Part 1: General Overview
A Covenantalist and a Dispensationalist aim and fire their shotguns at their targets. How do you tell which target belonged to whom?
This is the battle between Reformed Covenant theology and Evangelical Dispensationalism and how these systems understand the relationship between the OT and NT, but especially between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. All of the contributors are beneficiaries of the work of Christ and participants in the new covenant, but something has created a rift in their understanding of the place of the NT church in God’s eternal plan. Essayist Petersen states “The Bible, the book that unites the church, frequently divides it” (p. 34). But I think we ourselves divide over it.
Continuity and Discontinuity is now 30 years old. And in that time, having associated with churches that espouse these varied positions, I don’t think much has changed since then. My interest in this book was specific to the law, and how the foundational premise of continuity and discontinuity would affect their respective views of the Sabbath. I plan to discuss the two chapters dealing with the law and in a separate article. A third article will address the comments made by Chamblin and Moo specific to their sabbatology.
The first chapter of this in-depth festschrift reviews the historical development of the challenges of relating the testaments to each other. Covenant Theology arose in the sixteenth century (there are precursors with everything) with a sense that the church was true Israel. I agreed with Petersen’s observation that “the implication from this was that the moral laws and precepts of the OT were given added weight as guides to the Christian life” (p. 27). Dispensationalism arose in the nineteenth century with the sense that Israel as a nation still had a role in end-times events. Historically speaking, it appears that the Christian’s hope for the Parousia, couched in terms of their present historical circumstances, can have a profound effect on their hermeneutic. Could it be possible that both of these views have misdirected NT theology?
The following topics are discussed, two essays from opposing viewpoints. I will comment only on the topics “Theological Systems” and “People of God.”
- Theological Systems (Ch 2,3)
- Hermeneutics (Ch 4,5)
- Salvation (Ch 6,7)
- The Law (Ch 8,9)
- People of God (Ch 10,11)
- Kingdom Promises (Ch 12,13)
Chapters 2 and 3 offer a general outline of the competing systems. Readers will not be presented with a conclusive position statement from either system of thought; they will simply have to be already familiar with the respective systems.
Reformed. Van Gemeren says Reformed theology is a continuity system, but little is presented what necessitates a position of “continuity.” He mentions a list of similarities and differences between the covenants compiled by Ursinus, but the list seemed to favor dissimilarities! The first half of his essay focused on the in-fighting among Reformed theologians and concluded with the introspective question whether it is possible to be biblical and confessionally Reformed. Silly question. Of course, those who embrace Reformed theology think they are biblical. The second half of his essay says little about what makes Reformed theology a continuity system. God is father, Christ is a unifying thread, the Spirit is working, and there will be end times. “The genius of Reformed Theology lies in the willingness to live with tensions inherent in the system” (p. 62).
Dispensational. Feinberg then argues that Dispensationalism does not rely on the term “dispensation,” does not mean that God is testing humanity, does not specify the number of dispensations one must accept, has no impact on whether one is Calvinist or Arminian, and does not demand a particular view of the law. Israel is important. Feinberg begins to isolate a difference between the systems when he states that typological approaches and the promise-fulfillment concept form the basis for continuity-oriented interpretations (p. 66). But later he says, “Dispensational and nondispensational thinkers agree that the NT fulfills the OT and is a more complete revelation of God” (p. 75). Later, he explains that nondispensational systems view types as shadows that somehow lose their meaning in their own context when superseded by the anti-type. On the other hand, dispensationalists view types as not necessarily shadows and they must “be given their due meanings in their own contexts while maintaining a typological relation to one another” (p. 78). Without a valid illustration of this phenomenon, it is difficult to understand what he means. All dispensationalists, he avers, “think some sort of distinction between Israel and the church is important” (p. 68, 81). Then he says that “many covenant theologians distinguish Israel from the church” (p. 71). As he admitted, there is confusion in the camps (p. 74).
Chapters 10 and 11 explain why Israel is or is not a continuing entity in God’s redemptive plans.
Reformed. Woudstra, arguing for continuity between Israel and the church, begins with a Scottish confessional statement about the existence of the “kirk” or church from the time of Adam. For Woudstra the question, it seems, is tied to salvation. He sees Israel in Genesis before it became a nation, and so he sees the church in Exodus before Christ even said He will build His church. At the same time, Woudstra calls Israel a prototype of the church, which to me means that it cannot be both the church and a prototype of the church at the same time. Israel is or it is not the church (and vice versa). And he calls the church the new Israel. Not the new “Israel” but the new Israel. However, you will not find the Reformed boasting that they are Jews. While God may call the things that are not as though they are (Rom 4:17), I have a problem with the prochronism of Covenant Theology that places the NT church in OT times. Certainly, OT saints were saved, but not because they understood that Jesus died for their sins. And if Israel, which is the kirk or a prototype of the church, enjoyed all the benefits that the NT church now enjoys, then what makes the new covenant “new”?
Dispensational. Suacy, arguing for discontinuity between Israel and the church, notes the dramatic changes brought by the new covenant, but then says, “But newness with the inauguration of the church does not in itself establish a discontinuity of the church in relation to Israel” (p. 250). Saucy seems to see the question as to whether Israel as a nation has a separate spiritual path after the establishment of the New Testament church. Of course, he admits from the outset this question arises due to historic circumstances. Paul mentions Israel and means the nation Israel, he propounds. However, Paul wrote when Israel was still a nation. And until 1948, there was no national Israel. Its contemporary existence as an independent state is certainly a monumental event, but it is not a restoration of the Mosaic covenant, nor was the event the fulfillment of clear prophecy.
Analysis. I got the impression that the contributors were often arguing from the standpoint of their chosen theological system rather than from exegetical analysis of key texts and a comprehensive understanding of both sides of the topic in question. Sometimes, the more one qualifies their position the less clear their position becomes. On top of that, the terms “continuity” and “discontinuity” were never really defined, which makes them near meaningless. I find it amusing that the discontinuity between Israel and the church means that Israel continues to be Israel; and that continuity means that the Jewish nation ends (the old church, as it were) and is subsumed or superseded by the church, which is the new Israel. But what system do I belong to if I believe that the church started with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and that God’s covenant with Israel is old and passed away? I am glad that ethnic Jews remain to this day. Does God want them to assent to the vicarious suffering and death of Jesus and so enter the new covenant or does He want them to remain in unbelief until such time that He reinstates or reactivates the inferior covenant to resume bloody sacrifices and give them earthly blessings?
Editor and contributor John S. Feinberg provided a fine summary of this festschrift in the final epilogue. However, it is a foregone conclusion that “the authors of this volume agree that the relation of the Testaments is one of continuity and discontinuity.” Each essayist admitted that from the outset. No one supports complete discontinuity or complete continuity, whatever that might entail. Each contributor was quite nuanced in his presentation, so at times it is was difficult to figure out whether they were in agreement or disagreement with each other. Nonetheless, there remains notable differences regarding the relationship of Israel and the church, and the corollary topics of the law and kingdom promises.
The new covenant expects and demands that Christians are unified in their understanding of it and what sort of life one should lead. The contributors do not hammer out the behaviors that necessarily follow from their viewpoint (thankfully), but they do focus on the background assumptions and conclusions which in turn would play out in practical application. It does not, in my mind, adequately explain why Covenantalism or Dispensationalism necessarily lead to either continuity or discontinuity, when all the authors acknowledge that within each camp there is such variety of positions that no one position exemplifies or captures the essence of them. Hence, the shotgun illustration above. If someone could be all over the board, so to speak, how do the words “continuity” or “discontinuity” explain one’s position?
As a student of the Bible, I began to wonder if I was ignoring Paul’s advice “that the ultimate aim is to love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and a genuine faith. Some seem to have forgotten this and to have lost themselves in endless words” (1 Tim 1:5-6, Phillips). But maybe this fits under iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). It was dialogical, after all; and what better way to iron out the wrinkles in our theology? This book stimulated much thinking and study on my part, which led me to produce a three-part review. At the same time, this book was not as definitive as I would have liked.
Please excuse me for this excursus from glossary entries, but I wanted to explore the OT/NT differences using an extended metaphor. Maybe it’s a little goofy, but hopefully, it will convey the dramatic shift from OT to NT.
