Glossary 23 Legalism/Legalistic
Legalism. While Judaizing is a biblical term, legalism is a newly adopted term, often used pejoratively, to describe a range of beliefs and behaviors considered to be either theologically flawed or personally aberrant from the normal Christian life of obedience and sanctification. Obedience is compliance with a set of standards, instructions, or laws established by the one in authority, hence, the focus on the legitimacy of one’s beliefs or the legality of one’s behaviors. So, legalism represents a variety of ways in which there can be a breakdown in the proper understanding of and relationship to authority, the right application of the law, and the appropriate kind of obedience. Yet, legalism applies not only to biblical law (Mosaic law, Christic law, law of love) but more generally to any legal/ethical system that a person, group, denomination, movement, or society comprehends to be necessary for life or life beyond (Gal 4:9; 5:1). Hence, both the Jews under Mosaic law and Gentiles under the elements of the world (στοιχεῖα τον κόσμον) are enslaved to a lifestyle of legalism.[i] Baugh objects here to the term legalism by restricting its definition to “an unhealthy attitude or an empty performance of external regulations;”[ii] however, whether one’s commitment and dedication to that system is zealous or perfunctory, it remains their system of hope even though it cannot provide true liberty (Rom 10:1-3). Also, Reisinger limits the use of the term legalism to justification and sanctification: “It is also sinful to label a person a ‘legalist’ for believing and seeking to obey all ten of the laws. . . when that person affirms and teaches that such obedience neither saves him nor keeps him saved.”[iii] While I agree with the sentiment, the term “legalism” now has a broader range of meaning.
The following illustration demonstrates the complexity and variables of law-keeping as a disciple of Christ, a citizen of God’s kingdom, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Paul summarized the above for Titus with these words: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:11-15). Peter assures us that God “has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Pe 1:2-3). And Paul commended the obedience of the Philippians with these words: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Php 2:12-13). Grudem advocates a two-pronged approach to sanctification, which guards against passivity on one hand and pride on the other: “It is important that we continue to grow both in our passive trust in God to sanctify us and in our active striving for holiness and greater obedience in our lives.”[iv]
As the term implies, legalism is an inordinate or improper focus on law with respect to 1) eternal justification before God, exclusively or partially by obedience to the requirements of some law(s); 2) sanctification of one’s life before God and man by adherence to some law(s); 3) requiring Gentiles to obey now-abrogated cultic OT laws that were designed to foreshadow Christ; and 4) declaring man-made laws or traditions—either obligations or prohibitions—to be conscionable. Let us describe these in order with the understanding that there can be some overlap of these conceptual categories and that these categories reflect a speciation of Judaizing.
“In the broadest general terms, ‘legalism’ may be defined as an improper use of the law.”[v] “The legalistic use of ‘law’ refers to the attempt to utilize the works of the law as a basis for saving merit: this is an unlawful use of the law …”[vi] “Legalism (or Neonomianism) errs by either (1) requiring complete and perfect obedience to the commands of Scripture or (2) lowering the demands by substituting either imperfect obedience or more accessible rules for Christian behavior.”[vii] “’Legalism’ is a term that may appropriately describe at least three errors addressed in Scripture: justification by the works of the law, adding to or taking away from the law of God, and sanctification by the works of the law.”[viii] I would agree with Bahnsen’s frustration that “some would rather effortlessly dismiss the idea [of desiring to obey or live by God’s law] by blindly attaching the label ‘legalism’ to it.”[ix] As such, it is inappropriate to use this term as an aspersion for anyone who simply has a positive view about God’s law, as if they were denying God’s grace, without first learning the greater context and meaning of that expression.
Justification. Justification is the legal declaration by God that the sinner is free of guilt.[x] The biblical record is absolutely clear: justification is solely by grace through faith, without the doings (works) of the law (Rom 3:28; 4:5; 10:3; Gal 2:16, 21; 5:3). A “legalist” is someone who believes they may earn redemption by their own works, or that their works are instrumental causes, along with God’s grace, for salvation.
Sanctification. Like justification, one’s sanctification is also a work of God through faith (Php 2:12-13; Col 2:20). “Legalists” are those who believe they maintain their salvation by their works (Gal 3:3). This may be theologically driven due to Scriptures that appear to contradict the position that a believer can undo the spiritual regeneration effected by the Lord. Christian obedience is a must (Jn 15:4-12; ; Jas 2:20), but it must be in accordance with a knowledge of God’s will and for His glory (Rom 12:1-2; 1 Cor 10:31; Col 1:9-10; 1 Thes 5:21-22). Problems with internal attitudes and motivation for obedience can lead to legalistic behaviors. A low view of self-worth may motivate the legalist to base their acceptance with God and others on their spiritual performance (Matt 6:5; 1 Cor 9:25). Pride in and recognition of one’s impeccable presentation or ascetic practices is motivation enough for the obedience of some legalists (Lk 13:14; Matt 7:21-23; Col 2:18-19). A legalist’s obedience may also be motivated simply by the self-satisfaction of accomplishment without consideration of its spiritual value (Isa 29:13; 1 Cor 10:29).
Abrogation. This applies to ritual laws contained in the OT that were obligatory for the Jews until the advent of Christ. This kind of legalism is identical to Judaizing. The apostles specifically excluded Gentiles from the obligation to perform cultic/ritual laws of the Mosaic covenant (Act 15:24-29; Eph 2:11-18; Col 2:16). If a law is no longer important or essential, then there is little benefit in keeping it (Gal 5:1-6). “Paul [argued] that the mark of the people of God was no longer circumcision and law observance, but faith in Jesus Christ and participation in his Spirit.”[xi] A “legalist” requires Gentiles to perform laws that were meant only for the Jews while they were under the Mosaic covenant. In addition, should a Gentile submit to circumcision, they are actually making a commitment to perform all that the law demands (Gal 5:3). If a Jew can be saved in the same manner as a Gentile, then their circumcision or Sabbath-keeping no longer provides any advantage (Act 15:11). A “legalist” is also a Jewish Christian who returns to the performance of cultic rites as if they had spiritual value (Gal 4:9). Lastly, a Christian may be labeled legalistic if they determine that it is necessary to obey an abrogated law on non-exegetical grounds, such as guilt, thoughtless compliance, health, novelty, self-satisfaction, or camaraderie. They are merely using the law to justify their behavior, lifestyle, or abstention that they could perform anyway without citing the law.
Tradition. By extension, any ecclesiastic, formative, or pietistic rules, policies, or practices can become legalistic if they become equated with divine commands that bind the conscience (Isa 29:13) or promote ill-will among the saints (Gal 5:16-26). These practices have questionable value, yet require considerable time and attention to observe them, and often create an unnecessary distinction among believers. To be fair, it is not that someone is particular about the way they do things or has an obsessive-compulsive personality; it’s that the activity or avoidance of an activity diverts the person from a balanced view of righteousness or prevents them from being an integral part of the life of the church. Differences of opinion are met with intolerance. Legalists are dogmatic and prideful about how their church service is conducted with regard to manner, music, message, or ministry. Najapfour recognizes the effect this can have on church membership: “We unconsciously become legalistic in the way we deal with the life and ministry of our church. We become more concerned with our traditions than with the Scriptures.”[xii] People are pressured (externally or internally) to conform to an exterior behavior while their inner character and the fruit of ministry is undervalued. “And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.”[xiii] Some of these practices may have been well-intentioned and motivated by a spiritual goal, based on “sound inference” and accepted for generations, but when those who question or refuse to comply with those practices are excoriated or disfranchised, legalism is afoot.[xiv] “In the end, a heavy-handed legalism will do more to drive people away from Sabbath observance than it will do to preserve the day.”[xv]
Is it legalistic for a Christian to observe the Sabbath?
