Report of the Committee on Sabbath Matters

Presented to the Fortieth (1973) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

General Assembly reports are thoughtful and weighty treatises on important matters but they are not constitutional documents. Only the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the Form of Government, the Book of Discipline, and the Directory for the Public Worship of God of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church express the church’s official understanding of what the Word of God teaches.


The Report

The Committee on Sabbath Matters was erected by the Thirty-sixth General Assembly “to study the extent to which the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms faithfully reflect the Scripture teaching in regard to the Fourth Commandment”; and to “act as a board of inquiry with regard to the matters concerning” the complaint of Messrs. Marston, et al., against the Presbytery of Wisconsin. In connection with this complaint, the original recommendation of the Thirty-sixth General Assembly’s temporary Committee on the Complaint of Messrs. Marston, et al., and a proposed substitute to this recommendation, were referred to the Committee on Sabbath Matters. (See Minutes, 36th G.A., pp. 117–119; for the text of the complaint, ibid., pp. 11–14.)

An additional mandate to the Committee on Sabbath Matters was made by the Thirty-eighth General Assembly in which an overture from the Presbytery of Southern California was referred to the committee in which it was requested to study “the question as to whether the second ordination vow requires the acceptance of the teaching of our secondary standards regarding the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day” (Minutes, 38th G.A., pp. 12–13, 31, 125).

The committee has understood its original mandate as two-fold, one part being an exegetical and comparative study of the Scripture and the secondary standards, the other being an inquiry into the complaint against the Presbytery of Wisconsin (now the Presbytery of the Midwest). It understands the added assignment to be concerned with the force of the second ordination vow in the general area already under consideration.

The committee submits its report at this time, and presents it in three parts corresponding to the three distinct aspects of its assigned task.

I. The Teaching of Scripture in Regard to the Fourth Commandment

In respect to the first part of its original mandate, the committee begs to be excused for having refrained from an exhaustive study of the full “extent to which the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms faithfully reflect the Scripture teaching in regard to the Fourth Commandment.” The committee felt that such an inclusive study would require excessive amounts of time, and thus delay a resolution of the particular problems at issue in the complaint. The committee, therefore, focused on those aspects of Scripture teaching that were deemed to be most crucial.

Individual study assignments were made to each committee member on this scriptural and confessional portion of the committee’s mandate. Reports of the studies were made to the committee as a whole and were discussed at length. A condensed summary of these scriptural studies is given below. This summary has not been adopted by the committee, but is presented to show the light in which its adopted conclusions were made.

A. Survey of Scripture teaching on the Fourth Commandment

The survey that follows is organized to follow the progressive unfolding of God’s revelation, though certain aspects are grouped topically.

1. The Sabbath in the Pentateuch

Genesis 2:2–3. Though the word “sabbath” is not used here, God’s act of blessing and sanctifying the seventh day is cited (e.g., in Ex. 20:8–11) as the reason for Israel’s obligation to sanctify the Sabbath day.

On the seventh day of his creation week, God had finished (not merely “ended”) his creative work (verse 2a). He ceased (shabath) from doing that work; he “rested” from it.

Because he had completed his work, God blessed and sanctified the seventh day (v. 3). These verbs (barak and qadash) are intensive (Pi‘el) forms. As such, they are more than simple utterances about the day; they have constitutive force and define the day.

God thus establishes his seventh day as “my rest,” the eschatological time of perfection into which man is eventually to enter. (Cf. Ps. 95 and its exposition in Heb. 3:7–4:13, and the discussion in section 7 below.)

God’s definitive proclamation of “my rest” is not the only significance of his blessing and sanctifying the seventh day. The pattern of God’s “creation week” is meant to be an exemplar for man’s life also (Ex. 20:11). God’s proclamation is thus constitutive for man’s earthly round of existence. From the beginning, God meant each successive seventh day to be a day blessed and sanctified for man (cf. Mark 2:27–28 and the discussion in §4 below).

In other words, the weekly Sabbath is a “creation ordinance,” of significance for all men in all ages.

Exodus 16:23–30. Whether men responded to God’s initial proclamation before the time of the exodus from Egypt is unclear from Scripture. Such silence is no argument against the Sabbath’s being a “creation ordinance.” Monogamous marriage is also a “creation ordinance,” though man ignored it until Christ recalled it from oblivion.

The first mention of Sabbath observance occurs just after Israel’s departure from Egypt. The people are commanded to keep the Sabbath, both in view of their redemption from Egyptian bondage (cf. Deut. 5:15) and because the Lord is graciously providing for their physical needs as well.

Exodus 20:8–11. By the time they reach Sinai, Israel had already observed weekly Sabbaths. Now Sabbath-keeping is incorporated in the “ten words” that make up the heart of the Lord’s covenant with his people. Inclusion of the Fourth Commandment within what is surely God’s unchanging moral law certainly suggests that Sabbath observance is part of that law.

The commandment begins, “Remember!”—an unusual verbal form (infinitive absolute) having the force, “Always be remembering!” (Similarly, Deut. 5:12 might be paraphrased, “Always be keeping!”) It is not mere recollection or occasional keeping but active memorializing that is required.

Israel is to sanctify each succeeding Sabbath, each seventh day following six days of labor, in a pattern drawn from God’s own example (v. 11). So also, the requirement to “sanctify” (qadash in the Pi‘el) is identical in force to that in verse 11 (cf. Gen. 2:3) where God himself sanctifies the day. Israel is to imitate God in the pattern of work and rest, and in sanctifying the seventh day to constitute it a day of holiness to the Lord.

The Sabbath is a rest day, a cessation from labor. This includes physical restoration and renewal (cf. nuach, used of God’s “resting,” in verse 11, though it was shabath, or simple cessation, in Gen. 2:2–3). But the emphasis is on cessation from labor in order that the seventh day may be given unto the Lord, that it may be a “holy rest” to the Lord.

Exodus 23:12. Physical rest appears explicitly here, though only as a “common-grace” benefit to Israel’s work-animals and to foreigners. As a day of physical rest to Israel, the Sabbath is first so described in Deuteronomy 5:14, and even there is parenthetical.

Physical rest was meant to be one of the Sabbath blessings. But the main emphasis is not on physical rest, but on cessation from labor in order that active sanctification of the day might be observed.

It is sometimes suggested that the Old Testament Sabbath is a “type” of resting from sin. But the Old Testament saint, just as the New, was to “rest” from sin every day. To draw some sort of parallel between labor and sin is hardly conformed to the Fourth Commandment’s own injunction to labor for six days, which can be no “type” suggesting that God’s people should sin for that period. To see the Old Testament Sabbath as a picture of Christian “resting” from sin is to fail to do justice to the day’s positively sanctified character or to Scripture’s universal characterization of labor as honorable. Even less appropriate is it to suggest that God’s pattern in the “creation week,” of creating all things “very good” in six days and resting on the seventh, is meant to suggest that Israel’s seventh day was a rest from what is “very bad.”

Exodus 31:13–18, et al. That Israel “may know that I am the Lord your sanctifier,” God again demands that the Sabbath be kept holy (vv. 13–14). God has sanctified the day, and Israel is to sanctify it, that the Lord’s own sanctifying of the people might be known. The Sabbath thus is a means through which the Lord sanctifies his covenant people.

This was not merely a “typical” or pedagogical pointing ahead to Christ, the final Sanctifier; but was of immediate significance to Israel’s sanctification then. The “polluter” of the Sabbath was to be cut off, that the people might be purified (vv. 14–15).

As a means for the Lord’s active sanctifying, the Sabbath is also declared to be an “everlasting covenant” and “sign forever” (vv. 16–17). It is designed to draw the people to their covenant Lord, the Creator God (v. 17). As an “everlasting covenant,” the Sabbath should be expected to remain a visible “sign forever” through all history. Though its particular visible (i.e., its seventh-day) form might be changed, it should be recognizable even now as a means through which the Lord continues to sanctify his people.