A covenant is like a vehicle that God designed for His people to get them from one place to another. Let’s explore what it means to be in the new covenant using automobiles as the illustration. What comes to mind when you replace your old car with a new car? Most people imagine an older model that has served its purpose and a newer vehicle with added features and improved handling. At some point in your life, you decide to trade in the old for the new.
But there are several ways people handle the decision whether to replace their old car, or not. Similarly, there are different ways people view the relationship between the old and new covenants.
This is how many people would describe the difference between the two covenants: You turn in the old model and start driving the new version. The old model served its purpose and there may even be something about it that you no longer like. Furthermore, you keep running into friends who decided to get a fancy new car and you’re ready to make the move.
At first blush, the new car accomplishes the same thing as your old car: transporting you from one place to another. Some people see little difference between the old and new cars when this practical matter is all that is considered. That is why some people will do what they can to keep their old car relevant. They never really get to experience what it’s like to be in a totally new vehicle. But they don’t care. They don’t need luxury driving to work every day and they don’t want to make the sacrifice in order to get it.
Others see the relationship between the old and new covenants differently. A Sabbath-keeping Hebrew-Christian stated, “The New Covenant should be seen not as a replacement of the Mosaic Covenant but the New Covenant is the Mosaic Covenant written on the hearts of the Jewish People. Under the New Covenant holy living that is required under the Mosaic Covenant would be natural as God’s Torah is no longer an act of human observance, but holy living is the only way to live for those with the Torah written on their hearts.”[i] According to this view, the old car is not replaced—it is merely upgraded. They just love their old car. However, because they are enticed by the new, they tweak their car here and there to make it look new.
But the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant is unlike either of the above proposals. The new covenant is not a “pimped” old covenant or the latest upgrade. Let this car represent the old covenant. It is old and it was made for a specific people at a specific point in time. That time has passed and parts are no longer available and it is hard to find a mechanic willing to work on it. Furthermore, there are fewer and fewer of these models because they are old and vanishing away.
But you are one of the few remaining owners and you are comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of starting, driving, and maintaining your old car. You take pride in the fact that you could operate a stick shift, have the strength to turn the crankshaft, and the wherewithal to change the oil. The rules of the road are pretty much the same for everybody, and though you get stares, it still does what you want it to do. Your car manual seems to cover all the essential features of your car. You think to yourself, “I could probably drive this car forever.”
But you notice that many of your friends are discarding the car that’s been in their family for years, even though it is still in working order! You are enticed by the dealer’s offer of a free car, but draw back because he requires you to turn in your old clunker. He tells you that you cannot drive the old and new cars simultaneously; so you must decide which car to make your own. In comparing the two vehicles, they have many features in common, however, as you examine the new car more closely it has many superb upgrades and performance improvements. Some features are completely redesigned and others are above and beyond what you could have imagined. The more you learn about the new car, the more you realize the limitations and uselessness of the older model. Most importantly, what you thought the older car could do as well as a new car, you find that it cannot.[ii] Hopefully, your final decision is to consign your old car to the automobile graveyard and take off with your new car.
[i]Yochanan. “Covenant in the Hebrew Bible” dated March 6, 2016. https://towardblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/covenant-in-the-hebrew-bible/ [accessed January 20, 2018].
[ii]This is not to say that OT saints were not saved, but it was not the Mosaic covenant that saved them. They were saved by grace through faith. But it is the new covenant that brings reality to their hope and ensures their everlasting place in the presence of God.
New Covenant. The concept of covenants is part and parcel of the OT, and this includes the “new covenant.” Within the historical context of the Mosaic covenant, Jeremiah prophesied of a new covenant the Lord would establish with Israel (Jer 31:31-40). The writings comprising the NT describe the events leading up to the inauguration of the new covenant/testament and its significance for Israel and the world.
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for a light by day, The ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, Who disturbs the sea, And its waves roar (The Lord of hosts is His name): “If those ordinances depart From before Me, says the Lord, Then the seed of Israel shall also cease From being a nation before Me forever.” Thus says the Lord: “If heaven above can be measured, And the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel For all that they have done, says the Lord. “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, that the city shall be built for the Lord from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The surveyor’s line shall again extend straight forward over the hill Gareb; then it shall turn toward Goath. And the whole valley of the dead bodies and of the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be holy to the Lord. It shall not be plucked up or thrown down anymore forever.”
The Lord acknowledges the sinfulness of Israel (v. 37) and even though they are undeserving, the Lord God is absolutely unwavering in His commitment to them and the land. But the Mosaic covenant is not enough, there must be a new covenant that supersedes it, loftier in its attributes and consequences. When God choses to enact the new covenant, a faithful Jew would be a fool not to enter into it through a new blood vow. In other words, a Jew could not hope to continue in the former [Mosaic] covenant and please God when the better covenant is placed into effect. The benefits of the new covenant clearly lay in the relationship between God and His people. They will have an inward compulsion to assent to and obey God’s law [What law would that be?]. There will be a new means of knowledge and understanding of who God is [What means would that be?]. The people of the covenant will encompass all classes [Who can they be?]. Sadly, the people will continue to sin yet find complete forgiveness [How can this be?]. Finally, the people of God will dwell in a larger region of holiness untouched by human warfare [How can that be?]. Because this covenant will remain forever, there is no covenant that could ever surpass it. In other words, the new covenant is the final and fullest covenant that God will make with His people, surpassing and completing all the covenants that have come before. At the telling of this prophecy, God determined that a new covenant is necessary for Israel; however, He would wait until a particular time to ordain it [When would that be?]. The Jewish sages could only wonder about the answers to these questions and hope in their God until he brought it to pass. However, when the Lord did enact the new covenant, the years of speculation and expectation made it difficult for law-entrenched Jews to comprehend the simplicity, grandeur, and grace that characterized it.
The four gospel narratives of the NT joyfully proclaim the events leading up to the institution of the new covenant and the remaining literature describes the implications and outworking of the new covenant for the people of God living in the world. The gist of Jeremiah’s prophecy is one of contrast: “not according to the covenant made at Sinai.” However, since concepts contained in the Mosaic covenant appear to remain constant—such as Israel (the people of God), God’s law, sinfulness and the need for forgiveness, holiness (by virtue of God’s presence) and the land—the difference appears to be a contrast of superiority. But even then, the eventual revelation of the new covenant was strikingly different than what the Jewish people had expected (Rom 16:25-26; 1 Cor 2:6-10; Eph 3:8-11; Col 1:24-27). So it is no surprise that even Christians arrive at differing conclusions about the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the Christic covenant.[i] Furthermore, Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant is specifically contrasted with the covenant made with Israel, and seems to leave intact and unaffected the covenants with (Adam), Noah, Abraham, and David. As such, the NT teaches that the new covenant 1) makes full the covenant with Abraham, “that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14), and 2) makes obsolete the Sinaitic covenant, “Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13).
The term “new covenant” occurs in six NT texts (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:8; 9:15; 12:24) and it is clearly addressed by Paul in Galatians (Gal 4:19-31). Allusions to the prophecy of Jeremiah have also been acknowledged by commentators in Matt 26:26-30; Mk 14:22-26 (institution of Lord’s Supper); Jn 6:45 (Jesus as teacher); Jn 8:37-47 (knowledge of God); Jn 16: 7-14 (gift of the Holy Spirit); Acts 5:31 (forgiveness of Israel); Rom:11:27 (forgiveness of sins) Gal 3:14 (gift of Holy Spirit); Heb 7:22 (better covenant); Heb 9:16-22 (related to first covenant); Heb 10:16-17; Heb 13:20 (blood of everlasting covenant); and 2 Thess 2:1 (future gathering). These and other NT passages help answer the questions that derive from Jeremiah’s prophecy.
