A Theology of the Sabbath (5): Follow-Up Questions Concerning Application

This is a follow-up to a four part series on John Owen’s doctrine of the Sabbath. The other posts will clarify the answers here. See Part 1 (the Sabbath as Moral and Mosaical) HERE,  part 2 (the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works) HERE, part 3 (Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works and its Mosaical Elements) HERE, and part 4 (on the Sabbath in the New Covenant) HERE. For a summary list of quotations by Owen see HERE.

When I started blogging through John Owen’s treatise on the Sabbath, Brian posed several questions for discussion. I’ve kept them in mind as I’ve thought through Owen. These are my attempts to answer the questions:

  • I would love to hear your take on America’s historical “Blue Laws”, related to Owen’s thoughts.

Unless I missed it somewhere, Owen did not argue for or against state-based laws regarding the Sabbath. Reading between the lines, however, I do not think he would necessarily be for such laws (my main reason for this is the fact that he was a convinced Congregationalist, who likely would not want the government over-meddling in the affairs of the church). That’s the simple answer, let me expand it a bit.

Owen’s main case for the New Covenant Sabbath is that it is realized spiritually only as we rest and trust in Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel. The actual observance of the first day Sabbath is simply a sign and symbol pointing to that reality – Christ resting from his works, and us resting in Christ. It therefore would seem illogical to demand that pagans and atheists observe the Sabbath. It could be enforced as a law just as much as idolatry and graven images could be banned, which is not an easy task. Therefore, at least in my mind, I see the Sabbath as a wonderful opportunity to be counter-cultural. It should be one of the things that distinguishes God’s people from the world.

Now the problem with what I have just written is that the Sabbath command (in principle, not as a civil law) remains in effect for all time. This means that those who fail to honor it are sinning. Shouldn’t we therefore encourage the world not to sin in this regard? My answer to this is that we cannot do this by coercion; we need to preach the law and preach the gospel. Conversion is the answer, not coercion.

  • I would also enjoy hearing your take on pastoral recommendations to their busy flocks to take a “sabbath hour” if you cannot find time to rest for the whole day. Along those same lines, I’ve also seen the particular day extolled as entirely unimportant by some Christians, claiming that you can just take a “day of rest” or a moment of rest, whenever you find time in the week. Finally, this all would seem connected to the modern [Americans’] blatant disdain for tradition and symbolism. Can you speak to all of this?

We’ve discussed this already to a degree. The idea of a ‘sabbath’ hour is not related to the fourth commandment, which entailed one entire day each week. As for any day of the week serving as a sabbath, again I don’t think this can be justified biblically. If we observe the first day of the week as a sabbath precisely because of its connection to the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week, then we are missing the entire point by observing it on another day. If sabbath only entails rest, this could be feasible; but I’ve followed Owen in emphasizing the fact that the sabbath is not simply about physical rest. It is about resting in Christ, as he is offered in the gospel; and the first day of the week connects us to the reality of the resurrection in particular.

If you want to apply this principle to daily life, then the primary application, I think, would be that we are constantly resting and trusting in Christ. This means that we are not to be striving for acceptance with God, but that we are already accepted in Christ by faith. Living in that light honors the principle of the sabbath. It means that we can die to sin and rise from the dead anew each day as we wake from our sleep to live by the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The last thing to cover here is the simple idea of physical rest. I do not think our traditional idea of a weekend is what the Lord Jesus Christ has in mind when he calls us to rest in him. But I am reminded of an anecdote:

 At one point in the course of their very influential ministries, George Whitfield, the Calvinist evangelist, and John Wesley, the Arminian evangelist, were preaching together in the daytime and rooming together in the same boarding house each night. One evening after a particularly strenuous day the two of them returned to the boarding house exhausted and prepared for bed. When they were ready each knelt beside the bed to pray. Whitfield, prayed like this, “Lord we thank Thee for all of those with whom we spoke today, and we rejoice that their lives and destinies are entirely in Thy hand. Honor our efforts according to Thy perfect will. Amen.” He rose from his knees and got into bed. Wesley, who had hardly gotten past the invocation of his prayer in this length of time, looked up from his side of the bed and said, “Mr. Whitefield, is this where your Calvinism leads you?” Then he put his head down and went on praying. Whitefield stayed in bed and went to sleep. About two hours later Whitefield woke up, and there was Wesley still on his knees beside his bed. So Whitefield got up and went around the bed to where Wesley was kneeling. When he got there he found Wesley asleep. He shook him by the shoulders and said to him, “Mr. Wesley, is this where your Arminianism leads you?”

