A Theology of the Sabbath (5): Follow-Up Questions Concerning Application

This is a follow-up to a four part series on John Owen’s doctrine of the Sabbath. The other posts will clarify the answers here. 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 (on the Sabbath in the New Covenant) HERE. For a summary list of quotations by Owen see HERE.

When I started blogging through John Owen’s treatise on the Sabbath, Brian posed several questions for discussion. I’ve kept them in mind as I’ve thought through Owen. These are my attempts to answer the questions:

  • I would love to hear your take on America’s historical “Blue Laws”, related to Owen’s thoughts.

Unless I missed it somewhere, Owen did not argue for or against state-based laws regarding the Sabbath. Reading between the lines, however, I do not think he would necessarily be for such laws (my main reason for this is the fact that he was a convinced Congregationalist, who likely would not want the government over-meddling in the affairs of the church). That’s the simple answer, let me expand it a bit.

Owen’s main case for the New Covenant Sabbath is that it is realized spiritually only as we rest and trust in Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel. The actual observance of the first day Sabbath is simply a sign and symbol pointing to that reality – Christ resting from his works, and us resting in Christ. It therefore would seem illogical to demand that pagans and atheists observe the Sabbath. It could be enforced as a law just as much as idolatry and graven images could be banned, which is not an easy task. Therefore, at least in my mind, I see the Sabbath as a wonderful opportunity to be counter-cultural. It should be one of the things that distinguishes God’s people from the world.

Now the problem with what I have just written is that the Sabbath command (in principle, not as a civil law) remains in effect for all time. This means that those who fail to honor it are sinning. Shouldn’t we therefore encourage the world not to sin in this regard? My answer to this is that we cannot do this by coercion; we need to preach the law and preach the gospel. Conversion is the answer, not coercion.

  • I would also enjoy hearing your take on pastoral recommendations to their busy flocks to take a “sabbath hour” if you cannot find time to rest for the whole day. Along those same lines, I’ve also seen the particular day extolled as entirely unimportant by some Christians, claiming that you can just take a “day of rest” or a moment of rest, whenever you find time in the week. Finally, this all would seem connected to the modern [Americans’] blatant disdain for tradition and symbolism. Can you speak to all of this?

We’ve discussed this already to a degree. The idea of a ‘sabbath’ hour is not related to the fourth commandment, which entailed one entire day each week. As for any day of the week serving as a sabbath, again I don’t think this can be justified biblically. If we observe the first day of the week as a sabbath precisely because of its connection to the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week, then we are missing the entire point by observing it on another day. If sabbath only entails rest, this could be feasible; but I’ve followed Owen in emphasizing the fact that the sabbath is not simply about physical rest. It is about resting in Christ, as he is offered in the gospel; and the first day of the week connects us to the reality of the resurrection in particular.

If you want to apply this principle to daily life, then the primary application, I think, would be that we are constantly resting and trusting in Christ. This means that we are not to be striving for acceptance with God, but that we are already accepted in Christ by faith. Living in that light honors the principle of the sabbath. It means that we can die to sin and rise from the dead anew each day as we wake from our sleep to live by the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The last thing to cover here is the simple idea of physical rest. I do not think our traditional idea of a weekend is what the Lord Jesus Christ has in mind when he calls us to rest in him. But I am reminded of an anecdote:

 At one point in the course of their very influential ministries, George Whitfield, the Calvinist evangelist, and John Wesley, the Arminian evangelist, were preaching together in the daytime and rooming together in the same boarding house each night. One evening after a particularly strenuous day the two of them returned to the boarding house exhausted and prepared for bed. When they were ready each knelt beside the bed to pray. Whitfield, prayed like this, “Lord we thank Thee for all of those with whom we spoke today, and we rejoice that their lives and destinies are entirely in Thy hand. Honor our efforts according to Thy perfect will. Amen.” He rose from his knees and got into bed. Wesley, who had hardly gotten past the invocation of his prayer in this length of time, looked up from his side of the bed and said, “Mr. Whitefield, is this where your Calvinism leads you?” Then he put his head down and went on praying. Whitefield stayed in bed and went to sleep. About two hours later Whitefield woke up, and there was Wesley still on his knees beside his bed. So Whitefield got up and went around the bed to where Wesley was kneeling. When he got there he found Wesley asleep. He shook him by the shoulders and said to him, “Mr. Wesley, is this where your Arminianism leads you?”

