The Mortification of Sin by Looking to Jesus

Here’s another talk I gave recently if you’d like to hear me discuss my take on the doctrine of sanctification. What role does the Law play in sanctification? How do we put sin to death? How do we become more holy?  Listen and you’ll hear what I believe to be the Bible’s answer:

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John Owen on the Beatific Vision

This past week, I came across an interesting lecture on how John Owen ‘protestantized’ (or ‘reformed’) the doctrine of the Beatific Vision. That is, he took the teachings of Aquinas and applied and expanded them in order to apply them to his own day. It’s an interesting listen, if you’re in to that sort of thing. Owen’s idea of sanctification through ‘seeing’ Christ has been very influential for my own thinking on sanctification. You can click the link below:

Suzanne McDonald, Beholding God’s Glory: John Owen and the ‘Reforming’ of the Beatific Vision

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.

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.

A Summary of John Owen on the Sabbath

Update: I am writing a series of posts based on Owen’s argument. 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 (the Sabbath in the New Covenant) HERE.

In his (massive and epic) exposition of Hebrews, John Owen provides a large excursus on the Reformed doctrine of the Sabbath. The full title (which is amazing) is Exercitations Concerning the Name, Original, Nature, Use, and Continuance of a Day of Sacred Rest wherein the Original of the Sabbath from the Foundation of the World, the Morality of the Fourth Commandment, with the change of the Seventh Day, are Inquired Into; Together with an Assertion of the Divine Institution of the Lord’s Day, and Practical Directions for its Due Observation.  The context of the excursus is Hebrews 4, and particularly vv. 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’s primary contention is that ‘the one’ of verse 10 is Jesus Christ. Christ, in his resurrection and ascension, has entered into His own rest, reminiscent of the original Sabbath rest of creation, thus inaugurating the new age, and the new heavens and the new earth. In order to build upon this idea, Owen traces his doctrine back to creation in Genesis 1 and 2, through the Sabbath command of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and into its fulfillment and renovation in Christ.

What follows is my attempt at a summary of Owen’s exposition of Hebrews 4:9-10 using only quotes from him with headings added by me. Each bullet point is a quotation. Quotations are taken from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980. This seven-volume set was given to me as a gift years ago. I’ve ever remained thankful. You can read an online version for free HERE. After this post, I will likely devote some time to fleshing out this argument apart from simple quotations. I will update this post as I continue writing about the subject in the future (I hope to work through this on a semi-point-by-point basis in future posts as time permits). This is a lot of straight quotation (I know), but the argument is worth our attention, as there is very little thought with any sort of depth or nuance regarding a Christian doctrine of the sabbath these days.

I. The Sabbath Command is Grounded in God’s Own Rest (Satisfaction and Complacency) in His Creative 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, 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).
  • 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).
  • For the Sabbath was originally a moral pledge and expression of God’s covenant rest, and of our rest in God…(p. 390).

II. The Sabbath Command is Embedded in the Natural Law of Creation

  • All nations, I say, in all ages, have from time immemorial made the revolution of seven days to be the second stated period of time. And this observation is still continued throughout the world, unless amongst them who in other things are openly degenerated from the law of nature…(p. 309).

III. The Sabbath Command was a Part of the Original Covenant of Works with Adam

  • 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).
  • …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. And those who would advance that 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).
  • 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).

IV. Reasons for the Sabbath Command in the Covenant of Works

  • 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…(p. 335).
  • 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 (p. 335).
  • 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 (p. 336).

V. The Mosaic Law (including the Sabbath Command) is in some sense a Re-Presentation or Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works

  • 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. And therefore was the observation of the seventh day precisely continued, because it was a moral pledge of the rest of God in the first covenant; for this the instructive part of the law of our creation, from God’s making the world in six days, and resting on the seventh, did require. The observation of this day, therefore, was still continued among the Israelites, because the first covenant was again presented unto them (p. 391).
  • But when that covenant was absolutely, and in all respects as a covenant, taken away and disannulled, and that not only as to its formal efficacy, but also as to the manner of the administration of God’s covenant with men, as it is under the gospel, there was a necessity that the day of rest should also be changed, as I have more fully showed elsewhere. I say, then, that the precise observation of the seventh day enjoined unto the Israelites had respect unto the covenant of works, wherein the foundation of it was laid, as hath been demonstrated. And the whole controversy about what day is to be observed now as a day of holy rest unto the Lord, is resolved fully into this inquiry, namely, what covenant we do walk before God in (pp. 391-392).