To preserve the Sabbath for this purpose, nothing must interfere. Even such urgencies as planting and harvesting (Ex. 34:21), such normal activity as kindling a fire (Ex. 35:3), or gathering fuel (Num. 15:32) are forbidden. But the keeping of God’s commandments, including the Sabbath specifically, will result in real blessing to the people (Lev. 26:3).

Leviticus 19. “Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2) is the theme of this chapter. The means to that end are the commandments.

Many of the Ten Commandments are cited here. In verse 3, Israel is urged to “keep my sabbaths; I am the Lord your God.” Again in verse 30, Sabbath observance is enjoined—together with reverence for the Tabernacle (cf. Lev. 26:2), suggesting a close connection between Sabbath and public worship.

The keeping of God’s commandments is the way to holiness, not because the keeper thus makes himself holy, but because observance of these commandments is the means through which the Lord works his sanctifying grace. The Sabbath was an integral part of the Lord’s provision for sanctifying his covenant people.

Deuteronomy 5:12–15. At the close of his ministry, Moses restates the covenant. In repeating the Ten Commandments, he makes modifications partly—but not entirely—due to changes in Israel’s outward circumstances.

In the Fourth Commandment, “Remember” is now “Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it,” with the added impetus, “even as the Lord thy God commanded thee” (referring back to Sinai). A new consideration is added: “In order that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest (nuach) even as thou” (v. 14).

More significant is the new reason given: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt; and the Lord thy God brought thee out from there by a strong hand and outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord thy God commanded thee to do the Sabbath day” (v. 15). Again, Israel is referred back to Sinai, where it was God’s original “creation week” pattern that was given as the reason for sanctifying the seventh day. Without removing that reason, Moses now points also to the Lord’s delivering of the people from Egypt as an additional reason to keep the Sabbath (but cf. Ex. 20:2).

2. The Old Testament Sabbath and Public Worship

That the Lord intended a relation between the weekly Sabbath and public worship is implied in “Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary” (Lev. 19:30, 26:2). Similarly, the inclusion of Sabbath legislation along with plans for the Tabernacle conveys the same implication; rules for the sanctuary are set forth in Exodus 25:1–31:11, and Sabbath law follows in 31:12–17. These, together with the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, are given to Moses on the mountain (31:18).

Leviticus 23 summarizes legislation concerning the “appointed times of the Lord which ye are to proclaim as holy convocations” (v. 2). The first such time mentioned is the weekly Sabbath (v. 3). A “holy convocation” can only be a public gathering for worship. Clearly the Lord meant for worship to be an integral part of Israel’s Sabbath observance.

3. The Sabbath in the Prophets

Many of the references to the Sabbath by the prophets refer to the Lord’s removing this blessing as a judgment on the people. Israel refused to honor the Sabbath and despised it (Isa. 1:13–14; Amos 8:5). So the Lord, faithful to his word (Lev. 26:21ff.), gave the land a “sabbath” by exiling the people from it (2 Chron. 36:21; Lam. 1:7).

The exile was a “sabbath of sabbaths” (Hos. 2:11; Lam. 2:6; Jer. 17:2ff.). Yet before the exile, the Lord had called on the people to remember the Sabbath (Isa. 58:13–14). During the exile, Sabbath observance was maintained, being very largely the only remaining sign of the covenant available (Ezek. 20). Afterward, the Sabbath is fully restored (Nehemiah).

Isaiah 56:1–7. Eunuchs and foreigners, ceremonially excluded from the covenant nation, are urged to sanctify themselves by “doing justice and righteousness” and “keeping sabbath, not polluting it” (vv. 1–2). The eunuch could secure an “everlasting name” before the Lord (vv. 4–5). The foreigner would have joy in the Lord in the “house of prayer for all peoples” (vv. 6–7). The Sabbath was a principal means by which one might cultivate interest in the Lord.

Isaiah 58:13–14. The Sabbath was also a promise to Israel. “If thou wilt turn back thy foot from the sabbath, … and thou wilt call the sabbath a delight, … then thou shalt delight thyself upon the Lord.” Honoring the Sabbath brought victory over the world and full enjoyment of the Lord.

Isaiah 66:3. Isaiah is shown the coming grand day when “all flesh will come to worship before me, saith the Lord.” This will be “as often as each month, as often as each sabbath”—which may suggest a minimum frequency for worship today.

Ezekiel 20:10–44. The Lord recalls that “also my sabbaths I gave to them, to be a sign between me and them so as to know that I am the Lord their sanctifier” (v. 12; cf. Ex. 31:13–17). But the people polluted the Sabbath (v. 13), worshipping other gods (v. 16). The Lord exiles them (v. 23).

Yet even in exile the Sabbath continues. “Sanctify ye my sabbaths” (v. 20). The exiles need sanctifying grace, and the Sabbath provides the means for purifying the remnant that shall return (v. 40).

Ezekiel 44–46. In the ideal restored Israel of Ezekiel’s vision, the Sabbath continues its central role. Priests are commanded to “sanctify my sabbaths” (44:24); the “prince” (as a type of Christ) is to make the official sacrifices for the people on the weekly Sabbaths and other appointed days (45:17; cf. §6 below). When that ruler acts as the people’s representative, “the people of the land shall worship … on the sabbaths and new moons, before the Lord” (46:3). Worship is still an integral part of Sabbath-keeping in the new Israel.

Nehemiah. Partially fulfilling this vision of Ezekiel, the governor of the returned remnant was zealous far the Lord’s Sabbaths. He recalls that this is God’s gift (9:13–14). He warns the people to shun foreign merchants on that day (10:31) and finally bars the gate against them (13:15–18). Nehemiah also persuades the people to tax themselves for the upkeep of the official sacrifices on the Sabbaths and other appointed days (10:32–33; cf. §6 below).

Then in a prayer of unusual boldness, demanding that the Lord honor his promises, Nehemiah pleads: “Remember me, O my God, concerning this also [what he had done concerning the Sabbath], and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy” (13:22). Sanctifying the Lord’s day results in the Lord’s blessing.

Note: Further Old Testament references are dealt with in Section 6, “Colossians 2:16–17,” and Section 7, “Hebrews 3:7–4:13.” Other scattered references to the Sabbath in the Old Testament do not add appreciably to what is given above.

During the intertestamental period, the synagogue system developed. Though sometimes attributed to the developing religious practice of the Jews, it is a natural consequence of God’s own intention that public worship be a part of the Sabbath observance (cf. §2 above). By the time of Christ it is a basic aspect of the worship of the people.

4. The Sabbath in the Gospels

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the references to the Sabbath in the Gospels is the amount of attention given this subject by our Lord. Both by precept and example, Jesus devotes more attention to the Sabbath than to any other of the commandments. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such a concentration is intended to serve for our instruction even yet; that far from meaning to abrogate the Fourth Commandment, Jesus meant rather to “fulfill” (pleroō) it in the same way he “fulfilled” other commandments (particularly in the Sermon on the Mount; cf. Matt. 5:17 and the examples that follow, e.g., in vv. 21–22 where Jesus’ “fulfilling” is a purifying and expanding of the commandment to reveal its full meaning).

Matthew 12:1–8 (Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:1–5). The disciples pluck ears of grain as they walk with the Master on the Sabbath. The Pharisees challenge this “labor” and pronounce it to be “not lawful” (ouk exestin) on the Sabbath (v. 2). Jesus does not deny that labor is prohibited. But he directs the Pharisees to David’s example when he ate the shewbread, which was “not lawful” (ouk exon) either (v. 4). Our Lord goes on to mention the priests who “profane” the Sabbath by their labors and yet are guiltless (v. 5).

Clearly, Jesus is saying that what is necessary for life and necessary for worship itself is not contrary to the real meaning of the Sabbath commandment. His pointing to himself as the “one greater than the temple” (v. 6) and “Lord even of the sabbath day” (v. 8) is a declaring of his right to define what is and what is not in accord with the Sabbath.