Justification. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if it is integral to the salvation message; that is, no one can be assured of eternal life unless faithful Sabbath keeping can be demonstrated on the right day and in the right manner.[xvi] The NT doctrine of justification negates the possibility that works of any kind are instrumental in redemption, yet Paul’s arguments about justification through faith alone are primarily against the Jewish belief that the outward ritual of circumcision was necessary to attain full acceptance before God. Paul asserted that circumcision is nothing under the new covenant (1 Cor 7:19). If the ceremonial law (circumcision) given to Abraham was no longer profitable, then the ceremonial laws (calendar, priesthood, food, dress) given to Israel through Moses were less than unprofitable. And if this is true in the case of justification, then it is also true in sanctification, abrogation and traditionalization. In the showcase of religious sects today, Seventh-day Adventism and Armstrongism teach the necessity of keeping the Saturday Sabbath as a requirement for salvation.[xvii] They believe that Sunday worship condemns its practitioners to hell. “Sunday observance—this is the Mark of the Beast… you shall be tormented by God’s plagues without mercy.”[xviii] “The sign, or seal, of God is revealed in the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath…The mark of the beast is the opposite of this—the observance of the first day of the week.”[xix]
Sanctification. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if it is part of the sanctification message. Christians should obey the commandments of God, the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the apostolic traditions—all of which articulate the obligation/command to assemble on the first day of the week to worship the Triune God in spirit and in truth. From the formidable warning against ceasing to gather together (Heb 10:24-25) we can conclude the relative importance of weekly worship in the spiritual life of a disciple of Christ. So, “going to church” on Sunday is a component of Christian sanctification, but there is a significant difference between keeping Sabbath and going to church (i.e., Christian assembly; gathering together; church meeting). The latter routine marks a time for fellowship, hearing God’s word, offering praise in prayer and song, giving to the poor, communion, and other functions. Sabbath-keeping on the other hand, as defined by the Sinaitic covenant, is to refrain from all manner of work from Friday evening to Saturday evening. It is legalistic to redefine the normative practice of church worship by adding the requirement to show piety through a twenty-four hour rest. According to Ray, “That final rest will only be obtained by those who… remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”[xx]
Abrogation. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if the motivation comes from the belief that it is a moral law, which is contrary to the theology of the NT. The abrogation of the Sabbath, perspicuously taught by Paul (Col 2:16), is ignored or explained away simply because the Sabbath can be used by the clergy to cajole church attendance. The Mosaic law and its threats for breaking the Sabbath are advanced to motivate Christians to appear every Sunday for the sermon that the pastor worked assiduously to deliver. Rather than appealing to the grateful heart to join together in Christ’s presence to comprise His mystical body (Eph 1:3-2:22) and to be better equipped to serve God through the teaching of His word (Eph 3:1-6:20), a nullified law is given preeminence over the Spirit. While Sabbatarian pastors also appeal to a Christian’s desire to please God as the motivation to keep the Sabbath holy, they are essentially diverting the focus of the congregation from loftier ideals (Hos 6:6) to a non-essential law (Hos 2:11). It is legalistic to “call back the ceremonies into use,” as Calvin asserted, because it eventually diminishes Christ.[xxi]
Traditionalization. Sabbath-keeping is legalistic if a traditional mode of observation (i.e., not directly stated in Scripture) is determined to be critical for proper Sabbath-keeping, especially at the denomination level. Ceremonial laws are prone to legalism because the proper level of obedience must be legally defined. Yet, Sabbatarians do not want to fall into this Pharisaical trap. Chantry (SS) carefully avoids enumerating acceptable and unacceptable exterior behaviors: “All attention must not be to external details and endless regulations” and “He did not place elders in leadership so that they might dictate what specific course to follow in every particular.”[xxii] Admonishing Sabbath observance in general terms, Chantry at one point provided these guidelines: to avoid pursuing wealth, going fishing, watching television, and talking of sports or vacations.[xxiii] Ray (SS) tries to place the definition of work on the individual because everyone should know what constitutes work. “We don’t need 1,500 rules to keep. We all have a way of recognizing work when it comes our way.”[xxiv] He continues to identify our jobs as work, and adds housework, homework, and yardwork, to which I would add busywork and make-work. Even intellectual pursuits are think-works. Pipa (SS) is less abashed and lays out guidelines to prepare for Sabbath observance, advises giving rest to animals and working machines, and legislating business closures.[xxv] As Ratzlaff (LD) astutely observes, “As is true of any required legalistic observance, one never knows when his observance is ‘good enough’.”[xxvi]
Campbell (SS) states that the Sabbath principle is a moral one, but assures his readers that it is “quite out of biblical character for anyone… to draw up a list of prohibitions.” He quips that sportsmen arrive on the field and drivers appear on the roads knowing the well-defined rules, but “there is no list of prescribed or proscribed duties” for the Sabbath. He repeats the dictum that Sunday Sabbath is for works of mercy and necessity, but then states that “what is ‘necessary’ may vary from person to person, place to place, or even culture to culture.” He recounts that during his collegiate years, students studied night and day all through the week, but he refused to use the day for secular study. What was apparently a moral duty for him was not for the other students. One could reason, quite properly, the legitimacy of seminarians to study religion religiously and guiltlessly on their Christian Sabbath. These conflicting statements and the latitude he propounds can only be true if Sunday is not the Sabbath. Finding enjoyment and blessings and encouragement during Sunday worship is normal, but it’s not because it’s the Sabbath. Knowing that Sunday worship is good for a Christian’s sanctification is doctrinally correct, but it’s not because the Sabbath was shifted to the first day of the week. Stopping what you are doing to meet with other like-minded believers is obviously a necessity, but it is not observing the Sabbath. Freeing up your afternoon for additional Bible study, visiting the elderly, sharing a meal with company, and returning for the evening sermon is wonderful, but it is not keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath was fulfilled and annulled, and now off the table for Christians. However, Christians are obligated to assemble weekly on the first day of the week for worship at such time the community of believers determines, but they are free to spend the rest of their time as they choose. Under this scenario, Campbell’s statements make more sense: “Not everything that is necessary for me to do on the Sabbath [the Lord’s Day] is necessary for my brother Christian to do” and “I cannot pass judgement on their decision [to do things that I don’t do on the Lord’s Day].”[xxvii]
[i] Bruce, F. F. Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 202-203.
[ii] Baugh, S.M. “Galatians 5:1-6 and Personal Obligation” in The Law is Not of Faith; Estelle, Fesko, VanDrunen, eds. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), p. 267-268.
[iii] Reisinger, John G. Tablets of Stone, p. 124. (Here, Reisinger limits the term to justification and security. The person in question may be legalistic in other ways.)
[iv] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP/Zondervan, 1994), p. 755.
[v] McGraw, Ryan M. The Day of Worship, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011) p. 123.
[vi] Bahsen, Greg L. By This Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), p. 183.
[vii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), p. 664.
[viii] McGraw, Ryan M. The Day of Worship, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011) p. 127.
[ix] Bahsen, Greg L. By This Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), p. 175-176.
[x] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) p. 723.
[xi] Kruse, C. G. “Law” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander, et.al., eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000) p. 635.[xii] Najapfour, Brian G. “2 Main Reasons Why Members Leave and Join Another Church” The Outlook (70:2, Mar/Apr 2020), p. 38.
[xiii] Belgic Confession, Art. 32.
[xiv] Sproul, R. C. “When to Stop, When to Go, When to Slow Down” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/when-stop-when-go-when-slow-down/ (accessed June 20, 2020).
[xv] Chantry, Walter. Call the Sabbath a Delight (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 107.
[xvi] The Jews associate Sabbath-keeping with the arrival of the Messiah, teaching that if all of Israel should obey the Sabbath (perfectly) just once, then the Messiah would come (Hertzberg, Judaism, p. 117). This essentially makes God’s will subservient to the collective behavior of countless Jews, in which case, the expected Messiah should never come. Christian Sabbatarians are not far off in mimicking this sentiment by proposing Messianic age blessings on the world in exchange for proper Sabbath-keeping. “Only as God’s people return to the habit of engaging in systematic spiritual exercises for an entire day each week, then will the moral fabric of our age begin to be strengthened” (Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 12).
