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Monday, August 4, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 8 "The Lord's Day"

"The first day of the week is the Lord's Day. It is a Christian institution for regular observance. It commemorates the resurrection of Christ from the dead and should include exercises of worship and spiritual devotion, both public and private. Activities on the Lord's Day should be commensurate with the Christian's conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ."

This post is going to be more of me organizing some of my own various thoughts about this topic, than it will be pointed critique or stating firmly settled convictions. That being said, I will lay out some of what a typical Reformed response would be, and I do have a few thoughts of my own on the matter (again, still somewhat in process on this).

Actually let me first start by saying that in my personal experience of Southern Baptist life and culture, of which I was a part throughout much of my college experience, this issue of Sunday as being especially the "Lord's Day" is not frequently talked about or observed very intentionally, even though it is an explicit affirmation of the BF&M. It almost seems like church on Sunday (and perhaps intentional rest from normal work/activities) is more of a continued tradition with some loose relationship to scriptural precedent, and perhaps nothing more. Of course that is almost certainly not the case with every Baptist, or even every Southern Baptist person.

But I often heard teaching or testimony to the effect that taking a "Sabbath" day (a loaded term that needs discussing, below, of course) on another day than Sunday works better for some people, and it doesn't really matter which day is chosen. Other occasions, the teaching was simply that corporate worship happened on Sunday because of some biblical and traditional ideas related to Christ's resurrection, etc., but that Romans 14 and similar passages basically implied that in God's view, no day of the week is inherently different for men than any other, with regard to any religious activity whatsoever. I think this kind of perspective is unfortunate, and I will give some of my more general thoughts on the positive biblical teaching a little later on, which should help explain why I think it is unfortunate.

A typical Reformed perspective on the "Lord's Day" would be as follows: After the coming of Christ, Sunday is the "Lord's Day" and the Christian Sabbath, which all Christians are required by God to observe by resting from normal work (save for "works of necessity and mercy"), gathering for corporate worship involving only the elements of worship explicitly commanded by Scripture, and (depending on the precise perspective) abstaining from recreation and all "secular" activity, taking up the whole day instead with exercises of private and public worship.

The biblical rationale given for this perspective is made along a number of interrelated lines of thought:

  • God's moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is eternal and binding on all people, everywhere, at all times. It includes the Fourth Commandment concerning Sabbath observance. Jesus' teaching in places like Matthew 5 regarding the perpetuity of God's Law, Paul's frequent appeal to the Decalogue (see Rom. 13:9, for example), and other passages, seem to indicate that the Decalogue continues to be a fully reliable guide for Christian life in obedience to God.

  • The example of the early church in Acts, and as implied by Paul's writings instructing the church at Corinth concerning the giving of financial offerings during first-day worship, show that the New Covenant day for corporate worship (and therefore obviously for rest, since weekly corporate worship and Sabbath observance always went together) is Sunday.

  • Sunday as the Lord's Day/New Covenant Sabbath commemorates Christ's resurrection from the dead, His first appearances to His disciples after His resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, all of which happened on Sundays.

  • Sunday as a first-day Sabbath points to the fact that a redemptive-historical shift has taken place, whereby the work of Christ for our salvation has been finished and we begin each week with the thought of resting in Him, and then move into our work. This is not to say that OT believers were actually to believe that they were somehow actually "working" for their salvation, and could only rest after their work was complete. But a seventh-day Sabbath for them pointed to the fact that their spiritual rest in the Messiah was yet an eschatological one--one they still awaited.

  • Sunday as an eighth-day Sabbath, as it were, points to the reality of the beginning of New Creation (the beginning of a "new week"), which began definitively with the resurrection of Christ, whose new life began with rising from a tomb which was situated in a garden, recalling ancient Eden of the first creation (Jn. 19:41). Circumcision, which pointed forward to regeneration (Col. 2:11-13), happened on the eighth day of a newborn's life (Lev. 12:3).

  • While the Messiah has come and we by faith have entered into His rest in a definitive way, we still await His Second Coming at which point He will consummate all things and bring about the fullness of true Sabbath rest for His people. Therefore, since "...there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (Heb. 4:9) which we must continue to strive to fully enter (v. 11), it is appropriate for us still to have a weekly token of that rest--though it now be at the beginning of the week instead of the end.

