presuppositions and outside pressures are difficult to discern, so perhaps this will be both a challenge to those who doubt that a Christian Sabbath remains for the people of God and also a help to those who are in discussion with brothers and sisters who differ on this point.So without further introduction, here are five reasons the Christian Sabbath is controversial in our day.
We need to remember that Moses gave the fourth commandment to a nation only recently liberated from slavery in Egypt. Therefore, the giving of the commandment was a blessing of liberty, not a binding of freedom. For a former slave nation to be given a divinely instituted and protected day of rest was the very height of mercy.However, most modern believers in the West are in a very different context. We know nothing of forced labor, and view our weekends as a time for our own pleasures and pursuits. This clouds the original context of the commandment and makes us think of it as an enslaving restriction rather that a deliverance from enslavement. Seeing this one truth could well be the beginning of a full paradigm shift for many who oppose the Christian Sabbath.
2. We have a tendency to focus on Sabbath restriction rather than Sabbath blessing.
Because of the preceding point, the usual questions one gets about the Sabbath concern the exact boundaries of restriction. How much work is too much? What sort of work is forbidden? For what part of the day is the restriction in effect?
This is not unlike the teen boy who awkwardly asks you how far is too far to progress in his physical relationship with his girlfriend until he goes over some invisible line of sin. But we know from experience that trying to define these sort of boundaries and then flirt with sticking our toes over them always leads to disaster.
Rather than approach the Sabbath asking “what can I NOT do today,” we would do far better to ask “how much of a spiritual blessing CAN this day be?” Then, when we have filled our day with worship, fellowship, rest and mercy, questions regarding whether or not I can pay bills or watch football become largely irrelevant.
3. Opposition to the Sabbath is representative of a wider opposition to the third use of the law.
Many Christians have an allergy to discussing any sense of duty, requirement, or life command beyond the simple call to faith in the gospel. To these believers, any talk of our duty regarding righteous living seems to degrade the complete salvation Christ has won on our behalf.
Historically, the Reformed understanding of the Law of God has agreed with other branches of Christianity that the law serves to restrain evil and drive us to Christ as we despair over our sins, but has also added a third use of the Law, namely that it is to be a rule of life for the converted soul. Notice that this is absolutely NOT a belief in any sort of saving works on our part or contribution to the righteousness of Christ which is imputed to us in our justification. Rather, it simply is a belief that God is consistent and that when he calls us to imitate Christ in our conduct, He calls us to keep the same law Christ kept in order to stand as our substitute before the judgment seat of God. We of course do not keep the law perfectly this side of glory, but how good it is that God has given us a roadmap to show us how he would have us pursue Christlikeness.
Many modern Christians reject this third use of the Law, and so opposition to the Sabbath becomes a convenient representation of that rejection.
4. Some legitimate instances of Sabbath legalism have alienated many Christians.
Legalism is a word with many proposed definitions, but it basically involves either men adding to God’s commands their own scruples and then binding men to them, or the pursuit of law keeping in order to win God’s salvific favor.
Legalism is poison to legitimate uses of the law. When some Sabbatarians go beyond what the Scriptures teach or institute an unbiblical and authoritarian regulation of the conduct of their people, they alienate many from the true blessings of the Lord’s Day. This is a significant difficulty which can only be overcome with much grace, Scriptural study, and winsome example of a non legalistic embrace of the Law.
5. The Sabbath is not always defended in a helpful way, even where it is practised faithfully.
Even where legalism is avoided, some Sabbatarians can come off as so self-righteous and dismissive of those who dissent from their convictions that they sour believers against any mention of the Sabbath, let alone its observation. To any so alienated, I would humbly ask that you reconsider the grounds of your opposition. An officer of the law who defends the law in an unjust or abrasive manner does not therefore invalidate the law. Your disapproval should be toward that unjust officer, not toward the justice of the law itself.
The same is true of the Law of God. I did not always have the convictions I now do regarding the Lord’s Day, but having been convinced from the Scriptures I have found the day to be a great blessing to my faith and boon to my family. It is merciful, not melicus. It is kind, not cumbersome. It is God-glorifying, not self-centered. If you have doubted this Day, I would challenge you to examine the root of your opposition and reconsider it. To paraphrase the most loving and gracious teacher of the Law the world has ever known, this day was made for us, and we neglect it to our own detriment (Mark 2:27).