[xvii] Ratzlaff, Dale. Truth About Adventist “Truth”, (Glendale, AZ: LAM Publications, 2007) p. 33. See also, Ratzlaff, Dale. Sabbath in Christ, (Glendale, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 2003), p. 371-395.
[xviii] Armstrong, Herbert W. “The Mark of the Beast” (Pasadena, CA: Ambassador College Press, 1957), p. 10-11.
[xix] White, Ellen G. Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 8 (1904), p. 117. See also The Great Controversy, p. 605.
[xx] Ray, Bruce A. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000) p. 50-51. This statement might very well fit the category of works-justification.
[xxi] Calvin. Commentaries, 21:193 (Col 2:17)
[xxii] Chantry, Walter. Call the Sabbath a Delight (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 37, 105.
[xxiii] Ibid. p. 39.
[xxiv] Ray, Bruce A. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000) p. 107.
[xxv] Pipa, Joseph A. The Lord’s Day (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 1997) p. 197-207, 48-52
[xxvi] Ratzlaff, Dale. Truth About Adventist “Truth”, (Glendale, AZ: LAM Publications, 2007) p. 36.
[xxvii] Campbell, Iain D. On the First Day of the Week, 2005 (repr: 2011, Leominster, UK: Day One Publications), p. 191.
Adiaphora. A concept of moral neutrality; that is, behaviors, traditions, and practices that are neither sinful nor righteous in and of themselves, because there is no biblical command to warrant them or prohibition to avoid them. The NT does not employ this word, but Paul certainly describes matters of indifference—things that are nothing—and provides guidance to ameliorate controversies that arise from them (Rom 14:1-15:6; 1 Cor 8:1-13; 9:19-23; 10:23-33; Gal 2:3-5; 5:13-15; Col 2:16-20). “True adiaphora are things neither commanded nor forbidden by the Word of God and which, therefore, concern matters that can be decided in the church by the mutual agreement of the members. “Situations where there are differences of understanding or practice about matters having to do primarily with social background, personal opinion, or personal preference—that is, with the so-called adiaphora, or matters that are neither required of nor prohibited to believers in Jesus” As Paul noted about matters of indifference, one may still sin in attitude, either by action or inaction, e.g., offending a weaker brother by eating meat offered to idols (1 Cor 10:23-29). While it is true that a liberty taken can offend someone or lead one to become less circumspect, it is also true that a freedom given away can lead to other personal violations and encroachments or a loss of self-government. However, when adiaphora become required or denied by ecclesiastical authorities, controversy over the matter is certain, because this affects both doctrine and conscience, and impedes the gospel message (Gal 2:3-5).
The historical underpinnings for the notion of adiaphora (Gk. ἀδιάφορα) developed with the Stoics who evaluated human endeavors as either good, bad, or indifferent (not able to differentiate). The idea arose again during the earliest stages of the Reformation.
After the publication of the Augsburg Confession in 1530 by the Lutherans, the Roman Catholic Church began their eighteen-year Council of Trent in 1545 to clarify their doctrine and practices. Since the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Paul III was supported by the Spanish King Charles V, Lutherans in Germany faced persecution, imprisonment, and war for their beliefs. Some Reformers, like Melanchthon, thought it best to concede on certain practices that he considered tolerable in order to protect Lutherans, but other Reformers, like Flacius, were less conciliatory. They reasoned that “one should not even make concessions in regard to practices which under normal circumstances would represent things of indifference or ‘adiaphora.’ To yield in external practices to false teachers would give the impression that one agrees with false doctrine, thereby also compromising one’s public witness to the faith.” The Lutherans, having learned through this controversy, addressed adiaphora specifically under the heading of Ecclesiastic Ceremonies in the Formula of Concord, published in 1576. Adiaphora are defined as above (things neither enjoined nor forbidden) and viewed as practices permitted by the church for the sake of order, decorum, and edification. Churches may not judge other churches because they have more or fewer ceremonial or ritual practices in place, provided they share a mutual faith. However, when forced under persecution to adopt adiaphora, they are no longer “adiaphora,” but have become moral precepts to be resisted. “Indeed, other evidence in this early period point to a low view of holy days; for these days were either treated as adiaphora or opposed as popish remnants in the Church.” While the Reformers made wonderful changes in reducing the number of external rites and ceremonies involved in Christian worship, they eventually paved the way for the re-introduction of a shadow-law and transforming it into a moral precept. As Paul observed: Human traditions deceive by a show of wisdom but are without value (Col 2:23). Calvin’s criticism of Roman Catholic rituals, composed of “a strange mixture of Judaism” and enforced by “perverse legislators [who] make no end of their demands and prohibitions until they reach the extreme of harshness” should prove prophetic of the churches of the Reformation with the rise of Sabbatarianism. Calvin defined human traditions as “all the laws enacted by men, without authority from the word of God, for the purpose either of prescribing the mode of divine worship or laying a religious obligation on the conscience.” “Paul and John say a lot about the godly behavior that springs from Christian faith and love, but the Sabbath is simply never commanded.”
Following the resurrection, the first Jewish Christians—the apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ—likely observed the Sabbath and then met together on the first day of the week. The new covenant was in place, yet they may have expected to add to their yearly, monthly, and weekly observances a meeting with fellow Jewish-Christians on the first day of the week. Prior to Jesus’ ascension, He directed them to wait in Jerusalem which allowed them to observe one more Sabbath prior to Shavout (Pentecost) on the first day of the week (Acts 2:1). Luke relates that following the gift of the Holy Spirit the apostles preached at this time bringing thousands to faith in Christ (Acts 2:41).
They quickly established a community practice of meeting at homes or the temple grounds based on their unity in the Spirit (Acts 2:42). Shortly after, when Peter preached again, the persecution of Jewish Christians began (Acts 4:1-3). It was not long before their welcome at the synagogue or temple was withdrawn and within a few years, those who professed Christ were clearly viewed as enemies to be cruelly mistreated (Acts 9:2). Following Paul’s conversion, he continued to go to synagogues to interact and gain the opportunity to preach, but this can hardly be viewed as a consanguineous relationship. As more people entered the ranks of Christianity—both Jew and Gentile—the leaders of the synagogue recognized that Christianity was a threat to Judaism. Concurrently, the early Christians realized that to meet together without conflict or danger they best continue to assemble with like-minded believers on the first day of the week.
The reader should already be aware that an individual’s transition from one religion to another is neither abrupt nor straightforward. People must sort out many conflicting emotions and new realizations within their mind. There are habits of life and social relationships that complicate the withdrawal from one sect and the incorporation into another. A Jewish convert to Christianity at this time might have continued to attend a Sabbath synagogue meeting; however, if it interfered with their full acceptance of Christianity, it could be a spiritual danger to them (Gal 5:1-6; Heb 10:23-27). Within a few years Christians already established a way of life that was distinct enough to be evidentiary of their allegiance to the doctrines of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:2). If a Jewish believer stopped going to synagogue, their name would be known to the leaders and surrendered to Paul for investigation. But if a Jewish believer continued at the synagogue, it was out of fear of discovery. Gentile believers would face the same dilemma if they were already regularly attending synagogue, but new gentile converts were oblivious to any such obligation. Paul warns the church to be wary of any person advocating the observance of days (Rom 14:5-6; Gal 2:8-11; Col 2:16-23). By the time Paul addressed the church at Colossae, it appears that on the personal level, he considers Sabbath-keeping to be a matter of indifference (for Jews), yet he couches it within a warning (to Gentiles) of being beguiled by false teachers.
Paul identified the Jewish observance of days as matters of indifference—adiaphora. In his letter to the Colossians, he said, “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths.” The reason these were no longer matters of Christian morality is because they were shadow-laws that forecasted and revealed the substance of Jesus Christ, now dispelled by the new covenant. It is not just that the Mosaic covenant has been superseded; Paul rejected them because they had served to inform Israel of the coming Messiah. That is, Christ is the telos—the fulfilling end or goal—of these laws, representing in His person what these laws portrayed in a rudimentary way.
