Update: I am writing a series of posts based on Owen’s argument. See part 1(the Sabbath as Moral and Mosaical) HERE, part 2 (the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works) HERE, part 3 (Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works and its Mosaical Elements) HERE, and part 4 (the Sabbath in the New Covenant) HERE.
In his (massive and epic) exposition of Hebrews, John Owen provides a large excursus on the Reformed doctrine of the Sabbath. The full title (which is amazing) is Exercitations Concerning the Name, Original, Nature, Use, and Continuance of a Day of Sacred Rest wherein the Original of the Sabbath from the Foundation of the World, the Morality of the Fourth Commandment, with the change of the Seventh Day, are Inquired Into; Together with an Assertion of the Divine Institution of the Lord’s Day, and Practical Directions for its Due Observation. The context of the excursus is Hebrews 4, and particularly vv. 9-10:
So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.
Owen’s primary contention is that ‘the one’ of verse 10 is Jesus Christ. Christ, in his resurrection and ascension, has entered into His own rest, reminiscent of the original Sabbath rest of creation, thus inaugurating the new age, and the new heavens and the new earth. In order to build upon this idea, Owen traces his doctrine back to creation in Genesis 1 and 2, through the Sabbath command of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and into its fulfillment and renovation in Christ.
What follows is my attempt at a summary of Owen’s exposition of Hebrews 4:9-10 using only quotes from him with headings added by me. Each bullet point is a quotation. Quotations are taken from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980. This seven-volume set was given to me as a gift years ago. I’ve ever remained thankful. You can read an online version for free HERE. After this post, I will likely devote some time to fleshing out this argument apart from simple quotations. I will update this post as I continue writing about the subject in the future (I hope to work through this on a semi-point-by-point basis in future posts as time permits). This is a lot of straight quotation (I know), but the argument is worth our attention, as there is very little thought with any sort of depth or nuance regarding a Christian doctrine of the sabbath these days.
I. The Sabbath Command is Grounded in God’s Own Rest (Satisfaction and Complacency) in His Creative Work
- God originally, out of his infinite goodness, when suitably thereunto, by his own eternal wisdom and power, he had made all things good, gave unto men a day of rest, as to express unto them his own rest, satisfaction, an complacency in the works of his hands, so to be a day of rest and composure to themselves, and a means of their entrance into and enjoyment of that rest with himself, here and forever, which had ordained for them (p. 266).
- And the expression of God’s rest is of a moral and not a natural signification; for it consists in the satisfaction and complacency that he took in his works, as effects of his goodness, power, and wisdom, disposed in the order and unto the ends mentioned. Hence, as it is said that upon the finishing of them, he looked on “every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” Gen 1:31, —that is, he was satisfied in his works and their disposal, and pronounced concerning them that they became his infinite wisdom and power; so it is added that he not only “ rested on the seventh day,” but also that he was “refreshed,” Exodus 31:17, —that is, be took great complacency in what he had done, as that which was suited unto the end aimed at namely, the expression of his greatness, goodness, and wisdom, unto his rational creatures, and his glory through their obedience thereon, as on the like occasion he is said to “rest in his love,” and to “rejoice with singing,” Zeph. 3:17 (p. 334).
- For the Sabbath was originally a moral pledge and expression of God’s covenant rest, and of our rest in God…(p. 390).
II. The Sabbath Command is Embedded in the Natural Law of Creation
- All nations, I say, in all ages, have from time immemorial made the revolution of seven days to be the second stated period of time. And this observation is still continued throughout the world, unless amongst them who in other things are openly degenerated from the law of nature…(p. 309).
III. The Sabbath Command was a Part of the Original Covenant of Works with Adam
- Thirdly, Man is to be considered with special respect unto that covenant under which he was created, which was a covenant of works; for herein rest with God was proposed unto him as the end or reward of his own works, or of his personal obedience unto God, by absolute strict righteousness and holiness. And the peculiar form of this covenant, as relating unto the way of God’s entering into it upon the finishing of his own works, designed the seventh day from the beginning of the creation to be the day precisely for the observation of a holy rest (p. 338).
- …Whereas the covenant which man originally was taken into was a covenant of works, wherein his obtaining rest with God depended absolutely on his doing all the work he had to do in a way of legal obedience, he was during the dispensation of that covenant tied up precisely to the observation of the seventh day, or that which followed the whole work of creation. And the seventh day, as such, is a pledge and token of the rest promised in the covenant of works, and no other. And those who would advance that day again into a necessary observation do consequentially introduce the whole covenant of works, and are become debtors unto the whole law; for the. works of God which preceded the seventh day precisely were those whereby man was initiated into and instructed in the covenant of works, and the day itself was a token and pledge of the righteousness thereof, or a moral and natural sign of it, and of the rest of God therein, and the rest of man with God thereby (pp. 345-346).