Question for the New Covenant
|Israel: a nation||Who can they be?||The nature of the people of God.||Church comprising both Jew and Gentile
Matt 16:18 I will build my church
Jn 18:36 My kingdom is not of this world
Rom 1:16 to the Jew first and also to the Greek
Rom 11:7 Israel has not received, but a remnant has
Gal 3:28 you are all one in Christ
1 Pet 2:9 you are a holy nation
|Torah: written law||What law would that be?||The nature of the law||Law of Christ/ Liberty/Love
Jn 8:36 Son makes one free indeed
2 Cor 3:6 not of letter but spirit
2 Cor 3:17 liberty with the Spirit
Heb 12:25 speaks from heaven
Gal 2:4 liberty in Christ from circumcision
Gal 5:14 loving neighbor is epitome of law
Gal 5:1 stand fast in liberty
Gal 6:2 loving neighbor is Christ’s law
Jas 2:8 loving neighbor is royal law
Heb 7:28 appointed by oath after the law
1 Jh 3:11 Christian gospel begins with love
Annointing: ad hoc human ministers speaking for God
|What means would that be?||The nature of knowing God.||Christ the Prophet and Mediator/
Annointing of the Holy Spirit
Lk 4:18 Christ anointed by prophecy
Jn 6:41-51 To know God is to know Jesus
Jn 8:31 Jesus speaks truth from the Father
Jn 14:9-10 Jesus has authority from God
Jn 16:7-14 The Spirit of God takes Jesus’ place
Gal 3:14 receive the promised Spirit through faith
Eph 4:20-24 new man in learning Christ with Spirit
Heb 7:25 come to God through Him
Heb 9:15 He is the Mediator
1 Jn 2:20-27 believers anointed with Holy Spirit
|Forgiveness: by blood atonement||How can this be?||The nature of fellowship with God.||Blood of Christ
Lk 22:20 covenantal blood
Acts 5:31 Jesus gives repentance and forgiveness
1 Cor 11:25 both priest and sacrifice
Heb 7:27 sacrificed once for all
Heb 10:18-18 no more offerings, boldness to enter
Heb 13:20 complete through the blood
|Land/Holiness: specific boundaries and place worship||How can that be?||The nature of the kingdom of God.||Spiritual/ Eternal Kingdom
Jn 4:23 day coming of decentralized worship
Jn 18:36 My servants would fight if worldly kingdom
2 Cor 3:11 more glorious
Heb 9:8 way into Holiest revealed
Heb 11:16 a better country, a heavenly one
Heb 12:28 receiving a kingdom
Gal 4:26 Jerusalem above is free
|Restoration||When would that be?||The nature of eschatology.||Two Advents/Already and Not Yet
Rom 8:30 predestined to glorified
1 Cor 11:28 til He comes
Eph 2:5-6 we are raised and sit in heavenly places
1 Thes 4:14 Christ died and rose, and will come again
2 Thes 2:1 man of sin first, then Christ will appear
Heb 9:28 He will appear a second time
There is a new balance and emphasis when it comes to the concept of “law.” The OT Scriptures are cited to reinforce the ethic that derives from Christ’s ultimate sacrifice not just for sin, but for people. This sacrifice is founded on the love of God in sending His Son (Jh 3:16) and the love of the Son for His friends and brethren (Jn 15:13). And this love should also extend to enemies, for even we were once enemies of God (Col 1:21). The law of Christ begins with love, and just in case the pious Jew is confused by this, there are examples of godly love commanded in the Mosaic law that are consistent with the new emphasis now that Christ has come (Ex 23:4-5, 9; Lev 19:18, 34; Deut 10:18; 32:35). It is not just an external commandment in a code book that we are to obey, but now we are internally compelled to demonstrate love because we have experienced first-hand the ultimate expression of love. The Israelite was told to reflect on the fact that he was once a slave in Egypt, but this mindset reaches its pinnacle in the Christian’s reflection that he was once a slave to sin and now made free to serve Christ. This new covenant freedom far outshines the freedom of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness.
The institution of the nation Israel is one-upped by the institution of the church of Christ. There is still a nation called Israel,[ii] but even in its best times and highest glories, it could never attain the status of “true Israel” which is the church, comprised of both Jew and Gentile under a new covenant and a heavenly kingdom. Israel brought in a few Gentiles through circumcision, but it has been overshadowed by a more encompassing community called the church. Also, there was no nation or international community of God before the calling of Israel, so it is not beyond the intent of God to call into existence something radically different than Israel to become the people of God (Hos 2:23; Rom 9:21-24). From the beginning, the Lord’s elect were traced through faithful individuals and their families (like Adam, Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, and Abraham); then it progressed to a select nation from Jacob (Israel)—but now it comprises people of faith throughout the whole world. In times past, there was always a remnant, a pocket of those who trusted in God (1 Ki 19:18; Isa 1:9); but now, the yeast of His calling has blossomed to produce a wholesome loaf of children of God (Hos 1:10; Matt 13:33; Rom 9:22-29)—not born from the physical lineage of Jacob, but born again by the Spirit through belief in Jesus as Messiah. Israel gestated within a pagan land and was released from servitude to live and rule in their own land. But members of the church are gestated by the telling of the gospel and freed from sin; released to serve God wherever they are, endeavoring to live at peace within their host nation guided by the law of love (Rom 12:18-13:10).[iii] See Continuity/Discontinuity.
“[The new covenant] is the fulfillment of the promises of the old covenant and is better by degrees than that former covenant by virtue of its clearer view of Christ and redemption, its richer experience of the Holy Spirit, and by the greater liberty which it grants to believers.”[iv] “The old dispensation was temporary and preparatory; the new is permanent and final.”[v] “The entirety of Paul’s theology is a juxtaposition of old and new, just as Paul is a unique combination of old: rabbinically trained Jew; and new: Christian apostle and witness of the resurrected Jesus.”[vi] “That is, the use of the word “new” implies that the one which it was to supersede was “old.” New and old stand in contradistinction from each other. . . The object of the apostle is to show that by the very fact of the arrangement for a new dispensation differing so much from the old, it was implied of necessity that that was to be superseded, and would vanish away.”[vii] “As far as Christianity is preferable to Judaism, as far as Christ is preferable to Moses, as far as spiritual blessings are preferable to earthly blessings, and as far as the enjoyment of God throughout eternity is preferable to the communication of earthly good during time; so far does the new covenant exceed the old.”[viii] “If, therefore, God proclaimed a new covenant which was to be instituted, and this for a light of the nations, we see and are persuaded that men approach God, leaving their idols and other unrighteousness, through the name of Him who was crucified, Jesus Christ, and abide by their confession even unto death, and maintain piety. Moreover, by the works and by the attendant miracles, it is possible for all to understand that He is the new law, and the new covenant, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for the good things of God.”[ix] “From the fact of one covenant being established, he infers the subversion of the other; and by calling it the old covenant, he assumes that it was to be abrogated; for what is old tends to a decay. Besides, as the new is substituted, it must be that the former has come to an end; for the second, as it has been said, is of another character. But if the whole dispensation of Moses, as far as it was opposed to the dispensation of Christ, has passed away, then the ceremonies also must have ceased.”[x] The first covenant demanded obedience, and failed because it could not find it. The New Covenant was expressly made to provide for obedience.”[xi]
The controversy about the applicability of the Sabbath under the new covenant is between the beneficiaries of the new covenant. That is, Christians who entered into the new covenant with God by grace through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ differ as to whether the Sabbath must be observed.[xii] The Christian’s view of the new covenant appears to hold a uniformly lofty position whether one is a Seventh-day Sabbatarian, a Sunday Sabbatarian, or a non-Sabbatarian. So, are these different approaches Sabbath observance related at all to one’s understanding of the new covenant? That is, is there something about the new covenant that directly affects one’s view of the Sabbath?
This question would appear to take on two paths. 1) If the new covenant doctrine itself has no impact on the matter, then the argument for or against the Sabbath would not begin with the new covenant or the relationship between the old and new covenants. The arguments would be based on a separate rationale that only loosely ties into one’s understanding of the covenants. 2) If there is some subtle understanding about the new covenant that separates the various positions, then we would expect the argument for or against Sabbath-keeping to center on this difference. So, when Sabbatarians or non-Sabbatarians address this topic, do they count on their understanding of the new covenant to frame their argument or some other reference point? Where a proponent of each viewpoint begins can be telling.