Jesus does not at all abrogate the prohibition of labor on the Sabbath, but rather indicates that works of necessity and worship are valid parts of what it means to sanctify that day.

Matthew 12:9–13 (Mark 3:1–5; Luke 6:6–10; cf. John 9:1ff.). Having already charged the Pharisees with ignorance of Scripture and failure to show mercy (v. 7; cf. Hos. 6:6), Jesus proceeds to demonstrate the relation of mercy in practice to Sabbath observance.

In the healing of the man with the withered arm, our Lord further defines the Sabbath as a day for which works of mercy are peculiarly appropriate. After all, “it is lawful (exestin) to do good on the sabbath days” (v. 12).

Jesus has “fulfilled” the Fourth Commandment, showing that Sabbath-keeping includes works of necessity, of worship, and of mercy.

Mark 2:27–28. These two verses record a startling pronouncement by our Lord that is found in only abbreviated form elsewhere (cf. Matt. 12:8; Luke 6:5). Jesus asserts that “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (v. 27), and “therefore (hōste, “for that reason”), the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath” (v. 28).

Jesus boldly claims an authority equal to that of God who first ordained the Sabbath. And the reason for his claim lies in the Sabbath’s relation to man and in Christ’s official character as the Son of man. As our representative, he claims lordship over the Sabbath. If Jesus, as the Son of man, had such lordship over the Sabbath at that time, then as Son of man at the Father’s right hand he retains that same lordship. And Jesus’ lordship was shown in his declaring the full meaning and intent of the Sabbath—not in abrogating it.

“The sabbath was made for man,” for anthrōpos, generic mankind, and not for Old Testament Israel only. “And not man for the sabbath” refers back to man’s being “made” (egeneto) in conjunction with the Sabbath’s original constitution. Such a reference can only be to the original creation period. It is hard to see how Jesus could have placed the generation of the Sabbath and of man in such close parallel unless the Sabbath itself is a “creation ordinance.”

As Jesus explains it, the Sabbath was never meant to be a bondage upon man (so that he was made for it), but a blessing to him (it was made for him). The Sabbath was made for man, for Adam, for all men in all ages. As the Son of man, seed of the woman, the Second Adam, Christ is Lord of the Sabbath. Having declared its true purpose for his people, he continues to exercise lordship over it for the sake of his people until his return on the clouds in glory.

Luke 4:15–28 (Mark 6:2–6; cf. Matt. 13:54; John 6:59). Not only by verbal instruction but by his own example did Jesus expound on the Sabbath. It was “his custom” to be present in the synagogue on that day (v. 16). It was the custom also for a synagogue to have one man read the Scripture and perhaps explain it to the assembled congregation. This Jesus also did (v. 15).

By his example, Jesus shows the Sabbath to be a day for public assembling for worship and edification (cf. Lev. 23:3).

Luke 23:56 (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; John 20:1). Jesus’ followers certainly did not understand him to mean that the Sabbath was abolished by anything he said or did before his death. They “rested the sabbath day according to the commandment,” even refraining from the customary anointing of their Lord’s body. Only after the Sabbath do they go forth to perform this service to the Lord.

Matthew 28:1 (Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). In all four Gospels, the resurrection of Jesus is reported as having occurred on the first day of the week, or literally, “on the first [day] of the sabbath.” The same idiom (“sabbath” for “week”) occurs in John 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; cf. Luke 18:12.

Apparently the name for the seventh day had come to be used for the whole seven-day period. This suggests that for Jesus himself, for the Gospel writers, and for Paul, all of whom use the idiom, the Sabbath institution was seen not simply as designating one day for sanctified use, but as establishing the weekly cycle itself. Thus, it is the concept of the once-a-week Sabbath that is the heart of the Fourth Commandment, a “one day in seven” that governs man’s life.

John 5:1–18. When the Jews persecuted Jesus because he had healed a sick man on the Sabbath, he replied: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (v. 17). This rather cryptic saying has been explained in terms of God’s providential care over the creation, which never ceases.

In the context, however, Jesus is suggesting rather that the Sabbath is a day on which it is appropriate to do work of the sort the Father has been doing and that he is now doing. The healing of the sick man is an example. Jesus goes on to explain the work as that of giving life to the dead (vv. 21–29).

Jesus taught, therefore, that the Sabbath was a day in which both Father and Son were active to raise up a living people. As the Father had been always doing such work, so the Son continues in the same saving endeavor.

5. The first day of the week

The first day of the week takes on significance only after, and because of, the resurrection of Jesus on that day. After that first resurrection day, references to the first day are limited.

Nevertheless, to the extent that these references show the practice of the apostolic church, they are of normative force to the church now. What the church, under the direction of Spirit-led apostles, and as recorded in the Spirit-inspired Word, actually practiced is constitutive for the church’s practice in succeeding ages until the Lord returns.

The question, then, is whether the Lord of the Sabbath, either directly or by the Spirit he gave to lead his disciples into all truth, did exercise his authority over the Sabbath to change the day.

Luke 24:13–51. Besides the appearance of the resurrected Lord to the women and certain of the disciples early on that first day, Luke alone gives a record of the appearance on the road to Emmaus during that same day. To the two confused disciples, Jesus opened the Scriptures that they might understand why the Christ had to suffer and die and then enter into glory (vv. 25–27). He also showed himself to them through the breaking of bread (vv. 30, 31, 35).

After the two had returned to Jerusalem that same evening, Jesus again appeared to the group of disciples, again ate food, again opened the Scriptures to them (vv. 36–47).

It is possible that Luke then condenses several events in verses 48–52, and may not mean that all this took place on that same first day. What is certain, however, is that Jesus used this first day as a time of communion and for edification with his disciples.

John 20:19–29. In verses 19–23, John records the same evening appearance that Luke described (Luke 24:33ff.). The Lord pronounces his benediction of peace, breathes forth the Holy Spirit, and commissions his disciples with the “keys of the kingdom” (vv. 21–23).

Then John records another later appearance “eight days later”—a phrase that, in the usage then current, means one week later, and was thus also on the first day of the week. In this appearance, Jesus opens the eyes of Thomas and receives that disciple’s worship (vv. 24–29).

The most that can be said of these appearances of Jesus is that they seem to indicate his preference for the first day of the week as a day for fellowship with his disciples. It is also to be noted that the disciples themselves are found gathered on that day in these instances. And if the day of Pentecost was also on the first day of the week, as is asserted by many commentators, this would be one more indication that this day had come to be the day for assembling. Certainly, it is the only day specified on which the disciples did gather together.

Acts 20:5–12. The significance of this passage lies in the fact that it describes Christians gathered for worship, and in some detail. The assembly takes place on the evening of the first day of the week (v. 7), and on that particular day despite the fact that Paul had been in Troy for seven days.

The service included the Lord’s supper (v. 7), and was followed by a long discourse by Paul that lasted until daybreak—except for the interruption caused by Eutychus’ fall (vv. 9–11).

At the very least, this passage gives the New Testament church warrant to assemble for worship on the first day of the week rather than the seventh. As apostolic practice, it takes on normative force for us.

1 Corinthians 16:1–2. Paul here gives express command to set aside the offering (for relief of Jerusalem saints), and to do so on the first day of the week. Since he does not want to make up the collection after he reaches Corinth, his instructions here must mean that the people are to bring their portions into the assembly of believers each first day of the week.

Such presentation of offerings is a form of worship to the Lord. That it is enjoined for the first day of the week singles out that day as the day for Christian public worship.

6. Colossians 2:16–17

A proper understanding of these verses, with their express mention of “sabbath,” is crucial to a right view of the Fourth Commandment today. Since Scripture has but one primary Author, the total Scripture teaching on the Sabbath will and should “color” one’s interpretation of Colossians 2:16–17. Conversely, since this passage is itself part of Scripture’s teaching on the Sabbath, it must be allowed to “color” one’s understanding of the rest. What follows is a summary study of the passage, giving particular attention to the Old Testament antecedents of Paul’s terminology.