The festivals of Israel also adumbrated the life and work of Jesus Christ, but the Sabbath was the epitome of a foreshadowing device within the law. Leviticus 23 summarizes the calendar festivals for Israel. The Sabbath repeats throughout the year (as well as the New Moon) and the annual ceremonies are infused with sabbatic features and are coordinated with the Sabbath. The whole calendar is suffused with rituals foreshadowing the mighty work of redemption to be provided by the coming Messiah. This is why Jesus affirmed that He provided true rest that was otherwise unobtainable through Canaan, the Temple, or any of the Sabbaths. Jesus claimed to be the giver of rest (Matt 11:28-30)—a clear reference to the Sabbath and its calendar relatives, the land of Canaan, the Tabernacle or Temple, and various leaders who provided rest for the nation following military victories. He is greater than Joshua (Heb 4:8), David (Matt 22:42-45), and Solomon (Matt 12:42). He is greater than the temple (Matt 12:6; Jn 2:19). He is our Passover (1 Cor 5:7). He encompasses the Day of Atonement (Heb 9:25; 10:1), the High Sabbath of the year, and He is our Jubilee, the grandest of all sabbatic institutions (Lk 4:18-21). Again, if Jesus fulfilled the greatest of the sabbatic rituals, a fortiori, He fulfilled them all. Once an OT ritual law finds its fulfillment in Christ, His redemption, or His church, the obligation to perform the outward demands of that law are annulled. The substance and reality of Christ’s work of redemption for His people is tangible and complete, possessed and guaranteed—effects that the shadow-laws could never achieve, claim, or promise in and of themselves (Col 2:16; Heb 4:3). At this point in history, there is no good reason to pattern new covenant church life precisely after old covenant Jewish ceremonies or rituals. As such, no church leader, organization, or denomination should promulgate rules or doctrines endorsing a specific diet or the observation of days as if there were some spiritual benefit affixed to the practice or some negative outcome to be expected for non-observance.
 Muller, Richard A. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985) p.26.
 Longnecker, Richard N. The Epistle to the Romans, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), p. 1001.
 Kilcrease, Jack. “The Augsburg Interim” https://lutheranreformation.org/history/the-augsburg-interim/ (Accessed Apr 29, 2020)
 Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, “Formula of Concord, Art X” Vol 3, p. 160-164.
 Johnson, J. F. “Adiaphora, Adiaphorists” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Ewell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 24-35.
 Parker, Kenneth L. The English Sabbath, (Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1988) p. 51.
 Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:10:13.
 Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:10:16.
 Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), p. 260-261.
Glossary 25 Antinomianism
Antinomianism. Simply stated, antinomianism means “against [the] law.” One would think that this term applies to law breakers—depraved people who act as if they are above any law or standard that would compel them to conform to its demands—but it has come to define various theological perspectives about the “law,” some of which may actually lead to a deterioration of Christian virtues or an incomplete grasp of Christian doctrine. Like the term “legalism,” antinomianism has surfaced during the history of the church as a charge against those whose view of “law” differs from the accepted norm. While some variances in opinion about the law are minor—and unsuitable to be called antinomian—other viewpoints lurk at the door of churches poised to undermine sound doctrine and conduct. It is one thing to be free from the law in terms of guilt and punishment, and quite another to be against the law as a moral guide or source of sound doctrine. According to one theological dictionary, antinomianism is the doctrine “that it is not necessary for Christians to preach or obey the moral law of the OT,”[i] suggesting that it is possible for someone to be a Christian without the moral instruction of the OT. Others have described antinomianism as “an old heresy which technically means opposition to the law [and] embodies the view that since men can be set free from sin by grace alone, obedience to the law is irrelevant to salvation.”[ii] There is a subtle difference between these two definitions. As we shall see below, the term came to encompass a wide range of theological issues besides the relationship of the Testaments, such as justification, sin in the life of the believer, repentance, the effects of grace, sanctification, and of course, what Christ accomplished in His life and through his death. The topic is broad and still relevant to the church.[iii]
The first use of the term “antinomian” is attributed to Luther, elicited by his disdain for the aberrant theology of one of his students, Johann Agricola (1494-1566), who denied that the Mosaic law was needed or useful in Christian sanctification or ongoing repentance because the gospel was enough (Rom 2:4; cf. Rom 11:22). “He condemned the Ten Commandments as an unnecessary carryover from the Old Testament and too similar to the Catholic doctrine of good works,” and he believed the Decalogue should not be a part of Reformed theology.[iv] “Agricola denied even [that the moral law convicted one of sin], believing that repentance should be induced only through the preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ.”[v] Both Luther and Melanchthon responded in a series of debates with Agricola during the 1520s and 1530s,[vi] leading to a refinement of their own understanding of the relationship of the law and gospel. This culminated in the paradigmatic “three uses of the law” presented in the Formula of Concord, published in 1576.[vii] The Formula alludes to the controversy: “For some have contended that the law ought not to be taught at all among Christians, but that men should be invited to good works by the doctrine of the gospel alone.”[viii] As should be obvious, this type of antinomianism is intellectual or theoretical, and does not necessarily lead to licentiousness. Ironically, Luther was also accused of teaching against the law. “Martin Luther responded with such a fierceness against the law that some people have thought he meant to teach that it has no ongoing role in the Christian life. Nothing could be further from the truth.”[ix] “Luther, on the other hand, had been accused—like the Apostle Paul before him (Rom. 3 31)—that the zealous performance of good works had abated, that the bonds of discipline had slackened and that, as a necessary consequence, lawlessness and shameless immorality were being promoted by his doctrine of justification by faith alone. Before 1517 the rumor had already spread that Luther intended to do away with good works.”[x]
Linder cites the 1637 Puritan trial of Anne Hutchinson as the second most famous antinomian controversy. Due to her favor of the covenant of grace as taught by John Cotton and her outspoken reaction to what she thought was an overemphasis on law, she was condemned as an antinomian and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. “The New England clergy probably misunderstood her main concerns and overreacted to what they perceived to be a threat to the unity and internal security of the Puritan community.”[xi] Authors Withington and Schwartz describe her antinomianism as a belief “that a man’s behavior on earth offered no clue to his fate after death” and further insisting that “good conduct was no sign of salvation and bad conduct no sign of damnation.”[xii] However, it is not clear from the trial records that these particular views were the subject of controversy, as much as the freedom to hold a religious opinion at variance with those in power.