VI. Specific External Applications are Added to the Sabbath Command Under Moses that are Particular to Israel

  • 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).
  • …For all the judgments relating unto civil things were but an application of the moral law to their state and condition. Hence was the sanction of the transgression of it to be punished with death. So was it in particular with respect unto the Sabbath, Numbers 15:32-36, partly that it might represent unto them the original sanction of the whole law as a covenant of works, and partly to keep that stubborn people by this severity within due bounds of government. Nor was any thing punished by death judicially in the law but the transgression of some moral command…“the hand of heaven,” is threatened against their presumptuous transgression of the ceremonial law, where no sacrifice was allowed: “I the LORD will set my face against that man, and cut him off.” This also made the Sabbath a yoke and a burden, that wherein their consciences could never find perfect rest. And in this sense also it is abolished and taken away (p. 392).
  • 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).

VII. Hence a Distinction Must be Made in the Law Between Strictly Moral and Mosaical (Moral Mingled with Ceremonial and Civil)

  • 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).

VIII. Summary of the Old Testament Teaching of the Sabbath

  • …It appears that the observation of the seventh day precisely from the beginning of the world belonged unto the covenant of works, not as a covenant, but as a covenant of works, founded in the law of creation; and that in the administration of that covenant, which was revived, and unto certain ends re-enforced unto the church of Israel in the wilderness, it was bound on them by an especial ordinance, to be observed throughout their generations, or during the continuance of their church-state. Moreover, that as to the manner of its observance required by the law, as delivered on mount Sinai, it was a yoke and burden to the people, because that dispensation of the law gendered unto bondage, Galatians 4:24; for it begot a spirit of fear and bondage in all that were its children and subject unto its power. In this condition of things it was applied unto sundry ends in their typical state; in which regard it was “ a shadow of good things to come.” And so also was it in respect of those other additional institutions and prohibitions which were inseparable from its observation amongst them, whereof we have spoken.On all these accounts I doubt not but that the Mosaical Sabbath, and the manner of its observation, are under the gospel utterly taken away. But as for the weekly Sabbath, as required by the law of our creation, and reenforced in the decalogue, the summary representation of that great original law, the observation of it is a moral duty, which by divine authority is translated unto another day (p. 402).

IX. Christ’s New Creation (in His Resurrection) Becomes the New Covenant Paradigm for the Christian Sabbath, or ‘the Lord’s Day’ (Hence the Change from Last to First Day of the Week)