Ratzlaff is a former SDA (SS) writing from the LD position. He begins his book “Sabbath in Christ” with discussions about the old and new covenants. The relationship between the covenants is central to his thesis that the Sabbath has been abrogated.[xiii] O’Hare’s (LD) “Sabbath Complete” surveys the topic as it unfolds from Genesis to Revelation. While the various covenants are discussed throughout these pages, it is not until the new covenant is established with the death and resurrection of Jesus that the rationale for a fulfilled Sabbath is presented.[xiv] Morrison’s (LD) argument in “Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing” also follows the biblical timeline to present the Sabbath as one of many calendar observances of the Mosaic covenant that were rendered obsolete by the new covenant.[xv] On the other hand, Ray (CS) begins with the Fourth Commandment in “Celebrating the Sabbath” and his enlarged concept of the Sabbath gets transferred to the Lord’s Day by the new covenant.[xvi] To escape the effect of the new covenant on ceremonial laws, the Sabbath is claimed to be a commandment for all mankind since creation. Pipa’s (CS) “The Lord’s Day” begins with the Sabbath commandment and an argument against “anti-sabbatarians” who on the basis of their understanding about the new covenant believe it has been set aside.[xvii] Acknowledging the fact that the Sabbath was a sign of the Mosaic covenant and contains ceremonial aspects, Pipa simply asserts that the Sabbath is still morally binding. Bacchiocchi (SS) presents his thesis via an historical analysis, yet he sets up the Sabbath as an enduring commandment despite its symbolic and typological meaning—“not the literal abrogation but the spiritual valorization of the commandment.”[xviii] Observance of the fourth commandment, he posits, was lost to Christianity by the co-opting of pagan Sun-day worship. A more historically oriented work by Heylyn (LD, 1636) recounts the history of Christianity up to his time to demonstrate that after looking through the annals of Christian history no Sabbath observance was found, not until “forty years ago, no more, some men began to introduce a Sabbath thereunto, in hope thereby to countenance and advance their other projects.”[xix]
By this brief review and my awareness of the arguments, it appears that CS and SS theologians assign certain values and interpretive rules to the Sabbath before the new covenant comes into the discussion, and these notions insulate it from the effects of the new covenant. The heightened Sabbath of the CS position is preserved but shifted to Sunday by virtue of the new covenant. Some in this camp would agree that certain ceremonial aspects enjoined only during the Mosaic covenant were done away with by the new covenant. Sunday Sabbatarians (CS) give credence to the historical practice of the church to gather on the first day of the week but they deny the historical findings of Heylyn. On the other hand, the esteemed Sabbath of Saturday Sabbatarians (SS) is unchangeable, so first-day worship must be a theological error introduced early in the history of the church.
What are the values and interpretive rules assigned to the Sabbath by SS and CS advocates that in the end prevent them from recognizing or comprehending the nullifying effect of the new covenant on the Sabbath that the LD community believes? This is the same question as: what principles or facts are the LD failing to comprehend that makes it difficult for them to accept a moral and eternally obligatory Sabbath, which they must ultimately observe on Saturday or Sunday?
- The Sabbath was instituted at creation. Because this predates the Mosaic covenant, the new covenant cannot undo it. It is not a ceremonial law but a creation mandate.
- The Sabbath is in the Ten Commandments. God placed it in the Decalogue because it is a moral command, and therefore, the new covenant cannot annul it. The new covenant only put an end to the ceremonies tied to the Sabbath under Moses.
- Jesus obeyed the Sabbath and corrected misunderstandings about it. Jesus would not approach the Sabbath in this way unless it was an enduring commandment.
- Sure, the Sabbath is symbolic and typologic, but since the final rest has not yet occurred, the practice of it must continue through the church age. Marriage is also moral and symbolic of a future reality, and it is unchanged by the new covenant.
- The Sabbath cannot be abrogated by the new covenant except by explicit instruction, which is denied. The mention of the Sabbath in Colossians must not be referring to the weekly Sabbath.
- The resurrection was of such importance that it is the reason for moving the Sabbath to the first day of the week.
[i] Can there be alternative names for the new covenant? It is the covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ. As the preceding covenants were named eponymously, I think it can be called either the Christic or Messianic covenant.
[ii] There was no Jewish “nation” from 73 to 1948 CE. Israel was not a nation (1,865 years) longer than it was a nation (about 1,382 years, not counting the past 70 years).
[iii] The history of the church demonstrates its struggle with the concept of living in the world as a “holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9) of a different order or character.
[iv] Rayburn, R. S. “Covenant, New” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Ewell, ed., p. 301.
[v] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, p. 377.
[vi] Hagner, Donald A. “Paul as a Jewish Believer—According to His Letters” in Jewish Believers in Jesus, p. 118.
[vii] Barnes, Albert. Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Epistle to the Hebrews, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1861), p. 181. (Heb 8:13).
[viii] Clarke, Adam. Commentary on the Bible, (Heb 8:6). Biblesoft Electronic Library.
[ix] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch 11 (ANF 1:200).
[x] Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews, p. 193 (Heb 8:13)
[xi] Murray, Andrew. The Two Covenants and the Second Blessing, London: James Nesbit & Co., 1899, p. 115. Italics in the original.
[xii] On the fringes, it is also a conflict between believers and pseudo-Christian cults.
[xiii] Ratzlaff, Dale. Sabbath in Christ. LAM, 2010.
[xiv] O’Hare, Terrence D. The Sabbath Complete, Wipf and Stock, 2011.
[xv] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing. Writers Club Press, 2002.
[xvi] Ray, Bruce A. Celebrating the Sabbath. P&R, 2000.
[xvii] Pipa, Joseph A. The Lord’s Day. Christian Focus, 1997.
[xviii] Bacchiocchi, Samuele. From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 69.
[xix] Heylyn, Peter. The History of the Sabbath, ed. Stuart Brogden (2018), p. 379.
Noachide (Noachian) Law. A body of laws presumed by ancient Jews to have been given by God to mankind prior to the giving of the Torah to Israel. All mankind (Gentiles specifically) would be accountable to this seven-point code composed of prohibitions against 1) idolatry, 2) fornication, 3) murder, 4) blasphemy, 5) corrupt government, 6) stealing, and 7) cruelty to animals. The rationale for determining such a moral standard begins with the knowledge that the law of commandments (Torah) was given to Israel, all 613 of them. This means that the Torah was not given to Adam, Noah, or even Abraham. Not until God befriended Abraham and gave him the sign of circumcision does the concept of national Israel even find reality. Since the people of Israel were chosen by God to receive the law, all other peoples and nations were not (Rom 9:4; Eph 2:12). Paul expresses that national pride in the statement, “We who are Jews by nature and not sinners of the Gentiles” (Gal 2:15). Paul also states boldly that the Gentiles did not have the [Mosaic] law (Rom 2:12-14; 1 Cor 9:20). Ancient Jewish rabbis considered this matter in Midrash Bereshit Rabba—and Neusner summarizes: “What Adam could not accomplish, Moses did…what man could not do, Israel, represented by Moses, can do.”[i]
The respect and love for the Torah as a guide to life elicited questions about the righteousness of Noah (Gen 7:1), who represents all mankind. How could Noah live righteously and then successfully weather the trial of his faith without the Torah to guide him? The ancient commentators deduced that mankind in Noah’s generation was not without some law delineating God’s expectations of mankind, otherwise, God could not be just in rendering judgment. The murder of Abel, the violence in Noah’s day, and the hubris at Babel provide the backdrop for determining what sins for which mankind was held accountable. Yet, even though the Gentiles did not have this unique revelation of God and a favored status by virtue of the forthcoming Messiah, the Gentiles still had a conscience that in many ways reflected the morality of the law (Rom 2:14). A Gentile is not judged by the law [of Moses], but by his own conscience that is open and laid bare before the judgment of Jesus Christ (Rom 2:15-16). And Gentiles, like Noah, first find grace in the Lord’s eyes and through faith are declared righteous (Gen 6:8; 15:6; Heb 11:7, 8; Rom 4).
A list of laws is presented in Acts 15 during the council at Jerusalem which addressed the reception of Gentiles into the growing gospel community. The specific laws mentioned on that occasion were: 1) avoiding things polluted by idolatry, 2) eluding fornication, 3) abstaining from improperly killing animals for food, and 4) shunning blood (drinking it, shedding it?). The sign of circumcision, necessary of male converts to Judaism, was not required of male converts to Christianity. This passage does not lend credence to the theory that God gave Adam and Noah these specific laws. This topic only addresses the Jewish answer to the question about the possible salvation of non-Jews.