Turretin (1623-1687) proceeds to teach against the antinomians who “maintain that there is no use of the law any longer under the New Testament” and that believers “are now freed from the direction and observance of the [moral] law.”[xiii] As Turretin explains, it is one thing to be under the [whole] law as a covenant as were the Jews, but another to be under the [moral] law as a rule of life, to regulate our morals piously and holily,” as Christians should be, guided by the gospel. The sense is that these antinomians were not looking for a loophole to live libidinous lives, but rather they believed they could live piously and holily with new testament teachings alone. On a certain level, they were naïvely dismissive of the OT. Turretin quotes a 1600(?) Mennonite confession as stating, “all Christians, in matters of faith, ought to have recourse necessarily only to the gospel of Christ.”[xiv] Granting that the Mosaic economy is and was abrogated, that Christ reformed our understanding of the law, and that there exists differences between the Old and New Testaments, Turretin concludes that these do not affect the importance, pertinence, and utility of the OT in guiding both doctrine and practice. Yet, the 1632 Mennonist Confession at Dordrecht is not as explicit in disfavoring the OT; it mentions only the law of Christ, but it does include OT references for doctrinal assertions.[xv] Current Mennonite Statements of Faith adopt the historical Protestant view of Scripture, for example: “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.”[xvi]
Concurrently, the term “neonomianism” arose when Isaac Chauncy (1632-1712), a Congregationalist, criticized the views of Daniel Williams (1643-1716), a Presbyterian, who apparently considered the gospel to be a new law, which was milder in its demands, allowing Christians to attain a righteousness of their own. As Ramsey reflects on the history of this controversy, he believes that Williams’ doctrine of justification was “easily misunderstood and confused with Arminianism/Neonomianism.” Less than a century later, controversy arose again regarding the relationship between the law and gospel in salvation. With neonomians in authority in Scotland, evangelicals who taught that “only union to Christ can give us power to be holy” and that sinners could immediately call upon God for salvation and be assured of eternal life, were considered dangerously antinomian.[xvii]
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) minimizes the impact of antinomianism within Reformed churches in the sense of promoting “loose views of moral obligation” due to its teachings on justification. Instead, he says the rationale for such a lifestyle is due to lowering the demands of the law in one’s life, or thinking that one’s imperfect obedience is enough or that rituals can pardon sin—the definition of neonomianism.[xviii] His son, A. A. Hodge (1823-1886) describes two types of antinomianism. The first is the practical antinomianism mentioned above: “that Christ has so satisfied the law for us that it is abolished… and we may do as we please.” The second is “a substitution of a new and lower law for the infinite law of God” which he labels neo-nomianism.[xix] The viewpoint of Agricola resurfaced in the mid-nineteenth century; however it was motivated by an increasing skepticism about the veracity of OT literature, to which Moody exclaimed, “May God deliver us from the one-sided Christian who reads only the New Testament and talks against the Old!”[xx]
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) explains that neonomianism “generally characterizes that sentiment that posits the ground for the believer’s justification, not in the imputed righteousness of Christ, but in the believer’s own, sincere, though imperfect, righteousness.”[xxi] As with similar heresies, Christ merely made it possible to justify yourself by your works. Rushdoony (1916-2001) criticized and labeled as an antinomian fundamentalist Cornelius Stam (1908-2003) whose dispensationalist ideas led him to conclude that baptism was unnecessary for Christians.[xxii] Horton (1964-) equates neonomianism with legalism (as noted above) and with the idea that the gospel is a new law rather than a free announcement of forgiveness and justification in Christ alone. Antinomians, he asserts, seem to contrast New Testament commandments (which they consider spiritual and loving) with Old Testament commandments (which they consider rigorous and condemning).[xxiii] Finally, Jones demonstrates that antinomianism may be a response to legalism and that even legalists may be antinomian in practice. Furthermore, he believes that not only does antinomianism expose a misunderstanding of Christ, but it also reveals issues of heart and mind.[xxiv] Yet, simply teaching the gospel still incurs the accusation of antinomian heresy. DeHaan reminisced, “If the believer is delivered from the law… does this mean he can do as he pleases… and still go to Heaven unpunished? This is a perennial question which is repeatedly raised by those who do not understand either the nature, purpose or the ministry of the law. We receive hundreds of letters from listeners who accuse us of preaching license to sin, and being antinomian.”[xxv]
The fulcrum point of antinomianism is God’s law [moral law, law of Christ, universal morality]. The idea of substituting God’s law with an inferior, achievable law of one’s own making is displayed by the number of unmarried professing Christians who casually have sexual relations or decide to live together for years prior to marriage, asserting that the Bible’s antiquated code no longer works for them. God’s word is depersonalized to them. The idea of a universal moral code is no longer the declaration of righteousness from the creator and final judge of humankind. Instead, the Bible is merely a collection of religious sayings compiled thousands of years ago that may or may not have value today. People who once professed Christ find a new way to live life as they please, yet they claim that it is morally reprehensible or unloving to “judge” them, i.e., point out that they are disobeying God. They begin with a perversion of biblical doctrine and digress to a rejection of Christianity, as demonstrated in the lives of Frank Schaeffer or Joshua Harris.[xxvi] This kind of antinomianism is unfortunately a pathway to apostasy (2 Tim 4:4; Heb 3:12).
Paul’s doctrine of redemption is that by God’s grace [in sending His only-begotten Son to die in our place on the cross] we exercise faith [believing in the veracity of God’s work and word] and become children of God [a supernatural experience through the legal declaration of freedom from the guilt of sin] (Rom 5:1). Believing is contrasted with doing, as the “instrument” of redemption (Eph 2:15). As a former Pharisee who advocated law-keeping as the basis for establishing righteousness, Paul explains that the assurance of righteousness by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a new teaching (Rom 4:9-25). Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith, prior to the giving of the [Mosaic] law. Paul asserts that a person is saved by faith apart from the works of the law. This begs the questions that Paul answers in his letter to the Romans. Should one continue to sin and receive more grace? Should one continue to sin because he/she is no longer under the law? (Rom 6:11, 15). The thrust of the questions arises because of the new covenant perspective on the value and use of the [Mosaic] law.
The apostles were often accused of teaching against the law of Moses (Acts 6:13; 18:11-16; 21:27-28; 25:7; Rom 3:8), an accusation that Paul denied even though he largely forbade Gentiles from getting circumcised as an act against the gospel (Act 15; 25:8). In his letter to the Romans, Paul anticipates possible arguments that could be brought against his teaching on justification,[xxvii] that if a person is no longer “under the law” then he/she may live their life without regard to the law. In this hypothetical situation a believer in Jesus Christ could live in sin while concurrently claiming to be righteous. This could be described as a practical antinomianism, a “freedom from the law in the form of licentiousness.”[xxviii] Like Paul, Berkoff shrugs off the allegation that the doctrine of justification is “ethically subversive, because it leads to licentiousness.”[xxix] Paul questions the plausibility of such a belief, “What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?” (Rom 6:21). However, we might note that the dissolution within the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5), while not attributable to an antinomian doctrine, per se, would certainly give the onlooking world the impression that Christians tolerated sexual immorality because of the doctrine that they were no longer “under the law.” Rushdoony asserts unequivocally, “The problem in Corinth was antinomianism, a disobedience to God’s law, in particular, sexual and marital law.”[xxx] He goes on to explain that antinomians are professors of Christ, but they maintain a moral indifference to sinful actions and that they fail to see sin as sin. This type of antinomianism he describes as “easy believism.” At the same time, “antinomian” should not be synonymous with “sinner.” That is, all humans are sinners through disbelief and disobedience to God’s law, but not all are “antinomians.” The charge of antinomianism should hinge on a doctrinal viewpoint respecting either the Mosaic law-covenant or a universal moral law and the extrapolation of that viewpoint that leads to immoral conduct or questionable doctrinal propositions.
“Legalist” and “antinomian” are terms easily put upon those with whom one disagrees about the place of law in the Christian’s theology and practice. But there are historical circumstances surrounding the use of these terms that should be considered—that these terms are meant to describe heretical doctrines and their resultant effects on a Christian’s spiritual apprehensions and behavior. Gamble introduces her sweeping research with this definition: “Antinomians can be described as those who deny in some way the ongoing relevance of some part or even the whole of the moral law. English antinomianism, however, was more complex and multifaceted than the simple denial of the continued use of and obligation to follow the moral law.”[xxxi] Her definition, and those above, emphasize the antinomian’s rejection of “moral law” which may not be the most accurate definition. In the case of Agricola, in his shortsightedness, he thought that the gospel was enough to convict sinners and lead them to repentance (maybe it is[xxxii]), but Luther called him an antinomian. It wasn’t that Agricola was against the law of Moses only; he apparently dismissed the entire OT which contains the history, law, prophets and poetical writings. Perhaps he was better called an anti-vetus-testamentarian. It is not known whether Agricola was against the Mosaic law, natural law, moral law, or ceremonial law in terms of holy living, or whether these views developed to the point of defending the practice of immorality—the connotation of being “against the law.” But as a theologian, by his rejection of the OT, he irrationally denied the very basis for his understanding of the NT.
Jones affirms that Luther was no “antinomian”; that is, “he was not against God’s law—specifically, the Ten Commandments,” because he taught the ten commandments.[xxxiii] Here is the syllogism.
