Why is the Sabbath Controversial?

Christian Living, Law
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.
1. Living in a generally affluent society means that a “day of rest” often involves resting from play, and not work.
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).

(By: Nicolas Alford)

19 thoughts on “Why is the Sabbath Controversial?

  1. Nick, I really enjoyed your post. If I might add one other reason from my own experience…

    The many Christians have a knee jerk reaction to the Sabbath for nothing more than a lack of teaching on the subject. I’ve known people who have been Christians for years and years, and have never heard any meaningful teaching on the subject. That being the case, it appears to be a new and strange teaching and the guard goes up immediately. Sadly, it is a reflection on the lack of breadth of teaching in much of the Western church.

    What are your thoughts?

    1. Great to hear from you Roy. Yes, I do think that’s a great point and could perhaps be added to the list. Yet why would this new teaching be “controversial?” Probably because some combination of the above points accompanies their introduction to the Sabbath.

      But it is also true that you can spend your life in many churches and never hear about the concept of a Christian Sabbath, so I could certainly see someone being very suspicious about this “strange new teaching.” I think this is all the more reason to examine our own hearts in regards to the above points, especially points four and five.

      I always appreciate your comments, even more so now that we are on opposite coasts. Don’t be a digital stranger 🙂

  2. In remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy, it has become to me a blessing and a freeing from the work and worries of the week, with God’s permission and blessing. Our country is obsessed with fun and recreation, and many Christians have come to totally or conveniently disregard the honoring of the Sabbath. A Providential hinderance is different from simply making a choice for the world on the Sabbath, and it saddens me to see how many Christians refrain from worship, engage in commerce that could have easily been done on another day, or simply always find something more fun to do away from home, and additionally won’t consider attending another church when out of town. I’m grieved, as we’ve not forsaken the other Commandments as a demonstration of our love and honor of God. I don’t feel my view is at all legalistic, but giving honor to Whom honor is due. Your article is an encouragement.

    1. I don’t feel your view is legalistic either. We can certainly turn any command or duty into legalism if we make it the grounds of our acceptance before God, but I don’t hear you doing that at all. Conscientious Christians humbly seeking to obey Scripture is not legalism. May God bless you as you live the Christian life, and may His day continue to be a blessing to you. Grace and peace, brother. Thanks for stopping by The Decablog.

  3. Where in Scripture does one find the the first day of the week referred to as the Sabbath? Where in Scripture does one find Christians worshiping on the Sabbath? We see them contending for the faith with Jews in the Jewish synagogues on the Jewish Sabbath. Where in Scripture does one find a command to gather on the Sabbath?

    I don’t think it’s a simple as posited here; just as I don’t think it’s as simple as those who ignore the Decalogue make it out to be.

    I do think the presuppositions of Paedobaptist covenant theology have influenced many reformed Baptists and we have swallowed their view of the Decalogue without testing it properly.

    1. Hi Manfred,

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. You’re absolutely right, it’s not as simple as what is posted here. This post is really limited in what it is talking about, it’s about why the Christian Sabbath tends not just to be a point of contestation, but tends toward controversy and high blood pressure. I tried to explore some possible causes of that. I would never suggest that this post includes enough information to cause someone to Biblically adopt a Christian Sabbatarian position. In fact, I’d probably be concerned if they did on the strength of this post alone! 🙂 Note what I said here:

      “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 this post is about “extra-biblical concerns and assumptions” which in my experience tend to influence people before they even get to being a Berean. And by the way- the points above are largely autobiographical, as I did not always approach this the way I do now.

      Also, I agree with your last statement in principle, even if we might disagree with certain applications of it.

      Regarding the content of your first paragraph, are these honest questions or are the questions a rhetorical device to say you disagree? It’s impossible to get someone’s tone in a comment box, and I’m not sure if those are questions you are looking for unknown answers to, or questions you already have your own answers to and your point is that you disagree with me. Either one is obviously OK, and my feelings aren’t hurt if you disagree, but I’d answer them a little differently depending on the intent. Are you asking or debating?

      Although it’s also not a thorough defense of the Christian Sabbath, you may get a sense of my approach to the whole concept practically by looking at this post: https://thedecablog.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/working-on-sunday/

      That link basically assumes Sabbatarianism on the part of the reader, but I still think it’s worth looking at if you want to chat about this.

      Thanks again for stopping by! Let me know if you want to talk more, although I may be intermittent today.

      Grace and Peace,
      NA

      1. Nicolas,

        Thank you for the kind reply. My questions are serious ones – I am not a sabbatarrian and have found it to be something invented by Roman Catholics in the 5th century. I have read books by several who defend it and cannot find a biblical defense thereof.

        I am not a NCT guy, but a friend sent me this link, which demonstrates two things: 1.) NCT is not monolithic any more than any other system, and 2.) some NCT guys have a very defensible view of the Old Testament: http://www.gracemadison-al.com/TheDecalogue

  4. I’ll have to take the time to read the link you provided. I did click through and saw that it is hosted on a FIRE website, an association of churches I have nothing but esteem and appreciation for. I agree- neither NCT or Baptist CT are by any means monolithic, although there are some major points of demarkation. And of course there are views to the left and right of them both- Dispensationalism and Paedobaptist CT. And neither of those are monolithic either, so it does get a bit complicated sometimes!

