A Theology of the Sabbath (3): John Owen on Christ’s Fulfillment of the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works and Mosaical Elements of the Fourth Commandment

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GodFor the One who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:9-10).

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)
The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

This is the third post in a four part series. See part 1 (The Sabbath as Moral and Mosaical) HERE, part 2 (The Sabbath in the Covenant of Works) HERE, and part 4 (the Sabbath in the New Covenant) HERE.For a broader summary of Owen’s argument and a fuller list of quotations see HERE.

All Owen quotations are from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980.

Owen’s basic principle regarding the fulfillment of the Sabbath (at least in my opinion) is not that Christ fulfills and abrogates the fourth commandment per se, but that he fulfills the Sabbath principle given in the Covenant of Works, which was re-stated in the fourth commandment. This could be complicated if we’re not careful, so let me give some explanation.

Let’s get our terms straight up front. Owen believes, like many of the Puritans, that when God created Adam, he entered into a Covenant of Works with him. The idea of the Covenant of Works is that God enters into an administration of his Lordship (to use Meredith Kline’s phrase) involving blessing for obedience and curse for disobedience. In regards to the Sabbath, this entails the promise of eternal sabbath (rest, satisfaction, blessedness) with and in God:

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, emphasis added).

In other words, according to Owen, if Adam is faithful to God in perfect obedience for whatever set time God has appointed, Adam, having worked, will then enter into perfect rest – heavenly rest. But if Adam violates the terms of the covenant, he will be cut off from the rest (satisfaction, blessedness) of God. As a token of that promise of rest, God sanctifies the Sabbath and commands its remembrance and observation (Gen. 2:3).

A major question that often arises here is precisely what terms Adam had to keep in regards to obedience. We know for certain that he was forbidden to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We also have a clear indication that God sanctified the seventh day and instituted the hallowing of it as a command from the beginning. We also know, from the text of Genesis 1-2, that Adam is charged to ‘work’ and to ‘keep,’ or ‘tend’ and defend,’ the Garden of Eden. A strong exegetical case can be made that this entailed a priestly service. I wrote about this in one of my very first posts on this blog a few years ago:

As G.K. Beale notes in The Temple and the Church’s Mission, the terms of Adam’s ‘labor’ in the garden, ‘work it’ and ‘keep it’ (Gen. 2:15, ESV) are used elsewhere in the Pentateuch to denote priestly service. As the Levitical priests were to do the ‘service’ of, and ‘guard,’ the tabernacle, so Adam was to do the service of and guard the Garden. Since we hold that the same author wrote each of the books in the Pentateuch, it seems likely that he is intentionally demonstrating a parallel between the Garden work of Adam and the Temple/Tabernacle work of the priests. Therefore we may legitimately deduce from Genesis 2:15 the idea that the Garden of Eden was the first earthly temple and Adam the first earthly priest (cf. Beale).

In connection with the second deduction, i.e. Adam’s priesthood, we might ask the question, ‘what was his function as a priest?’ It is apparent from the text that his function was to serve God by caring for the garden both in its cultivation and protection. Yet it may also be inferred from Moses’ other writings pertaining to priests that, as a priest, Adam would stand as a representative before God. In the natural, physical sense, Adam would represent his wife as her covenant head by his actions. This would entail his remaining holy before God for her sake, his leading her in the worship of, and obedience to, God, as well as his service and protection of her. Yet, in the view of the Apostle Paul, as set forth in Romans 5, Adam’s covenant head responsibility extended not only to Eve, but to all of his natural descendents.

Therefore, we may deduce that Adam, in his priestly role, stood before God as the covenant representative of all those who would descend from him by natural birth. His position was such that he could either lead all future generations into worship, obedience, and blessing or into a state of curse by his failure as priestly covenantal representative, leaving all of his descendents without mediation unto God (i.e. utterly cut off from his [blessed] presence or pleasure). This line of reasoning is one proof for the existence in Scripture of what has traditionally been called the Covenant of Works.

This much we know. This is the big idea of the Covenant of Works. Now to the Covenant of Grace.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul sets forth the Lord Jesus Christ as the ‘second Adam’ (v. 45), who stands as our Mediator before the Father. In Christ’s obedience, as the second Adam, (taking Owen’s framework) he becomes our new Covenant of Works-representative. He perfectly keeps the commandments of God and therefore keeps/earns the right, as a man, to enter into God’s perfect rest. The good news (gospel) is that Christ has perfectly kept the Covenant of Works, but instead of entering into God’s rest, voluntarily chose to be cut off and suffer the curse of death (and a cursed death at that, Gal. 3:13) for his people. Therefore, those who trust in him are credited with his righteousness as he is credited (on the cross, in the grave) with their sin. That is what the theologians call ‘double imputation’ (our sin to Christ, his righteousness to us).

Moving back to the Covenant of Works, Owen believes that the principles of the Covenant of Works (I suppose you could call it ‘natural law,’ though I personally wouldn’t) are re-stated in the 10 Commandments as God’s rule of righteousness:

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 (p. 391).

The great difference, however, is that God is gracious in his re-stating of the Law on account that he explicitly provides means for the forgiveness of sin (as Exodus 20 through the end of Deuteronomy demonstrates). In addition to this, the Moral Law (i.e. the Law that corresponds to the Covenant of Works) is mingled with ceremonial law meant specifically for the people of Israel in the context in which they lived before the coming of Christ.

Owen’s position is that Christ therefore performs a double fulfillment: 1) He fulfills the Covenant of Works ‘proper’ – that is, he keeps the Moral Law perfectly, thus serving as the perfect Substitute for our own failures and 2) He fulfills the ceremonial elements of the Law, thus causing them to cease as a requirement for obedience. On Christ’s fulfillment and abolishing of the ceremonial aspects of the fourth commandment, Owen writes,

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).

The general Puritan position was that the Moral Law (not ceremonial), in our present age, having been fulfilled by Christ, serves a threefold purpose: 1) to show us our sin and failure and thus drive us to Christ in order to seek his substitution and mercy, 2) to show us how God would govern the world (civil), and 3) as the standard of Christian living. The Christian is meant to be conformed to the image of Christ; Christ revered, honored, and kept the Moral Law; if we would be like Christ we must honor, revere, and keep the Moral Law (realizing that we will fail on account of our sinful natures, and that our actual righteousness depends wholly on the righteousness of Christ as our Representative – thus living by faith).

As a final note, in anticipation of our next and final post, it is interesting that Owen asserts the observation of the sabbath on the seventh day (not in general) as wholly fulfilled and changed. This fact is interesting because, as James Dennison notes in The Market Day of the Soul, many of the Puritans believed that the actual ‘day’ of the original Sabbath (in creation, thus in the Covenant of Works) could not be known because God does not specify which day is the seventh day of creation. The day of the sabbath of the Mosaic covenant is clear, for God gave a double portion of manna to the children of Israel on a certain day, mandating the sabbath on the day that followed (Ex. 16:5). (It is interesting to note, however, that the sixth and seventh days represented in Exodus 16 predate the establishment of the ‘seventh’ day in Exodus 20. It seems the day was already clear and set). On account of this idea, Dennison argues, many of the Puritans held that the important principle of the sanctification of the Sabbath in Genesis is that ‘one day in seven’ be set apart for worship, not that the ‘one day’ be a specific day. We only observe the sabbath on the first day in the present age because it was the tradition of the apostles, not because of some other biblical/theological principle. Owen, however, departs from this line of reasoning, and sees the origin of the Sabbath on the seventh day and its change to the first day as supremely significant. We will look at that fact in the next post in this series.

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