  • As our Lord Jesus Christ, as the eternal Son and Wisdom of the Father, was the immediate cause and author of the old creation, John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 1:2,10, so as Mediator he was the author of this new creation, Hebrews 3:3-4. He built the house of God; he built all these things, and is God. Herein he wrought, and in the accomplishment of it “saw of the travail of his soul, and was satisfied,” Isaiah 53:11; that is, “he rested, and was refreshed.” Herein he gave a new law of life, faith, and obedience unto God, Isaiah 42:4; not by an addition of new precepts to the moral law of God not virtually comprised therein, and distinct from his own positive institutions of worship, but in his revelation of that new way of obedience unto God in and by himself, with the especial causes, means, and ends of it, — which supplies the use and end whereunto the moral law was at first designed, Romans 8:2-3, 10:3- 4, — whereby he becomes “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him,” Hebrews 5:9. This law of life and obedience he writes by his Spirit in the hearts of his people, that they may be “willing in the day of his power,” Psalm 110:3, 2 Corinthians 3:3,6, Hebrews 8:10; not at once and in the foundation of his work actually, but only in the causes of it. For as the law of nature should have been implanted in the hearts of men in their conception and natural nativity, had that dispensation of righteousness continued, so in the new birth of them that believe in him is this law written in their hearts in all generations, John 3:6. Hereon was the covenant established and all the promises thereof, of which he was the mediator, Hebrews 8:6. And for a holy day of rest, for the ends before declared, and on the suppositions before laid down evincing the necessity of such a day, he determined the observation of the first day of the week; for, — 9. First, on this day he rested from his works, in and by his resurrection; for then had he laid the foundation of the new heavens and new earth, and finished the works of the new creation, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” On this day he rested from his works, and was refreshed, as God did and was from his. For although he “worketh hitherto,” in the communication of his Spirit and graces, as the Father continued to do in his works of providence, after the finishing of the works of the old creation, though these works belonged thereunto, yet he ceased absolutely from that kind of work whereby he laid the foundation of the new creation. Henceforth he dieth no more. And on this day was he refreshed in the view of his work; for he saw that it was exceeding good. 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).
  • …The apostle proves, from the words of the psalmist, that there was yet to be a third state of the church, an especial state under the Messiah, which he now proposed unto the Hebrews, and exhorted them to enter into. And in this church-state there is to be also a peculiar state of rest, distinct from them which went before. To the constitution hereof there are three things required :— First, That there be some signal work of God completed and finished, whereon he enters into his rest. This was to be the foundation of the whole new church-state, and of the rest to be obtained therein. Secondly, That there be a spiritual rest ensuing thereon and arising thence, for them that believe to enter into. Thirdly, That there be a new or renewed day of rest, to express that rest of God, and to be a pledge of our entering into it. If any of these, or either of them, be wanting, the whole structure of the apostle’s discourse will be dissolved, neither will there be any color remaining for his mentioning the seventh day and the rest thereof. These things, therefore, we must further inquire into. 19. First, the apostle showeth that there was a great work of God, and that finished, for the foundation of the whole. This he had made way for, chap. 3:4-5, where he both expressly asserts the Son to be God, and shows the analogy that is between the creation of all things and the building of the church, — that is, the works of the old and new creation. As, then, God wrought in the creation of all, so Christ, who is God, wrought in the setting up of this new church-state. And upon his finishing of it he entered into his rest, as God did into his, whereby he limited a certain day of rest unto his people. So he speaks, “There remaineth therefore a sabbatism for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also has ceased from his works, as God did from his own.” A new day of rest, accommodated unto this new church-state, arises from the rest that the Lord Christ entered into upon his ceasing from his works (p. 416).

X. A Return to Old Testament Sabbatarianism (Seventh Day) is a Return to the Covenant of Works

  • …So the covenant being changed, and the rest which was the end of it being changed, and the way of entering into the rest of God being changed, a change of the day of rest must of necessity thereon ensue. And no man can assert the same day of rest precisely to abide as of old, but he must likewise assert the same law, the same covenant, the same rest of God, the same way of entering into it; which yet, as all acknowledge, are changed (p. 407).

XI. Summary of the Lord’s Day

  • 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).