Who correctly applied the principle of rest before work?

Lastly under this heading, let’s speak to modern America’s ‘disdain for tradition and symbolism.’ America is a strange contradiction here. In some sense, modern folk love tradition and symbolism. We love holidays. We’re fresh off the heels of halloween; there’s certainly a lot of tradition and symbolism there. Same goes for the fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day etc. We have a weekly rhythm of five days of work and two off. There is certainly some tradition and symbolism involved in that (TGIF).

The thing that leaps out at me, however, in these symbols and traditions that American’s love is that we have weighed them down with our own baggage. The Fourth of July means fireworks; Valentine’s Day means candy and roses; St. Patrick’s Day means green and beer. We love the weekend because it means time off from work, time to party, hang out, whatever. What we really hate are symbols and traditions that are not about us and our self-fulfillment, especially blatantly religious traditions and symbols which resist being re-branded. We’ve tried it with the sabbath – we call it the weekend. The problem is that a day or two off from work does not offer man the rest that he truly needs. Physical rest pales to the deep rest of the soul in Christ.

  • I would also like to hear what you think about calling it the “Sabbath” vs “The Lord’s Day.”

Owen called it both, and I have no problem with that. The Lord’s Day title is more of a traditional title since it’s hard to argue that ‘Lord’s day’ spoken of by John in Revelation was necessarily the first day of the week. It may very well have been, but it’s hard to sustantiate beyond doubt. That does not mean, however, that we cannot use the title with confidence.

Pieper (in Leisure) argues that the sabbath is akin to the temple in that it is cut off specifically for the service of the Lord. The temple was cut off geographically; the sabbath is cut off chronistically (you could say chronologically I suppose). It is the Lord’s day in that sense. Jesus also calls himself ‘Lord of the Sabbath,’ which at least means that he asserts ownership over it.

The issue here is that we are pretty much afraid to use the term ‘sabbath’ today, because we have a distinct sense that we do not observe the first day of the week in that way. If that’s true, then the term ‘Lord’s Day’ could serve as a cop-out, and we don’t want that. Which means that we need to remind people that the day actually does belong to Christ in a special sense in comparison to all other days. He is the Lord of time, but he claims special ownership over the day of his resurrection. And if Owen’s doctrine is correct, this is vital to our spiritual well-being.

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A Theology of the Sabbath (4): John Owen on Hebrews 4:9-10 and the New Covenant Sabbath as a Sign of Christ’s Finished Work

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GodFor the One who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:9-10).

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

This is the fourth installment in a four-part series. See Part 1 (the Sabbath as Moral and Mosaical) HERE,  part 2 (the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works) HERE, and part 3 (Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works and its Mosaical Elements) HERE. For a summary list of quotations by Owen see HERE. All Owen quotations are from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980.

John Owen’s doctrine of the Christian first-day sabbath hinges largely on his interpretation of Hebrews 4, and more specifically Hebrews 4:9-10: “So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GodFor the One who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.” Owen understands “the one” of verse 10 as a reference specifically to the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s dig a little into Hebrews 4 and see if that interpretation can be justified.

First, Hebrews 4:1-3a makes the case that the Israelites failed to enter into God’s rest because they lacked faith (and therefore obedience), while believers, through faith, do indeed enter into that rest. Second, in vv. 3b-4, the author grounds the original promise of rest in the work of God in creation. Third, in vv. 5-8, the author makes the case that Joshua, as the head of Israel, was not able to secure the promised rest; and that David, another head of Israel, acknowledged this in his own day as evidenced by Psalm 95:7-8. All of this is the author of Hebrews’ case that Sabbath remained relevant for believers under the New Covenant. This appears to be an essentially biblical-theological argument that Jesus Christ is the greater Israel/greater Joshua who has truly procured ‘rest’ for those who rest and trust in him by faith.