- Antinomians are against God’s law, specifically the Ten Commandments
- Luther taught the Ten Commandments.
- Therefore, Luther was not an antinomian.
But Luther did not teach that the Lord’s Day was to be modeled after the Sabbath. Luther did not observe the Sabbath. He did teach from the Ten Commandments, as this was the customary method to inculcate good morals and sound doctrine. However, he was clear that the Sabbath commandment was a ceremonial law, and that if any morality was to be found in it, it was that some time should be given to God. So, this is the real issue: that if the Ten Commandments are perceived as the moral law of God, then any view that challenges that assertion is branded as antinomian. In the eyes of those who keep the Sabbath, anyone who does not observe the Sabbath commandment is an antinomian, someone who dismisses a portion of the “moral law” of God.
McMahon, on A Puritan’s Mind website, recognizes antinomianism in churches today. “Walk into any 21st Century church this Sunday and inquire about what it means to keep the Sabbath holy? How does a person follow the 4th commandment? The people would look at you perplexed. They would see you as a Legalist. And if you had not raised the question, it would have never entered their mind at all. Even as they sit through the Sunday School lesson, the singing of a psalm or two, and the hearing of the sermon, they await the final benediction during Sunday Church and never realize what the Sabbath is even about. That is a travesty; it is sin.”[xxxiv] In the mind of this Sabbatarian, a church-going Christian is sinning if they don’t appreciate the supposed connection between the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath. He shares the opinion of Murray that a conception of the Lord’s Day without a Sabbath rest is piosity, as opposed to piety.[xxxv] McMahon also applies the antinomian label to those who seem to emphasize a discontinuity of the Mosaic law with the new covenant. For example, McMahon cites some catchphrases, such as, “we are a new testament church” or “we are not under law but under grace,” as indicators of antinomian beliefs that lead to disobedience of God’s law, specifically the Sabbath.[xxxvi] These antinomians, he tells us, have actually said “that a person can be saved and never have to worry about living a life of obedience because we are under the grace of Christ.” That appears to be textbook antinomianism, but this may be an exaggeration of their viewpoint, since he admits these same people do go to church on Sunday—they just don’t know about the Sabbath.
Ultimately, resting 24 hours on Sunday and calling the day of worship the “Christian Sabbath” has become a litmus test of the Reformed to charge Evangelicals of antinomianism. Interestingly, Saturday Sabbath worship is a litmus test of Seventh-day Adventists to classify Sunday-worshippers as apostates. Reformed Sabbatarians deride the non-Sabbatarian defense that the NT does not reiterate the obligation to observe the Sabbath, as if this argument were grounded alone on the premise that moral commandments should be repeated in the NT. It is not that this rule delivers a coup de grâce to Sabbatarianism, but the absence of any obligation to observe the Sabbath in post-resurrection Scriptures is a surprising and telltale lacuna in new testament imperatives. That is, if the Sabbath were half as important as Sabbatarians exclaim, then we would expect to see clear teaching on the repositioned and remodeled Sabbath in apostolic texts. The objection to calling the Lord’s Day the “Christian Sabbath” is not because of an antinomian view of the law, but because it has been fulfilled by Christ. This maintains a high view of the law that coincides with the Lord’s, who sees the law as an instrument of fulfillment (Matt 5:18) and the benefits of His great redemption as the fulfillment of the anticipated rest (Matt 11:28). No less than Paul, who was wrongly accused of being against the people and the law (Act 21:28), non-Sabbatarians see no inconsistency in both affirming the [nature and purpose of Mosaic] law and urging non-compliance to ritual laws [of the Mosaic law-covenant].
[i] Linder, R. D. “Antinomianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 2001) p.70-72 [ii] Withington, Ann Fairfax, and Jack Schwartz. “The Political Trial of Anne Hutchinson.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 2, 1978, pp. 226–240. ;JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/364308. Accessed 11 Oct. 2020. [iii] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism-Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013); Fergusen, Sinclair. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016); Gamble, Whitney. Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) [iv] Traver, Andrew G. “Agricola, Johann” in Renaissance and Reformation, 1500- 1620: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Jo Eldridge Carney, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001) p. 4-5. It should be noted that none of Agricola’s writings are extant, and that what we know of his teachings are delineated in the criticisms of his detractors. [v] Linder, R. D. “Antinomianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 2001) p.70-72. [vi] Bente F. “Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions” https://bookofconcord.org/historical-17.php (accessed 4/30/2020) [vii] Hodge, A. A. Evangelical Theology, 1890 (Repr., Southhampton, Great Britain: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), p. 282. [viii] Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3, p. 122, 134. [ix] Parson, Burk, ed., “The Antinomian Error” in Tabletalk Vol. 41 No. 7 (July 2017): 39. Commenting on Rom 6:15-23. [x] Reu, M. Introduction to Luther’s Treatise on Good Works. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/418/418-h/418-h.htm. Accessed March 22, 2020. [xi] Linder, R. D. “Antinomianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 2001) p. 70-72. [xii] Withington, Ann Fairfax, and Jack Schwartz. “The Political Trial of Anne Hutchinson.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 2, 1978, pp. 226–240. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/364308. Accessed 11 Oct. 2020. [xiii] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 2, James T. Dennison, Jr. ed., (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing), p. 141-143. [xiv] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 1, James T. Dennison, Jr. ed., (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing), p. 98-99. [xv] https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dordrecht_Confession_of_Faith_(Mennonite,_1632) Accessed August 28, 2020. [xvi] https://usmb.org/confession-of-faith-4/. Accessed August 30, 2020. [xvii] Kelly, D. F. “Marrow Controversy” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Baker House, 2001) p. 745. [xviii] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, 6th Repr. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013) p. 241. [xix] Hodge, A. A. Evangelical Theology, 1890 (Repr., Southhampton, Great Britain: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), p.308. [xx] Moody, Dwight L. Pleasure and Profit in Bible Study, 1895, (repr., Bibliotech Press, 2020), p. 23. [xxi] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3 “Sin and Salvation in Christ” 4th printing; (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2009), p. 532. [xxii] Rushdoony, Rousas John. P. “God’s Son, Israel: The Typology” in Law and Society, (vol. 2 of Institutes of Biblical Law; repr. 1986; Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982) p. 597-600. [xxiii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), p. 664-677. [xxiv] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism-Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), p. 1-2. [xxv] DeHaan, M. R. Law or Grace (Zondervan, 1965), p. 69. [xxvi] Of Frank Schaeffer: https://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2008/marapr/1.32.html (accessed 11/14/20) and https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=132#note2 (accessed 11/14/20). Of Josh Harris: https://albertmohler.com/2019/08/01/joshua-harris (accessed 11/14/20) and https://albertmohler.com/2019/08/01/joshua-harris (accessed 11/14/20). [xxvii] Longnecker, Richard N. The Epistle to the Romans, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), p. 609. [xxviii] Parson, Burk, ed., “The Antinomian Error” in Tabletalk Vol. 41 No. 7 (July 2017): 39. Commenting on Rom 6:15-23. [xxix] Berkoff, L. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941) 8th printing, 1962. p. 524 [xxx] Rushdoony, Rousas J. Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. II “Law and Society” repr. 1986 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982), p. 579ff. [xxxi] Gamble, Whitney. Christ and the Law: Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018). [xxxii] Regardless, a gentile convert may know only that Christ should save him from his sinful self and establish a spiritual communion with God by faith, but eventually he will learn from the OT. [xxxiii] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism-Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), p. 5. [xxxiv] C. Matthew McMahon. https://www.apuritansmind.com/the-christian-walk/the-tract-series/what-is-the-difference-between-legalism-and-obedience-by-dr-c-matthew-mcmahon/ (accessed August 8, 2020). [xxxv] O’Hare, Terrence D. The Sabbath Complete, p. 219. [xxxvi] C. Matthew McMahon. https://www.apuritansmind.com/the-christian-walk/the-tract-series/what-is-the-difference-between-legalism-and-obedience-by-dr-c-matthew-mcmahon/. Accessed August 30, 2020.
