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The Sabbath has been under the constant crossfire of controversy during Christian history, undoubtedly because it summons people to offer to God, not just lip service, but the service of their total being by consecrating the 24 hours of the seventh day to God. It is not surprising that the Sabbath has come under renewed attacks today when most people want holidays to seek for pleasure and profit, and not a Holy Day to seek for the presence of peace of God in their lives.
The renewed attacks against the Sabbath coming from different quarters, including former Sabbatarians, are victimizing not the day itself, but people for whom the day was made. The Sabbath is not in crisis, because it is a divine institution. God is never in crisis. What is in crisis is our tension-filled and restless society that need more than ever before the physical, mental, and spiritual renewal the Sabbath is designed to provide them.
In this cosmic age the Sabbath provides the basis for a cosmic faith, a faith which embraces and unites creation, redemption, and final restoration; the past, the present, and the future; man, nature, and God; this world and the world to come. It is a faith that recognizes God's dominion over the whole creation and human life by consecrating to Him the seventh day; a faith that fulfills the believer's true destiny in time and eternity; a faith that allows the Savior to enrich our lives with a larger measure of His presence, peace, and rest.
This article focuses specifically on the major arguments used by former Sabbatarians to explain away the continuity and validity of the principle and practice of seventh-day Sabbathkeeping. An indepth analysis of these arguments is found in my newly released book, "The Sabbath Under Crossfire". The arguments considered in this article are:
(1) The Sabbath is not a Creational Ordinance
(1) The Sabbath is not a Creational Ordinance
The first argument used to negate the universality and continuity of the Sabbath is the denial of its creation origin. The argument attempts to prove that the Sabbath is not a creation ordinance for humanity but a Mosaic institution given to the Jews. The major argument in support of this thesis is the absence of an explicit command to observe the seventh day in Genesis 2:2-3. It is said that there is no command for mankind to rest in the Genesis account. Also that there is nothing expressly mentioned regarding man in the seventh-day-creation rest.
This argument ignores five important considerations. First, Genesis is not a book of commands but of origins. None of the Ten Commandments are ever mentioned in Genesis, yet we know that their principles were known because we are told, for example, "Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen 26:5). It is evident Abraham knew God's commandments and laws, though no reference is made to them in the book of Genesis.
Second, the absence of a command to keep the Sabbath in Genesis may be due to the cosmological function of the seventh day in the creation story. The divine act of resting on the seventh day is designed to tell us how God felt about His creation. It was "very good," and to dramatize this fact, twice we are told that "He rested" (Gen 2:2-3), literally, "He stopped." Why? Simply because there was no need of finishing touches to improve His perfect creation.
Third, the establishment of the Sabbath by a divine example rather than by a divine commandment, could well reflect what God wanted the Sabbath to be in a sinless world, namely, a free response to a gracious Creator rather than an alienating imposition. By freely choosing to make themselves available for their Creator on the Sabbath, human beings were to experience physical, mental, and spiritual renewal and enrichment. Since these needs have not been eliminated but heightened by the Fall, the moral, universal, and perpetual functions of the Sabbath precept were repeated later in the form of a commandment.
Fourth, a principle established by divine example is no less binding than one enunciated by a divine command. Actions speak louder than words. What is it that makes any divine precept moral and universal? Do we not regard a law moral when it reflects God's nature? Could God have given any stronger revelation of the moral nature of the Sabbath than by making it a rule of His divine conduct?
Fifth, the argument that the Sabbath originated at Sinai makes Moses guilty of distorting truth or, at least, the victim of gross misunderstanding. It would be saying that he traced the Sabbath back to creation in the Sabbath commandment, when in reality it was his own new creation. Such a charge, if true, would cast serious doubts on the integrity and/or reliability of anything else Moses or anyone else wrote in the Bible. Sixth, the clinching witness for the creation-origin of the Sabbath is the testimony of Jesus Himself. In refuting the charge of Sabbath-breaking levelled against His disciples, Jesus referred to the original purpose of the Sabbath: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Christ's choice of words is significant. The verb "made-ginomai" alludes to the original "making" of the Sabbath and the word "man-anthropos" suggests its human function. Thus to establish the human and universal value of the Sabbath, Christ reverts to its very origin right after the creation of man. Why? Because for the Lord, the law of the beginning stands supreme (see Matt 19:8). The consistent witness of the Scripture is that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance for the benefit of humanity. We have our roots in the Sabbath from creation to eternity.
