Do Reformed Christians Confess the Sabbath?
by R. Scott Clark
Justin Taylor has posted material by Tom Schreiner, from a forthcoming book, who argues, “I do not believe the Sabbath is required for believers now that the new covenant has arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.” He considers the sabbath purely as a Mosaic institution. This is evident when he says, “We would expect the Sabbath to no longer be in force since it was the covenant sign of the Mosaic covenant, and, as I have argued elsewhere in this book, it is clear that believers are no longer under the Sinai covenant.” If we granted the premise, that the sabbath is a Mosaic institution, Schreiner might be correct. He wants to do to the sabbath what Baptists do to circumcision and infant initiation into the visible covenant community: make it purely Mosaic and thus expired with the Mosaic (old) covenant. Unfortunately for the Baptists, circumcision/infant initiation into the visible covenant community is not purely Mosaic. God instituted infant initiation under ABRAHAM, the father of all New Covenant believers (Rom 4; Gal 3).
A similar issue exists with the attempt to make the sabbath purely or even primarily Mosiac. It isn’t.
It is interesting that the same lot of people who are going to the mat for 6-24 creation (I’m thinking of Al Mohler here) seem to miss the primary message of Gen 1: God sanctified (i.e., made holy) one day out of seven as a matter of creational order. The creation narrative culminates in the Sabbath, which was a testimony to Adam of his eschatological heritage should he fulfill the probation. The Mosaic law itself, in Exod 20:8, testifies to the creational origin of the Sabbath principle. God worked six days and “rested” the Sabbath. On the basis and example we too are to work and rest.
Schreiner anticipates this problem briefly by writing, “Some argue against what is defended here by appealing to the creation order. As noted above, the Sabbath for Israel is patterned after God’s creation of the world in seven days. What is instructive, however, is that the New Testament never appeals to Creation to defend the Sabbath.”
Well, one has to be careful as to which sorts of hermeneutical swords one wields since they do cut both ways. On this approach Schreiner should give up believer’s baptism since there’s no explicit command to baptism only professing believers. Of course his conviction that only believer’s should be baptized is an inference. So it is with the Sabbath in the new covenant.
Here are some points to consider:
1) Jesus does not abrogate the creational sabbath principle. He does renew the creational order in marriage. We (confessional Reformed folk) infer that the entire creational order is renewed. It’s true Jesus didn’t specifically say “I’m renewing the creational Sabbath.” It’s also true that he didn’t say, “Look, that was then, this is now” as our nine-commandment predestinarian Baptist friends would like us to assume. Indeed, most of the the rest of Schreiner’s argument is question begging, i.e., it assumes what it must prove. If one doesn’t accept Schreiner’s premises then we don’t have to accept his conclusions.
2) Is there any evidence for a pattern of creational renewal in the NT? Yes, of course there is! As Schreiner notes, Jesus re-instituted the creational pattern for marriage (Mark 10). Paul appealed to creation regarding sexual ethics and for other purposes (Rom 1-2) and he appealed to the creational pattern regarding females and ecclesiastical leadership (1 Tim 2). The question is whether these appeals are isolated or whether they create a pattern. The Reformed say that they create a pattern and our nine-commandment Baptist friends want us to take them in isolation. So, if a creational element is not specifically, invoked then it doesn’t exist? Is that the hermeneutical principle we’re to follow? Can we live with this? The Reformed have ALWAYS said “No, we can’t live with this.”
Schreiner begins to acknowledge that there is a “new creation” pattern in Scripture. Doesn’t the new creation renew the old creation or does it, as the Anabaptists said, obliterate the old creation? The Reformed understanding of nature (creation) and grace is that grace restores creation. This is a semi-eschatological age, not the eschaton. The renewal is begun but not consummated. Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated the new creation (Col 1; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). Does the new creation have no work/rest (Sabbath)? Is there no place for anticipating the consummation? Perhaps our 9-commandment Baptist friends don’t see the point of anticipation?
3) What is the nature of the moral law? Is it such that the principle of the law, the essence of the law can be treated the way Schreiner treats the Sabbath? He wants us to make the Sabbath purely internal, purely symbolic, with no external, necessary, behavioral modifications. Let’s try that with the other commandments. Can we do it with the first or the second. May we set up a Hindu god and use it to facilitate our approach to Jesus in prayer? I guess we would all agree that we can’t do that. May we keep the seventh commandment in the way that Schreiner wants us to keep the fourth commandment? I doubt that he would be satisfied with such an approach. No, ordinarily we expect that adherence to the seventh commandment will be reflected in our outward behavior. It’s not enough to think of one’s wife while one is committing adultery. One must actually refrain from committing adultery in heart, mind, and body. Why not also a bodily obedience to the Sabbath principle by setting aside one day in seven for rest, worship, and acts of mercy?
4) Underlying Schreiner’s approach to both the Baptism and Sabbath questions is a very large but often unstated a priori conviction about the nature of the new covenant. More on this later. If this conviction about the new covenant fails then not only does Schreiner’s view of the Sabbath fail but so does much of the Baptist argument.
5) The history of the sabbath is more complicated than Schreiner lets on. See the chapter on this in RRC.
6) It’s interesting to see where the Young, Restless, and Reformed fellows depart from the Reformed confession. What exactly in the Reformed confession animates them? So far as I can tell the only aspect of the Reformed confession that they really like is the doctrine of divine sovereignty (predestination and providence). Everything else seems to be negotiable. They don’t accept our hermeneutic (covenant theology). They don’t seem much animated by our Trinitarian doctrine of God, our anthropology (do they even think about the covenant of works?), our Christology (two natures, federalism). They seem divided over the Reformed doctrine of justification (even though the confessions are unanimous), and certainly they reject our ecclesiology (including our confession of the sacraments). So it shouldn’t be surprising to see them rejecting the Reformed confession of the law of God.
The YRR are (less) young (than they were a few years ago), and certainly restless (perhaps it’s their amnesia?) but what exactly qualifies them as “Reformed?” The Reformed churches all confessed and practiced the Christian Sabbath. The Germans, the French, the Dutch, the English, the Scots all set aside one day a week on the basis of the creational pattern and on the basis of the resurrection of our Lord on the first day of the week. This is a significant difference. Is the adjective “Reformed” endlessly elastic? Can it be made to say any and everything that the YRR fellows want to say? What happens if they decide that the Bible teaches that Jesus had only one nature or that God is one person or some other heresy against the holy catholic faith? Will that then become the new “Reformed” orthodoxy?
Of course, the way many ostensibly “Reformed” churches practice the Sabbath today one cannot be entirely surprised that our erstwhile “Reformed” revisionist friends are confused. Perhaps if we were more faithful to what we confess, our evangelical friends might have a better example to follow? After all, the Westminster Standards are unambiguous about this as was the Synod of Dort but hey, what did they know about being Reformed?
Perhaps no one needs a Sabbath rest more than our Young, Restless, and “Reformed” friends?