The judgment of Noah’s world finds significance in new testament literature, as Jesus draws a parallel between that worldly judgment and the forthcoming judgment at the world’s end (Matt 24:37-38; 1 Pet 3:20). The world’s population was and continues to be held accountable to a uniform and unchanging standard of righteousness. But noticeably absent in any narrative in which Gentiles are “weighed and found wanting” (Dan 5:27) are any failures to observe Noachide laws, let alone any ritual laws such as circumcision, sacrifices, and Sabbath-keeping. Cain did not fear God and was a murderer (Gen 4:8; Heb 11:4); Lot failed in drunkenness and incest (Gen 19:33); Belshazzar was convicted of pride and idolatry (Dan 5:22-23); Nebuchadnezzar was prideful and unmerciful in his office (Dan 4:27); the King of Tyre was given much, but full of pride, self-love, and greed (Ezek 28:2, 4, 17, 18); and the people of Sodom were full of pride, gluttonous, lazy, and indifferent to the poor and needy (Ezek 16:48-50). In none of these cases, were any of these Gentile sinners accused of violating the law of Moses or the covenant with Israel. Indeed, no Gentile was ever condemned for failing to observe the Sabbath. However, the Lord judged Israel for their failure to observe the Sabbath of the Land (2 Chr 26:21) and he even despised the manner in which the Jews regarded the Sabbath (Ezek 22:8). But no other nation was so judged. In fact, the Lord found fit to deport Israel for seventy years to a country that did not observe the Sabbath or the Sabbath of the Land.
Paul asserted that the Gentiles do by nature the things in the law—their conscience bearing witness of their internal knowledge of good and evil. They may get a twinge of caution or a spasm of reconsideration as they plan to threaten and rob someone who is weaker than them. In a moment of uncontrolled passion, they may sleep with a whore or their neighbor’s wife, and yet secretly carry regret for the remainder of their life. Even a pagan child knows it’s wrong to intentionally hurt someone. But what Gentile parents on the eighth day of their newborn son’s life struggle with an inner-knowledge that they should remove their son’s foreskin (Lev 12:3)? What pagan after touching a deceased body is driven by his conscience to purify himself by water on the third and seventh day (Num 19:11)? What nation, state, or city of Gentiles on the fifteenth day of the seventh month gather fruit, palm leaves, and willow branches, and then rejoice for seven days while they live in little huts (Lev 23:34-43)? And what non-Jew in history past, felt compelled to refrain from all manner of labor every seventh day, not even building a fire or traveling (Ex 16:23-29; 31:14-16; 35:2-3)? If Paul is correct that the conscience of Gentiles—those unfamiliar with Mosaic law—is pricked when they fail to obey moral laws, and if Sabbatarians are correct that the Sabbath—resting from all manner of work on the seventh day—is a moral law, then ancient history, sociology, and anthropology books should be replete with accounts of institutional sabbatisms among most cultures, ancient and modern. But Webster’s research could find no rational explanation for the origin of the Sabbath among the Jews and declared it a “momentous innovation… which must be attributed to the Hebrew people alone.”[ii] As Webster considered the history of Christianity, he observed that the early church fathers “made no reference to Sunday as a day of abstinence from labour.”[iii] He noted that the view that Sunday should be observed like a Sabbath occurred occasionally during the Middle Ages, but did not come to fruition until the “excesses of English and Scottish Puritanism” [in the 16th century].[iv] Apart from Judaism, the Sabbath wields no moral force. And Christians who wield the Sabbath are Judaizing the Lord’s Day.
[i] Neusner, Jacob. Confronting Creation, p. 108. The argument is spurious for sure, but the ancients observed that Adam had a mere six commandments to follow, but failed. Therefore, he was not up to task of receiving the Torah. However, Israel obtained righteousness, God finding it in Abraham, David, and Israel. It is through the merits of Israel that Noah found grace. “Noah on his own–that is, humanity–enjoyed salvation only because of Israel’s merit” (p. 124).
[ii] Webster, Hutton. Rest Days, p. 254.
[iii] Ibid., p. 270.
[iv] Ibid., p. 270-271.
This small book delves into the meaning of the Ten Commandments for the church of Christ. Reisinger focuses on the relationship between the Decalogue and the Mosaic law-covenant, and the corollary topic whether the Sabbath is applicable as a moral commandment for the church age. For centuries now, the church has used the Ten Commandments to inculcate Christian ethical standards. When a Christian is asked about the moral law, the image of Moses holding the tablets of stone is first to come to mind. When did this begin?
This began with Luther’s Treatise on Good Works (1520) and his catechisms (1529)[i] which used the Ten Commandments as a format to teach moral principles to parishioners. At that time, many unbelievers were compelled to go to Mass every Sunday. They slept in church, talked aloud, and even played games. After church, they would go to the pubs and get drunk. More pious parishioners thought their good behavior was meritorious for salvation or compensated for their sins. In his catechism, Luther briefly explains what the Sabbath commandment means for Christians:
“You shall sanctify the holy day. [Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.] What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
Luther reduced a complex Jewish ritual law into a simple statement: attend to the preaching of God’s word [every week]. For Luther, the Sabbath as practiced at the synagogue represented the faithful weekly attendance of God’s people to the hearing and study of God’s word, and then actually applying what was learned at home and at work. His desire was that those attending church would have this heart in them and faithfully learn God’s word, as Sunday preaching was the only means to hear God’s word. It was not to keep Sabbath with a 24-hour rest from all manner of work.
Luther also emphasized the distinction between the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ to emphasize the contrast between works and faith, but some interpreted this to mean that there was no law for Christians. Those who rationalized the gospel of Christ in this way were called “antinomians”—those who stood against the law or believed that they were guided by no law except the Holy Spirit. The reaction of other Reformers was … reactive; and ensuing theological statements advanced the “proper uses of the law” as opposed to any misconstrued understandings of Paul’s teaching that Christians are “dead to the law” (Rom 7:1ff). Connected to this controversy was whether the Mosaic law was a “covenant of works” by which it were possible to be saved. Of course, OT saints could not be saved by the law; they were saved by grace (Rom 11:6; Gal 3:21). And so, the idea was put forth that the law of Moses was really a “covenant of grace.” Eventually, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) took center stage among English speaking countries and became the foundational “secondary standard” for many Protestant churches. The WCF teaches that after Adam fell, God instituted a “covenant of grace” and this one covenant was administered differently during the two testaments.
“This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel. Under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament. . . There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.” (Chapter 7)
The “good and necessary” inference was that the Ten Commandments epitomized the moral law of God from the time of Adam to the present day.
“God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.” (Chapter 19)
Churches that assent to the WCF and its children are taught that the Ten Words are a summary of moral law, as opposed to a summary of the Mosaic covenant. This is contrary to Moses’ claim that the covenant was made with Israel and not with the fathers—not with Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, and less so with Adam.
With this as a backdrop, Reisinger’s criticism of “covenant theology” and “theological systems,” his antipathy for being labeled as an “antinomian” for questioning the biblicity of the WCF, and his proposition that the Ten Commandments are NOT a summary of moral law finds context. Overall, his thesis has biblical support and this makes it a worthwhile read. There are a few foibles, but I’ll mention only one.
I wish that Reisinger’s book began with a statement of the problem facing the church that he aims to set straight, as well as references for the ideas and statements that he mentions (i.e, p. 95). I thought at first that he was being gracious to avoid mentioning names, but he eventually implicated “Covenant Theology” as presented in the Westminster Confession of Faith and derivative faith statements. With a knowledge of what the WCF actually says, it becomes obvious how its emphasis on the unity of the old and new covenants misrepresents the contrasts that abound in the NT corpus. Furthermore, the WCF proposition that the Ten Commandments are a summary of moral law is without merit. On this point, Reisinger shines. Reisinger repetitively brings the reader back to the plain sense of those texts mentioning the Ten Commandments and makes cogent arguments against the misleading verbiage in the WCF. The tables of stone are clearly a summary document of the covenant between Israel and God (not the church and God). The Mosaic covenant is over and the church is now under a new covenant. As Reisinger continues, he knows that some readers will react and say, “Don’t we have a law to obey?” Of course, Christians have a law, and it is the law of Christ. Moral duties for the church are to be defined by the covenant we are under. The Ten Commandments, he argues, are a vital part of the Christian life, but only as applied and interpreted by the Lord and the apostles—just as other OT texts are considered by the NT writers.