    The answers to your questions require us to look at the fact that the Sabbath is bigger than the Decalogue in the pages of Scripture. It actually extends from creation to new creation. Part of the conversation does include the unique role of the Decalogue, but it also includes looking at the Lord’s Day terminology of the New Testament. I would not argue that what we observe now is the Jewish Sabbath… I would argue that it is more technically the Lord’s Day which is Sabbatic in nature and organically connected to the one-in-seven Sabbatic rhythm of creation from its inception I do believe it is organically linked to the fourth commandment and can properly be called a Christian Sabbath.

    I want to take the time to respect your questions and give an actual Biblical reply rather than just a few hermeneutical principles (I know how annoying that can be!). It’s just not going to be today 🙂 This weekend or early next week I think I’ll either post you a thorough reply here or maybe even write up a new post. You raise great questions that deserve a solid response. It also give me a chance to organize my own thoughts cogently, so thank you for that.

    I did want to quickly respond to your comment about the Christian Sabbath being a 5th Century Roman Catholic invention. I’m not sure all that you are getting at in that, perhaps just some of the Sabbatic elements… but Schaff comments

    “The celebration of the Lord’s Day in memory of the resurrection of Christ dates undoubtedly from the apostolic age. Nothing short of apostolic precedent can account for the universal religious observance in the churches of the second century. There is no dissenting voice. This custom is confirmed by the testimonies of the earliest post-apostolic writers, as Barnabas, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr. It is also confirmed by the younger Pliny. The Didache calls the first day “the Lord’s Day of the Lord” (vol. 2, p. 94) .

    In the RBS course on the Early Church Dr. Sam Waldron devotes an entire lecture to the question of their Lord’s Day practice and concludes (in my paraphrase):

    1. The historical witness of not totally against a non-sabbatic Lord’s Day position.
    2. The most historically defensible position is that they practiced a Sabbatic Lord’s Day (which would be the technical way I would describe the modern Reformed position, myself included)
    3. Both Seventh Day Sabbatarianism on the one hand, and an absolute abolition of any distinction between the days of the week on the other are both completely historically indefensible.

    So while the historical testimony is not unanimous as to its exact nature (nor is history our final standard), there was undoubtably a Christian Sabbath of some sort from the earliest days of the Christian church.

    I am curious, you say you have read several books by those who defend the Christian Sabbath position and been unconvinced. Who have you read on this?

  5. This is a good conversation – thank you for not being closed minded on this issue. The moral law (if we can call it that) of God is eternal and is not sourced from nor contained in the Decalogue. It shines through the 10 Words, but the tablets are everywhere described as tablets of testimony of the covenant with Moses. All God’s saints in the new covenant of Christ’s blood are not under that covenant. There is no biblical evidence of sabbath keeping by Christians, history shows a creeping incrementalism towards that idea, being codified by the Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas, who opined that the Decalogue was God’s moral law, binding for all people. Early reformers, including John Calvin, did not hold to a Christian Sabbath, although Sunday worship was normal since Apostolic times and embraced by these men.

    I’ve read books in favor of sabbath keeping by Jonathan Edwards and Walter Chancy and many puritan era men. I’ve studied Sam Waldron’s views. All of them support the Christian Sabbath because they’ve been led astray by Paedobaptist views on the covenants in Scripture.

    I agree that God gave all men a 7 day cycle that is only revealed by Scripture. I see every reason for Christians to gather on the first day of the week (a phrase in Greek which is “the day after the Sabbath”). I find no biblical imperative for worship on the 1st day of the week and cannot find anything that moves the day from the 7th to the 1st.

    There is no law that compels saints to gather on His day. We have His Spirit Who wills us to do what is pleasing in His sight and this includes corporate worship and all the fellowship that brings with it.

    May the Word of God alone be our guide and foundation.

    SDG!

  6. I heartily agree with Dr. Bob, great article. It is an excellent launching pad from which to begin a serious exploration of the fourth commandment.

  7. Hi Manfred,

    I hope you are well. I had let our conversation about this slip my mind, sorry for that. Clearly you are not convinced of a Christian Sabbath. That’s OK, I gave up on everyone agreeing with me about everything some time ago 🙂

    I will say that if you’re looking for more of an apologetic regarding it, we’re probably not going to be pursuing that any time soon. The Decablog tends to be more of a ‘preaching to the choir’ sort of blog, if you know what I mean. This article is really written for people who already are Biblically convinced on the issue, and are now working it out in their churches and lives.

    If it’s an issue you’re interested in exploring more from a specifically Baptist and Reformed perspective, I would recommend this ongoing series (see link below). I haven’t read them all, but the latest post includes links to all the previous entires. Blessings in Christ, Nick.

    http://theblog.founders.org/pre-puritan-sabbatarians-henry-bullinger-on-the-sabbath-part-1/

    1. Thanks, Nick. That article on Bullinger simply reminds me how often Baptists look to Paedobaptists for support on this issue. Their view of the covenants of Scripture is based on supporting infant “baptism” and their view on church & state and ecclesiology – it’s no wonder they have the views of the Mosaic Covenant they do.

      The book I reviewed is an in-depth look at the issue and it does more glorify Christ than any “Christian Sabbath” argument I’ve read – and I have read many.

      Soli Deo Gloria!

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