The context in Colossians 2. Paul’s concern is that believers may know Christ in full comfort and assurance as the sum of all they need (vv. 1–3). Though threats to such assurance exist (v. 4), Christ is the complete answer (vv. 5–7). These threats, whether part of a unified “Colossian heresy” or not, are described as “philosophy and vain deceit,” man-made “traditions,” and the “rudiments of the world” (v. 8).

Christ is the answer, because Christ is the all and has accomplished the all for us. He is God-become-man, Savior and Lord over all powers, the redeemer from sin and the source of life (vv. 8–15).

Then beginning with verse 16, Paul deals with particular concerns. Since Christ took the Old Testament “ordinances against us” (cf. Eph. 2:15) and nailed them to the cross (v. 14), the believer is now free from obligation to those Old Testament ordinances that were a “shadow” of Christ (vv. 16–17). Christ also triumphed over “principalities and powers” (v. 15), so the believer has no need to worship angels (vv. 18–19). Since the Christian is “dead with Christ,” circumcised from the “sins of the flesh” (vv. 11–14), he is not obliged to observe valueless man-made rules in a vain attempt to control the flesh (vv. 20–23).

The “shadow.” Paul says, “Let no man judge you” in regard to certain things designated “a shadow of things to come.” After all (oun, referring back to the previous verses), Christ has nailed the “ordinances against us” to the cross (v. 14); and “the body (that cast the “shadow”) is Christ’s” and is thus a present reality for believers.

The shadow is thus a prevision of Christ’s body, the body given as the final once-for-all sacrifice for sinners. There can be no elements within that shadow except such as God had ordained for the purpose in the Old Testament. Paul is not talking about man-made rules (as in vv. 20–23), but is solely concerned with that Old Testament legislation designed to point ahead to the Christ to come.

This same significance of the “shadow” is found in Hebrews 10:1 (along with other phrases similar to these in Colossians), where the context makes it clear that the Old Testament sacrificial system is the “shadow of good things to come.” Here also, it is the sacrifice of Christ that supplants once for all the shadow elements.

The elements listed in verse 16 as making up the “shadow” must be derived from, and explained in terms of, their Old Testament antecedents.

“Meat” and “drink.” If these are part of the “shadow” of which “the body is Christ’s,” what are their Old Testament origins? They cannot refer to the Mosaic dietary laws (contrary to many commentators), since there were no such laws on matters of drink. (The only rules about drink apply to priests on duty and to Nazarites [Lev. 10:9; Num. 6:3] and were not applicable to the ordinary believers to whom Paul writes.) Much less can they refer to some hyper-pious additions to the law made by overzealous Jews.

But there is an Old Testament reference to “meat” and “drink” together that does fit the requirements for a “shadow.” This reference is fairly frequent and is equivalent to Paul’s terms. Throughout the Old Testament, “meat” and “drink,” used in conjunction, consistently refer to meat-offerings and drink-offerings. For example: “And upon the prince [of the ideal Israel] shall be the obligation of the burnt offerings, and the meat (offerings), and the drink (offerings), in the feasts, and in the new moons, and in the sabbaths, in all the appointed times of the house of Israel” (Ezek. 45:17).

Similar language is used by Christ in speaking of himself: “My flesh is meat (brōsis) indeed, and my blood is drink (posis) indeed” (John 6:55), the Greek words being identical to those used by Paul. Is Christ not claiming to be the “prince” of Ezekiel’s vision and his offering of himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrifices?

There is no other meaning for these two words in Colossians 2:16 that fits the meaning of the “shadow,” and is thus drawn from the Old Testament, except that which understands them as referring to meat- and drink-offerings.

“Feast, new moon, sabbath.” The second group of terms used by Paul is more crucial for the present study. In the order followed by Paul, the equivalent expression occurs only in Hosea 2:11 and Ezekiel 45:17 (see above). In reverse order, “sabbaths, new moons, feasts,” it occurs in 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 8:13; 31:3 and Nehemiah 10:33 (all reflecting post-exilic terminology). And all of these are quite clearly derived from Numbers 28–29.

Even a cursory examination of these references makes it clear that Paul’s “sabbath” can only mean the weekly Sabbaths.

In Numbers 28–29, the subject throughout is the official sacrifices to be offered by the priests in God’s house in behalf of the whole covenant people (cf. 29:39, where these official sacrifices are distinguished from such individual worship as “your vows, and your freewill offerings”). These official sacrifices are prescribed for each day (28:3–8); for each weekly Sabbath (28:9–10); for each new moon (28:11–15); and in detail for each of the annual feasts (28:16–29:38). The subject is not the individual worshipper’s offerings, nor his personal acts of worship on those days, but the system of official sacrifices to be made for all Israel.

So too, in all the other references (with the possible exception of Hos. 2:11) where these three kinds of days are mentioned together. In 1 Chronicles 23:31 it is David’s scheduling of the official sacrifices that is in view; 2 Chronicles 2:4 mentions Solomon’s intention, and 8:13 relates his actual offering of these same sacrifices; 2 Chronicles 31:3 has to do with Hezekiah’s provision for them; and Nehemiah 10:33 deals with that governor’s arrangement to do the same thing after the return from exile.

In Hosea 2:11 there is no specific reference to sacrifices. Even here, however, the reference is to the whole people of Israel, and the phrase itself points back to Numbers 28–29.

Ezekiel 45:17, besides its reference to “meat” and “drink,” also gives the same catalog of three kinds of days. Here the reference is to the “prince” of the ideal Israel of Ezekiel’s vision who shall offer these same official sacrifices in behalf of the covenant people.

Wherever it occurs in the Old Testament, the phrase “sabbaths, new moons, and feasts” always has reference to the official sacrifices to be offered on those days in behalf of the covenant nation, and never refers to individual observance of those days. As such, the phrase points clearly to Christ, the Prince of Israel who offered himself as the sacrifice to atone for the sins of his people once for all.

Conclusion. We can only conclude that for Paul, “feast, new moon, and sabbath” meant those same official sacrifices the phrase denotes in the Old Testament usage. There is nothing in the phrase to require us to understand that Paul meant to abrogate the Fourth Commandment for Christians. What Paul did mean was that the support of the temple sacrifices by Christians was a matter of indifference (“Let no man judge” applies both ways). These sacrifices were part of a “shadow” whose “body is Christ’s.” They were God-given for that purpose and thus permissible at least for Christians, but were no longer required, since the reality had come.

This interpretation parallels quite closely the import of Hebrews 10 where similar language about the “shadow” is found, and where the context demands that “shadow” be understood in terms of Old Testament sacrifices.

Romans 14:5–6; Galatians 4:9–11. There remain these two passages where Paul does speak about observance of days.

In the Galatians passage, Paul is vehemently warning against observance of “days, months, seasons, and years” (v. 10). These are “weak and beggarly elements,” and those who observe them are “slaves” to them (v. 9). Is this an abrogation of all distinction between days? Not necessarily; in the context of Galatians, Paul’s overall concern is to warn against any dependence on a works-righteousness. Observance of these special times must be seen as one of the ways certain of the Galatians had thought to gain merit for themselves. It is against this sort of thing that Paul warns.

The Romans passage is not at all parallel to this. Here Paul is concerned to uphold freedom of the believer from the judgment of other believers, a freedom to live and to die in Christ (vv. 9–13). Included is the freedom to observe a day unto the Lord or to refrain from doing so.

Romans 14:5–6, if read in isolation, might suggest that Paul is abrogating all distinctions between days of any sort whatever. Against this must be placed Paul’s positive command to distinguish the first day of the week for purposes of worship in the matter of offerings (1 Cor. 16:2). However free one is to observe or not observe days in general, the first day of the week remains distinguished from the others in Paul’s teaching.