  • Jesus teaches directly on the nature of Sabbath observance in a number of places in the gospels, and while His earthly teaching ministry happened during a time when the Mosaic Covenant was still in effect, all of His teaching was forward-pointing and eschatological in a broad sense--that is, His message was fundamentally one of the dawning of the "kingdom of heaven" and its implications for how the people of God should live (by faith, in repentance, in faithful stewardship, doing good works, etc.) Therefore it would be a strange thing for Jesus to spend so much breath on something which would shortly no longer be relevant to the lives of His disciples.

  • The Sabbath itself was not a wholly new institution at the time of the Mosaic Law. Rather, it was instituted at the end of the first creation week when God Himself rested from His work and sanctified the seventh day of the week. It is noteworthy that when the Law is given from Sinai, the Decalogue says to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as if the people already knew about it. To be sure, extra ceremonial accoutrements were added to the Sabbath in the Mosaic Law, as well as extra "High Sabbath" days book-ending certain feasts Israel was to observe. Still, the fact remains that at least the concept of a weekly Sabbath, if nothing else, was present long before the Law, and therefore has application beyond the religious life of Old Covenant Israel.

  • The two passages from the New Testament most often cited as clear counter-evidence against the idea of a New Covenant command to observe some kind of Sabbath, Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16-17, may be read in their contexts as only speaking to ceremonial Sabbaths added by the Mosaic Law and/or the Mosaic, seventh-day Sabbath only, as over against the New Covenant Lord's Day Sabbath on Sunday.


Well it's almost enough to make you a Puritan! Almost.

I agree with much of the hermeneutical, redemptive-historical, and typological motion in the traditional Reformed arguments given above. Theologically, especially biblical-theologically, it all makes very good sense to me. Here are my main reservations I still have:

  • I've yet to be fully convinced by some Reformed exegesis of Romans 14 and Colossians 2, particularly of Colossians 2:16. It may be that the "Sabbath" mentioned here only refers to ceremonial Sabbaths, however, it still seems to me much more natural to take it as including weekly Sabbaths (at least Old Covenant weekly Sabbaths). Some have pointed out the possibility that the list, "festival...new moon...Sabbath" should be read as descending from yearly, to monthly, to weekly Jewish religious observances under the Law (and therefore as including weekly Sabbaths). That may or may not be an ultimately helpful exegetical point by itself. But when one considers v. 17, which says, "These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ," one has to wonder whether the Old Covenant weekly Sabbath was not also a shadow of Christ, who is its substance (of course it was!), and therefore whether it is not also in view in v. 16.

    If that point is well received (and perhaps it still is not by some), the only exegetical move a traditional Reformed Sabbatarian can make now is to say that Col. 2:16 is only referring to the weekly Sabbath in its Old Covenant, seventh-day form, which has passed away with the Mosaic Law and is now a matter of adiaphora and conscience--optional practice for (especially Jewish) Christian believers; whereas the observance of the new weekly Lord's Day Sabbath on Sunday is still required by God. If the Lord's Day has truly replaced the Old Covenant Sabbath, this line of thought is very possible theologically. But Paul simply doesn't argue that way, at least here. Here he emphasizes the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ, not in a new kind of Sabbath.

    Now the only move that a Reformed Sabbatarian can make, at least related to this passage, is to say that such Sabbatic fulfillment in Christ's person and work results in the kind of first-day shift of Sabbath observance which is articulated in Reformed confessions, commemorating Christ's work and anticipating His return to consummate the kingdom and bring full Sabbath rest to His people. But one cannot extract all of that theology out of Colossians 2. The case must be built elsewhere, along other lines summarized above.

    In sum, I don't think the Colossians 2 objection is as weak as it is sometimes treated by Reformed writers (though I still have plenty of reading to do on this). Then again, I don't think it necessarily destroys the Reformed view. I do think it at least challenges some facile Reformed constructions of the theology of the Sabbath (more on my current thoughts on that, below).