XII. Duties of the Lord’s Day

  • All duties proper and peculiar to this day are duties of communion with God (p. 452).
  • The public duties of the day are principally to be regarded. By public duties, I intend the due attendance unto and the due performance of all those parts of his solemn worship which God has appointed to be observed in the assemblies of his people, and in the manner wherein he has appointed them to be observed (p. 457).
  • …The public and solemn worship of God is to be preferred above that which is private. They may be so prudently managed as not to interfere nor ordinarily to intrench on one another; but wherever on any occasion they seem so to do, the private are to give place to the public: for one chief end of the sacred setting apart of this day, is the solemn acknowledgment of God, and the performance of his worship in assemblies. It is therefore a marvelous undue custom, on the pretense of private duties, whether personal or domestic, to abate any part of the duties of solemn assemblies; for there is in it a setting up of our own choice and inclinations against the wisdom and authority of God (pp. 457-458).
  • Refreshments helpful to nature, so far as to refresh it, that it may have a supply of spirits to go on cheerfully in the duties of holy worship, are lawful and useful. To macerate the body with abstinences on this day is required of none, and to turn it into a fast, or to fast upon it, is generally condemned by the ancients. Wherefore to forbear provision of necessary food for families on this day is Mosaical; and the enforcement of the particular precepts about not kindling fire in our houses on this day, baking and preparing the food of it the day before, cannot be insisted on without a re-introduction of the seventh day precisely, to whose observation they were annexed, and thereby of the law and spirit of the old covenant. Provided always that these refreshments be, — First . Seasonable for the time of them, and not when public duties require our attendance on them; Secondly. Accompanied with a singular regard to the rules of temperance; as, (First.) That there be no appearance of evil; (Secondly.) That nature be not charged with any kind of excess, so far as to be hindered rather than assisted in the duties of the day; (Thirdly.) That they be accompanied with gravity, and sobriety, and purity of conversation. Now, whereas these things are, in the substance of them, required of us in the whole course of our lives, as we intend to please God, and to come to the enjoyment of him, none ought to think an especial regard unto them on this day to be a bondage or troublesome unto them.
  • For private duties, both personal and domestic, they are either antecedent or consequent to the solemn public worship, as usually for time it is celebrated amongst us. These consisting in the known religious exercises of prayer, reading the Scripture, meditation, family instructions from the advantage of the public ordinances, they are to be recommended to every one’s conscience, ability, and opportunity, as they shall find strength and assistance for them.

Meaning and Application 1: The State of the Question

My history with the question of the relationship between meaning and application began, years ago, when a friend asked my opinion of this statement:

A particular statement [of Scripture] may have numerous possible personal applications, but it can have only one correct meaning (R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, p. 39).

My initial take was that this seemed correct enough. The Bible can’t say that something is blue and red at the same time and in the same way, right? The Bible would never claim that 2+2=5. But after we discussed this question over the course of time, we were left asking the question of whether this sort of way of looking at the Bible actually turned the student of the Bible into a mathematician. Sure, the Bible cannot say 2+2=5, therefore all we need to do is be good mathematicians. In studying the Bible, we want to make sure that we are getting the correct answer every time.

So, how do we get the correct answer? By understanding the original context of the writing of the text. We must become historically-minded exegetes who can dig down beneath the layers of historical interpretation and discover the original historical context of the text. From there, we must unearth the original reason for the writing of a particular text to a particular people in that original context. From there, we discover the illusive ‘original intent.’

Once we have found that original intent, we follow the basic rule of hermeneutics. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, set forth this proposition:

On this one thing, however, there must surely be agreement: A text cannot mean what it never meant. Or to put it in a positive way, the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken (p. 30).

And bingo! We’ve arrived at the meaning of a text. Now what? Now we can begin to make applications, based on that original meaning, to our present context. This all sounds rather scientific, does it not? And herein lies the problem.

Anyone who has wrestled with the Scriptures understands that the distinction between meaning and application is not so simple. For instance, let’s do some deconstruction on the idea that ‘a text cannot mean what it never meant.’ The idea here is that a text can only ‘mean’ what it could have ‘meant’ for its original audience. John Frame, in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, uses the example of embezzling to deal with this idea. Does “You shall not steal” mean “You shall not embezzle” or is “You shall not embezzle” an application of “You shall not steal”? Perhaps it was possible for second generation Israelites of the wilderness years to embezzle. If it was, then “You shall not embezzle” could be included in the meaning of the text. ‘A text cannot mean what it never meant,’ but perhaps it could have meant that. But what about this: does “You shall not steal” mean “You shall not illegally download movies on the internet,” or is that simply an application of the commandment? The original human writer couldn’t have meant that. The original audience would never have understood it that way. But it seems logical to say that illegal downloading is a form of stealing and therefore “You shall not steal” does indeed mean “You shall not illegally download movies from the internet.” “You shall not steal” means more than that, but it would seem this is a part of the meaning of the words.

One could think of a thousand examples like this. ‘Coveting’ originally applied to your neighbor’s house, and wife, and donkey. God explains, to the original audience, what he means by adding particular applications of the principle. But what about your neighbor’s BMW? Is ‘not coveting your neighbor’s BMW’ a part of the meaning of the text or simply an application of the text? I am not making the case that all application of Scripture is necessarily included in the meaning, but I want to demonstrate that the distinction between meaning and application is not as simple as some would have us think.

