How I Resolved the Sabbath Issue

The fourth commandment is part of the Law of God, was regulative under both Old and New Covenants, but how is it to be practiced?

The fourth commandment is part of God’s moral law binding all generations.  I try to avoid unnecessary work on the Sabbath.  I try to avoid shopping at Wal-mart on the Sabbath.  I try to avoid eating out on Sunday.  I try to go to both morning and evening worship services on Sunday.  However, I do not spend the “whole day” exercising private and public worship and doing deeds of necessity and mercy.

 

 

I appreciate Professor Evans’ recent contribution on the issue of how we should keep the Sabbath.  Twenty-five years ago, as a PCA minister, I took an exception to the strict language in the Westminster Confession as a member of Westminster Presbytery of the PCA.  I did not believe I was capable of spending the “whole time” (WCF XXI: 8) in public and private worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy.  In my opinion, a nap on Sunday was forbidden.  I did forbid my children from playing organized sports on Sunday, and I always promoted two worship services on Sunday in my Church as a way to keep the Sabbath holy and separate from the other days of the week.

As a side note, as an older man, I do recall the days before television and Wal-Mart.  I remember in my small home town as a young person when there was no television, no newspaper delivery on Sunday, no Wal-mart, and no fast food places.  Life was not any easier then, but the theology of the Sabbath was.

I appreciate all of the theological perspectives (creation verses mosaic hermeneutic), and I believe they have a place in the debate.  From the my own perspective, I do believe that the fourth commandment is part of the Law of God and is regulative today under the New Covenant as well as under the Old Covenant.

However, the only way to deal with the issue adequately is to go to the central passage in the Scriptures from which arises the strict view, commonly called the Puritan view, as opposed to other broad views. The real issue boils down to handling Isaiah 58:13, “If because of the Sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word….”  This is accompanied with numerous blessings if the people will obey.  If we don’t deal with this text, then with most of my neo-Puritan friends, all arguments are null and void.

Another side note is how it confuses me that the evangelical world supports Chick – Fil –A, and their hallmark is not only their good food, but they are closed on Sunday.  Also, watching the Olympics, the theme music from “Chariots of Fire” was played constantly in the background, and yet how many people remember that the theme of the story was not participating in Olympic games on the Lord’s Day?

Upon first glance, it appears that the Westminster Confession summarizes well Isaiah 58: 13-14.  It speaks to one’s own thoughts and words, and surely this refers to recreation and television.  Once, it seemed so obvious to me, but after studying the fourth commandment itself over and over, and after preaching through the Book of Nehemiah, I reconsidered the traditional interpretation of the Westminster Divines in regard to this text.

The context of Isaiah 58 is not very helpful.  When the local context fails then we must move on to the broader contexts.  The very broad Old Testament context as a whole may be the best context.  For example, reading the fourth commandment itself, the main issue is resting, and not working or requiring anyone else to work on the Sabbath day.  As another example, in Nehemiah 13:15, the conflict in the new Jerusalem was over “treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.”  The Old Testament context as a whole applied to Isaiah 58 does not lead us to interpret personal words, thoughts, and pleasures as referring to recreation and free time.  The real issue is work that leads to and includes buying and selling on the Sabbath.

Bringing that hermeneutic to Isaiah 58, I believe the pleasure, the words, and the thoughts are speaking directly to the joy of making money on the Sabbath by both working (treading the wine) and exchanging goods in Jerusalem.  In other words, the joy of making lots and lots of money on the Sabbath permeated their thoughts and words, and was the source of their pleasure.  In Isaiah’s culture (a little like my childhood culture) there were no football games and Internet access on Sunday, but there was the opportunity to use the Sabbath to make a lot of money which turned their thoughts, words, and deeds away from the worship of God to mammon.

So, in conclusion, the fourth commandment is part of God’s moral law binding all generations.  I try to avoid unnecessary work on the Sabbath.  I try to avoid shopping at Wal-mart on the Sabbath.  I try to avoid eating out on Sunday.  I try to go to both morning and evening worship services on Sunday.  However, I do not spend the “whole day” exercising private and public worship and doing deeds of necessity and mercy.  Sometimes I watch “Downton Abbey” on PBS, and sometimes I fall asleep watching golf – and I don’t feel guilty about it at all!

Larry Ball is an honorable retired Teaching Elder in the PCA living in Fleming Island, Fla.  He works now as a CPA.