Volume 12, Issue 2: Stauron
The "Lord's Day," Sunday, is held by many as the Christian Sabbath. However, this belief is far from universal, nor was it a unanimous doctrine among Reformation churches centuries ago.
Many believers today own their theology of the Sabbath commandment by osmosis, meaning that they heard an explanation about it in a sermon once, or have a vague recollection of a catechism question that said . . . "something." But if they were asked what they believe, few could respond well. Fewer could defend why. If our minds haven't been opened to understand scripture clearly on this point, then we shouldn't be surprised to find erratic, mechanical, and half-hearted Sabbath practice in our churches.
The Augsburg Confession (1530), approved by Luther, denies "the change of the Sabbath into the Lord's day" (Pt. II, Art.VII). It affirms that "they that think that the observation of the Lord's day was appointed by the authority of the Church, instead of the Sabbath, as necessary, are greatly deceived." The Confession explains that although the gospel "abrogated the Sabbath," a meeting day for the church was still required, and in the spirit of Christian liberty, Sunday became the convention of choice by early saints.
Calvin echoes the sentiments of Augsburg. He maintained that "the Sabbath has been abrogated" and that Christ's coming abolished the Sabbath because He was its "true fulfillment." He warns against a Judaistic observance of days, yet holds to abstinence from manual tasks, not with a scrupulousness toward "honoring mysteries," but only inasmuch as these manual tasks become diversions from public worship, private sacred studies and meditations (Institutes: Bk.II, Ch.VIII).
Other continental European sources repeat this Sabbath doctrine. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566), written by Henry Bullinger, Zwingli's successor, holds against a Sabbatarian approach to, but for a "free observation" of, the Lord's Day "not accounting one day to be holier than another" (Art. XXIV). Sunday observance is again seen as mere human convention for ordering the public worship, and not as a divine moral commandment.
Where much of continental Europe was consciously anti-Sabbatarian, Anglo-American sources were conspicuously different, the most notable being the Westminster Confession of Faith(1647) [Ch.XXI, 7 & 8], and Catechisms (e.g., see Qu. 59 & 60 of Shorter C.). These teach that God's Word set aside a Sabbath, by a perpetual moral commandment "binding all men in all ages." The Sabbath was changed [by God] from the seventh day to the first day, and is to be observed "to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath." The Catechism enjoins believers to sanctify the Sabbath by "holy resting all that day" and "to spend the whole time" in either public or private worship.
The New Testament, contrary to the claims of many, is not silent on this. Jesus taught more about the Sabbath commandment than any of the other nine! Christ Himself was anti-Sabbatarian-but only if Sabbatarian means being legalistic. Christ clearly held to a Sabbath. He taught that He is Lord of the Sabbath (Mk. 2:28), and said that a weekly Sabbath would perpetuate beyond His death (Matt. 24:20). He also pointed out that the Sabbath was created for man (not just Jews). Why? Was it only to give regular vacation days and assure frequent public worship? According to Scripture there is far more.
Romans 10:4 instructs: "Christ is the end of the law." This necessarily includes the Sabbath. Here, "end" does not mean the annihilation of the law. Rather the Greek word "telos" is synonymous with "goal" or "purpose" (cf. Matt. 5:17). Jesus opened the minds of His disciples after His resurrection, showing that all of Scripture finds its meaning in Him (Lk. 24:44). How so the Sabbath?
Perhaps one reason that some fail to see the change of the Sabbath to the Lord's day is that they miss God's unfolding of the Sabbath in the Old Testament. Of course, God sanctified the Sabbath and rested from His work of creation (Ex. 20:11). God's people observed the Sabbath before Moses received the Ten Commandments at Sinai (Ex.16:26). Forty years later, as Israel stood poised to enter the Promised Land, they received these commandments again. This time God's sanctification of the Sabbath is tied to His work of redemption and deliverance of Israel out of slavery (Deut. 5:15).
God told Moses to teach Israel the sign of the Sabbath. A sign points to or describes something else, not itself. Jehovah said His Sabbath is "a sign . . . to know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you" (Ex.31:13). Jesus castigated the Pharisees for sign-worshipping, a form of idolatry; but-like Moses-He taught about the sign.
Christ, by His work, His shed blood on the cross, has sanctified us positionally (Heb. 13:12). He redeemed and delivered us from our slavery to sin (Rom.6:6). We now rest from our futile quest for merit before God; rest from our evil works (Heb.4:3); and let the Lord work in us through his Spirit and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath (Is. 66:23; Heb. 4:9,11) [Heidelberg Catechism, 103].
When Jesus was raised from death, we became alive to God in Christ (Rom.6:8). He was crucified to pay for our sins, and raised for our justification (Rom.4:25). Christ rested from His work of our justification, the finishing of the new creation, the restoration of a fallen world, on Easter Sunday. The Holy Spirit lighted the world aflame with the power of this gospel on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 26:23 cf. 13:47; Gen. 1:3-5).
The Sabbath remains a sign--a sign of the gospel: Christ our sanctification. He is our Prince of Rest (Matt. 11:28, 12:8). The Sabbath points back to the cross where Christ gained our rest from our slavery to sin, followed by His resurrection, which declared His victory over death and gained our life to God. And thus it points to the eternal "glorious rest" of the Church with her Heavenly Husband (Ruth 1:9 cf. Isa. 11:10). Westminster had it right.