Who correctly applied the principle of rest before work?

Lastly under this heading, let’s speak to modern America’s ‘disdain for tradition and symbolism.’ America is a strange contradiction here. In some sense, modern folk love tradition and symbolism. We love holidays. We’re fresh off the heels of halloween; there’s certainly a lot of tradition and symbolism there. Same goes for the fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day etc. We have a weekly rhythm of five days of work and two off. There is certainly some tradition and symbolism involved in that (TGIF).

The thing that leaps out at me, however, in these symbols and traditions that American’s love is that we have weighed them down with our own baggage. The Fourth of July means fireworks; Valentine’s Day means candy and roses; St. Patrick’s Day means green and beer. We love the weekend because it means time off from work, time to party, hang out, whatever. What we really hate are symbols and traditions that are not about us and our self-fulfillment, especially blatantly religious traditions and symbols which resist being re-branded. We’ve tried it with the sabbath – we call it the weekend. The problem is that a day or two off from work does not offer man the rest that he truly needs. Physical rest pales to the deep rest of the soul in Christ.

  • I would also like to hear what you think about calling it the “Sabbath” vs “The Lord’s Day.”

Owen called it both, and I have no problem with that. The Lord’s Day title is more of a traditional title since it’s hard to argue that ‘Lord’s day’ spoken of by John in Revelation was necessarily the first day of the week. It may very well have been, but it’s hard to sustantiate beyond doubt. That does not mean, however, that we cannot use the title with confidence.

Pieper (in Leisure) argues that the sabbath is akin to the temple in that it is cut off specifically for the service of the Lord. The temple was cut off geographically; the sabbath is cut off chronistically (you could say chronologically I suppose). It is the Lord’s day in that sense. Jesus also calls himself ‘Lord of the Sabbath,’ which at least means that he asserts ownership over it.

The issue here is that we are pretty much afraid to use the term ‘sabbath’ today, because we have a distinct sense that we do not observe the first day of the week in that way. If that’s true, then the term ‘Lord’s Day’ could serve as a cop-out, and we don’t want that. Which means that we need to remind people that the day actually does belong to Christ in a special sense in comparison to all other days. He is the Lord of time, but he claims special ownership over the day of his resurrection. And if Owen’s doctrine is correct, this is vital to our spiritual well-being.

0 comments

  1. BC Cook says:

    Thank you very much for your responses here. I especially liked this bit:

    “What we really hate are symbols and traditions that are not about us and our self-fulfillment, especially blatantly religious traditions and symbols which resist being re-branded. We’ve tried it with the sabbath – we call it the weekend. The problem is that a day or two off from work does not offer man the rest that he truly needs. Physical rest pales to the deep rest of the soul in Christ.”

    To comment further on the issue of Blue Laws, I agree with your reasoning on why we wouldn’t want to involve the government where it ought not to be, nor would we want to chain pagans to a practice that has no meaning to them. Unfortunately, the flip side to this, is that without Blue Laws the Sabbath is no longer protected for those who DO desire to practice it.

    Almost any job I’ve ever worked has made it clear in the interview process that I could not have Sundays off. Whether they are doing this simply b/c alot of revenue is generated in weekend sales, or b/c they specifically have it out for the Sabbath, I couldn’t say exactly. What I can say, is that modern business practices do not respect Christian tradition, and do not seem to fear the same kind of legal action in discrimination as they would if they didn’t respect the convictions of other “special interest groups”.

    • Heath says:

      I’ve had that experience myself. It’s definitely something that is hard to avoid and I have great sympathy for anyone who is put in that position – and I always tell people so.

      It makes that heroic stand of Eric Liddell seem all the more heroic. It would take a concerted effort by Christians – perhaps a mass movement – of standing up for the Lord’s Day to make such moves seem plausible these days. But it’s hard to have any such concerted effort when we have totally lost any doctrine of the Sabbath to begin with. Hence the reason for making sure we actually teach about it.

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