7. Hebrews 3:7–4:13

A second major passage bearing on the Christian’s relation to the Sabbath is this one in Hebrews. In it, the writer sets forth an inspired commentary on two Old Testament passages, Genesis 2:2 and Psalm 95:7–11. What the writer sets forth, particularly as it bears on the question of the Sabbath as a “creation ordinance,” must be canonical for the understanding of the Christian.

Psalm 95:7–11. Two key terms are emphasized, but not equated, by the writer of Hebrews. “Today” is applied to and defines the present situation of the readers (3:13). Though addressed to the generation of the psalmist, even then it anticipated the time when Christ’s work would be finished. For the Christian, “today” is the time in which the “good news,” “the word of hearing” is proclaimed (4:2), the time in which “the promise of entering into his rest remains” (4:1). It is the time for faith and obedience (3:15; 4:7), or hardness of heart, unbelief and apostasy (3:12), while the consummation and final judgment are still future. “Today” is still the time for testing and wilderness wandering as it was for Israel in the desert.

In contrast, “my rest” as rest points up the antithesis to the believer’s present toil (6:10; 10:24), to his exposure to hardship and temptation. This rest is a broad conception, synonymous with salvation in the fullest eschatological sense. “My rest” does not refer to blessings presently experienced, but is rather the focus of the believer’s hope, even as Canaan was for the Israelites in the desert (cf. 4:8). This rest is a place that believers enter into (3:11, 18, 19; 4:1, 3, 5, 6, 10), the “heavenly country,” the “lasting city which is to come” (13:14; cf. 11:16).

“My rest” is thus still future “as long as it is called ‘today’” (3:13). This conclusion rests on what is explicitly stated, and also flows out of the basic argument in the whole passage. Thus, the present tense in 4:3 (“we who have believed enter that rest”) has future force, accentuating the certainty that believers will enter God’s rest.

The eschatological teaching of Hebrews is “qualified eschatology.” Especially in the present passage, the author is concerned to show that, though the covenant community of believers is itself an eschatological phenomenon, there is yet further eschatological fulfillment to be received. The church has come, through the Son of God, to Mount Sion now; but equally real, the church is still “on the way” to its destination. Within this pattern with its dual focus, “my rest” lies entirely within the scope of what is “not yet.”

Genesis 2:2. The quotation from Genesis (in Heb. 4:4) identifies the origin and character of “my rest.” The reference establishes the nature of the antithesis between faith and unbelief that permeates the whole passage. The wilderness generation had failed to enter “my rest,” not because it was unavailable (having been there “from the foundation of the world,” v. 3), but solely on account of unbelief. On the other hand, believers are certain to enter it. Combining Genesis 2:2 with Psalm 95:7–11, the author shows that some are to enter “my rest” in accord with God’s design, and some will fail for lack of faith (v. 6).

God’s rest—the end-goal of redemption mentioned in Psalm 95:11, of which Canaan was a type and which the New Testament people of God now seek to enter—is no other than the rest of God at creation. The eschatological redemption-rest is not a mere reflection of God’s creation-rest. Hebrews knows only one rest, “my rest,” entered by God at creation and by believers at the consummation.

The writer of Hebrews sees the description given in Genesis 2:2, not simply as a reference to the bare existence of this rest, but as the design and mandate that others should enter into it. Otherwise, “it remains for some to enter it” (v. 6) would have no foundation!

“Sabbath keeping.” The central concept of rest is termed a “sabbath keeping” or “sabbath rest” (v. 9). This shift in vocabulary is striking, and the author may well have coined the word deliberately.

The effect of its use is plain. It identifies “my rest” as specifically sabbath-rest. This rest (the consummation hope of the believer) is tied to the institution of the Sabbath and its observance. Thus: (1) Sabbath observance would appear to be a sign looking forward to the sabbath-rest of the consummation, and sabbath-keeping signifies the rest to come. (2) Since this eschatological reality is still future, observing of the sign now is still in order and binding upon the New Testament believer. (3) In view of the appeal to Genesis 2:2, it is specifically the sign of the weekly Sabbath that is still required of us.

Summary: The teaching of Hebrews 3:7–4:13 may be summarized as follows:

(1) The view, currently finding increased acceptance in Reformed circles, that the rest typified by the Old Testament weekly Sabbath became a full reality for believers at the coming of Christ (so that observance of that sign is no longer obligatory) is not supported by this passage. On the contrary, such a view runs counter to its central thrust.

(2) Genesis 2:2 states much more than simply that God rested on the seventh day. What is shown here is that God established “my rest” in order that men may enter and share it. Genesis 2:2 expresses the design and mandate for the promised consummation rest yet to be enjoyed by believers. This eschatological rest is related to the weekly Sabbath as the reality to the type. In other words, according to the structure of thought in Hebrews, we are to see the weekly Sabbath as a “creation ordinance.”

(3) The weekly Sabbath given by God at creation, as a sign of the consummation rest awaiting the faithful believer, continues in force until Christ returns to make this consummation rest a reality for believers. As such, the weekly Sabbath is not only a blessing and privilege for those who keep it, but it is a sign and witness of the hope that God’s people have.

8. The Lord’s Day

It remains to examine the significance of the one mention of “the Lord’s day” in the New Testament, in Revelation 1:10. (The phrase is not equivalent to “the day of the Lord” which is the great day of our Lord’s appearing on the clouds of heaven. This does not fit the context which speaks of Christ’s presence now among the seven churches.)

“The Lord’s (kyriakos) day” has only one New Testament parallel, “the Lord’s supper” in 1 Corinthians 11:20. That supper is the meal over which Christ exercises his special lordship, being the meal instituted by Christ and in memory of Christ. So “the Lord’s day” would be a day over which Christ exercises some particular lordship, a day set apart by Christ and presumably in memory of Christ.

The only such day is the first day of the week, the resurrection day that particularly serves as a memorial of Christ. Yet it is the Sabbath over which Christ, as the Son of man, claimed particular lordship (Mark 2:28). The one conception that fits this understanding of kyriakos is the “Christian Sabbath,” or “Lord’s Day.”

As the Old Testament Sabbath was, in the words of the Lord, “my holy day” and “the holy day of the Lord” (Isa. 58:13), so the New Testament Sabbath or first day of the week is “the Lord’s day” until the Lord of the Sabbath returns on the clouds of heaven.

B. Conclusions from the Scripture Teaching

1. The Sabbath is a “creation ordinance,” a weekly rest patterned after God’s creation rest, and established for mankind by God at the beginning of history. This is the teaching of Genesis 2:2–3 as interpreted by Exodus 20:10–11 and especially by Mark 2:27–28 and Hebrews 3:7–4:13.

2. The Sabbath was intended for all men from the beginning and is thus for all ages until the consummation of all things. Among others, Mark 2:27–28 particularly points to the inclusiveness of the Sabbath ordinance, and Hebrews 3:7–4:13 to the final goal of entering into God’s eternal rest that awaits those who persevere in faith.

3. The Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest from labor and a day of worship, holy to the Lord. It is defined in terms of rest, as in Exodus 20:10–11 and the activity of worship is not only appropriate to the sanctifying of the day commanded by God, but is prescribed as in Leviticus 23:3; cf. Acts 15:21.

4. The Sabbath received the same kind of attention from our Lord during his earthly ministry that was given to other commandments of God, as he purified it from “traditions of men,” brought it to perfected expression, and thus prepared it for his New Testament people. Jesus’ concern for the Sabbath is seen in such passages as Mark 2:27–28; 3:1–6; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6.