(2) The Sabbath is an Old Covenant Institution that Terminated at the Cross
The second major anti-Sabbath argument is based upon the allegation that the Sabbath is an Old Covenant institution given to the Jews and terminated at the Cross, which holds that the Cross is the line of demarcation between the Old and New Covenants, Law and Grace, the Sabbath and Sunday.
The current argument reproposes this theological construct by arguing that there is a radical distinction between the Old Covenant which was based on a package of laws and the New Covenant which is based on principles of love. It argues that the distinction between "Law" and "Love" is reflected in the covenant signs. Typical statements include: "The entrance sign to the old Covenant was circumcision, and the continuing, repeatable sign Israel was to 'remember' was the Sabbath. . . . The entrance sign of the New Covenant is baptism [and] the remembrance sign [is] the Lord's Supper."
The attempt to reduce the Old and New Covenants to two different sets of laws with their own distinctive signs, the latter being simpler and better than the former, is designed to support the contention that the Ten Commandments, in general, and the Sabbath, in particular, were the essence of the Old Covenant that terminated at the Cross. The problem with this imaginative interpretation is that it is devoid of biblical support and incriminates the moral consistency of God's government.
Nowhere does the Bible suggest that with the New Covenant God instituted "better commandments" than those of the Old Covenant. Why would Christ need to alter the moral demands that He has revealed in His Law? Paul declares that "the [Old Testament] Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12). He took the validity of God's moral Law for granted when he stated unequivocally: "We know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8). Christ came not to change the moral requirements of God's Law, but to atone for our transgression against those moral requirements (Rom 4:25; 5:8-9; 8:1-3).
It is evident that by being sacrificed as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7), Christ fulfilled all the sacrificial services and laws that served in Old Testament times to strengthen the faith and nourish the hope of the Messianic redemption to come. But the New Testament makes a clear distinction between the sacrificial laws that Christ by His coming "set aside" (Heb 7:18), made "obsolete" (Heb 8:13), "abolished" (Heb 10:9), and Sabbathkeeping which "remains for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).
The New Covenant consists not in the replacement of the Ten Commandments with simpler and better laws, but in the internalization of God's Law. "This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my Law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God" (Jer 31:33; emphasis supplied). This passage teaches us that the difference between the Old and New Covenants is not a difference between "Law" and "love." Rather, it is a difference between failure to internalize God's Law, which results in disobedience, and successful internalization of God's Law, which results in loving obedience.
No Dichotomy Between Law and Love.
No dichotomy exists in the Bible between Law and Love in the covenantal relationship between God and His people because a covenant cannot exist without the Law. A covenant denotes an orderly relationship that the Lord graciously establishes and maintains with His people. The law guarantees the order required for such a relationship to be meaningful.
In God's relationship with believers, the moral Law reveals His will and character, the observance of which makes it possible to maintain an orderly and meaningful relationship. Law is not the product of sin, but the product of love. God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites after showing them His redeeming love (Ex 20:2). Through God's law the godly come to know how to reflect God's love, compassion, fidelity, and other perfections.
The Decalogue is not merely a list of ten laws, but primarily ten principles of love. There is no dichotomy between law and love, because one cannot exist without the other. The Decalogue details how human beings must express their love for their Lord and for their fellow beings. Christ's new commandment to love God and fellow beings is nothing else than the embodiment of the spirit of the Ten Commandments already found in the Old Testament (Lev 19:18; Deut 6:5). Christ spent much of His ministry clarifying how the love principles are embodied in the Ten Commandment. He clarified especially that the essence of Sabbathkeeping is people to love and not rules to obey.
The attempts to divorce the law of the Old Covenant from the love of the New Covenant ignores the simple truth that in both covenants love is manifested in obedience to God's law. Christ stated this truth clearly and repeatedly: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me" (John 14:21). "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love" (John 15:10). Under both covenants, the Lord has one moral standard for human behavior. He wants His people to love Him and their fellow beings by living in harmony with the moral principles expressed in the Ten Commandments. These serve as a guide in imitating God's character. The Spirit does not replace these moral principles in the New Covenant. Rather, He makes the letter become alive and powerful within the hearts of the godly.