Next, we come to vv. 8-9. First (v. 8), since true ‘rest’ was never realized under the old covenant, the Sabbath promise of rest still stands. Therefore it would appear legitimate to infer, in v. 9, that Christ is the One who has truly entered into God’s rest. It therefore makes sense that vv. 14ff pick up on the theme (beginning with the word ‘therefore’ in v. 14) of Christ as the resurrected ‘Great High Priest’ who has entered into the heavens into the very presence of God.

Let’s take a moment to look at v. 9 in a bit more detail:The Greek verbs in v. 9,  εἰσελθὼν (he who has entered [God’s rest]) and κατέπαυσεν (he who has rested), are both aorist, masculine, singular verbs. As masculine, singular verbs, the strict translation is “he who has entered” and “he who has rested.” The question that remains is, Is this a generalized ‘he’ referring to all believers, or a specific ‘he’ referring to Christ. Owen takes the latter view and my opinion is that the evidence bears this out. Next, the aorist tense indicates a past action with present ramifications. This rest has already been entered, and therefore he has already rested from his works in like manner to the original rest of creation. But, as the original rest of God had continued ramifications for his people, so this newly entered rest continues to have ramifications.

We cannot even begin to touch upon all of those ramifications here, but we will focus on the primary point picked up by Owen. Owen’s primary deduction from this passage is that Jesus Christ, having fulfilled the Covenant of Works in behalf of his people, and voluntarily taken the curse of covenant disobedience, for them, upon himself, has fulfilled the original import of the Sabbath. The original intent of the Sabbath, as revealed in creation, according to Owen, was that God promised Adam perfect rest and blessedness in his presence (think heaven) upon condition of obedience – work and then rest. After Adam’s failure, this principle of work before rest stays in force and is re-articulated by Moses in the Mosaical instructions regarding Israel’s sabbath. Yet Israel, like Adam, could not find rest on account of disobedience.

In the New Covenant Christ himself has finished the ‘work’ of the Covenant of Works perfectly; he has also finished the work of satisfying the demands of God’s justice in his death on the cross (hence ‘It is finished). Having done so, in his resurrection, he enters into a state of perfect rest and blessedness at the right hand of the Father. Yet there remains a sabbath-rest (or sabbatism) for the people of God.

This rest is ultimately realized as we, in Christ, rest from our own works. This entails a repudiation of our own righteousness as ‘filthy rags’ (to use Isaiah’s language) and a resting, by faith, in Christ as our substitute (both positively, in law-keeping, and negatively, in receiving God’s curse). We therefore, by faith, begin with rest and perform our works of obedience in light of what Christ has already accomplished in our behalf. The paradigm has been inverted: it is no longer work before rest, but rest before work. This is the principle of the ‘new creation’ which Christ has wrought in his resurrection.

This, says Owen, is the reason that the actual ‘day’ of rest is changed:

Now, as God’s rest, and his being refreshed in his work, on the seventh day of old, was a sufficient indication of the precise day of rest which he would have observed under the administration of that original law and covenant, so the rest of our Lord Jesus Christ, and his being refreshed in and from his works, on the first day, is a sufficient indication of the precise day of rest to be observed under the dispensation of the new covenant, now confirmed and established (pp. 409-410).

Therefore, it is fitting that the apostles should make it a practice to meet on the first day of the week rather than the last, since that is the very day when Christ himself entered into his perfect rest (Matt. 28:1ff, Mark 16:2ff, Luke 24:1ff, John 20:1ff, John 20:19, Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2).

In summary, for Owen, the institution of Sunday as the Christian sabbath, flowed from a contrast between the Covenant of Creation (or Covenant of Works) and the Covenant of New Creation (or New Covenant). In the first covenant, rest is entered into after the work of obedience has been completed. In the New Covenant, this work of obedience has been completed by a Representive – the Lord Jesus Christ. And Christ, having entered into that rest in our behalf, and as our Mediator, calls us to observe the first day of the week as a visible, weekly manifestation and reminder of his triumph over sin and the grave in the resurrection. We enter into rest in and by him alone, and therefore begin the Christian life with a principle of rest; and that principle is visibly manifested, one could almost say ‘sacramentally,’ in the observance of solemn, public worship on the first day of the week.