Glossary 24 Sabbatarianism
Sabbatarianism. A term restricted to the teaching and practice of Christians to apply Sabbath law in some respect to their weekly behavior and conduct. As such, Jews are not “Sabbatarians” even though they are Sabbath observant according to their community history and traditions. The extent of application of Sabbath law can vary among Christian sects and Bible-based cults; however, the most common application is to regard the chosen day of community worship as a day of rest. In the strictest sense, Christians are Sabbatarians if they practice any Sabbath law or appeal to Sabbath law as a basis for Christian assembly. Sabbatarianism is “the view which insists that one day of each week be reserved for religious observance as prescribed by the OT sabbath law.”[i] Harm differentiates between strict Sabbatarianism which holds that humankind is morally responsible to rest from all labor on Saturday and semisabbatarianism, which merely transfers this demand to Sunday.
A Sabbatarian doctrine is a nuanced position because it developed over several centuries to arrive at a state of strict observance in the English commonwealth during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and then to ultimately to lose its national prominence while maintaining its variable relevance in Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Reformed, Reformed Baptist, and Seventh-day sects.
The earliest Christian traditions did not associate the Christian Lord’s Day on Sunday with the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday and only minor doctrinal connections involving rest were taught during medieval times. Skarsuane evaluates the dialogue of Justin and Trypho, a second century Christian apologetic, and concludes: “The main point is that the ritual commandments [circumcision and Sabbath keeping] were understood to be temporary measures until the coming of the Messiah. To continue with them after his coming would amount to a practical denial of the efficacy of his coming. It could well be that if Justin knew (as we know he did) Jewish believers who nevertheless kept on observing the ritual commandments due to ‘instability of will,’ he also knew Jewish believers who did not, i.e., who drew the full and logical consequences of this theory concerning the law and abandoned all or most of the ritual observances.”[ii] Historically, the development of a Sabbatarian theology began within the Roman Catholic Church which allegedly claimed to have moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday by the authority of the church, which is an instrument of Christ. Aquinas later popularized the idea that all of the Jewish feasts were replaced with Christian feasts.[iii] These teachings aggrandized the power and authority of the Roman church to hold the populace accountable to consistent Sunday observance, to declare certain days to be holy, and to legitimize ritualistic practices. Protestants could not accept the rationale for Sunday worship in terms of papal authority and began to emphasize that Sunday worship was simply a practical decision during the early years following the resurrection. And so they initially denied the historical claim of the Roman Catholic Church to have moved the Sabbath, to decree holy days, or to demand the practice of religious ceremonies, but within a century came to view Sunday as a “Christian Sabbath”—the expression of mature Sabbatarian thought.[iv]
The early Reformers, Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-1564), distanced themselves from claiming that the fourth commandment was the basis for Christian gatherings on the first day of the week or that it was to be fully observed like the Jews, but they employed the fourth commandment, like Aquinas, to defend the notion that “some time” is necessary for the worship of God and that Sunday should be treated more reverently than other days.[v] Even though Calvin understood the typical intent of physical rest was to encourage believers “to cease from their own works and allow God to work in them,” he posited the idea that servants were to be “indulged with a day of rest.”[vi] By undermining his own understanding of the typical meaning of rest—to perpetually rest from our works—he employed the literal rest to serve his pastoral desire to have the commoners and laborers attend church to be fed by God’s word. The contradiction did not go unnoticed by his peers who complained that “Christian people are trained in Judaism because some observance of days is retained.” He denied the accusation, stating that “we do not celebrate it with most minute formality, as a ceremony by which we imagine that a spiritual mystery is typified, but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the Church.” While this was not called “Sabbatarianism” at the time, the foundation was laid for the progressive development of Sabbatarian thought. This seemingly innocent application of the Sabbath to the Christian economy encouraged increasing calls to transfuse the Lord’s Day with sabbatic rules, or as Parker observes, “the evolving rigorism of judaizing Christians.”[vii]
With this foundation and the later development of a creational rationale for a weekly rest, in the early sixteenth century Glait (1490-1546) and later Traske (1585–1636), both seventh day Anabaptists, argued that the Sabbath could not be moved to Sunday if the fourth commandment is a moral command emanating from creation; and so their followers gathered on Saturday. The initial use of the term “Sabbatarian”—along with “Saturdarian” and “Sabbatary Christians”—was used by Sunday-observant Christians (who believed the Sabbath was transferred to Sunday) to describe Christian assembly on Saturday (who believed the Sabbath could not be moved). “Traskites were to become important as examples of the extremes that could result from precisionist attitudes.”[viii] Ironically, the term invented to describe the aberrancy of Christians observing a Sabbath on Saturday came to describe those who first employed the term.
The Sunday Sabbatarian culture prevailed and was able to curtail commerce and control conduct through civil law. During the Great Awakening in the United States, other seventh day sects developed. This led to the distinction between “Saturday Sabbatarianism” and “Sunday Sabbatarianism” because both endeavor to apply the fourth commandment to their chosen day of worship, as opposed to non-Sabbatarians who do not consider Sabbath law to have any force for Christians. With the rise of evangelicalism, the Sabbath was increasingly regarded as a ceremonial law or simply an outdated law of the old covenant and therefore without moral relevance for Christians. “We are convinced that there is no theological connection between Sabbath and Sunday.”[ix] This decrease of support for Sabbatarian practices and the loss of a national Christian consensus eventually led to the desuetude of business closure laws and penalties for breaking the Sabbath. “Sabbatarianism was also to burden Christian liberty with human traditions”[x]
The moral state of this present age is no different than that of the twelfth through twentieth centuries, but Sabbatarians no longer appeal to the State to control the behavior of the populace on Sunday (or Saturday). While a few Sabbatarian authors opine about the loss of significance that Sunday worship commands compared to former years, they are unable to do anything except at the ecclesiastic level.
Following the Reformation, the magnification of Sabbath obligations was only possible because of the working relationship of church and state. Having acknowledged the danger of such a relationship and admitting a need to alter confessions,[xi] the idea of the moral obligation of all humanity to rest for 24 hours on a weekly basis is no longer defensible. Sabbatarians continue to proclaim the morality of the Sabbath but the lack of enforceability erodes confidence in this doctrine. Nowadays, the appeal to observe a sabbatic rest is conditioned on the individual decision to apply this law for personal benefit, which is grounded not on the authority of God’s word, but on a person’s internalization of what the command means to them at any given time.[xii]
Sabbatarianism is a difficult doctrine to defend because of the presuppositions that undergird it, the internal contradictions, and the inconsistencies in application. During the sixteenth century, the heightened state of Sunday Sabbatarianism gave birth to Saturday Sabbatarianism which in turn diminished the solidarity and enforceability of Sunday Sabbatarianism. What Sunday Sabbatarianism logically generated came to weaken the arguments for Sunday Sabbatarianism. For example, the first Saturday Sabbatarians were Anabaptists who believed that the State did not have authority over church matters, but unfortunately for the earliest Saturday Sabbatarians, they were persecuted for their faith for the reason that if Sunday Sabbatarianism is the only proper day for Christians to worship and the church has the support of the State to enforce Sunday Sabbatarian laws, then they could condemn and persecute Saturday Sabbatarians. However, if Sunday Sabbatarians argue that the fourth commandment means that people are only obligated to rest every seventh day, then they could not condemn Saturday Sabbatarians for worshipping on Saturday. Ultimately, this gave civil government the power to sit as judge and settle the theological conundrum facing the church (which is also undesirable).