  • Along similar lines as some of the thoughts just above, the Sabbaths (all of them, presumably) were specifically made a sign of the Old Covenant between God and the Israelites in the Law (Ex. 31:13), and as the whole New Testament teaches, all the Law and the Prophets pointed forward to and are fulfilled by Christ. To be sure, this cannot mean that the general moral commandments of the Law can be overthrown or ignored now! But so much of the outward religious activity of ancient Israel under Moses--those things which distinguished Israel as a nation even from exceptional, righteous people from Gentile nations (brought to faith in Israel's God by His own grace alone, of course)--are relativized by the New Testament emphasis on the inclusion of Gentiles (now en masse) in God's covenant dealings with man, through Christ. Things that were as central to Jewish identity as circumcision are now treated as being, in one sense, irrelevant (Gal. 6:15). It is not hard to understand weekly Sabbath observance as being in the same category, unless it can somehow be established that the weekly Sabbath is definitely part of that general moral teaching from the Law which continues forever (in one form or another)...

  • And perhaps that can be done by appeal to the existence of the weekly Sabbath before the Law, as I set that argument forth above. However, strictly speaking, there is no explicit commandment in Scripture before the giving of the Law regarding the way in which the Sabbath should be observed. Moreover, outside of Jesus' teachings on Sabbath-keeping during His run-ins with corrupt Jewish authorities (still under the Mosaic Law), and the writer to the Hebrew's redemptive-historical interpretation of Sabbath and promised-land-rest, the New Testament is silent on "keeping the Sabbath" in as many words. This may be too strict of a linguistic test for whether or not the New Testament is concerned with Christian Sabbath-keeping, but if Reformed Sabbatarians are right, it does seem a strange thing in comparison to the Old Testament's repeated and emphatic exhortations to Sabbath-keeping and condemnations of related failures on Israel's part.

    Arguments from silence like this can be shaky by themselves, but they are sometimes worth considering when the silence is deafening, and Paul's pen screams silence when it comes to commanding or regulating Christian "Sabbath"-keeping, at least in as many words. He speaks of first-day Christian worship, to be sure. And John, the recipient of the Revelation, speaks of being in the Spirit on the "Lord's Day" (Rev. 1:10), very presumably a Sunday, regarded as being somehow especially the "Lord's Day" by the early Christian community. But whereas the New Testament epistles explicitly quote the Decalogue with regard to the commands against stealing, murder, adultery, coveting, etc., they never quote the Fourth Commandment. Perhaps the redemptive-historically-signficant shift to first-day observance would simply render quoting the Fourth Commandment straight from the Decalogue inappropriate. Still, it gives me a little pause.


So what do I believe, exactly?

At the time of writing, I subscribe to the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and I am a member in good standing of a church in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which holds to those standards (although it does not require all members to subscribe to it fully). However, I subscribe to it with some minor exceptions/scruples (as is the case even with many ordained ministers in Presbyterian denominations, who can submit to their presbytery any exceptions they take to the Confession, and the presbytery can judge whether it is a minor enough exception that ordination/(continued) licensure is still acceptable).

I do not take exception to the basic theology of Sabbath given in the Confession. It fits well with a robust biblical theology of New Creation and eschatology, and is consonant with a good covenantal hermeneutic that results in strong continuity of moral norms across Scripture, even where certain commandments are not explicitly repeated in the New Testament.

The only qualifications I would perhaps want to make at this point (and again, I'm still somewhat in process on this issue) are the following:

  • I prefer to speak of the Lord's Day not as "the Christian Sabbath" or "the New Covenant Sabbath," but rather simply as "the Lord's Day" which is the New Covenant analogue of Israel's Sabbath. This is less due to any aberrant definition of the so-called "Christian Sabbath" I hold to (I still believe it requires corporate worship and rest from normal work, barring necessity or mercy), and more due to the absence of New Testament passages referring explicitly to the Lord's Day as a "Sabbath" (and the strong possibility that Colossians 2 weighs against the use of such language). Perhaps calling it a mere "analogue" is misleading since I believe it is, in fact, just like the old "Sabbath" in many ways. Maybe I'll come up with a better word some day, but for now, that's what I have.


  • I think this topic is biblically and hermeneutically complex, and I am not sure or dogmatic about it at this point.