Owen’s own summary is this:

What account can we give to ourselves and our children concerning our observation of this day holy unto the Lord? Must we not say, nay, may we not do so with joy and rejoicing, that whereas we were lost and undone by sin, excluded out of the rest of God, so far as that the law of the observation of the outward pledge of it, being attended with the curse, was a burden, and no relief to us, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, undertook a great work to make peace for us, to redeem and save us; and when he had so done, and finished his work, even the erecting of the “new heavens and new earth, wherein dwells righteousness,’’ he entered into his rest, and thereby made known to us that we should keep this day as a day of holy rest unto him, and as a pledge that we have again given to us an entrance into rest with God? (p. 450).

Christ calls us to come to him and find rest (Matt. 11:28-29). He takes the heavy yoke of the Law of God upon himself so that our burden might be light in him. He has done the heavy lifting so that we may enter rest. We are privileged to celebrate his mighty work as we begin each new week. May this law of God be written on all our hearts.

We will make a few applications in a follow-up post.

A Theology of the Sabbath (3): John Owen on Christ’s Fulfillment of the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works and Mosaical Elements of the Fourth Commandment

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GodFor the One who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:9-10).

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

This is the third post in a four part series. See part 1 (The Sabbath as Moral and Mosaical) HERE, part 2 (The Sabbath in the Covenant of Works) HERE, and part 4 (the Sabbath in the New Covenant) HERE.For a broader summary of Owen’s argument and a fuller list of quotations see HERE.

All Owen quotations are from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980.

Owen’s basic principle regarding the fulfillment of the Sabbath (at least in my opinion) is not that Christ fulfills and abrogates the fourth commandment per se, but that he fulfills the Sabbath principle given in the Covenant of Works, which was re-stated in the fourth commandment. This could be complicated if we’re not careful, so let me give some explanation.

Let’s get our terms straight up front. Owen believes, like many of the Puritans, that when God created Adam, he entered into a Covenant of Works with him. The idea of the Covenant of Works is that God enters into an administration of his Lordship (to use Meredith Kline’s phrase) involving blessing for obedience and curse for disobedience. In regards to the Sabbath, this entails the promise of eternal sabbath (rest, satisfaction, blessedness) with and in God:

Thirdly, Man is to be considered with special respect unto that covenant under which he was created, which was a covenant of works; for herein rest with God was proposed unto him as the end or reward of his own works, or of his personal obedience unto God, by absolute strict righteousness and holiness. And the peculiar form of this covenant, as relating unto the way of God’s entering into it upon the finishing of his own works, designed the seventh day from the beginning of the creation to be the day precisely for the observation of a holy rest (p. 338, emphasis added).

In other words, according to Owen, if Adam is faithful to God in perfect obedience for whatever set time God has appointed, Adam, having worked, will then enter into perfect rest – heavenly rest. But if Adam violates the terms of the covenant, he will be cut off from the rest (satisfaction, blessedness) of God. As a token of that promise of rest, God sanctifies the Sabbath and commands its remembrance and observation (Gen. 2:3).

A major question that often arises here is precisely what terms Adam had to keep in regards to obedience. We know for certain that he was forbidden to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We also have a clear indication that God sanctified the seventh day and instituted the hallowing of it as a command from the beginning. We also know, from the text of Genesis 1-2, that Adam is charged to ‘work’ and to ‘keep,’ or ‘tend’ and defend,’ the Garden of Eden. A strong exegetical case can be made that this entailed a priestly service. I wrote about this in one of my very first posts on this blog a few years ago:

As G.K. Beale notes in The Temple and the Church’s Mission, the terms of Adam’s ‘labor’ in the garden, ‘work it’ and ‘keep it’ (Gen. 2:15, ESV) are used elsewhere in the Pentateuch to denote priestly service. As the Levitical priests were to do the ‘service’ of, and ‘guard,’ the tabernacle, so Adam was to do the service of and guard the Garden. Since we hold that the same author wrote each of the books in the Pentateuch, it seems likely that he is intentionally demonstrating a parallel between the Garden work of Adam and the Temple/Tabernacle work of the priests. Therefore we may legitimately deduce from Genesis 2:15 the idea that the Garden of Eden was the first earthly temple and Adam the first earthly priest (cf. Beale).