(3) Christ Fulfilled the Sabbath by Becoming Our Salvation "Rest"
The third argument commonly used to negate the continuity of the Sabbath is based on the assumption that Christ fulfilled and terminated the messianic typologies of the Sabbath by becoming our Sabbath rest. Consequently, the contention is that Christians no longer need to observe the Sabbath literally by resting physically on the seventh day, because the Savior, to whom the Sabbath rest pointed, has come and fulfilled His typological function. Christ offers believers everyday the salvation-rest typified by the Sabbath. They say things like "The new covenant believer is to rejoice in God's rest continually. He does not have to wait until the end of the week."
His proposition is that Christ's provocatory method of Sabbathkeeping was designed to show how old covenant law, including Sabbath law, points to Him, rather than to clarify appropriate Sabbath behavior or a correct interpretation of old covenant Sabbath law.
There are four major problems with this popular view. First, it misinterprets the meaning of the Sabbath in the Gospels. An objective reading of Christ's provocative manner of Sabbathkeeping reveals that His intent was not to nullify but to clarify the meaning of the Fourth Commandment. Repeatedly in the Gospels Christ acts as the supreme interpreter of the Law by attacking external obedience and human traditions which often had obscured the spirit and intent of God's commandments (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28; 9:13; 12:7; 23:1-39).
It is noteworthy that in all instances where Christ or His disciples were accused of Sabbathbreaking, He defended their conductoften by appealing to the Scripture ("Have you not read . . . "Matt 12:3, 5)and then showing that their actions were in harmony with the divine intent of the Sabbath. An attentive reading of the Sabbath pronouncements where Christ declares the Sabbath to be a day "to do good" (Matt 12:12), "to save life" (Mark 3:4), to show "mercy" rather than religiosity (Matt 12:7) and "to loose" men and women from physical and spiritual bonds (Luke 13:16), offers an unmistakable proof of Christ's intent to clarify and not to nullify the Sabbath.
Second, to contend that the weekly experience of the Sabbath rest and liberation from work was intended only for the Jews to aid them in commemorating creation and in experiencing the future Messianic redemption to come, means to be blind to the fact that Christians need such an aid just as much as the Jews. The difference between the two is simply that while for the Jews the Sabbath rest pointed forward to the redemption rest of the Messiah to come, for the Christians the Sabbath rest points backward to the redemption rest of the Savior who has come and forward to the final restoration rest that still awaits for the people of God (Heb 4:9). Third, to maintain that "New Covenant" Christians observe the Sabbath spiritually as a daily experience of salvation-rest, and not literally as the observance of the seventh day, is to fail to recognize that the spiritual salvation-rest does not negate, but presupposes the physical Sabbath rest. God invites us to cease from our physical work on the Sabbath so that we may enter more fully and freely into His spiritual rest (Heb 4:10). Physical elements, such as the water in baptism, the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper, and the physical rest on the Sabbath, are not superfluous. They are designed to help us conceptualize and internalize the spiritual realities they represent.
Fourth, charges that literal seventh-day Sabbathkeeping reflects a cultic, sectarian, and legalistic mentality that distorts the Gospel of Christ and the authority of Scripture, ignores that a correct Biblical understanding and experience of the Sabbath can be a most powerful antidote against legalism and sectarianism. Why? Because the Sabbath teaches us not to work for our salvation (legalism), but to cease from all our works, in order, as Calvin so well expresses it, "to allow God to work in us." To rest on the Sabbath to give priority to God in our thinking and living, means to resign from our human effort to gain salvation, in order to allow the omnipotent grace God to work more fully and freely in our lives. Indeed, properly understood and observed the Sabbath epitomizes the Gospel, the Good News of God's invitation to cease from our works in order to enter into His rest (Heb 4:10).
Summing up, the coming of Christ is seen in the New Testament, not as the termination, but as the actualization, the realization of the redemptive typology of the Sabbath. Through His redemptive mission, Christ offers to believers the expected sabbatical "release" (Luke 4:18) and "rest" (Matt 11:28). In the light of the Cross, the Sabbath memorializes not only God's creative but also His redemptive accomplishments for mankind. Through the physical act of resting on the Sabbath we conceptualize, internalize, and appropriate the reality of salvation-rest. We celebrate God's creative and redemptive love.