- Hence did he learn the nature of the covenant that he was taken into, namely, how he was first to work in obedience, and then to enter into God’s rest in blessedness; for so had God appointed, and so did he understand his will, from his own present state and condition. Hence was he instructed to dedicate to God, and to his own more immediate communion with him, one day in a weekly revolution, wherein the whole law of his creation was consummated, as a pledge and means of entering eternally into God’s rest, which from hence he understood to be his end and happiness (p. 346).
IV. Reasons for the Sabbath Command in the Covenant of Works
- First, That we might learn the satisfaction and complacency that God hath in his own works…And our observation of the evangelical Sabbath hath the same respect unto the works of Christ and his rest thereon, when he saw of the travail of his soul and was satisfied…(p. 335).
- Secondly, Another end of the original sabbatical rest was, that it might be a pledge unto man of his rest in and with God; for in and by the law of his creation, man had an end of rest proposed unto him, and that in God (p. 335).
- Thirdly, Consideration was had of the way and means whereby man might enter into the rest of God proposed unto him. And this was by that obedience and worship of God which the covenant wherein he was created required of him (p. 336).
V. The Mosaic Law (including the Sabbath Command) is in some sense a Re-Presentation or Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works
- Now, the original covenant of works being, in this representation of it on Sinai, not absolutely changed or abolished, but afresh presented unto the people, only with a relief provided for the covenanters against its curse and severity, with a direction how to use it to another end than was first given unto it, it follows that the day of the sabbatical rest could not be changed. And therefore was the observation of the seventh day precisely continued, because it was a moral pledge of the rest of God in the first covenant; for this the instructive part of the law of our creation, from God’s making the world in six days, and resting on the seventh, did require. The observation of this day, therefore, was still continued among the Israelites, because the first covenant was again presented unto them (p. 391).
- But when that covenant was absolutely, and in all respects as a covenant, taken away and disannulled, and that not only as to its formal efficacy, but also as to the manner of the administration of God’s covenant with men, as it is under the gospel, there was a necessity that the day of rest should also be changed, as I have more fully showed elsewhere. I say, then, that the precise observation of the seventh day enjoined unto the Israelites had respect unto the covenant of works, wherein the foundation of it was laid, as hath been demonstrated. And the whole controversy about what day is to be observed now as a day of holy rest unto the Lord, is resolved fully into this inquiry, namely, what covenant we do walk before God in (pp. 391-392).
VI. Specific External Applications are Added to the Sabbath Command Under Moses that are Particular to Israel
- It is by all confessed that the command of the Sabbath, in the renewal of it in the wilderness, was accommodated unto the pedagogical state of the church of the Israelites. There were also such additions made unto it, in the manner of its observance and the sanction of it, as might adapt its observation unto their civil and political estate…So was it to bear a part in that ceremonial instruction which God in all his dealings with them intended. To this end also the manner of the delivery of the whole law and the preservation of its tables in the ark were designed. And divers expressions in the explicatory parts of the decalogue have the same reason and foundation. For there is mention of fathers and children to the third and fourth generation, and of their sins, in the second commandment; of the land given to the people of God, in the fifth; of servants and handmaids, in the tenth. Shall we therefore say that the moral law was not before given unto mankind, because it had a peculiar delivery, for special ends and purposes, unto the Jews? (p. 314).
- …For all the judgments relating unto civil things were but an application of the moral law to their state and condition. Hence was the sanction of the transgression of it to be punished with death. So was it in particular with respect unto the Sabbath, Numbers 15:32-36, partly that it might represent unto them the original sanction of the whole law as a covenant of works, and partly to keep that stubborn people by this severity within due bounds of government. Nor was any thing punished by death judicially in the law but the transgression of some moral command…“the hand of heaven,” is threatened against their presumptuous transgression of the ceremonial law, where no sacrifice was allowed: “I the LORD will set my face against that man, and cut him off.” This also made the Sabbath a yoke and a burden, that wherein their consciences could never find perfect rest. And in this sense also it is abolished and taken away (p. 392).
- The representation of that covenant, with the sanction given unto it amongst the judgments of righteousness in the government of the people in the land of Canaan, which was the Lord’s, and not theirs, made it a yoke and burden; and the use it was put unto amongst ceremonial observances made it a shadow: in all which respects it is abolished by Christ. To say that the Sabbath as given unto the Jews is not abolished, is to introduce the whole system of Mosaical ordinances, which stand on the same bottom with it. And particularly, the observation of the seventh day precisely lieth as it were in the heart of the economy (pp. 392-393).