The ideas that Reisinger is challenging are entrenched in “confessional” churches and took centuries to develop into the one-liner—yet biblically indefensible—maxims that they are today. It is time to re-examine the wording of some of these historic theological statements and make them more true to the Scriptures, especially if church members are expected to assent to them without granting the taking of exceptions.
[i] “The first Catholic catechism was written after the Council of Trent which took place in 1546 and was published in 1566 and called the Roman Catechism. A new catechism was not created until 1994 called The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Other bishops in various parts of the world may have produced a catechism, such as the Baltimore Catechism of 1885, but there was not a universal catechism produced between the years 1566 and 1994.” http://www.aboutcatholics.com/beliefs/the-role-of-the-catechism-of-the-catholic-church/ (accessed July 28, 2017).
Ten Commandments/Decalogue. The Ten Commandments, or Ten Words, are the major part of the engraved covenant given to Israel by God from Mount Sinai shortly after the Exodus (Ex 20:1-17). “The Decalogue provides the basis for the covenant with all of Israel.”[i] The prologue identifies the parties to the covenant—the Lord God who makes nations bow to His will and the formerly enslaved and now redeemed Israelites who are to serve a new Master—and it is followed by ten laws. This collection of laws attains special status since they were specifically inscribed on stone by the hand of God and called the “Ten Words” (Ex 34:28; Deut 4:13). The manner in which the Lord conveyed His message with lightning and thundering, and the unique presentation of a miraculously hewn document that capsulized the covenant between Israel and Himself, impressed the whole camp of the Lord’s cosmic authority. He is the sovereign God of heaven and earth, yet He is establishing a covenant agreement with the least of all nations for the sake of His promise to Abraham. The Ten Commandments (with the prologue) are essentially the core document of the Mosaic covenant, kept as it was in the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:16; Deut 10:2-5, 8). The idea of a “commandment” is to draw attention to the authority of the one issuing the command, and so all Israel was to obey all the commandments of the covenant, both ethical and cultic commands. Moses introduced the engraved law and covenant as “testimonies, statutes and ordinances” (Deut 4:13-14, 44-45; 5:1), so the laws of the Decalogue are no different than the rest of the laws of the covenant and one will find that ceremonial laws are also considered to be “commandments” (Lev 27:34; Deut 1:3; 11:22; 19:9). While the form of the Ten Commandments lends itself to catechetical instruction or memory (Jer 7:9; Hos 4:2; Matt 19:17-22; Rom 13:9; cf. Lev 19:1-18; Deut 27:15-26), they far from dominate either OT or NT ethical lists or summaries. “The commandments of the Decalogue are rarely cited in the OT.”[ii] “In what respect exactly the ten commandments differed from the Book of the Covenant in terms of content is nowhere explicitly stated.”[iii] “Exodus 23 belongs to the Book of the Covenant, where the statutes and ordinances for the covenantal relationship are laid out, and these regulations can be considered as an explication of the Decalogue, which precedes them.”[iv]
There are no punishments—no legal recourses—stipulated within this document; however, there is a promise associated with the command to honor one’s parents. Most of the laws are couched as prohibitions. This collection of laws is a summary of the covenant the Lord made with Israel, “listing those areas of life where human conduct was intended to be shaped and enriched by adherence to the demands of living as a community of God’s people.”[v] “The focus is on protecting the health of the community, to which end the individual plays such an important role.”[vi]
When this list of commands is viewed superficially, the Decalogue is often considered to represent the minimum moral requirements to ensure that one’s life pleases God, but this is not to imply that obedience to the Ten Commandments will result in the salvation of one’s soul. “The giving of the law [the Ten Commandments] followed the salvation of Israel, and hence such obedience signified Israel’s grateful response to the redemption accomplished by the Lord.”[vii] Another view imagines that each commandment has a positive and negative duty that, when viewed in their totality, then encompasses every area of life. For example, not only should we not kill someone, we should also make effort to preserve human life. However, Jesus demonstrated the inadequacy of this view (Matt 10:34-29; 18:18-23; 22:35-40; cf. Isa 1:13-17; Mic 6:8). These two views often overlook three other features about the Ten Commandments: 1) they are a summary of the whole law that Israel was covenanted to keep, 2) the number and arrangement of those laws have symbolic meaning,[viii] and 3) the NT adds a new perspective about the law, and the Decalogue as a whole (2 Cor 3:6-4:6; Heb 7:11-12; 9:1-10; 12:18-24). See Moral Law and Noachide Law.
Individual commandments from the Decalogue are referenced positively in the gospels (Matt 5:21, 27; 19:18-19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Lk 18:20), by Paul (Rom 7:7-8; 13:9-10; Eph 6:1-3; 1 Tim 1:9-11), and by other NT writers (Jas 2:11), so, as with all other Scriptures, are profitable for the man of God (2 Tim 3:16-17). At the same time, Paul provides a fresh view of the Decalogue as a contrasting type of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6-18). “Paul has a certain view of the OT from the outset, as we can see in the very first reference to the ministry of the old covenant, where he already calls it a ‘ministry of death’.”[ix] Balla points out that Paul is not addressing the content of the law at this point, only the manner in which the two covenants were promulgated. However, Paul also emphasizes a liberty in the NT in contrast to the “veil” of the OT that obscured a clear vision of Jesus Christ. Certainly this would include the Spirit’s revelation that Christ is the topic of many OT narratives and laws. Paul’s repeated use of katargeo (“done away” and “abolished”) in his letter to the Corinthians is similar to doing away with the “law of commandments contained in ordinances” that kept Jew and Gentile apart (Eph 2:15-22). As Henry summarized this liberty under the gospel dispensation, there is “freedom from the yoke of ceremonial law, and from the servitude of corruption; liberty of access to God, and freedom of speech in prayer.”[x] See Abrogation.