In connection with the second deduction, i.e. Adam’s priesthood, we might ask the question, ‘what was his function as a priest?’ It is apparent from the text that his function was to serve God by caring for the garden both in its cultivation and protection. Yet it may also be inferred from Moses’ other writings pertaining to priests that, as a priest, Adam would stand as a representative before God. In the natural, physical sense, Adam would represent his wife as her covenant head by his actions. This would entail his remaining holy before God for her sake, his leading her in the worship of, and obedience to, God, as well as his service and protection of her. Yet, in the view of the Apostle Paul, as set forth in Romans 5, Adam’s covenant head responsibility extended not only to Eve, but to all of his natural descendents.

Therefore, we may deduce that Adam, in his priestly role, stood before God as the covenant representative of all those who would descend from him by natural birth. His position was such that he could either lead all future generations into worship, obedience, and blessing or into a state of curse by his failure as priestly covenantal representative, leaving all of his descendents without mediation unto God (i.e. utterly cut off from his [blessed] presence or pleasure). This line of reasoning is one proof for the existence in Scripture of what has traditionally been called the Covenant of Works.

This much we know. This is the big idea of the Covenant of Works. Now to the Covenant of Grace.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul sets forth the Lord Jesus Christ as the ‘second Adam’ (v. 45), who stands as our Mediator before the Father. In Christ’s obedience, as the second Adam, (taking Owen’s framework) he becomes our new Covenant of Works-representative. He perfectly keeps the commandments of God and therefore keeps/earns the right, as a man, to enter into God’s perfect rest. The good news (gospel) is that Christ has perfectly kept the Covenant of Works, but instead of entering into God’s rest, voluntarily chose to be cut off and suffer the curse of death (and a cursed death at that, Gal. 3:13) for his people. Therefore, those who trust in him are credited with his righteousness as he is credited (on the cross, in the grave) with their sin. That is what the theologians call ‘double imputation’ (our sin to Christ, his righteousness to us).

Moving back to the Covenant of Works, Owen believes that the principles of the Covenant of Works (I suppose you could call it ‘natural law,’ though I personally wouldn’t) are re-stated in the 10 Commandments as God’s rule of righteousness:

Now, the original covenant of works being, in this representation of it on Sinai, not absolutely changed or abolished, but afresh presented unto the people, only with a relief provided for the covenanters against its curse and severity, with a direction how to use it to another end than was first given unto it, it follows that the day of the sabbatical rest could not be changed (p. 391).

The great difference, however, is that God is gracious in his re-stating of the Law on account that he explicitly provides means for the forgiveness of sin (as Exodus 20 through the end of Deuteronomy demonstrates). In addition to this, the Moral Law (i.e. the Law that corresponds to the Covenant of Works) is mingled with ceremonial law meant specifically for the people of Israel in the context in which they lived before the coming of Christ.

Owen’s position is that Christ therefore performs a double fulfillment: 1) He fulfills the Covenant of Works ‘proper’ – that is, he keeps the Moral Law perfectly, thus serving as the perfect Substitute for our own failures and 2) He fulfills the ceremonial elements of the Law, thus causing them to cease as a requirement for obedience. On Christ’s fulfillment and abolishing of the ceremonial aspects of the fourth commandment, Owen writes,

The representation of that covenant, with the sanction given unto it amongst the judgments of righteousness in the government of the people in the land of Canaan, which was the Lord’s, and not theirs, made it a yoke and burden; and the use it was put unto amongst ceremonial observances made it a shadow: in all which respects it is abolished by Christ. To say that the Sabbath as given unto the Jews is not abolished, is to introduce the whole system of Mosaical ordinances, which stand on the same bottom with it. And particularly, the observation of the seventh day precisely lieth as it were in the heart of the economy (pp. 392-393).

The general Puritan position was that the Moral Law (not ceremonial), in our present age, having been fulfilled by Christ, serves a threefold purpose: 1) to show us our sin and failure and thus drive us to Christ in order to seek his substitution and mercy, 2) to show us how God would govern the world (civil), and 3) as the standard of Christian living. The Christian is meant to be conformed to the image of Christ; Christ revered, honored, and kept the Moral Law; if we would be like Christ we must honor, revere, and keep the Moral Law (realizing that we will fail on account of our sinful natures, and that our actual righteousness depends wholly on the righteousness of Christ as our Representative – thus living by faith).