5. The Sabbath was not abrogated for the New Testament dispensation. Colossians 2:16–17 refers to the loosing of the bonds of the Mosaic requirements in respect to ceremonial and sacrificial elements of the Old Testament holy days in the light of Christ’s perfect sacrifice; but it does not remove the obligation of the Fourth Commandment itself. Such passages as Romans 14:5–6 and Galatians 4:10 do not nullify all distinctions between days, since the New Testament itself distinguishes the first day of the week from other days, as in 1 Corinthians 16:2; Acts 20:7, and designates that day as the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath, as in Revelation 1:10.

6. In summary: The Scriptures teach that God, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, has appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him.

C. Our Standards and Sabbath Controversy in the Reformed Community

The weekly Sabbath is an eschatological sign. This truth, central to the teaching of Hebrews 3:7–4:13 as well as fundamental to the entire biblical revelation concerning the Sabbath, does not find expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. The reason for this would appear to be that the Standards mention the Sabbath commandment primarily in terms of its bearing on the more specific matter of public and private worship (WCF 21.7–8; LC 116–121; SC 58–62).

It is important to call this state of affairs to the attention of the General Assembly because of an increasing attraction in recent years, within the Reformed community here and abroad, to various forms of the view that the obligation to observe the weekly Sabbath is not binding on the Christian church. While there is undoubtedly more than one factor that explains this development, still characteristically this position takes its point of departure in the recognition that the Old Testament weekly Sabbath is an eschatological sign. The basic thread of the argument may be set out as follows: The Sabbath instituted under the old covenant was a sign pointing to a future fulfillment or eschatological reality. The work of Christ is eschatological in character and his coming has inaugurated the fulfillment. Therefore, observance of the Sabbath sign is no longer required.

One of the purposes of this report has been to show that such a viewpoint does not do justice to biblical teaching. In particular, Hebrews 3:7–4:13, where the character of the Sabbath as an eschatological sign is quite unmistakable, teaches that experience of the rest signified is still future for New Testament believers and so, by implication, observance of the sign is still in force; that is, in terms of what is at stake in the position of our standards, these verses support a Christian Sabbath.

The question, however, may at least be suggested whether, by the specific manner in which the Sabbath is mentioned and by the way in which the eschatological aspect of biblical teaching on the Sabbath is passed over in silence, the Standards may not have contributed to the uncertainty over the Sabbath in our own and other Reformed churches.

Therefore, the General Assembly may wish to consider if, and if so what, procedures are in order to provide through our standards a fuller statement of the scriptural teaching concerning the Sabbath ordinance and its significance.

II. Recommendations in Regard to the Complaint of Messrs. Marston, et al.

In pursuing its inquiry into the complaint, the committee invited both the complainants and the Presbytery of the Midwest to meet with the committee if they so desired. Neither party acted to accept the invitation, though both expressed willingness to attend if requested. The committee has secured all the relevant records from the Presbytery (which records are herewith forwarded to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly). In studying the documents, the committee found no area of uncertainty that seemed to warrant a further special meeting with the parties involved.

In essence, the complaint charges the Presbytery with a specific failure “to find that proof of the proposed charges and specifications would show the commission of an offense,” the charges and specifications relating to an alleged offense in doctrine by a member of the Presbytery.

The committee did not attempt to find proof of the charges or specifications, this being the duty of a trial judicatory only. The question before the committee was simply: If the charges and specifications were proved, would this show the commission of an offense?

The committee notes that the Book of Discipline defines an offense “as anything to the doctrine or practice of a member of the church which is contrary to the Word of God” (I.2). In other words: If the charges and specifications were proved, would this show the commission of an offense in doctrine contrary to the Word of God?

In the light of its study of the Scripture teaching in regard to the Fourth Commandment, and after examination both of the original recommendation and the proposed substitute motion referred to the Committee on Sabbath Matters by the Thirty-sixth General Assembly, the committee recommends:

1. That the Fortieth General Assembly declare that the following teachings, allegedly held by a member of the Presbytery of Wisconsin, are contrary to the Word of God, and if proved as charged would show the commission of an offense as defined in the Book of Discipline:

a. “that God has not appointed the first day of the week to be the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day” (as stated in Charge 1 of the charges and specifications presented to the Presbytery of Wisconsin);

b. “that, because the weekly Sabbath was given to Israel as a type of spiritual rest from sin, it was therefore abolished at the coming of Christ” (as stated in Charge 2); and

c. “that the distinction between the six days and the seventh day contained in the fourth commandment does not apply in this dispensation” (as stated in Charge 3).

2. That the Fortieth General Assembly sustain the complaint of Messrs. Marston et at., against the Presbytery of Wisconsin (Midwest) in that the Presbytery “failed to find that proof of the proposed charges and specifications would show the commission of an offense.”

3. That the Fortieth General Assembly remand the complaint to the Presbytery of the Midwest for appropriate amends to the complainants, suggesting to the Presbytery that such amends would include adoption by the Presbytery of an acknowledgment to the complainants that it had erred in failing “to find that proof of the proposed charges and specifications would show the commission of an offense,” and such other action as the Presbytery may deem warranted to conclude the case.

III. Recommendation in Answer to the Question of the Overture from the Presbytery of Southern California

Having considered the overture from the Presbytery of Southern California, which requested that the Committee on Sabbath Matters study “the question as to whether the second ordination vow requires the acceptance of the teaching of our secondary standards regarding the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day,” the committee judged that its mandate in regard to this overture did not require it to consider the significance of the matters contained in the “whereases” of the overture.

The committee did judge that it should make some recommendation on the question concerning the second ordination vow.

The committee therefore recommends:

4. That the Fortieth General Assembly answer the overture from the Presbytery of Southern California as follows: So far as the teaching of our secondary standards regarding the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day is the teaching of Scripture, its acceptance is required by the second ordination vow.

Noting that it has not fulfilled its total mandate to make an exhaustive study of the Scripture teaching in regard to the Fourth Commandment, the committee holds itself ready to continued effort if the Assembly so instructs it. If not so instructed, the committee recommends:

5. That the Committee on Sabbath Matters be dissolved.

Respectfully submitted,

D. Clair Davis (except as indicated in Minority Report II)
Richard B. Gaffin Jr.
George W. Knight III (except for section I.C. above)
Richard M. Lewis (except as indicated in Minority Report I)
John J. Mitchell (chairman)

The Report of the Minority I

The undersigned dissents from the report of the Committee on Sabbath Matters in the following respects:

I. The Teaching of Scripture in Regard to the Fourth Commandment

Colossians 2:16–17 is the key passage for the understanding of the place of the Fourth Commandment in the Christian life.

1. In this passage Paul clearly speaks of the weekly Sabbath. Though the Greek word is plural in form, we must understand it here, as elsewhere (Matt. 12:1; Luke 4:16; Acts 13:14; 16:13), to refer to the weekly Sabbath. Taken together, the words of these verses “specify the annual, monthly and weekly celebrations” (Abbott).

2. Paul is combating the legalism in the “Colossian heresy.” These two verses show that whatever else may have characterized this heresy, it contained a strong Jewish element. Over against this legalism Paul declares that the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. In him there is complete provision for our salvation. If we have died with Christ and are risen with him, there is no need to subject ourselves to ordinances such as “Touch not, taste not, handle not,” for these are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.

3. But Paul’s argument goes beyond a condemnation of legalism. He speaks of the ordinances regarding food and drink and holy seasons as “shadows.” The Sabbath, along with other ceremonial matters, like food and drink, belongs to the shadows. The substance, the reality of all these, is here with Christ.

4. When Paul places the Sabbath among the shadows, his meaning can hardly be misunderstood: he is placing the Sabbath commandment within the ceremonial law which has been fulfilled in Christ. But it is absolutely impossible to evade the force of his words: “Let no man therefore judge you … in respect of … the Sabbath day.” These words can only mean that the keeping of the Sabbath cannot be made the criterion for testing one’s piety. A statement such as this could never have been uttered by an inspired speaker of the Old Testament times. That Christians are no longer under the obligation of keeping the Sabbath could hardly have been stated in clearer terms than the words of Colossians 2:16–17.