VII. Hence a Distinction Must be Made in the Law Between Strictly Moral and Mosaical (Moral Mingled with Ceremonial and Civil)
- For whereas some have made no distinction between the Sabbath as moral and as Mosaical, unless it be merely in the change of the day, they have endeavored to introduce the whole practice required on the latter into the Lord’s day (p. 441).
VIII. Summary of the Old Testament Teaching of the Sabbath
- …It appears that the observation of the seventh day precisely from the beginning of the world belonged unto the covenant of works, not as a covenant, but as a covenant of works, founded in the law of creation; and that in the administration of that covenant, which was revived, and unto certain ends re-enforced unto the church of Israel in the wilderness, it was bound on them by an especial ordinance, to be observed throughout their generations, or during the continuance of their church-state. Moreover, that as to the manner of its observance required by the law, as delivered on mount Sinai, it was a yoke and burden to the people, because that dispensation of the law gendered unto bondage, Galatians 4:24; for it begot a spirit of fear and bondage in all that were its children and subject unto its power. In this condition of things it was applied unto sundry ends in their typical state; in which regard it was “ a shadow of good things to come.” And so also was it in respect of those other additional institutions and prohibitions which were inseparable from its observation amongst them, whereof we have spoken.On all these accounts I doubt not but that the Mosaical Sabbath, and the manner of its observation, are under the gospel utterly taken away. But as for the weekly Sabbath, as required by the law of our creation, and reenforced in the decalogue, the summary representation of that great original law, the observation of it is a moral duty, which by divine authority is translated unto another day (p. 402).
IX. Christ’s New Creation (in His Resurrection) Becomes the New Covenant Paradigm for the Christian Sabbath, or ‘the Lord’s Day’ (Hence the Change from Last to First Day of the Week)
- As our Lord Jesus Christ, as the eternal Son and Wisdom of the Father, was the immediate cause and author of the old creation, John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 1:2,10, so as Mediator he was the author of this new creation, Hebrews 3:3-4. He built the house of God; he built all these things, and is God. Herein he wrought, and in the accomplishment of it “saw of the travail of his soul, and was satisfied,” Isaiah 53:11; that is, “he rested, and was refreshed.” Herein he gave a new law of life, faith, and obedience unto God, Isaiah 42:4; not by an addition of new precepts to the moral law of God not virtually comprised therein, and distinct from his own positive institutions of worship, but in his revelation of that new way of obedience unto God in and by himself, with the especial causes, means, and ends of it, — which supplies the use and end whereunto the moral law was at first designed, Romans 8:2-3, 10:3- 4, — whereby he becomes “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him,” Hebrews 5:9. This law of life and obedience he writes by his Spirit in the hearts of his people, that they may be “willing in the day of his power,” Psalm 110:3, 2 Corinthians 3:3,6, Hebrews 8:10; not at once and in the foundation of his work actually, but only in the causes of it. For as the law of nature should have been implanted in the hearts of men in their conception and natural nativity, had that dispensation of righteousness continued, so in the new birth of them that believe in him is this law written in their hearts in all generations, John 3:6. Hereon was the covenant established and all the promises thereof, of which he was the mediator, Hebrews 8:6. And for a holy day of rest, for the ends before declared, and on the suppositions before laid down evincing the necessity of such a day, he determined the observation of the first day of the week; for, — 9. First, on this day he rested from his works, in and by his resurrection; for then had he laid the foundation of the new heavens and new earth, and finished the works of the new creation, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” On this day he rested from his works, and was refreshed, as God did and was from his. For although he “worketh hitherto,” in the communication of his Spirit and graces, as the Father continued to do in his works of providence, after the finishing of the works of the old creation, though these works belonged thereunto, yet he ceased absolutely from that kind of work whereby he laid the foundation of the new creation. Henceforth he dieth no more. And on this day was he refreshed in the view of his work; for he saw that it was exceeding good. Now, as God’s rest, and his being refreshed in his work, on the seventh day of old, was a sufficient indication of the precise day of rest which he would have observed under the administration of that original law and covenant, so the rest of our Lord Jesus Christ, and his being refreshed in and from his works, on the first day, is a sufficient indication of the precise day of rest to be observed under the dispensation of the new covenant, now confirmed and established (pp. 409-410).
