What“Sabbath Debate” ?

September, 2006.

I was looking for something on the internet by using Google and found something rather different which caught my attention; Has this not happened to all of us who use the 'net' a lot?

The article which drew my attention was called “The Sabbath Debate Continues Among Christians” - I found this both surprising as an article title but also very sad. Sure, there will always be some debate between Christians in some areas but a “sabbath debate”? To my way of thinking, a 'sabbath debate' can only occur and gather momentum where perverters of the gospel message have gained a foothold – and been listened to! So when seeing that particular article title I thought, 'What sabbath debate?' Frankly, there should be no 'sabbath debate' among Christians because the New Testament approach appears to be clear. I am sure that those legalists who had gained a foothold in Galatia which had so aroused the wrath of Paul the Apostle, probably encouraged sabbath debates, certainly we know there was a 'circumcision debate' in Galatia. Paul complains bitterly that these things could only happen where believers had taken their eyes off the grace of Christ, and glanced back towards the law (read all of Galatians, for a reminder). As I write elsewhere in one of this month's new articles, Paul only uses the word 'sabbath' in his epistles in one place (Colossians 2:16-17), and he only uses it to complain about legalists. He could have used up several chapters stating how Christians must continue to keep the Sabbath, he could have said that strict sabbath observance – sabbatarianism – must continue to be part of the life of believers – but he did not! He did, indeed, talk rather a lot about the things which would be important in the lives of Christian believers: faith, endurance, keeping free from sexual sin, understanding that justification is by faith alone, understanding that God willingly accepts Gentile as well as Israelitish believers. Later on, the writer of Hebrews (probably not Paul although we cannot be sure) also points out that Christians should continue to assemble together and not forsake that practice – and that's about it!

My article on how Sabbatarianism later entered the church has proven helpful to some; it points out that those people were very sincere but were sometimes over-zealous and inclined to lapse into legalism. We may admire the zeal for Christ of certain people in history, such as John Knox, but wonder if they did not fully understand the dangers of legalism and how once it rears its head with regulations which the New Testament never calls for, both the correct understanding of Justification and the liberty which we are given in Christ can quickly become compromised!

The first Christians felt that the most appropriate day that they should assemble in order to worship the risen Christ was on the very day of the resurrection – Sunday: The Lord's Day! The fascinating thing is that they assembled on this day twice immediately following the resurrection. On both of these occasions the risen Christ actually appears among them. Carefully read John 20: 19-22 and John 20:26. The Old King James says here; "after eight days…" and this is true to the original Greek, but misleading since it appears that the inclusive method of counting is being used here; One Sunday to another being eight days. Almost every modern translation says here, "One week later". We know from early church historians and apologists like Justin Martyr that Sunday became the day that Christians always preferred to assemble thereafter. For a while some continued to also assemble on the Sabbath, or to assemble on both days but this practice quickly died out.

For many centuries the early Church were careful not to confuse the Lord's Day with the Old Covenant sabbath which they considered fulfilled in Christ: Matthew 11:28-30. As well as Justin Martyr, people like Ignatius, Eusebius and several others were very clear about this. There is also a very early epistle called the Epistle of Barnabas which is clear on this point (nobody knows whether or not the writer is the Barnabas of the New Testament, probably not). But as the centuries progressed, tendencies to turn back to a sabbath legalism in order to encourage regular Lord's Day attendances became more and more common. In the 16th century Reformation both Martin Luther and John Calvin were determined to restore the conception that the Lord's Day should not be confused with the sabbath and that it should not be legalistic. In Table Talk, Luther had said,

"If anywhere the day is made holy for the mere day's sake---if anywhere anyone sets up its observance on a Jewish foundation, then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian liberty."

And in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin said,

...It was not, however, without a reason that the early Christians substituted what we call the Lord's day for the Sabbath. The resurrection of our Lord being the end and accomplishment of that true rest which the ancient Sabbath signified, this day, by which types were abolished, serves to warn Christians against adhering to a shadowy ceremony. I do not cling to the number seven as to bring the Church under bondage to it, nor do I condemn churches for holding their meetings on other solemn days, provided they guard against superstition.”

(Fuller details on these references can be found in How First Day Sabbatarianism Entered the Church).

Unfortunately, the organised Protestantism which later developed from their work tended to follow Bullinger rather than Luther and Calvin on this point and Bullinger tended towards a First Day Sabbatarianism. The Puritans too mostly adopted quite a rigid and frequently highly judgmental First Day Sabbatarianism despite the quite clear fact this approach cannot be harmonized in any way with the theology of the New Testament.

Apart from the article already mentioned, here are several other articles on this subject:

The Early Church Fathers and the Sabbath

Why Worship on a Sunday?

Was the Mosaic Sabbath Eternal and Unchangeable?

Confessions of a Former Sabbath Keeper

The Law and the Prophets Were Until John

The Move Away From Legalism

Is the Sabbath Binding on Christians Today?

An Appeal to Seventh Day Sabbath Believers