Next, let’s briefly consider the notion of ‘good and necessary consequence.’ The Westminster Confession of Faith (1:6) uses this language, as did many of the Puritans. Here is an example of the idea from John Owen:

Moreover, whatever is so revealed in the Scripture is no less true and divine as to whatever necessarily followeth thereon, than it is unto that which is principally revealed and directly expressed. For how far soever the lines be drawn and extended, from truth nothing can follow and ensue but what is true also; and that in the same kind of truth with that which it is derived and deduced from. For if the principal assertion be a truth of divine revelation, so is also whatever is included therein, and which may be rightly from thence collected…(Works of John Owen, vol 2, p. 379).

Owen, in a discussion on the doctrine of the Trinity, is making the case that the ‘application’ (or, to put it another way, the implications) of Scripture carries the same divine authority as the very ‘words’ of Scripture. Therefore, in the context of our discussion, this means that “You shall not illegally download movies from the internet” carries the same divine authority as “You shall not steal.” If, Owen says, an idea “is included” in “divine revelation” and therefore may be “collected” from it, then it carries the same authority as the very words of Scripture. John Frame recognizes this same principle:

Unless applications are as authoritative as the explicit teachings of Scriptures…then scriptural authority becomes a dead letter (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 84).

From here, I want to share a number of helpful quotes that unpack this idea.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in the preface to his commentary on Romans 3:20-4:25, makes this statement about preaching:

Moreover, it is vital that we should understand that an epistle such as this is only a summary of what the Apostle Paul preached. He explains that in chapter 1, verses 11-15. He wrote the Epistle because he was not able to visit them in Rome. Had he been with them he would not merely have given them what he says in this Letter, for this is but a synopsis. He would have preached an endless series of sermons as he did daily in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9) and probably have often gone on until midnight (Acts 20:7). The business of the preacher and teacher is to open out and expand what is given here by the Apostle in summary form.

This is quite a statement: ‘The business of the preacher and teacher is to open out and expand.’ That means, if we make sharp distinctions between meaning and application, then the preacher is mainly concerned with application. After all, you can’t really ‘open out’ or ‘expand’ the meaning of a text if the meaning is once and for all settled according to its original context. But, if we take Frame’s perspective, we don’t want to make such a distinction:

The meaning of a text is any use to which it may be legitimately be put. That means that in one sense the meaning of any text is indefinite. We do not know all the uses to which that text may be put in the future, nor can we rigidly define that meaning in one sentence or two (Frame, p. 198).

The applications we are making, if they are an opening outward of the text, that is, if we are (in Owen’s words) ‘deducing’ from Scripture and opening up what is ‘contained therein’ are actually implied in the text. We are merely expounding the meaning. This, again, shows that a clean distinction between meaning and application is hard to make. And it means, for the preacher, that it is quite alright to be ‘application-heavy,’ so long as the application is bringing out the meaning of the text (even if that meaning is latent or implied or is drawn out from necessary inference).

The major objection to this line of thinking is that it opens up the possibility of adding to Scripture. Fee and Stuart’s primary argument for the notion that ‘a text cannot mean what it could never have meant’ is that extending meaning to contemporary applications could lead to the possibility of ascribing words to God that he never said. I don’t doubt that the idea could be abused in that way, but there are answers to such objections:

Implication does not add anything new; it merely rearranges information contained in the premises. It takes what is implicit in the premises and states it explicitly. Thus when we learn logical implications of sentences, we are learning more and more of what those sentences mean. The conclusion represents part of the meaning of the premises.

So in theology, logical deductions set forth the meaning of Scripture. ‘Stealing is wrong; embezzling is stealing; therefore embezzling is wrong.’ That is a kind of ‘moral syllogism,’ common to ethical reasoning. Deriving this conclusion is a kind of ‘application,’ and we have argued that the applications of Scripture are its meaning. If someone says he believes stealing is wrong but he believes embezzlement is permitted, then he has not understood the meaning of the eighth commandment…

When it is used rightly, logical deduction adds nothing to Scripture. It merely sets forth what is there. Thus we need not fear any violation of sola scriptura as long as we use logic responsibly. Logic sets forth the meaning of Scripture (Frame, p. 247).