5. Two other passages in Paul provide corroboration of this understanding of his words in Colossians 2:16–17. Galatians 4:10–11: “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.” To observe the rite of circumcision and to observe the Old Testament holy days, is to turn again to the “weak and beggarly elements” and to be brought under bondage again. Although the Sabbath is not mentioned specifically, we know from the Gospels the important role that Sabbath-keeping played in Jewish legalism. It is significant that Paul makes no exception for the Sabbath. Romans 14:5–6 confirms the teaching of the Colossians passage that Sabbath-keeping cannot be made the criterion for judging one’s piety. “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Again, there is no specific mention of the Sabbath, but it is not easy to understand how Paul could have avoided mention of the Sabbath day, if he had meant to exclude it. It might seem that this understanding of these two passages proves too much, since it nullifies all distinction among days; but the New Testament speaks of the Lord’s Day, distinguishing the first day of the week from others. However, the context in both these chapters clearly deals with a Judaizing type of legalism. In such a context it would be no more necessary for Paul to mention the Lord’s Day than it would be necessary for him to mention baptism alongside of circumcision in the Galatians letter.

If, for the sake of argument, we grant the truth of the preceding analysis, what is its significance in relation to the Old Testament teaching regarding the Sabbath? According to the Old Testament the Sabbath is the emblem of eternal rest. Paul, however, now declares that it is a shadow, the reality of which is here in Christ. This can mean nothing less than the fact that the rest promised in the Old Testament has been brought in by Christ. The Lord worked six days and then rested the seventh day from his creative work. Man is to work with the expectation of entering into God’s rest with him. The weekly cycle of work and then rest kept this expectation before him. Man’s fall into sin, however, rendered him incapable of doing the work that leads to rest. Only God’s redemptive work can provide the Sabbath rest, as Deuteronomy 5:14–15 teaches. When Paul places the Sabbath among the “shadows,” we are being taught unmistakably that the work that issues into rest has now been accomplished. The work that brings us into God’s rest has been finished.

We no longer need laws which deal with food and drink, laws which spoke of purification, because Christ has cleansed us through his precious blood. The reality which those laws foreshadowed is here, although we are not yet completely free from sin. Similarly, the Sabbath spoke of our entering into God’s rest. Christ has brought that rest to us, and invites all who labor and are heavy laden to come to him and receive it. We do not yet, of course, possess that rest in all its fullness.

We do not always appreciate the significance of Christ’s coming and the great changes it has brought to the church. The one who believes in Christ has eternal life the moment that he believes. He waits only for the fullness of it. Similarly, the moment that we believe in Christ, we enter into his rest. The work that issues into rest has already been accomplished by our Savior. That rest is no longer future, so that it still needs to be shadowed forth by the Sabbath day, but it is a present reality in Christ.

But we cannot end our study at this point. The New Testament teaches that the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ and is therefore no longer a necessary observance. However, we must remember that the New Testament has its institutions and ordinances too. These have a measure of continuity with the corresponding Old Testament institutions, yet differ from them. Circumcision was an Old Testament ordinance so important that the male child without it was cut off from the people of God. But it was one of the shadows, and is an observance no longer required of the church of Christ. But we do have something in the New Testament that corresponds very closely to it, namely, baptism. It can be shown from Scripture that they are very similar in signification. The Passover is another ordinance that played such a large part in the life of the people of God in the Old Testament. It too is gone now because its significance has been fulfilled in Christ. But we do have the Lord’s Supper, which was a direct outgrowth of the Passover. The Sabbath, Paul tells us, is also one of the shadows. In the New Testament we have the Lord’s day, closely related to the Sabbath, but not precisely the same.

What is the significance of the phrase “the Lord’s day”? To answer this question we need only compare the phrase with another term that is exactly parallel to it both in Greek and in English, namely, “the Lord’s supper.” The Lord’s Supper is a holy supper. Paul rebukes the Corinthians because they failed to regard the Lord’s Supper as a holy thing. They failed to make a distinction between the Lord’s Supper and other meals. They did not discern the Lord’s body. Similarly, the Lord’s day is a day that is distinguished from other days. It belongs to the Lord. But this is just the definition of the holy. That is holy which is consecrated to the Lord, which stands in a special relation to him. The Lord’s day, just by virtue of the fact that it is called the Lord’s day, is a holy day.

If the Lord’s day is a holy day, it might seem that we are right back where we were before. “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.” The Sabbath is no longer with us, but we still are under the obligation of keeping the Lord’s day holy. But we cannot say that we are right back where we started. We cannot say that we have simply slipped the Sabbath Day back under a new designation. Such an identification would fail to recognize the time that we are living in. The key to the whole Sabbath-Lord’s day problem is the recognition of the period or dispensation that we are living in. We are living in the time marked by the fact that Christ has already come, has obtained eternal life and everlasting rest for us.

We can illustrate this difference of dispensation by taking another look at the Old Testament ordinances and their New Testament counterparts mentioned above. We do not observe the Passover any longer. Instead we have the Lord’s Supper. We do not observe the Passover any longer because it was an ordinance that pointed forward to Christ, and now Christ is here. Suppose that once more we began to observe the Passover regularly. Would that be something pleasing to God? We might think so, because of its importance in the Old Testament, and because, like the other sacrifices, it tells us that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. It might seem, then, a good thing to continue to testify to this great truth by observing the Passover. Yet, we all know that such observance would not be pleasing to God, because it would fail to recognize the time in which we are living. It is true that the Passover teaches that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins; but the Lord’s Supper goes beyond this teaching and proclaims that the shedding of blood which avails to take away sin has been accomplished in Christ. It would not please God for us to observe ceremonies which do not acknowledge that Christ is already here. Jesus Christ has come and shed his blood, and through him we do have redemption from our sins. It does not please God for us to go back to the shadows when the reality is already here.

In regard to circumcision Paul flatly says to the Galatians, “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (Gal. 5:2). We cannot imagine that he would say this in regard to baptism. It is true that they were endangered by legalistic tendencies, but a large part of Paul’s displeasure with them is due to the fact that they were going back to the weak and beggarly elements, and therefore ignoring the fact that Christ is come. In the New Testament there is a rite corresponding to circumcision, symbolizing our incorporation into the people of God through the putting away of the body of the flesh (Col. 2:11, 12), but it is one which makes acknowledgment of Christ. By going back to circumcision the Galatians were denying the reality of Christ’s work.

The same is true of the Sabbath Day. If we keep the Sabbath in this dispensation, we are again denying Christ. We are thereby saying that we are still engaged in the cycle of six days of work and one day of rest, awaiting the performance of that work which issues into rest and awaiting the obtaining of the rest. We are failing to take account of the fact that Christ has come and already performed that work and obtained eternal rest for us. There is no question any longer of our entering into rest. Christ has kept the whole law perfectly; he has done the work that the first Adam failed to do. The Lord’s day, like the Sabbath, is a holy day; but it is a day which acknowledges that Christ has come and that he has triumphantly entered into rest as the firstfruits of his people.

The question, “How is the Lord’s day to be observed?” is a question which must be answered from the New Testament. Briefly, such notices as are given to us in the New Testament point to the Lord’s day as a day suitable for the assembly of the saints, and for their performance of service to him (1 Cor. 16:2). It was also a day suitable for the appearance of the risen Lord to his servant John (Rev. 1:10). It is important to emphasize that it is the first day of the week, the Lord’s day, which is to be observed. It is sometimes maintained that in the New Testament era all days are alike holy. Consequently, it is said, it is up to the church to decide, simply as a matter of good order, on which day divine services will be held. This flies in the face of the very term “Lord’s day,” which plainly states that one day, viz. the day of his resurrection, is consecrated to him in a special way. The Reformed Church in Ceylon acted correctly when it maintained the service of worship on the first day of the week in the face of a government decree shifting the weekly holiday away from the Lord’s day. It is important also, as the Heidelberg Catechism enjoins us, “that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, let the Lord work in me by His Holy Spirit, and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.”