(4) Paul Teaches the Abrogation of the Law
A fourth anti-Sabbath argument is the allegation that Paul teaches the abrogation of the Old Testament Law in general and of the Sabbath in particular.
Typical categoric affirmations regarding Paul's allegeded abrogation of the law include such statements as: "Paul teaches that Christians are not under old covenant Law." "Galatians states that Christians are no longer under Sinaitic Law." "Romans 7 states that even Jewish Christians are released from the Law as a guide to Christian service. . . . Romans 10 states that Christ is the end of the Law for the believer."
These categoric statements reflect the prevailing gross misunderstanding of Paul's teachings regading the place of the law in the Christian life. Fortunately, an increasing number of scholars are recognizing this problem and addressing it. For example, in his article "St. Paul and the Law," published in the Scottish Journal of Theology, C. E. B. Cranfield writes: "The need exists today for a thorough re-examination of the place and significance of Law in the Bible." He goes on noting that "recent writings reflect a serious degree of muddled thinking and unexamined assumptions with regard to the attitudes of Jesus and St. Paul to the Law"
I share Cranfield's conviction that shoddy biblical scholarship has contributed to the prevailing misconception that Christians are released from the observance of the Law. There is an urgent need to re-examine the New Testament understanding of the law and its place in the Christian life, because muddled thinking in this area affects a whole spectrum of Christian beliefs and practices. In fact, much of the anti-Sabbatarian polemic derives from the mistaken assumption that the New Testament, especially Paul's letters, releases Christians from the observance of the Law, in general, and the Sabbath commandment, in particular.
This prevailing misconception is negated by a great number of Pauline passages that uphold the law as a standard for Christian conduct. When the Apostle Paul poses the question: "Do we then overthrow the Law?" (Rom 3:31). His answer is unequivocal: "By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the Law" (Rom 3:31). The same truth is affirmed in the Galatian correspondence: "Is the Law then against the promises of God? Certainly not" (Gal 3:21). These statements should warn us that, as Walter C. Kaiser, a respected evangelical scholar, puts it, "any solution that quickly runs the law out of town certainly cannot look to the Scripture for any kind of comfort or support."
A careful study of Paul's writings shows that the law is and remains God's law (Rom 7:22, 25), because it was given by God (Rom 9:4; 3:2), was written by Him (1 Cor 9:9; 14:21; 14:34), reveals His will (Rom 2:17, 18), bears witness to His righteousness (Rom 3:21), and is in accord with His promises (Gal 3:21).
Being a revelation of God's will for mankind, the law reveals the nature of sin as disobedience to God. Paul explains that "through the Law comes the knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20) because the Law causes people to recognize their sins and themselves as sinners. It is evident that this important function of the Law could not have been terminated by Christ, since the need to acknowledge sin in one's life is as fundamental to the life of Christians today as it was for the Israelites of old.
The function of Christ's redemptive mission was not to abrogate the law, as many Christians mistakenly believe, but to enable believers to live out the principles of God's law in their lives. Paul affirms that, in Christ, God has done what the Law by itself could not donamely, He empowers believers to live according to the "just requirements of the Law." (Rom 8:3-4).
An understanding of the different circumstances that occasioned Paul's discussion of the law is essential for resolving the apparent contradiction between the positive and negative statements he makes about the law. For example, in Ephesians 2:15 Paul speaks of the law as having been "abolished" by Christ, while in Romans 3:31, he explains that justification by faith in Jesus Christ does not overthrow the law but "establishes" it. In Romans 7:6, he states that "now we are discharged from the law" while a few verses later he writes that "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12). In Romans 3:28, he maintains that "a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law," yet in 1 Corinthians 7:19, he states that "neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God." How can Paul view the law both as "abolished" (Eph 2:15) and "established" (Rom 3:31), unnecessary (Rom 3:28) and necessary (1 Cor 7:19; Eph 6:2, 3; 1 Tim 1:8-10)? The resolution to this apparent contradiction is to be found in the different contexts in which Paul speaks of the law. When he speaks of the law in the context of salvation (justificationright standing before God), especially in his polemic with Judaizers, he clearly affirms that law-keeping is of no avail (Rom 3:20). On the other hand, when Paul speaks of the law in the context of Christian conduct (sanctificationright living before God), especially in dealing with antinomians, then he upholds the value and validity of God's Law (Rom 7:12; 13:8-10; 1 Cor 7:19).