“Therefore, from the perspective of the new covenant, the Decalogue is understood not as a summary of moral law but as a symbol of a pre-Christ relationship between God and His people and a type of the more glorious new covenant.”[xi]
“The law is called the Decalogue, and the gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator, and the free remission of sins, through faith.”[xii] “When I say that the Ten Commandments are finished, I mean as a covenant document, or as the tables of the covenant.”[xiii] “In other words there is a sense for Christians that the Ten Commandments do not apply to them.”[xiv]
The Ten Commandments are often proclaimed to be a summary of moral law as opposed to a summary of the Lord’s covenant with Israel. For example, “A summary of this moral law, including, in general principle, all the duties which grow out of our relations to God and to our fellow-men, is presented in the Ten Commandments, engraved by the finger of God on two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai.”[xv] “The Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God on tables of stone at Mount Sinai, are the Lord’s summary of moral law, his definition of loving behavior.”[xvi] As with any assertion, there may or may not be evidence to back it up. And so this view is not without its detractors, who except the Sabbath as a moral commandment. Weirsbe states, “There is no evidence in Scripture that God ever gave the original Sabbath command to the Gentiles, or that it was repeated for the church to obey. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the church epistles, but the Sabbath commandment is not repeated.”[xvii]Rordorff’s review of early Christian literature discovered that “whenever we come across the use of the decalogue within the Christian Church, the sabbath commandment is always missing.”[xviii] Augustine excepted the Sabbath Commandment: “Well, now, I should like to be told what there is in these ten commandments, except the observance of the Sabbath, which ought not to be kept by a Christian…” Come the second millennium and Aquinas softened this distinction to say the Fourth Commandment was only moral in that “some time” be devoted to the worship of God. This was the historic view prior to the Reformation, and it was shared in part by Luther and Calvin. Luther’s Small Catechism is most succinct in advising, on the basis of the Sabbath commandment, “We should so fear and love God as not to despise preaching and his Word, but deem it holy, and willingly hear and learn it.”[xix] In contradistinction, Luther also said “the [NT] Scripture, which teacheth that all the Mosaical ceremonies can be omitted after the Gospel is revealed, has abrogated the Sabbath.”[xx] Bauckham explains that “Luther defends the Christian Sunday as a civil or ecclesiastical institution” as opposed to a divine command.[xxi] In his Institutes, Calvin agrees that the external observance of the Sabbath is typological and so was abolished; however, he adds that for Christians it means 1) we should cease from our works and allow God to work within us, 2) there should be a stated day to hear the Law and perform religious rites, and 3) servants “should be indulged with a day or rest, and thus have some intermission from labour.[xxii] “Like Luther, Calvin stresses that the institution of the weekly Sunday is a matter of convenience and order only…”[xxiii]
The Ten Commandments are certainly a summary of the Mosaic covenant which, from the perspective of the new covenant, is comprised of both moral and ceremonial laws (Ex 20:2, 12; 34:28, 29; Deut 4:13; 5:2-4, 15; 2 Cor 3:6-11; Gal 3:16-19; 4:24-26). “Equally importantly, [in the Decalogue] there is no distinction between the cultic and the social/ethical; they are simply fused.”[xxiv] Of all the cultic observances peculiar to the Mosaic covenant, the Lord chose the weekly Sabbath to be the identifying sign to accompany the other commandments that make up the Decalogue. But there is no legitimate rationale to support the assertion that the Ten Commandments were intended to be a summary of God’s moral law for all nations. This includes the presumption that Christ’s summation of the Mosaic covenant (loving God and neighbor) is a compendium of the Decalogue. While the Ten Words are a convenient and concise list of mostly moral duties and it has served the church to inculcate moral instruction by it, the theological imprecision has led to confusion regarding the place of the Sabbath in Christian ethics. As such, the claim that the Decalogue is a summary of moral laws that by extension apply to all nations can only be true if all of the commandments are indeed moral laws. The burden of proof therefore is to demonstrate unequivocally that the Sabbath, as given to Israel, is a moral commandment, of the same ethical substance and character as the other nine. However, Shepard’s attempt to demonstrate this is quite inadequate and unconvincing.[xxv] “Certain expedients [were] contrived to bring natural law as close as possible to the Sabbath commandment, but by and large the Puritans abandoned as untenable the notion that the Sabbath law is wholly ‘natural.’”[xxvi] “Nor are the usual modern reflections on the Decalogue’s being universal in character, or ethically oriented, based on solid evidence.”[xxvii] “Hence it is of considerable importance that these commandments not be understood as eternally limited in scope or as ethical principles more important than any others that might be formulated.”[xxviii] “I repeat; the idea that the Ten Commandments constitute the ‘moral law of God’ is derived from the WCF, with absolutely no biblical proof.”[xxix] ”Cassuto observes that the sixth through eighth commandments are found in every civilized society yet are unusual here because of their absolute, unqualified form as abstract, eternal principles.”[xxx]
[i] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 398.
[ii] Pao, David W. and Schnabel Eckhard J., “Luke” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 351.
[iii] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 397-98.
[iv] Pao, David W. and Schnabel Eckhard J., “Luke” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 300.
[v] Clements, Ronald E. p. 288.
[vi] Fretheim, Terence E., Exodus, Interpretation Commentary, p. 221.
[vii] Schreiner, Thomas R. 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, p. 26. Emphasis in the original.
[viii] O’Hare, Terrence D., The Sabbath Complete, p. 323-24. Explores the significance of the Sabbath as the fourth in order of the Ten Commandments as a redemptive feature.
[ix] Balla, Peter, “2 Corinthians” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 754-55.
[x] Henry, Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 6, p. 495. (2 Cor3:17)
[xi] O’Hare, Terrence D., The Sabbath Complete, p. 56.
[xii] Ursinus, Zacharias. Commentary of the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard; reprint of 1852 ed.; p. 2.
[xiii] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p.98.
[xiv] Arand, Charles P. “Luther’s Radical Reading of the Sabbath Commandment” in Perspectives on the Sabbath, p. 220.
[xv] Hodge, A. A., p. 280.
[xvi] Chantry, Walter, Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 17.
[xvii] Weirsbe, Warren W., Bible Exposition Commentary, p. 392.
[xviii] Rordorf, Willy, Sunday, p.106.
[xix] Schaff, Phillip, The Creeds of Christendom, Luther’s Small Catechism, Vol. 3, p. 74-75.
[xx] Schaff, Phillip, The Creeds of Christendom, The Augsburg Confession, Vol. 3, p. 69.
[xxi] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 314.
[xxii] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, p.339.
[xxiii] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 316.
[xxiv] Watts, Rikk E., “Mark” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 167.
[xxv] Shepard, Thomas. Theses Sabbaticae. See my book review at http://wp.me/p4w327-83.
[xxvi] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 324.
[xxvii] Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, Old Testament Library, p. 398.
[xxviii] Fretheim, Terence E., Exodus, Interpretation Commentary, p. 222.
[xxix] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 145.
[xxx] Blomberg, Craig L., “Matthew,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 21.
Ceremonial Law. A class of laws within the Mosaic legal corpus generally associated with the religious system of worship—of the priesthood, place worship, sacrifices and offerings, and calendar rituals—that foreshadowed the work and benefits of redemption effected by Christ’s life and death (as well as His ultimate second coming)—and now rendered void to us, having been fulfilled. “Ceremonial laws were those which God gave through Moses in reference to ceremonies, or the external solemn ordinances which were to be observed in the public worship of God, with a proper attention to the circumstances which had been prescribed; binding the Jewish nation to the coming of the Messiah, and at the same time distinguishing them from all other nations; and that they might also be signs, symbols, types and shadows of spiritual things to be fulfilled in the New Testament by Christ.”[i] “The Ceremonial Law prescribes under the Old Testament the rites and ceremonies of worship… obligatory only till Christ, of whom these rites were typical… It was fulfilled rather than abrogated by the gospel.”[ii] “The Jews thought themselves complete in the ceremonial law; but we are complete in Christ.”[iii] “The ceremonial laws, civil laws, and the penal code have been abrogated, and the moral law has received further clarification in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.”[iv] “The Gospel is a glorious superseding of and an advancement over the Mosaic administration with its ceremonial ordinances…the redemptive instructions for circumcision, priesthood, sacrifice, and temple.”[v] “In calling the Law the ‘elements of the world’ [Gal 4:3] Paul refers to the whole Law, [yet] principally to the ceremonial law which dealt with external matters, as meat, drink, dress, places, times, feasts, cleansings, sacrifices, etc.”[vi] “But the ceremonial law (including the Sabbath laws) was never given to the Gentiles.”[vii] “While the Sabbath ceremonials have passed away, the Sabbath principle itself remains valid and binding.”[viii]
The term “ceremonial” to describe cultic or ritualistic laws of the Mosaic covenant is not specifically used by NT writers. The concept is presented in the NT, but not the term. I will sometimes use the term “shadow law” as a synonym because of Paul’s specific use of the word “shadow” (skia) to describe Mosaic commandments that provided, as it were, a general outline or form of something in a darkened silhouette cast by something substantial, real, and tangible (Col 2:17). If a specific OT law was a shadow, then Christ would be the reality. “The outward performance of Jewish ceremonies became a matter of relative insignificance compared to the realization that they were designed and commanded to prepare the Jewish nation for the arrival of the Messiah.”[ix]
There is another class of ceremonial laws that our Lord established for the church to observe, and like the ceremonial laws of Israel, they are to be observed for a time and discontinued when the reason for them has been fully satisfied, i.e., when the final person enters the kingdom of God, marking the time that Christ returns to judge the world (Rom 8:18-21; 1 Cor 11:26; Rev 21:2). While Christians may boast in the fact that they are free from the observance of ceremonial laws, the fact remains that a new set of ceremonial laws has been given to the church. This should not be a surprise to Christ-followers, for if you have engaged in baptism or communion (in the context of church attendance), then you have participated in symbolic rituals that have a spiritual meaning. These two new covenant ceremonies 1) were rooted in specific historic events and soon practiced by the early church,[x] 2) picture spiritual realities already experienced in the life of the believer[xi], and 3) anticipate an escalation of fulfillment in the future.[xii] Almost all Christian sects acknowledge these two symbolic and ritualistic ceremonies for the Christian church. The church also has the external practice of gathering together on a weekly basis to perform the work of ministry and worship as “one bread” in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 10:17; 11:18-26; 16:2; 1 Pet 2:5). This was ordained by the Lord and promulgated by apostolic authority. This ministry then continues throughout the week under the guidance of the church leaders and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:4; Php 2:12-17). See Typology and Abrogation.
