Monday, 26 July 2010

The Sabbath: a letter to 'The Briefing'

This is the text of a letter sent to 'The Briefing' from 'Exasperated of Welwyn'. In 'The Briefing' number 381 there was an article about the Sabbath which like their articles on worship I find frustrating. This article was actually very good except for the mantra-like refrain 'not under law but under grace therefore the Sabbath is not God's law for us today'. So this letter was sent - it helps to get things off one's chest.

It may not be published in 'The Briefing' so I am putting it here as well. I am sorry if it reads like one side of a telephone conversation.

Dear Sir,

David Moore's article on the Sabbath was stimulating and helpful. In particular, the emphases on the Sabbath being primarily a spiritual day (it belongs to the Lord; it is the day when we 'do church') and eschatological in its thrust (it points to our ultimate rest in that we 'recapture a taste of Eden before the Fall', and Christ has fulfilled it) were refreshing. The suggestions on how the Sabbath may be spent were also very helpful.

In fact I could agree with so much of the article that it seemed incongruous to read at least three times, in slightly different words, the conviction that the Sabbath is not binding on us because we are 'not under law but under grace'. I know that this is more or less 'Briefing orthodoxy', and seems to be becoming orthodoxy in much of modern western evangelicalism, but it really should not go unchallenged.

There is no space here to rehearse the arguments for the continuity of the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath in particular, but perhaps I could take up a point or two starting with David Moore's article?

First - the nature of the day. Yes, primarily spiritual and eschatological in thrust. But is there not a danger of an over-realised eschatology? Is it logical to say that because Jesus has fulfilled the Sabbath it no longer binds us as law? We are not in heaven yet. We are still sinners.The truly consummated Sabbath rest is yet to come. Is it illogical to have a special day in God's law for God's people? It would seem more logical in fact to have a special day until the End comes.

Second - the authority for the day. Intriguingly David Moore seems to spend the Sabbath much as many people who, like me, believe it is an abiding divine commandment. I guess he does so on a Sunday too - as most of us do, despite all the talk about the First Day of the week not being a Sabbath or mandatory.

So the question I ask is - why? What is the authority for spending the Sabbath as the Sabbath? If it is not divine law it could be, as far as I can see, (i) convenience - it suits us; (ii) convention - we've always done it that way; (iii) consensus - agreement universally, nationally or locally that that will be the day; (iv) calculation - it pays to use that day - that is, 'it works'; or (v) commandment of men - some human authority, church or otherwise, determines that Sunday will be the day.
In what way, though, are any of these an improvement as a motive on God telling us to keep the Sabbath? I think I would prefer a Sabbath Day commanded by God to a 'Sabbath-type' day subject to the vagaries of man. The Reformers after all delighted in liberating us from the commandments of men.

What I detect behind the repeated refrain 'not under law but under grace' (which in context has of course a very rich new covenant meaning) is
(a) the idea that law and grace are somehow antithetical. Now sometimes they are; I am not under the covenant or curse or condemnation of law, for example; but I am under it as a rule of life. Why should I not include God's authority over my week as part of that? and
(b) forgetting that the spiritual person delights in the law (Psalms19:7-11; 119:97,113). Does not the heart that loves God love a duty simply because it is from God? And to obey because we love him and because he is God - is that not the essence of the spiritual life - which Adam and Eve got spectacularly wrong because they could see no evident reason for God's command?

Jesus, not we, is Lord of the Sabbath. He claimed Lordship over it; was that only for three years? Was it to abolish it? Would something good, that was made for man (Mark 2:27) be struck out of the law - quite apart from the fact that Jesus after all did say the law would abide (Matthew 5:17-21)?

These comments do not of course in themselves make the case for the First Day Sabbath, but they are important features of the debate.

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