Ask RC: Are we still required to keep the Sabbath? Does it matter what day? What does keeping the Sabbath look like?
This particular issue is faithful fodder for those who love to play armchair theologian. It has all the necessary ingredients- a long struggle over the issue in the history of the church, subcultures in the church with strong feelings on the matter, worldliness likely playing into the equation, and to be fair, some level of ambiguity on the issues themselves. Just as I am puzzled as to why God didn’t provide us with a book of church order in the Bible, in like manner, I am surprised that this isn’t one of the more perspicuous issues in the Bible, seeing as how it comes up right there in the Ten Commandments. What follows is not designed to be a compelling case on any count. It is instead a broad overview of how I look at the matter.
First, I believe that Christians and even unbelievers are commanded to keep the Sabbath, though they will do so in different ways. One could argue that the 4th commandment would belong under the heading of ceremonial laws. (The distinctions we make between the moral law, the ceremonial law and the civil law in the Old Covenant are important. Deny the abiding validity of the first, and you are an antinomian. Affirm the validity of the second and you are a Judaizer. How you view the third will determine whether or not you are a theonomist. While the distinctions are important, remember that the laws do not come to us color coded so we can know which fits in what category.) If one were to argue that the fourth commandment is ceremonial, we still haven’t determined we need not keep it.
Even if God’s direction to Moses for observing the Sabbath were ceremonial, the principle of resting one day in seven was well established before Sinai. It might rightly be understood as a “creation ordinance” since it was at least alluded to in the garden. Second, even when we affirm that Christ fulfills the law, that doesn’t mean He makes it disappear. Passover hasn’t left us- it is “kept” in the New covenant through the Lord’s Supper. The principle of circumcision hasn’t been “abolished” but is instead “kept” in the New covenant through baptism. In like manner, Jesus didn’t abolish the Sabbath. Instead He is our Sabbath. At the end of the day my basic conclusion is this- we keep Sabbath by resting in the finished work of Christ alone. Our rest is our trust that He has already accomplished all that we need or could hope for.
As such, my view is that we do keep the creation ordinance. It is important, and fitting with God’s design of the very nature of creation that we ought to rest one day in seven, even as we ought to rest our fields one year in seven.
What about the when? Does the day matter? I don’t believe that the day matters. There are some strong arguments made by my “seventh day” friends that have some weight with me. That said, in the end, I don’t believe at creation God set apart a particular day. It is desirable and wise, it seems to me, that the church ought, as much as is possible, share a common day of rest. It is fitting that in our rest we would gather to renew covenant through Lord’s Day worship. It is fitting as well that the church should have chosen the day of resurrection as its day. With the coming of Jesus we do not work through the week to earn our rest. Instead we are blessed with rest as the week begins, and in gratitude go and work. I am willing to concede that we have no proof-text for this. I don’t think we need one.
What about how? The Westminster Standards affirm what we call the Puritan view of Sabbath keeping. Calvin and others upheld what is called the Continental View. The principle difference is over whether recreation is permitted during the Lord’s Day. I opt for the Continental view, though with perhaps a touch of the Puritan view. That is, I am perfectly comfortable with godly, peaceful, restful recreation. A game of cards, a toss of the football with my children I think are fine. A three hour game of full contact rugby doesn’t fit into my understanding of rest.
The reason I am comfortable with this kind of recreation, however, is because I am uncomfortable drawing too clear a line between that which is sacred and that which is secular. That is, if in playing catch with my children I am not rejoicing in the grace of God for the blessing of children, for the beauty of games, for the revelation of His glory in creation, then I not only not ought to do it on Sunday, I ought never to do it.
Having offended, one way or another all my readers, let me finish with three important affirmations. First, there is a right answer. God’s law, however hard a time we might have in seeing it, is in the end clear. The failure to see it is our own. On the other hand, when we have an issue over which good men that I respect have over the years differed, I tend to at least hold a broad view in terms of judgment. That is, though I of course believe I am right in how I look at this, I am not angry or frustrated that others take a different view. I don’t look down my nose at them for their failure to embrace my obvious and compelling wisdom. This also is one of those areas where I desire to practice a rule of thumb that I hold dear- never attack my friends who are to my right. If your idea of a great way to spend the Lord’s Day is to have a private devotional on your way to the mall, you likely need to repent. If, however, you have a more conservative view than me on this, more power to you. Third, if that does describe you, be careful to check yourself often to be certain in “keeping the Sabbath” you aren’t breaking it. That is, beware the temptation to think that your ability to keep the Sabbath is what earns God’s favor. Let your resting rest on the finished work of Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath.