Friday, October 15, 2010

Should Christians Keep the Fourth Commandment?

In a word: YES!

Justin Taylor posted an excerpt from Dr. Tom Schreiner's forthcoming book 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law on whether keeping the fourth commandment (i.e. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," Ex. 20:8) is required for New Testament Christians. Dr. R. Scott Clark responded by pointing out the fundamental hermeneutical/confessional assumptions that have historically separated the baptists from the Reformed on this and other issues (like baptism). Nick Batzig responded by posting part of Francis Turretin's excellent section on the fourth commandment. What follows are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

Each year I pick a topic as an emphasis for private study. Last year, sparked by reading Dr. R. Scott Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice and having recognized the need during my ordination exams, I chose to study Reformed worship. That immediately led me to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). The RPW states that "the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture" (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1). In other words, in order for worship to be acceptable, it must be regulated by God's word. God should only be worshiped in the way that he has prescribed. No other worship is acceptable.

As you can see, the RPW cannot be properly understood without distinguishing worship from the rest of life, that which is sacred from that which is common. Otherwise we could only do what the Bible prescribes in all areas of life, which is neither taught in Scripture nor practically possible. This distinction between the sacred and the common led me quite naturally, so to speak, to a study of the Sabbath. If a particular action is set apart by God as sacred (i.e. worship), why not also a particular time (i.e. the Sabbath day)?

My first serious exposure to the doctrine of the Sabbath came by way of R. Scott Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession. Next I read, Dr. Richard Gaffin's excellent article "Westminster and the Sabbath," which may be found in the first volume of The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century edited by Ligon Duncan. From there I read Dr. Gaffin's excellent master's thesis on Calvin and the Sabbath: The Controversy of Applying the Fourth Commandment. Then I turned to Dr. Iain Campbell's On the First Day of the Week: God, the Christian, and the Sabbath, followed immediately by Dr. Joseph Pipa's The Lord's Day. Next I read The Westminster Directory of Public Worship and Dr. Jon Payne's excellent book In the Splendor of Holiness: Rediscovering the Beauty of Reformed Worship for the 21st Century, which includes an appendix on the Sabbath. I also read some excerpts from Jonathan Edwards, which helped me to see the vital connection between the first table of the moral law and the Reformed worship/sabbath doctrine. Next my friend Nick Batzig introduced me to Francis Turretin on the fourth commandment. Finally, I read Lane Keister's "The Sabbath Day and Recreations on the Sabbath: An Examination of the Sabbath and the Biblical Basis for the 'No Recreation' Clause in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8 and Westminster Larger Catechism 117" published in volume 5 (2009) of The Confessional Presbyterian.

I am so thankful for all these works on the Sabbath. Each author has his own emphases and ways of arguing that have helped me tremendously. But Francis Turretin has shown me the source of the confusion surrounding the fourth commandment better than anyone else: The fourth commandment is essentially moral, but it includes a ceremonial aspect. The essence of the commandment is "one day in seven." The ceremonial aspect is the particular day, whether Saturday or Sunday.

Here's why this is the source of confusion regarding the Sabbath:

  1. If one understands the fourth commandment as wholly ceremonial, he will believe it was abrogated with the coming of Christ. This is the typical baptist view, which Schreiner holds. One major problem with this view is that the ten commandments become nine.
  2. On the other hand, if one understands the fourth commandment as wholly moral, he will be a seventh-day adventist. The problems with this view should be obvious.
  3. But if one understands the fourth commandment as essentially moral with a ceremonial aspect he will believe that the moral essence continues to be binding forever, while the ceremonial aspects were abrogated with the coming of Christ. This is the Reformed view.

Only the ceremonial aspect (e.g. Saturday observance) of the commandment was abrogated with the coming of Christ, along with all the ceremonial law. This is what Paul argues against in Col. 2:16-20, Rom. 14:5-6, and Gal. 4:9-11. But the moral essence of the commandment remains. In the New Testament this law is no longer applied on the last day of the week but on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2), the day of Christ's resurrection (Jn. 20:1), the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10).

Dr. Schreiner's view represents the most popular view in the U.S. today. It is the view I was taught in the baptist churches in which I grew up. It is also the view adopted by the neo-Calvinists that Collin Hansen has labeled "young, restless, and reformed" (YRR). I love my YRR brothers, so I'm happy to share this piece of good news from the Reformed confession: You need not be restless! God has appointed one day in seven for a holy rest. Obey him for your good and his glory.


Randy in Tulsa said...

Amen; excellent post. After my wife and I came to this conviction a year ago, I have thought how our communities and nation would change for the better if the church obeyed this commandment as defined in the Westminster standard. Why doesn't the reformed church lead the way, instead of so easily conforming to the culture? Thank you for taking a stand.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Thanks Randy. I fear Reformed churches are not leading the way because they are being led by men who have not been taught well. They have no ground on which to stand against the tide of pagan sensibilities.