II. Recommendations in Regard to the Complaint of Messrs. Marston, et al.

The undersigned recommends that the committee’s first recommendation be amended by changing “teachings” to “teaching,” “are” to “is,” and omitting items b and c.

The undersigned would make one further recommendation to the Fortieth General Assembly. The alarming decline in Christian influence upon the life of our nation has led to the opening of many places of business on the Lords day. An increasingly large number of Christians have become engaged in work on the Lord’s day. If the Sabbath commandment is still in force, these are duty-bound to quit their jobs and seek other employment no matter what the consequences in the form of economic dislocation. Church sessions would have to insist upon this or become guilty of breeding an intolerable disrespect for God’s law. However, the church has also the responsibility never to bind the consciences of men where God’s law does not. The Scripture in this instance clearly states, “Let no man judge you … in respect of … the sabbath day.” I therefore recommend that the Thirty-ninth General Assembly elect a committee to revise the teaching of our Standards regarding the Fourth Commandment.

Respectfully submitted,
Richard M. Lewis

The Report of the Minority II

Although in basic agreement with the understanding of the scriptural doctrine of the Sabbath as held by the committee, the undersigned cannot concur in the committee’s recommendations, and considers instead that the doctrines allegedly taught by a member of the Presbytery of Wisconsin are not offenses because (1) they are not contrary, on any construction, to the Reformed system of doctrine, and (2) they are capable of other constructions and understandings than those placed on them by the committee, which constructions are in harmony with the present understanding of the Sabbath doctrine by the church; and these constructions are the ones which should be placed on them. The undersigned judges that the committee did not deal with these issues adequately, and that it is impossible to sustain the complaint unless both of the above considerations are found to be erroneous.

Apparently the committee holds that the Book of Discipline’s definition of an offense, “anything in the doctrine or practice of a member of the church which is contrary to the Word of God,” implies that anyone within the church holding a minority opinion in the interpretation of Scripture, whether taught in the secondary standards or not, and whether allowable under the ordinary understanding of subscription to those standards or not, is and should be subject to ecclesiastical discipline. Of course the wording of the definition, taken in isolation, is capable of the committee’s interpretation; and certainly any cry of “No creed but the Bible” has its attractions. But the committee’s opinion requires one to believe either (1) that those who adopted the Book of Discipline intended to do something different from that which they said they were doing, perpetuating “the true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.” with its understanding of the “system of doctrine,” or (2) that even though belief in the Reformed system of doctrine is sufficient to secure office in the church, much more is required to protect one from discipline in that office, namely agreement in all respects with the way the majority of the church interprets Scripture. Certainly the Orthodox Presbyterian Church may choose to proceed in that way if it considers it necessary, and is not bound by the views and values of thirty-six years ago. But at least it should be aware that it is doing something new, and the undersigned considers that such would not only be an innovation, but a most unwise one.

Surely it is more reasonable to think of an offense as being that which is against the Reformed faith, which in its Ecumenical, Protestant, and uniquely Calvinistic aspects is the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. This does not mean that Calvinism is not constantly subject to correction from increased understanding of Scripture, but it does mean that there is a recognizable core to the church’s faith. The point at issue then would be whether or not the view of the Fourth Commandment confessionally unique with the Westminster standards is basic and vital to the Reformed system. Historically, the answer is plain enough: a contrary understanding of the Fourth Commandment did not weaken or subtract from the vigorous Reformed faith of Calvin, Beza, Bullinger, or Ursinus, nor from the re-affirmation of Bullinger’s position (well after the composition of the Westminster standards) in the Formula Consensus Helvetica, whose basic affirmations became the heart of the Princeton theology. Theologically, the issue is not so easy, but a recognition of a change of day in the New Testament administration entails a recognition of the changeable and unchangeable aspects of the Commandment, related to the promissory character of the old dispensation and the fulfilled character of the new. That is, one is confronted with the massive eschatological problems of the extent to which the Kingdom is now present, and yet to come; the extent to which the rest mediated through Christ is already a possession of his people, and yet to be given; the extent to which creation is already fulfilled in the new creation in Christ, and yet to be fulfilled. In such areas Reformed thinkers, though having definite personal opinions, are usually so struck with the scope and richness of the eschatology of fulfillment as to be extremely tolerant and appreciative of the emphases of others. “Eschatological liberty” would seem to be involved also in questions concerning the fulfilled character of the Sabbath.

Even if the above is denied, there still remains the question of how the alleged statements are to be understood in this case. A case of discipline involves a judgment of a man, whether or not he is to be disciplined by the church, and not an evaluation of the adequacy or inadequacy of certain of his statements. It is elementary that he is to be judged not on the basis of possible or probable implications of his statements, but on the statements themselves in their most favorable construction. This must be especially necessary in the present case, where the specifications cited are fragmentary in the extreme, with very little context given as a help to understanding. Such a reasonable, favorable interpretation of the statements which the committee considers worthy of discipline could very well be as follows:

(1) “That God has not appointed the first day of the week to be the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s day” could very well mean only the rejection of an immediate appointment of the day in favor of an appointment mediated through the church (as expressed in other Reformed creeds). The direct divine appointment of the day in the New Testament is surely not as obvious as in the command from Sinai. While the New Testament teaches that the first day is the Lord’s day, it simply does not teach the manner in which the church discovered the change of the day.

As far as the secondary standards are concerned, while the catechisms are more definite, the Confession (21.7) uses the passive “was changed” without indicating by whom.

(2) “That, because the weekly Sabbath was given to Israel as a type of spiritual rest from sin, it was therefore abolished at the coming of Christ” and (3) “that the distinction between the six days and the seventh day contained in the fourth commandment does not apply in this dispensation” are also subject to, and should be given a favorable interpretation. While the secondary standards understand the ratio of “the one whole day in seven” to belong to the basic meaning of the Commandment, whether that day is seventh or first, it is entirely proper and reasonable to read the Fourth Commandment as literally as one does the other nine, and conclude that the Sabbath is indeed the seventh day, not a seventh day and first day generalized into a “one day in seven.” If this approach is possible, then statement (2) could mean no more than that it is now inappropriate to observe a seventh-day Lord’s day, the seventh-day observance being abolished. Statement (3) may be taken to mean that the difference between Sunday through Friday on the one hand and Saturday on the other no longer applies. There is no apparent necessity that any of these statements be taken in less favorable ways.


In the light of the above considerations, the undersigned recommends:

1. That the Fortieth General Assembly deny the complaint of Messrs. Marston, et al., against the Presbytery of Wisconsin (Midwest).

In considering the overture from the Presbytery of Southern California which requested the Committee on Sabbath Matters to study, in connection with possible union with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, “the question as to whether the second ordination vow requires the acceptance of the teaching of our secondary standards regarding the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s day,” the undersigned, differing from the committee, considers that it is unwise and inexpedient to answer this question in the abstract (in thesi), and without giving attention to the very concrete occasion of the question, namely possible church union. Surely absolute candor and forthrightness in considering the specific “some difference of opinion as to the meaning of the second ordination vow” is demanded. Therefore, the undersigned recommends:

2. That the Fortieth General Assembly request the Presbytery of Southern California to communicate to the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations such information as it may possess concerning the nature of the “difference of opinion” and those holding it, and also request the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations to take note of such information in future consultations with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod.

3. That the Fortieth General Assembly inform the Presbytery of Southern California that it is inexpedient to answer its question in a general or abstract way, but only insofar as a particular viewpoint is in question.

Respectfully submitted,
D. Clair Davis

Action by the Fortieth (1973) General Assembly concerning the Report

On motion, recommendations 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the majority report of the committee were adopted. On further motion it was determined to send the reports of the Committee on Sabbath Matters, and the decisions made by this Assembly concerning it, to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod.


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