Presbyterianism and the Sabbath

The book of Nehemiah came up in the sermon rotation and, in due time, Nehemiah 13:15-22, where Nehemiah lamented the lack of Sabbath observance by the Israelites and took corrective action. Our assistant pastor said [@ 21:11]:

"How are we to worship? ... Very clearly, [our Pastor has] said 'theologians are divided.' I happen to be on the other side, I believe that this is binding to us, this is one of the Ten Commandments..."

This position comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI:

VII. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him:[34] which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week,[35] which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's Day,[36] and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.[37]

VIII. This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their wordly employments and recreations,[38] but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.[39]

I dissent.

First, the Confession bases the positive command to keep the Sabbath on Exodus 20:8-11 -- the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Even if we ignore the larger discussion of the relation of the New Covenant to the Mosaic Covenant, the Confession ignores what St. Paul says in Romans 14:5-6a:

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.

This alone should be enough to show that Sabbath observance, as described in Exodus, is not binding on the Christian. It is permissible for the Christian to treat all days the same.

The Confession also ignores what St. Paul says in Romans 13:9-10:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

"And any other commandment" includes the Fourth Commandment in the Mosaic Covenant.

Paul provides yet more detail why love fulfills the Law in Colossians 2:16-17. Because the "substance belongs to Christ":

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Paul repeats this idea in Romans 10:4

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Now, we can argue over what τέλος means in this passage: does it mean the end of the book, or the end of the term of a contract, after which something new happens; or does it mean the goal to which all things point, in which case the thing continues completed? The second part of VII implicitly argues for the latter by claiming that the Christian Sabbath is the first day of the week. But the passages used as support by the Confession say no such thing. The Confession is reading into the text what isn't there. One could also, and with more fidelity to Scripture, argue that the disciples met on the first day of the week because that is when Jesus rose from the dead and began the first day of the new creation.

What the Confession ignores is that Christ, crucified on Good Friday, spent the Sabbath in the tomb. In "
The Parables of Grace", Capon observers:

(Sunday, for Christians, is not the sabbath; it is the First Day of the Week, the Lord's Day, Dies Dominica, celebrated in honor of the resurrection. In the Romance languages, the name for Saturday comes from the Hebrew-e.g., the Italian Sabbato; the name for Sunday comes from the Latin for Lord's Day-e.g., the French Dimanche).

Item. In the old covenant, the sabbath is a day of rest in honor of God's work of creation; in the new covenant, the sabbath becomes a day of death-the day Jesus' body lay in the tomb, the day Christ lag in Totesbanden....

The death of Jesus, therefore, is not just something that lasted through a single sabbath day in the spring of A.D. 29. Precisely because he who was dead that day was the Incarnate Lord, the Second Person of the triune God, his death is an eternal as well as a temporal fact. Jesus is not only risen forever; he is also dead forever.

This is how the substance of the Sabbath belongs to Christ. His body partook in the ultimate rest.

In Romans 6:4-5, Paul shows how this substance belongs to us:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We are united with Him in His perfectly kept Sabbath -- the one He kept in the tomb. And therefore, I also dissent from subsection VIII. We observe the Sabbath by our union with Him by faith.


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Presbyterianism: Intro

Several weeks ago in Sunday School, before class started, I was asked if I was Presbyterian. I really didn't know how to answer the question. On the one hand, I'm Calvinist in the sense that I hold to at least four of the five points of Calvinism. On some days I affirm all five and other days I affirm four1; still this basic understanding is a prerequisite to Presbyterianism. On the other hand, I've read the Westminster Confession of Faith, agree with some parts of it, disagree with others, and find myself wondering about whether or not I've read it correctly in the first place. Parsing the Westminster Confession can sometimes be as difficult as trying to understand whether or not the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution really provides for individual firearm ownership2. Words can be obtuse, readers can be obtuse, and sometimes both hold. Presbyterians may hold to the "perspicuity of Scripture"3, but the same can't be said about the Confession. To further confuse the issue, I was told recently by the pastor of a Presbyterian church that I am "more Presbyterian" than most in the congregation. He didn't mean that as an insult, but I had to ask, since I've been told that the defining characteristic of Presbyterians is that they like to argue.

So, upon recommendation, I read "
On Being Presbyterian" by Sean Lucas. Written for the laymen, it's a clue as to how Presbyterians understand the Westminster Confession and Scripture. Now, it starts well:


The gospel of the Reformation, which proclaimed that God's righteousness shall come to those who live by faith alone, fundamentally challenged the basis of medieval religion and piety. If salvation came by faith alone in Christ alone, and if this provided an effective removal of religious guilt and anxiety...

But what I find with having been around Presbyterians for some time is that, in my opinion, religious guilt and anxiety is very real. (This isn't limited to Presbyterians, but they are the focus of this series of posts). My thesis is that this is because the Westminster Confession gets several things wrong in critical areas. If orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy (as I believe the Bible affirms), then heterodoxy can lead to heteropraxy4.

Two recent examples of this deal with the doctrine of "irresistible grace". The first error is thinking that, if grace is irresistible, then not only do Christians not need to evangelize, but the elders of a congregation do not need to shepherd the flock. The response to this is, certainly, God does not need us to advance His Kingdom. As far as we know, no missionary came to Abraham. Still, God delights to work through us, imperfect though we may be. We are told to make disciples
5, elders are told to tend the flock6. The second error is thinking our falling short of living the Chrstian life -- our hypocrisy, our hardness of heart, and all of our other failings -- impede the spread of the Gospel. "They won't believe me because I fall short" denies irresistible grace. Irresistible grace should be one ingredient that calms our fears; that is does not means that doctrine and practice haven't been fully integrated.

The next several posts in this series will deal where I dissent from Presbyterianism in the areas of:
  • means of grace
  • the role of law
  • Baptism and Communion
  • Corporate Identity
  • Miscellaneous

Note that I will restrict my musings to topics covered in Lucas' book.



[1] Limited Atonement. I'm so glad we aren't saved because of our correct knowledge.
[2] If the Supreme Court decided
Heller by a 5-4 split, what hope do laymen have?
[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, I.VII
[4] We can sometimes do the right things for the wrong reasons.
[5] Matthew 28:19
[6] 1 Peter 5:1-5


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