With rare exceptions, Christian theologians and church leaders acknowledge the Sabbath to be a ceremonial law or to at least possess ceremonial features. Pipa, a Sunday Sabbatarian admits, “This is not to say that there are no ceremonial aspects to the Fourth Commandment.”[xiii] This requires the Sabbath to be abrogated at least in those parts acknowledged to be ceremonial, because they typify Christ and His salvation. Furthermore, the onus probandi is to demonstrate the spiritual intent of a ceremonial law and specifically how Jesus fulfilled it through His redemptive ministry. Suffice it to say that whatever laws we classify as “ceremonial” are no longer required of Christians, and the practice of them is to be considered a burden or yoke, especially if we think there is any spiritual value in performing them.
However, in order to preserve the seventeenth century doctrine of a moral Sabbath, CS and SS theologians must deny or downplay the typological fulfillment of the Sabbath, especially the idea that Christ makes full and satisfies the symbolic intent of “rest.” This leads to expositions that end in non sequiturs, confusing statements, or self-contradiction. Campbell (CS) acknowledges that the Sabbath is a sign of the Mosaic covenant and that the new covenant “has no need of ritual and ceremony [characteristic of the OT],” but then he concludes: “Not only is there a Sabbath for us in the New Testament: there is also a Lord’s Day for us in the Old.”[xiv] For Campbell, a “more stringent” weekly 24-hour rest from labor, sports, birthday parties, marriage celebrations, travel, and commerce, is not a ritual. He continues: “And as far as the fourth commandment is concerned, the shadow (the old, week-end Sabbath) has gone, but the Christ-substance appears before us now in a week-beginning Sabbath.”[xv] This echoes Pipa’s assertion that “the seventh-day Sabbath has been changed to a first-day Sabbath.”[xvi] Now, when Christ fulfills OT ceremonies, He gives spiritual flesh and value to what the ceremony foreshadowed so that it can never be done in the same way as before, because the outward observance is empty compared to spiritual benefits it foreshadowed in Christ. But Campbell and Pipa seem to say that the spiritual message of the seventh-day Sabbath and Jesus’ great accomplishment of all it foreshadowed is that we get to observe the same Sabbath on a different day! Somehow, the net effect of Jesus’ fulfillment of the OT Sabbath is that He postponed it one day. On Saturday, the Sabbath-rest looked forward to the day that we get to do the same Sabbath-rest on Sunday and call it the Christ-substance.[xvii]
Barnes (CS) cannot conceive of the Sabbath in ceremonial terms: “And hence it was, that while the observance of the feasts of tabernacles, and of the Passover, and of the new moons, made a part of the ceremonial law, the law respecting the sabbaths was incorporated with the ten commandments as of moral and perpetual obligation.”[xviii] The problem with Barnes’ analysis is that the Feast of Tabernacles, the Passover, and the New Moons were observed as Sabbaths! If he is comfortable with the fulfillment of these annual Sabbaths, why not the weekly Sabbaths? In what way did Jesus fulfill the seven annual 24-hour rests, but not the weekly 24-hour rests? Barnes must demonstrate biblically how the weekly Sabbaths are to be treated differently than the yearly Sabbaths, especially when Paul made no distinction in categorizing all feast days, New Moons, and Sabbaths as shadows (Col 2:16). It is not sufficient to simply state that the weekly Sabbaths are in the Decalogue and therefore exempt from fulfillment, while the annual Sabbaths are fulfilled in Christ. Apostle Paul must have realized that the Sabbath commandment is reiterated in the Ten Words, but this made no difference to him—all calendar observances listed in Leviticus 23 are fulfilled by Christ. To fulfill the Sabbath, whether it occurs weekly or annually, is to fulfill the typological intent of rest, which is living in the presence of God in a state of holiness. For Jesus to be our giver of rest, He must amplify and accentuate the figures of rest. Hence, His rest is a daily experience of redeeming grace and an eternally effective dispensation of peace and security.
Hodge (CS) classifies the law of God into four groups: 1) the foundational obligations of love and truth consistent with God’s nature; 2) the moral obligations for human relationships and societies [these two would comprise the moral law of God]; 3) the temporary duties for Israel dealing with their social, governmental, and ecclesiastical functions [this would be ceremonial and judicial laws of the Mosaic covenant]; and finally, 4) the duties that God simply wills for us to do. Into this last category, Hodge places the “Christian Sabbath,” an obligation that whether we understand the reason or not, we are morally obligated to obey. Hodge further explains that it is the invariable need for rest that man must keep the Sabbath day holy, yet God may will that a particular day be set aside for this, “which otherwise would have been a matter of indifference.” Hodge knows that the “Christian Sabbath” does not fit neatly into the realm of moral law (otherwise he would have addressed it under that rubric); and at the same time he does not want the Sabbath to be relegated to ceremonial law because, for him, the Christian day of worship cannot stand on its own, but must be unescapably bound to the Sabbath.
The crux of the matter is whether the Sabbath is infused with redemptive meaning or not. If the external observance of the Sabbath is pregnant with the symbolism of redemption, then it may conclusively be categorized as a ceremonial law. Campbell (CS) acknowledges the strong connection between the tabernacle and the Sabbath in Exodus 35: “The symbolism of creation is evident, therefore, as much in the Sabbath principle as in the tabernacle construction and its account. The cumulative evidence of these early passages of Genesis and Exodus point to the intimate relationship between creation and redemption, with the Sabbath principle of creation binding these motifs and themes together.”[xix] Campbell laid the foundation for declaring the typological intent of the Sabbath, but rather than promote the glory of Christ in fulfilling it, he obfuscates matters with needless casuistry. The typology of the Sabbath will be explored further in this work, however, should the reader want a detailed explanation how the seven external Sabbath-keeping behaviors have biblically defensible redemptive meanings, the matter is presented in my book, “The Sabbath Complete.”
[i] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 491.
[ii] Easton, “Law” in Easton’s Bible Dictionary.
[iii] Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Col 2:4-12, p. 610.
[iv] VanGemeren, Willem A., “The Law is the Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 37.
[v] Bahnsen, Greg L., “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 99.
[vi] Luther, Martin. A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, (1538? 31?) trans. Theodore Graebner, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervon (1949). p. 99.
[vii] Weirsbe, Warren W. Weirsbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament, Cook:Colorado Springs, CO (1992), p. 524. (on Gal 3:19-20).
[viii] Campbell, Iain D., On the First Day of the Week, p. 66.
[ix] O’Hare, Terrence D., The Sabbath Complete, p. 190.
[x] The baptism of Jesus by John (Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Acts 2:38; 8:37-39) and the inauguration of the new covenant by Jesus at the close of Passover, the evening before His crucifixion (Lk 22:14-20; Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:23-26).
[xi] Sharing in the baptism of Jesus’ suffering () and receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit () through faith. Made “one bread” as a community of faith and having the assurance of forgiveness because of Jesus’ shed blood; re-enactment of the initial covenant meal and re-commitment.
[xii] The world will experience the baptism of suffering but the saints will be immersed into the heavenly community prepared for us at the beginning. The saints from every nation, tongue, and kindred will experience the full unity of kingdom of God under His perfect rule.
[xiii] Pipa, Joseph A., The Lord’s Day, p. 57.
[xiv] Campbell, Iain D., On the First Day of the Week, p. 59, 66.
[xv] Campbell, Iain D., On the First Day of the Week, p. 149.
[xvi] Pipa, Joseph A., The Lord’s Day, p. 64.
[xvii] His argument seems to be that the Feast of First Fruits was fulfilled by Jesus in His resurrection, and that by fulfilling that calendar feast, He moved the Sabbath to Sunday, which starts the week instead of finishing it.
[xviii] Barnes, Albert. Notes on the Old Testament, Isaiah, 2 Vol., (Isa 66:23)
[xix] Campbell, Iain D., On the First Day of the Week, p. 62-63.