- …The apostle proves, from the words of the psalmist, that there was yet to be a third state of the church, an especial state under the Messiah, which he now proposed unto the Hebrews, and exhorted them to enter into. And in this church-state there is to be also a peculiar state of rest, distinct from them which went before. To the constitution hereof there are three things required :— First, That there be some signal work of God completed and finished, whereon he enters into his rest. This was to be the foundation of the whole new church-state, and of the rest to be obtained therein. Secondly, That there be a spiritual rest ensuing thereon and arising thence, for them that believe to enter into. Thirdly, That there be a new or renewed day of rest, to express that rest of God, and to be a pledge of our entering into it. If any of these, or either of them, be wanting, the whole structure of the apostle’s discourse will be dissolved, neither will there be any color remaining for his mentioning the seventh day and the rest thereof. These things, therefore, we must further inquire into. 19. First, the apostle showeth that there was a great work of God, and that finished, for the foundation of the whole. This he had made way for, chap. 3:4-5, where he both expressly asserts the Son to be God, and shows the analogy that is between the creation of all things and the building of the church, — that is, the works of the old and new creation. As, then, God wrought in the creation of all, so Christ, who is God, wrought in the setting up of this new church-state. And upon his finishing of it he entered into his rest, as God did into his, whereby he limited a certain day of rest unto his people. So he speaks, “There remaineth therefore a sabbatism for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also has ceased from his works, as God did from his own.” A new day of rest, accommodated unto this new church-state, arises from the rest that the Lord Christ entered into upon his ceasing from his works (p. 416).
X. A Return to Old Testament Sabbatarianism (Seventh Day) is a Return to the Covenant of Works
- …So the covenant being changed, and the rest which was the end of it being changed, and the way of entering into the rest of God being changed, a change of the day of rest must of necessity thereon ensue. And no man can assert the same day of rest precisely to abide as of old, but he must likewise assert the same law, the same covenant, the same rest of God, the same way of entering into it; which yet, as all acknowledge, are changed (p. 407).
XI. Summary of the Lord’s Day
- What account can we give to ourselves and our children concerning our observation of this day holy unto the Lord? Must we not say, nay, may we not do so with joy and rejoicing, that whereas we were lost and undone by sin, excluded out of the rest of God, so far as that the law of the observation of the outward pledge of it, being attended with the curse, was a burden, and no relief to us, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, undertook a great work to make peace for us, to redeem and save us; and when he had so done, and finished his work, even the erecting of the “new heavens and new earth, wherein dwells righteousness,’’ he entered into his rest, and thereby made known to us that we should keep this day as a day of holy rest unto him, and as a pledge that we have again given to us an entrance into rest with God? (p. 450).
XII. Duties of the Lord’s Day
- All duties proper and peculiar to this day are duties of communion with God (p. 452).
- The public duties of the day are principally to be regarded. By public duties, I intend the due attendance unto and the due performance of all those parts of his solemn worship which God has appointed to be observed in the assemblies of his people, and in the manner wherein he has appointed them to be observed (p. 457).
- …The public and solemn worship of God is to be preferred above that which is private. They may be so prudently managed as not to interfere nor ordinarily to intrench on one another; but wherever on any occasion they seem so to do, the private are to give place to the public: for one chief end of the sacred setting apart of this day, is the solemn acknowledgment of God, and the performance of his worship in assemblies. It is therefore a marvelous undue custom, on the pretense of private duties, whether personal or domestic, to abate any part of the duties of solemn assemblies; for there is in it a setting up of our own choice and inclinations against the wisdom and authority of God (pp. 457-458).
- Refreshments helpful to nature, so far as to refresh it, that it may have a supply of spirits to go on cheerfully in the duties of holy worship, are lawful and useful. To macerate the body with abstinences on this day is required of none, and to turn it into a fast, or to fast upon it, is generally condemned by the ancients. Wherefore to forbear provision of necessary food for families on this day is Mosaical; and the enforcement of the particular precepts about not kindling fire in our houses on this day, baking and preparing the food of it the day before, cannot be insisted on without a re-introduction of the seventh day precisely, to whose observation they were annexed, and thereby of the law and spirit of the old covenant. Provided always that these refreshments be, — First . Seasonable for the time of them, and not when public duties require our attendance on them; Secondly. Accompanied with a singular regard to the rules of temperance; as, (First.) That there be no appearance of evil; (Secondly.) That nature be not charged with any kind of excess, so far as to be hindered rather than assisted in the duties of the day; (Thirdly.) That they be accompanied with gravity, and sobriety, and purity of conversation. Now, whereas these things are, in the substance of them, required of us in the whole course of our lives, as we intend to please God, and to come to the enjoyment of him, none ought to think an especial regard unto them on this day to be a bondage or troublesome unto them.
- For private duties, both personal and domestic, they are either antecedent or consequent to the solemn public worship, as usually for time it is celebrated amongst us. These consisting in the known religious exercises of prayer, reading the Scripture, meditation, family instructions from the advantage of the public ordinances, they are to be recommended to every one’s conscience, ability, and opportunity, as they shall find strength and assistance for them.