A Sabbath Thought

At Immanuel, we’re diving into a Sunday night teaching series on the fourth commandment. My plan is to work from the beginning of the Bible to the end, studying each passage where Sabbath is mentioned. Should be fun.

So here’s the thought that’s been echoing in my head: do we, the proponents of Sabbath-keeping, approach the fourth commandment in a way that denies our need for grace to obey it?

Let me explain. In studying the first three commandments, our church has repeatedly seen how far short of God’s law we fall and has been brought to fresh repentance through the law. None of us would dream that we can honor God’s name simply by trying a little harder and making a good list. All of us acknowledge that we sinfully tend to worship anything and everything other than God. But it seems to me that when we approach Sabbath-keeping, the natural thing is to teach it and practice it like something we’re able to do apart from God’s grace and mercy. We teach the fourth commandment in these terms: “make your list of do’s and don’ts and keep it.” And even if we don’t say it outright, we may often give the impression that here is a commandment you are able to obey all by yourself.

This becomes particularly problematic when we run into the way Jesus uses the law. To those who thought they’d never killed anyone, he revealed our hateful heart of murder. To those who claimed innocence from adultery, he revealed our adulterous hearts of lust (Mt. 5:21ff). By showing the real depth and limits of the law, Jesus shows how the law was always meant to be a tutor, driving us to the Messiah for salvation (forgiveness and sanctification). But each of the commandments are meant for this, each are designed to rid us of our self-righteousness and drive us to Jesus. Except, it would sometimes seem, for the fourth commandment.

Here’s a stab at diagnosis: we often fail to understand the heart of Sabbath-keeping and therefore manage to keep it wrapped up in self-righteousness. The heart of Sabbath-keeping is resting in God. It’s not not working. It’s not morning and evening worship. It’s not keeping the t.v. off or taking good naps. It’s resting in God, trusting him, delighting in him, being at peace in his mercy, turning our hearts and eyes (not just our schedules) to heaven, where Jesus is. This is something I definitely can’t do by myself.

Which is where true obedience must begin.

One Comment

  1. Tim Bloedow December 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    i have seen so much free-for-all that isn’t even fenced in by the Westminster Standards’ parameters for acceptable Sabbath practice, and what seems to be a real fear of any discussion of “lists” due to legalism, that has sent the pendulum way over on the other side.

    The problem with this is that if there is free for all, and you have people in a congregation who have a historic Biblical understanding of what glorifies God and is appropriate worship, and they see regular obvious violations – going to restaurants, forcing others to work by serving you, or whatever it might be – then right behaviour, or “list-thinking” becomes the natural dominant aspect of discussing the issue as people in the pew try to do the work of dscipleship and winning people over from elementary offences. Until these things are addressed in circles where subordinate standards are appropriately esteemed, it is natural and I would say not improper, to focus on “list-thinking”. And so you end up with the opposite effect than what was hoped for by those who try to dismiss any kind of list-thinking. The attitude obviously has to translate into real-world actions, but only when there is some semblance of homogeneity with recognized parameters for acceptable behaviour, can those particulars become natural and inoffensive to others and set more in the background as people refocus on the primary attitudinal heart perspective.

    Something else that disturbs me in the way Sabbath observance is taught is using the externals-heart distinction. That’s a lame distinction at best, especially when treated as the only real distinction. Some externals are good and proper regardless of your heart. To make the point, a conflicted nudist would be expected to dress for church whether or not he yet felt in his heart that nudism was wrong. Yet with this treatment of externals as a synonym for legalism, I’ve noticed that congregations, as long as they are conforming to the letter of the subordinate standards and regulative principle, do very little if anything about addressing externals that are offensive to godly workship such as exhortations to arrive and be seated on time, modest dress, exhortations to attend both/all Sabbath services that the Church believes God has called them to hold on Sunday, etc. All these things have Scripture or good and necessary inference to support them, but we act as though we treat the subordinate standards as higher than Scripture when we make sure that we honour them, but treat other expressions of a heart attitude that celebrates God’s holiness – or the lack thereof – as discretionary and voluntary and of lesser consequence.

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