DayOne incorporating the Lord's Day Observance Society
"The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath"
Mark 2 v 27
Avoiding Legalism in our Sabbath-keeping
Iain D Campbell
The position of Day One regarding the abiding validity of the fourth commandment is essentially the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states that God, ‘by a positive, moral and perpetual commandment binding men in all ages....has appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him’ (WCF 21.7). This day of rest and worship was, in the Old Testament, appointed on the last day of the week, but is now, by virtue of Christ’s resurrection, appointed on the first day of the week.
This position recognises that some things did change from Old to New Testaments, while other things remain the same. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and to keep it, and to set us an example in keeping it too. The new birth results in a new heart, on which the commandments have been written, and in which there is a new impulse to obey God out of a willing love and in devoted service.
Not everyone agrees with this position, of course, but let’s leave that for the moment. Even when we have granted the principle that the fourth commandment continues to be relevant, and that the Lord’s Day is God’s new holy day, how are we keep it holy? And how are we to avoid the peril of legalism in deciding what may or may not be done on the Lord’s Day?
I suspect that for most Christians, this is the most challenging issue. Much of what Jesus said about the Sabbath he said in the context of arguing with the Pharisees who had become over-scrupulous in their attempt to keep the commandments. As a result, they accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath when he healed, or when he performed some other miracle.
The question for us then becomes - how can we ensure that our Sabbath-keeping is like that of Jesus, and not like that of the Pharisees? How can we avoid being legalistic and Pharisaic in our Sabbath observance?
Perhaps we need to begin with definitions. If something is ‘legal’, that means either that it concerns the law or that it is permitted by the law. ‘Legalism’ is the term that is used when someone is more concerned about the strict letter of the law rather than its spirit.
We can illustrate this by Jesus‘ interaction with the Pharisees in Matthew 12:1-8. Walking through cornfields on a Sabbath day, the disciples of Jesus began to pluck the corn and eat it. The Pharisees accused them of being Sabbath-breakers. With a reference to David’s eating of consecrated bread, Jesus effectively accused them of hypocrisy; being over-zealous in their apparent observance of the Sabbath, they had no interest in the main reason for the Sabbath provision.
In commenting on this passage, John Calvin says that ‘The keeping of the Sabbath was, indeed, a holy thing, but not such a manner of keeping it as they imagined, so that one could scarcely move a finger without making the conscience to tremble’ (Harmony of the Evangelists, Vol. 2, p46). Calvin further observed that ‘It is the invariable practice of hypocrites to allow themselves liberty in matters of the greatest consequence, and to pay close attention to ceremonial observances’.
It is interesting to note that in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees he does not argue that the Sabbath should not be observed, or that observing it was wrong. It is not legalism to keep the Sabbath holy, any more than it is legalism to obey one’s parents or be faithful to one’s spouse. Law-keeping is simply obedience, and we ought to obey God. Disobedience is law-breaking, and law-breaking is sin.
The reason we need the gospel of Christ’s grace is because we are all law-breakers, guilty of disobedience to God. Paul recognised that all his attempts to obey God scrupulously were of no advantage to him until he came to rest in Jesus Christ for his salvation (Philippians 3:7-9). But once he did, he loved to obey God, and to keep his commandments.
When it comes to observing the Sabbath, we have a positive command to ‘keep it holy’; which is every bit as powerful as the other element of the fourth commandment, the injunction to work on the other six days. It is not legalism to obey God’s law.
So when does law-keeping - which is right - become legalism - which is wrong? Let me suggest some things.
First, we become legalistic when we add to the commandment of God. That was the essence of the Pharisees’ fault: in order to keep the Sabbath holy, they catalogued the things that were permissible and the things that were forbidden on the Sabbath day. But that is immediately to open the door to a legalistic view of the Sabbath, and to make our commands equal to the command of God.
Second, we become legalistic when our scrupulousness in obeying the commandment becomes more important than the commandment itself. It is possible to lose sight of the simple injunction to keep the Sabbath day holy by being over-zealous in what we will or will not do on God’s day. The Pharisees insisted that the Sabbath was being broken because corn was being eaten, without thinking that the eating of the corn was necessary to the observance of the day.
Third, we become legalistic when our observance of the Sabbath becomes a source of satisfaction to us. Paul was very satisfied with his own law-keeping before he was born again. If we can rest easy at night because of what we have done, or have not done, on the Sabbath, we are on the legalism road.
Fourth, we become legalistic when we decide how others should observe the Sabbath. We become over-zealous not only about our own keeping of the law, but critical of the behaviour of others on the Sabbath. Our conscience, however, can never be the standard for someone else’s behaviour. Indeed, it cannot always be trusted as the standard for our own. The only rule to direct us in life is God’s Word. It is one thing to suggest what might help in sanctifying the Lord’s Day; it is something else to insist that our way of doing it is the only way!
Fifth, we become legalistic when we become more concerned about offending people than about offending God. Often Jesus pinpointed this fault in the Pharisees’ religion, that they did things ‘to be seen by others’ (Matthew 6:5). Too much Sabbath observance is designed to please others. We do things that others like, and avoid things that others do not like, simply to win their approval.
Sixth, we become legalistic when Jesus is not at the centre of our Sabbath observance. ‘Out of Christ,’ says Calvin, ‘the bondage of the law is wretched’ (Harmony, vol 2, p51); and so too is the bondage of keeping one day in seven holy.
This will always be a difficult issue, for two reasons. First, because not everything in the Bible is equally clear, and we must make allowances in some cases for the different ways in which other believers interpret the same Bible as us. And second, it is a difficult issue because no matter what we do in the Christian life, our stubborn, sinful, self-centred hearts will always find a reason for self-congratulation. In other words, we are all only ever five minutes away from becoming Pharisees.
But there are some things that will make for good Sabbath-keeping and will help to avoid legalism. The command is to make the day different, to keep it holy, and for God. It will help us to make God the centre of our day if we gather with his people for worship, morning and evening, to listen to his voice as the Word is preached and his name is praised. It will help us to read his Word and to read books that will lift our thoughts to Heaven.
It will help us glorify God and enjoy his day as we spend it with our families, or visit those who are unwell, or minister to the needy. It will help us sanctify the Lord’s Day to take in the beauty of his creation and enjoy our Saviour on his day. Jesus is still Lord of the Sabbath, after all.
I doubt whether we can fully enjoy God on his day if we indulge in pastimes which take our attention away from Christ and his Word. Did it really make us better Christians, for example, to watch Olympic sports, or view the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games on God’s day? I doubt it, but I must not make my view the standard for others. What I can do is lovingly share with others the things that help me see the wonder of Christ more on the first day of the week. That way, I can say about the fourth commandment as of all the others, ‘it is holy, and righteous, and good’ (Romans 7:12).
At last, the best way to avoid a legalistic Sabbath-keeping is to make sure that whatever I do on the Lord’s Day, I do in order to enjoy the Saviour and walk closely with him. Let others do what they will, or avoid what they will, I will simply enjoy the opportunities for worship and the extended quiet time that the new covenant, Lord’s Day Sabbath affords me, rejoicing in the freedom with which Christ has made me free.
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