As a final note, in anticipation of our next and final post, it is interesting that Owen asserts the observation of the sabbath on the seventh day (not in general) as wholly fulfilled and changed. This fact is interesting because, as James Dennison notes in The Market Day of the Soul, many of the Puritans believed that the actual ‘day’ of the original Sabbath (in creation, thus in the Covenant of Works) could not be known because God does not specify which day is the seventh day of creation. The day of the sabbath of the Mosaic covenant is clear, for God gave a double portion of manna to the children of Israel on a certain day, mandating the sabbath on the day that followed (Ex. 16:5). (It is interesting to note, however, that the sixth and seventh days represented in Exodus 16 predate the establishment of the ‘seventh’ day in Exodus 20. It seems the day was already clear and set). On account of this idea, Dennison argues, many of the Puritans held that the important principle of the sanctification of the Sabbath in Genesis is that ‘one day in seven’ be set apart for worship, not that the ‘one day’ be a specific day. We only observe the sabbath on the first day in the present age because it was the tradition of the apostles, not because of some other biblical/theological principle. Owen, however, departs from this line of reasoning, and sees the origin of the Sabbath on the seventh day and its change to the first day as supremely significant. We will look at that fact in the next post in this series.

A Theology of the Sabbath (2): John Owen on the Sabbath Command in the Covenant of Works

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GodFor the One who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:9-10).

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

All quotations are from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980.

For a summary of Owen’s argument, see HERE. For part 1 of this series of posts (Owen on the Moral and Mosaical elements of the fourth commandment), see HERE. For part 3 (Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works and its Mosaical Elements) HERE. For part 4 (on the New Covenant Sabbath) see HERE.

Owen contends that the fourth commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,’ is rooted in the original creative work (six days) and rest (one day) of God. The ‘rest’ of God on the seventh day is not primarily a cessation of activity, according to Owen, but instead marks the satisfaction of God that his works were indeed “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God was completely satisfied with his work:

God originally, out of his infinite goodness, when suitably thereunto, by his own eternal wisdom and power, he had made all things good, gave unto men a day of rest, as to express unto them his own rest, satisfaction, an complacency in the works of his hands…(p. 266, emphasis added).

He later clarifies this interpretation:

And the expression of God’s rest is of a moral and not a natural signification; for it consists in the satisfaction and complacency that he took in his works, as effects of his goodness, power, and wisdom, disposed in the order and unto the ends mentioned. Hence, as it is said that upon the finishing of them, he looked on “every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” Gen 1:31, —that is, he was satisfied in his works and their disposal, and pronounced concerning them that they became his infinite wisdom and power; so it is added that he not only “ rested on the seventh day,” but also that he was “refreshed,” Exodus 31:17, —that is, be took great complacency in what he had done, as that which was suited unto the end aimed at namely, the expression of his greatness, goodness, and wisdom, unto his rational creatures, and his glory through their obedience thereon, as on the like occasion he is said to “rest in his love,” and to “rejoice with singing,” Zeph. 3:17 (p. 334).

In light of God’s action in creating the world, and his satisfaction with his creation, which is called his ‘rest,’ God mandates the observance of a sabbath for all mankind, in Adam, as a part of his original Covenant of Works. The Westminster Confession (which shares much in common with Owen’s teaching), describes the Covenant of Works in this way:

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (7.2).

Owen writes,

God originally, out of his infinite goodness, when suitably thereunto, by his own eternal wisdom and power, he had made all things good, gave unto men a day of rest, as to express unto them his own rest, satisfaction, an complacency in the works of his hands, so to be a day of rest and composure to themselves, and a means of their entrance into and enjoyment of that rest with himself, here and forever, which had ordained for them (p. 266, emphasis added).

Later, he puts it this way:

For the Sabbath was originally a moral pledge and expression of God’s covenant rest, and of our rest in God…(p. 390).

The sabbath command, in relation to the Covenant of Works, entails the principle that through his continued obedience, in his perfect state, he was, after a time, to enter into the perfect blessing and rest of God (shabbat, shalom):

Thirdly, Man is to be considered with special respect unto that covenant under which he was created, which was a covenant of works; for herein rest with God was proposed unto him as the end or reward of his own works, or of his personal obedience unto God, by absolute strict righteousness and holiness. And the peculiar form of this covenant, as relating unto the way of God’s entering into it upon the finishing of his own works, designed the seventh day from the beginning of the creation to be the day precisely for the observation of a holy rest (p. 338, emphasis added).