The clearest biblical illustration that sharp distinctions between meaning and application are problematic is our Lord’s Sabbath-encounter with the pharisees recorded in Matthew 12. Here are verses 1-7 from the ESV:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

The issue of Christ’ s discussion with the pharisees is whether or not it is permissible to pluck and eat heads of grain on the Sabbath. The pharisees say that the disciples are breaking the fourth commandment (Remember the Sabbath…) and Jesus contends that they are not breaking the fourth commandment. Jesus questions the pharisees’ interpretation by asking them whether or not they have read other portions of Scripture: ‘Have you not read…’ Indeed, there is little doubt that the pharisees had read all of the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather, it seems that Jesus’ main point is that they had misunderstood the Scriptures. They knew the words, but they were not able to make proper application of the words. In this case, their misapplication of the words of Scripture would have deprived Christ’s disciples of a Sabbath snack and therefore allowed them to remain hungry. Jesus says that the satisfying of their hunger is more important than extra-biblical laws about labor on the Sabbath.

Notice that this is a battle of applications. Jesus charges the pharisees with misapplying Scripture and he leads them down the interpretive road to true application. But is that all that is going on? The main point I want to make is that Jesus is essentially charging the pharisees with misunderstanding the Bible. In other words, their faulty application of Scripture meant that they had not understood Scripture. They had not only missed the application, they had missed the meaning. If you think that the fourth commandment means you can’t pick an apple and eat it on the Sabbath, then you do not understand the meaning of the fourth commandment. It is as if you have never really read it to begin with.

Charles Spurgeon has a wonderful sermon on this text HERE entitled How to Read the Bible. At one point, he says this:

I think that is in my text, because our Lord says, “Have ye not read?” Then, again, “Have ye not read?” and then he says, “If ye had known what this meaneth”—[that] the meaning is something very spiritual. The text he quoted was, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice”—a text out of the prophet Hosea. Now, the scribes and Pharisees were all for the letter—the sacrifice, the killing of the bullock, and so on. They overlooked the spiritual meaning of the passage, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice”—namely, that God prefers that we should care for our fellow-creatures rather than that we should observe any ceremonial of his law, so as to cause hunger or thirst and thereby death, to any of the creatures that his hands have made. They ought to have passed beyond the outward into the spiritual, and all our readings ought to do the same.

By ‘spiritual,’ I do not think he means that there is some ‘higher meaning’ of a text. Rather, he means that you must bring the text out and down – open it up and apply it in a personal way that is consistent with the rest of Scripture. To do this, I am arguing, is to open up the meaning of a text.

We now have a basic sketch of the argument I am making. From here, let me summarize, and then move on to a few implications of the argument.

In summary, sharp distinctions between meaning and application are difficult to make at best. I fear that the making of such distinctions comes out of a desire to seek ‘scientific objectivity’ in interpretation. Such objectivity is impossible. And even if it were possible (and I don’t think it is), it is still undesirable. My argument is that objective detachment in biblical interpretation is impossible and/or undesirable for at least two reasons: 1) Interpretation (even in determining the original context of portions of Scripture) necessarily involves asking questions of the text, and questions cannot be neutral and 2) the best biblical interpretation is also the most applicable and vice versa (the worst is the least applicable). I will pursue those points in the next post with a little help from Neil Postman and Michael Polanyi.

Making Bricks Without Straw (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification)

Seeking a pure life without a pure nature is building without a foundation. And there is no seeking a new nature from the law, for it bids us make brick without straw, and says to the cripple, ‘Walk,’ without giving any strength.

-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 14

I’ve written about this same theme in detail ELSEWHERE. For the sake of those who won’t click the link, let me share a similar statement by John Owen on the subject of sanctification:

This is the work of the Spirit; by him alone is it to be wrought, and by no other power is it to be brought about. Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world (Mortification of Sin in Believers, ch. 1).