  • I do not believe that the Westminster Confession's strong language prohibiting "...works, words, and thoughts about...worldly...recreations" or stating the necessity for the whole day to be "taken up...in the public and private exercises of [God's] worship..." is appropriate if it is taken to mean that Christians may not do anything else on Sundays except private and public worship/devotion.

    There is certainly a kind of frivolous concern with worldly entertainments that many of us American Christians need to guard against (at all times, but especially on the Lord's Day), lest Sunday morning worship become a mere check-list-item prelude to a day of selfish indulgence without any further thought of Christ, prayer, or meditation on the Word (I'm exhorting myself here).

    Related to the debate about "recreation," I do not believe the classic passage in Isaiah 58 about "going your own way" on the Sabbath condemns "doing anything else but devotional activities on the Sabbath," but rather condemns a general spirit of autonomy and the eclipse of God and His worship in our minds by distracting concerns especially of our livelihood (for which we should trust God ultimately, not ourselves or our work). Just as the Lord's Day is a token from God to us of the fullness of rest promised to us in Christ on the Last Day, it is a token from us to God of our trust in His provision for us.


  • Regarding whether we should participate at all in the world's economy on the Lord's Day by purchasing goods or services, I think it is a difficult question. On the one hand, people argue that we should not contribute to causing other people to sin by working on the Lord's Day--Christian or not. On the other hand, it is sometimes argued that for some persons and situations, it can be more conducive to resting well on the Sabbath to take the family out for lunch or dinner somewhere, that it is not really causing anyone else to break the Sabbath to do such a thing, and/or that the Sabbath-keeping of non-Christians or Christians not in one's own church is not one's own responsibility.

    In principle, I think it is generally--depending on the situation!--better to abstain from participation in the economy (even as a consumer) on the Lord's Day, which is very often, if not always, relatively simple through due preparation, "ordering of...common affairs beforehand" (WCF XXI:viii). In practice, I have been pretty shaky here. I also will go out to eat with other Christians who have no scruples of doing so on Sunday, if it seems an opportunity for a very edifying time of fellowship for us. I don't know if this is hypocritical or otherwise wrong, but again, I am in process and hope to have firmer convictions on such issues in the future.


In sum, I agree with the general Reformed view in theology if not in terminology at every point, but I do not have hard and fast convictions about this yet. If the most conservative Reformed theologians are right, many Christians and Christian groups are and have been in gross sin in this area for many decades (not unthinkable). If the Reformed are wrong, however, there is a danger of judging brothers and sisters in Christ for something which is biblically a matter of adiaphora.

As for me, the theology makes decent sense (although the exegesis is patchy, humanly speaking), and the Sabbath was made for man (Mk. 2:27), that is, for our good. So why not?! The Sabbath was a gift of God, and at the very least, the New Tesatment doesn't condemn observance of it. It seems appropriate, wise, and consistent with biblical and ecclesial history and tradition to set apart one day in seven to give special attention to the corporate worship of God, and (very appropriately, I think) family and private devotion, and rest from normal work and concerns. I'm going to keep it up, for it has blessed me.

As for the BF&M, I might wish it included the requirement of rest from normal work, and at least was layered with some biblical theology of New Creation, which would connect it theologically with ideas of Sabbath and rest. Given how tentative my own convictions are for now, though, perhaps I can't say too much here about wishing for "Sabbath" language to be inserted explicitly.

I think what I want more than anything is for Southern Baptists to more fully live up to what is already there in their statement of faith. Sunday is the Lord's Day and it is special in some way or other, and should be treated as such. Should conscience be the only guide for what is acceptable activity on Sunday, per the BF&M? Well, if the Reformed view is correct (and I think it basically is), there are some restrictions, namely the prohibition against normal work save for mercy or necessity.

But let us for now all continue to love each other into greater understanding of the scriptural teaching on this and other complex issues of the Christian life, exhorting each other to greater holiness, to be sure, but also exercising patience, mercy, and humility toward one another as we seek the will of God in His Word. I confess I have a hard time thinking that will not involve or even result in taking the Lord's Day a bit more seriously (and joyously!) in every quarter of the Church...

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