And again,

…Whereas the covenant which man originally was taken into was a covenant of works, wherein his obtaining rest with God depended absolutely on his doing all the work he had to do in a way of legal obedience, he was during the dispensation of that covenant tied up precisely to the observation of the seventh day, or that which followed the whole work of creation. And the seventh day, as such, is a pledge and token of the rest promised in the covenant of works, and no other…(p. 345, emphasis added).

And then,

Hence did he learn the nature of the covenant that he was taken into, namely, how he was first to work in obedience, and then to enter into God’s rest in blessedness; for so had God appointed, and so did he understand his will, from his own present state and condition. Hence was he instructed to dedicate to God, and to his own more immediate communion with him, one day in a weekly revolution, wherein the whole law of his creation was consummated, as a pledge and means of entering eternally into God’s rest, which from hence he understood to be his end and happiness (p. 346, emphasis added).

As such, the sabbath in the Covenant of Works has a threefold purpose:

First, That we might learn the satisfaction and complacency that God hath in his own works…And our observation of the evangelical Sabbath hath the same respect unto the works of Christ and his rest thereon, when he saw of the travail of his soul and was satisfied…Secondly, Another end of the original sabbatical rest was, that it might be a pledge unto man of his rest in and with God; for in and by the law of his creation, man had an end of rest proposed unto him, and that in God…Thirdly, Consideration was had of the way and means whereby man might enter into the rest of God proposed unto him. And this was by that obedience and worship of God which the covenant wherein he was created required of him (pp. 335-336).

It is vital that the presence of the sabbath command in the Covenant of Works be understood for at least three reasons: 1) it grounds the command primarily in the principle of God’s rest apart from specific applications made to the Israelites in the Mosaic covenant, 2) as such, it establishes the primary intention of the sabbath as a pledge and picture of God’s offer of rest and satisfaction and blessedness in him, and 3) it sets the ground for Christ’s work of re-creation which is the basis for the transfer of the day of rest from the last day of the week to the first in order point to the rest that may be found in him as Lord of the Sabbath.

In the next post, we will deal with Owen’s argument for Christ’s fulfillment of the sabbath as a principle of the Covenant of Works, of his fulfillment of the Mosaical (ceremonial/civil) elements of the fourth commandment in principle. From there we will take up Owen’s argument that, having fulfilled those elements of the Covenant of Works and Mosaic Law, Christ, entering into the rest of God, establishes a new sabbath for his people. These points will be vital 1) for a proper understanding of what is offered to us in the gospel, 2) for a proper understanding of the purpose of the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath, and 3) in light of those points, for guarding us against keeping ourselves under the sanctions of the Covenant of Works. As Owen puts it:

And those who would advance that [the seventh] day again into a necessary observation do consequentially introduce the whole covenant of works, and are become debtors unto the whole law; for the. works of God which preceded the seventh day precisely were those whereby man was initiated into and instructed in the covenant of works, and the day itself was a token and pledge of the righteousness thereof, or a moral and natural sign of it, and of the rest of God therein, and the rest of man with God thereby (pp. 345-346).

A Theology of the Sabbath (1): John Owen on the Fourth Commandment as Moral and Mosaical

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GodFor the One who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:9-10).

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

All quotations are from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980. For a list of relevant quotations, see HERE.

Update: See Part 2 (The Sabbath in the Covenant of Works) HERE.

John Owen makes a distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘Mosaical’ elements in the fourth commandment:

For whereas some have made no distinction between the Sabbath as moral and as Mosaical, unless it be merely in the change of the day, they have endeavored to introduce the whole practice required on the latter into the Lord’s day (p. 441).

In the above quote, he is making the point that he believes the Christian interpretation of the fourth (sabbath) commandment which requires the entire commandment to be seen as presently binding is wrong. He sees, in the fourth commandment, two distinct elements: the moral and the Mosaical. The moral essence of the command remains binding: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). The Mosaical elements, which are ‘explicatory’ of the commandment in the distinct setting in which they are given to Israel are no longer in force: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:9-11).