In summation, Paul criticizes not the moral value of the law as guide to Christian conduct, but the soteriological (saving) understanding of the law seen as a document of election that includes Jews and excludes Gentiles. Failure to distinguish in Paul's writing between his moral and soteriological usages of the Law, has led many people like Ratzlaff to fallaciously conclude that Paul rejects the value and validity of the law as a whole. Such a view is totally unwarranted because Paul rejects the Law as a method of salvation but upholds it as a moral standard of Christian conduct.
(5) Paul Teaches the Abrogation of the Sabbath.
The fifth and most popular weapon used to attack the Sabbath are the following three Pauline texts: Colossians 2:14-17, Galatians 4:8-11, and Romans 10:4-5. On the basis of these texts, many Christians conclude that Paul regarded the Sabbath as part of the Old Covenant that was nailed to the Cross. Some even go so far as to say that, according to Paul, "the observance of the Sabbath by Christians seriously undermines the finished work of Christ." "In every instance in the epistles [of Paul] where there is teaching about the Sabbath, that teaching suggests that the Sabbath either undermines the Christian's standing in Christ, or is nonessential." "The continued observance of the Sabbath by Christians runs from unimportant probably for the believing Jewto a dangerous undermining of one's standing in Christfor the believing Gentile."
Did Paul really find Sabbathkeeping so dangerous? On wonders, in what way could the act of stopping our work on the Sabbath to allow our Savior to work in our lives more fully and freely "seriously undermine the finished work of Christ"?
There are three fundamental problem with this interpretation of these three texts (Col 2:14-16; Rom 14:5, Gal 4:10). First, there is the failure to recognize that none of these passages deal with the validity or invalidity of the Sabbath commandment per se. Instead, they deal with ascetic and cultic practices which undermined (especially in Colossians and Galatians) the vital principle of justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Second, in the crucial passage of Colossians 2:16, Paul is warning the Colossians against those who judged them on "questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath" (RSV). This warning is not a condemnation of the five mentioned practices as such, but of the authority of false teachers to legislate on the manner of their observance. Implicitly, Paul expresses approval rather than disapproval of their observance. Any Pauline condemnation in this passage has to do with the perversion promoted by the false teachers, and not with the practices per se.
This important fact is recognized even by Sundaykeeping scholars. For example, Douglas De Lacey, a contributor to the scholarly symposium From Sabbath to the Lord's Day. He concludes his analysis of this passage saying: "Here again (Col 2:16), then, it seems that Paul could happily countenance Sabbathkeeping." Troy Martin, Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, comes to the same conclusion in a recent article published in New Testament Studies. It is encouraging to see scholars finally recognizing that, contrary to the traditional and popular interpretation, Colossians 2:16 is not the death knell of Sabbathkeeping in the New Testament but, instead, a proof of its Pauline approbation. Third, Paul's tolerance with respect to diet and days (Rom 14:3-6) indicates that he would not have promoted the abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday observance instead. Had he done so, he would have encountered endless disputes with some of the Jerusalem brethren, as he had with regard to circumcision. The absence of any echo of such controversy is perhaps the most telling evidence of Paul's respect for the institution of the Sabbath.
In the final analysis, Paul's attitude toward the Sabbath must be determined not on the basis of his denunciation of heretical and superstitious observances which may have influenced Sabbathkeeping, but rather on the basis of his overall attitude toward the law. The failure to understand that Paul rejects the law as a method of salvation but upholds it as a moral standard of Christian conduct has been the root cause of much misunderstanding of Paul's attitude toward the law, in general, and toward the Sabbath, in particular. One can hope that recent studies will contribute to clarify this misunderstanding and allow many to discover that "the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8).
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D. is Professor of Theology and Church History in the undergraduate School of Religion at Andrews University.
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