The Christian Sabbath: The Law is Good

My objective in this short series on the Christian Sabbath is to persuade you to believe that the fourth commandment – “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8, ESV) – applies to the Christian today just as the other nine commandments do.

It is true that we are not justified by the keeping of the law – no one ever was (Galatians 2:16). And it is true that we are not under the law in the way that Old Covenant Israel was, or those not in Christ are (Galatians 5:18). But it is a mistake to assume that the moral law, as well as the moral principles contained within the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, do not apply to those in Christ (Matthew 5:27; 1 Timothy 5:18).

We wouldn’t dare claim this concerning the other nine commandments. Most Christians would acknowledge, for example, that, the seventh command – “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14, ESV) – still applies. It applies in that it reveals God’s moral standard for us. We can not be saved by the keeping of it  – we are not legalists. And we cannot keep it apart from the work of the Spirit in us – we are not moralists. But it is as true and applicable for us today as it was in the day it was given. My question is this: Why would we approach the fourth commandment any differently?

Some might object, saying, but the law is written on the hearts of Christians, not on stone! This is indeed true (Jeremiah 31:31-33). But why would we think that the moral law written on the heart of the Christian would differ in substance from the moral law written on stone and given to Moses? It is the same moral law for God’s people under the Old and New Covenant!

It is true, the civil and ceremonial laws do not apply to Chritsians in the same way as they did to those under the Old Covenant. And why is that? It is because they have been fulfilled in Christ (Acts 10:13). But the moral principles remain unchanged and intact (Matthew 5:17). If you are interested in this I would recommend that you read Chapter 19 of our Confession.

I made a case (very briefly) in my last post for the permanence of the fourth commandment. I argued like this: One, the fourth commandment is at the heart of the ten commandments, which is a summery of God’s moral law. Two, the Sabbath principle appears, not first in the ten commandments, but at creation. Both of these facts point to the Sabbath principle as something that transcends the Old Covenant made with Israel. It contains a moral principle applicable to all people at all times and in all places.

Here I emphasize this point: many Christians are opposed to the continued validity of the Sabbath command because they approach the issue with a predisposed aversion to the law of God. They object to the idea that we are to observe the Sabbath today saying, that is legalism! We are not under the law! Our response would be, no, you are guilty of antinomianism! You have gone to far in your rejection of the moral law!  

We are not legalists. We do not believe that a person can be saved through the keeping of the law. No one ever has been, and never will be (actually, if I had the time I would develop this point: all are saved through the keeping of the law in this sense –  Christ has kept it for us, and we are saved through faith in him!). Furthermore, we are deeply opposed to adding anything to the law of God as the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were guilty of doing (this is why I am opposed to forbidding the drinking of alcohol, for example. While drinking may be unwise (especially for some), it should not be forbidden for the simple fact that the scriptures to not forbid it (John 2)). We are not legalists.

But neither are we antinomians. We believe that the law of God is useful for the Christian. We agree with Paul that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12, ESV).

Traditionally the church has confessed that the moral law has three uses for the Christian. R.C. Sproul summarizes this nicely:

“The first purpose of the law is to be a mirror. On the one hand, the law of God reflects and mirrors the perfect righteousness of God. The law tells us much about who God is. Perhaps more important, the law illumines human sinfulness. Augustine wrote, ‘The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.’ The law highlights our weakness so that we might seek the strength found in Christ. Here the law acts as a severe schoolmaster who drives us to Christ.

A second purpose for the law is the restraint of evil. The law, in and of itself, cannot change human hearts. It can, however, serve to protect the righteous from the unjust. Calvin says this purpose is ‘by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.’ The law allows for a limited measure of justice on this earth, until the last judgment is realized.

The third purpose of the law is to reveal what is pleasing to God. As born-again children of God, the law enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve. The Christian delights in the law as God Himself delights in it. Jesus said, ‘If you love Me, keep My commandments’ (John 14:15). This is the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give Him honor and glory.” (R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith)

If you are having trouble with the Sabbath command you may need to back up and reconsider your view of the law in general. Perhaps you have misunderstood what it means to not be under the law in Christ. Whatever that means (that is another discussion for another time) it does not mean that the moral law no longer applies to the Christian.

The Sabbath command is at the heart of the summery of the moral law, the Ten Commandments. If it is still wrong to worship other gods, make graven images, take the name of the LORD in vain, dishonor parents, murder, commit adultery, steel, lie, and covet, then it is also wrong to fail to rest and worship one day in seven.

Questions remain. Who changed the day? What are we to do and not do on the Christian Sabbath? These, and other question will have to wait for another time. For now, may I simply encourage you to see the law of God as holy and righteous and good.



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