He explains:

It is by all confessed that the command of the Sabbath, in the renewal of it in the wilderness, was accommodated unto the pedagogical state of the church of the Israelites. There were also such additions made unto it, in the manner of its observance and the sanction of it, as might adapt its observation unto their civil and political estate…So was it to bear a part in that ceremonial instruction which God in all his dealings with them intended. To this end also the manner of the delivery of the whole law and the preservation of its tables in the ark were designed. And divers expressions in the explicatory parts of the decalogue have the same reason and foundation. For there is mention of fathers and children to the third and fourth generation, and of their sins, in the second commandment; of the land given to the people of God, in the fifth; of servants and handmaids, in the tenth. Shall we therefore say that the moral law was not before given unto mankind, because it had a peculiar delivery, for special ends and purposes, unto the Jews? (p. 314).

This view is predicated on the idea that the original Sabbath command was a part of the pre-Fall (Adamic) covenant of works. We will deal with that issue in another post (Update: see HERE). For our present purpose here, I will draw from a contemporary of Owen (and a Westminster Divine): Samuel Bolton. Bolton held a very similar view to the nature of Old Testament Law. He describes the relationship of the moral and Mosaical (which he divides into two parts, ceremonial and judicial; these have also regularly been called ‘ceremonial’ and ‘civil’) in this way:

The ceremonial law was an appendix to the first table of the moral law. It was an ordinance containing precepts of worship for the Jews when they were in their infancy…As for the judicial law, which was an appendix to the second table, it was an ordinance containing precepts concerning the government of the people in things civil…(The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, p. 56).

I have written on Bolton’s interpretation HERE. In that post, I shared a diagram (that I created, poorly I might add) that summarizes Bolton’s view:

Here is the explanation: the great commandment and the second which is ‘like unto it’ (Matthew 22:37-39) are further elaborated in the moral law of the 10 Commandments (or to put it another way, ‘Love God’ and ‘Love your neighbor’ serve as a summary of the moral law). The Moral Law is then applied specifically to Israel by way of the Ceremonial and Civil Laws (which Bolton likens to appendices, something added after the initial laws). The Cleanliness laws are placed in the middle of the appendices, between the Civil and Ceremonial, because they can fall into either or both categories (see the original post linked above for further explanation).

With this in mind, what we find in Owen is this: he believes that appendices to the commandments not only exist after the initial giving of the 10 Commandments, but in the giving of the 10 Commandments themselves. Restating the relevant parts of the quotation above relating to ‘Mosaical’ (Ceremonial/Civil) additions to the Moral Law:

There were also such additions made unto it, in the manner of its observance and the sanction of it, as might adapt its observation unto their civil and political estate…

He lists a few examples of such additions:

…There is mention of fathers and children to the third and fourth generation, and of their sins, in the second commandment; of the land given to the people of God, in the fifth; of servants and handmaids, in the tenth. Shall we therefore say that the moral law was not before given unto mankind, because it had a peculiar delivery, for special ends and purposes, unto the Jews?

While this interpretation might seem strange upon first reading, upon careful review it will be clear that Christians have always made such a distinction (and continue to make such a distinction) in parts of the 10 Commandments. For example, consider the 2nd Commandment (according to the Protestant numbering of the Commandments):

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.(Ex. 20:4-6).

The NAS, for instance, makes the point clear by translating ‘carved image’ as an ‘idol.’ Christians understand that the commandment applies to more than carved images. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, for instance, describes the requirements of the second commandment in this way:

Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his word.

Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.

We also, at least it seems to me, tend to stray away from the idea of direct, judicial generational curses, realizing that this element of the commandment was tied to the Mosaic administration of the Law.

Next, consider the fifth commandment:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Ex. 20:12).

The land promise tied to obedience is, at least, radically changed under the New Covenant. It is clear that this promise (based on obedience) was in direct reference to the Promised Land of Canaan.

So then, Owen argues that the the majority of what is known as the fourth commandment is essentially an appendix meant for the children of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant; those elements, he will argue, are fulfilled in Christ, while the moral essence of the commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,’ abides.

We will look at the rest of the argument in detail in future posts. Subjects included will be Owen’s view of the Mosaic Law (with the Sabbath in particular) as a restatement of the Covenant of Works, how Christ’s Law-keeping, death, and resurrection relate to the Sabbath command in relation to the Covenant of Works, and how Christ, fulfilling the Law, begins, in the resurrection, a new creation with a new (Christian) Sabbath – the Lord’s Day.