The development of Sabbatarianism gave rise to internal theological contradictions. Sunday Sabbatarianism caused a schism centered on the significance of the day of Christ’s resurrection and the authority of God to freely appoint another day of worship for Christ followers. Initially, with the alignment of the state, they were able to persecute Saturday Sabbatarians on the premise that God moved the Sabbath to Sunday. But with the loss of the state’s favor, Sunday Sabbatarians now must tolerate the existence of Saturday Sabbatarianism. “We are taught that a Sabbatarian has the right to observe the seventh day if he so wishes; that is, if he believes that God wants him to.”[xiii] Barnhouse, writing this in the twentieth century, could not have said this in the early sixteenth century. Observe that the sequence of rest every seventh day is more important than the actual day God chose for Christians to worship. Giving theological superiority to the sequence (one in seven days) in order to summon the authority of the fourth commandment results in the loss of significance of first day congregational gatherings.[xiv] “Those who celebrate Saturday are clearly the most consistent Sabbatarians but fail to do justice to the newness of the eschatological situation brought about by God’s actions in Christ… the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, and to the attitude of the New Testament… to the Mosaic Law.”[xv]
The question then arises, “If Christians meet weekly and the Sabbath occurred weekly, then isn’t this an adaptation or continuance of Sabbath law?” Not necessarily. What marks Sabbatarianism is rest, which is the meaning of shabbat, not its hebdomadal attribute. The Sabbath was not only a weekly occurrence but was occasioned on the New Moon and several annual festival days. What made it a Sabbath was the prohibition from work (and other associated laws). The introduction of the Sabbath in the wilderness as a weekly observance gave that day of the week its name because the Jews would rest from their labors every seventh day as commanded from that point forward, but the fact that other days were called Sabbaths implied that Sabbath observance was not strictly a weekly event. Otherwise, any observance that occurs on a weekly basis is sabbatical—if Sabbath means weekly.
Lincoln (LD) addresses the fact that the Sabbath and Lord’s Day share the seven-day sequence and sees this as an analogy. “Even if it is agreed that Sunday is the new Christian day for worship and that the Sabbath commandment is not to be applied to it, there remains an analogy between the two institutions of the Old Testament Sabbath and the New Testament Lord’s Day.”[xvi] It is undeniable that the Sabbath occurs weekly on Saturday (and still does) and the Lord’s Day occurs weekly on Sunday (and still does). Both had a distinct beginning, a distinct etiology, a distinct nomenclature, and a distinct covenantal duty. They are treated as separate institutions in the NT, i.e., the Sabbath and the first day of the week, and they were treated as disparate institutions by the church fathers.[xvii]
Giving the Sabbath to the liberated Jews was a sign of the Mosaic covenant that obligated them to a recurring weekly observance. The Sabbath occurs on what is now called Saturday, but the specific day of the week was designated by God as the Sabbath. Had not the Romans control over the calendar and given celestial names to the days, we would have continued to call the seventh day of the week by the Jewish name “Sabbath.”[xviii] The Jews were given other recurring observances that coincided with the celestial rhythms of the day, months, seasons, and years, but the Sabbath was unique in that it was not related in any way to the natural rhythms of the planet. Its rhythm was of divine decree. Neither the OT nor the NT give any indication that the weekly Sabbaths could be instantly shifted to a different day of the week. With the establishment of the new covenant, the former observance of days was nullified, and in their place the Lord assigned the first day of the week and all that followed as a day for believers in Jesus Christ to assemble to remember their Redeemer through a new communal ritual. The new covenant was a new beginning for the new creation based on the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week in fulfillment of the Feast of Firstfruits which shadowed forth His resurrection. Having fulfilled the Sabbath as His body lay lifeless in the tomb, He rose in power over the grave on the first day of the week.
The week as a unit (and later as a recurring pattern) is unique to the Judeo-Christian mindset because it was a divine measure of days established at creation. Since God is the source of this measure of days and of His desire to mark His people by a weekly observance, He is free to use it however He wants. The weekly character of Jewish and Christian meetings identifies them with the God of the Bible. Even Muslims adopted a weekly pattern for worship.
If God desires His covenant people to meet together, is He not free to choose a frequency and appoint a starting day? Just because the Sabbath is nullified, it doesn’t mean the Lord can’t ask His children to assemble together on the first day of the week to hear the preaching of His word and to enjoy joyful fellowship in acknowledgement of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lincoln and others propose that first day assembly and worship was simply a practical matter for Christians—they couldn’t meet daily until the Lord returned and they couldn’t meet with the Jews on the Sabbath—but this bypasses the possibility that the Lord Himself ordained the day and set the frequency for Christians to meet through apostolic authority.
The Sabbath was not instituted at creation, but the model for a week of seven days was. The weekly pattern of rest did not apply to the community of Israel until they were a community in covenant with God. The church as a new community of God demonstrates their association and fellowship with God by a hebdomadal tradition, not on the last day of the week but on the first day, which accentuates the loss of continuity with ritual calendar laws of the old covenant.
[i] Harm, F. R. “Sabbatarianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, ed. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001) p. 1045.
[ii] Skarsaune, Oskar. “Evidence for Jewish Believers in Greek and Latin Patristic Literature” in Jewish Believers in Jesus, Skarsaune and Hvalvik, eds. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), p. 512.
[iii] O’Hare, Terrence D. The Sabbath Complete, p. 267.
[iv] González, Justo L. A Brief History of Sunday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), p. 113.
[v] Bauckham, R. J., “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day,p. 317.
[vi] Calvin Institutes (2:8:28), p. 339. Following references in order (2:8:33), p. 342
[vii] Parker, Kenneth L. The English Sabbath p. 162.
[viii] Parker, Kenneth L. The English Sabbath, p. 164.
[ix] Shead, A. G. “Sabbath” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander, et. al. eds. (Downers Grover, IL: IVP, 2000), p. 749.
[x] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 329.
[xi] Barker, William S. “Lord of Lords and Kings of Commoners: The Westminster Confession and the Relationship of Church and State” in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, Ligon Duncan, ed., repr. 2004 (Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2003) p. 413-428.
[xii] Wirzba, Norman. Living the Sabbath. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007). See my review at https://sabbathcomplete.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/book-review-living-the-sabbath-by-norman-wirzba/
[xiii] Barnhouse, Donald Grey. Romans: Expositions of Bible Doctrines (Rom 14:5,6).
[xv] Lincoln, A. T. “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 401.
[xvi] Lincoln, A. T. “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 398.
[xvii] González, Justo L. A Brief History of Sunday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), p. 18-39.
[xviii] In countries where the early Christian terminology persisted, Saturday is known as Sabato (Italian), Sabado (Spanish and Portuguese), Subbota (Russian), Sobota (Polish and Czech), and Szombat (Hungarian).
This brief look at the development of and the practices on Sunday, and its meaning for Christians is the work of a retired octogenarian Methodist minister. Amazing. At 150 pages, this book is easily readable, enjoyable, and informative.
His purpose is to inspire Christians to maintain this badge of Christianity with hope and perseverance much like the early Christians who esteemed their time of instruction and fellowship on Sunday despite difficulties, rejection, and persecution from the world. It is as if González looks at the broad history of Sunday worship and anticipates, perhaps, coming days that echo the early Christian experience.
To do this, he examines the relevant literature and presents it succinctly, methodically, didactically, and for the most part, with integrity. Most of what he presents was already familiar to me, including his assessments of the historical data and competing viewpoints. But again, his focus is on history, not ironing out any theological arguments for the day of the week on which Christian should worship. Yet he does provide the evidence that Christians met on the first day of the week prior to the close of the first century, that the Sabbath on Saturday and the Lord’s Day on Sunday were two different religious institutions, and that Sabbatarianism was a later development in the sixteenth century. The earliest Christians continued to meet on the Sabbath as they transitioned to the Lord’s Day, but he casts this transition as an ad hoc development as opposed to a divinely inspired “tradition.” But at the same time, he notes the relationship to Christ’s resurrection, the new creation, and the symbolism of the number eight. These are the same features that characterize the God-given calendar ceremonies of Israel. If you want to think more deeply about the theological issues brought up in his book, then read my book. His mission is to just tell the story how Sunday began, how it was modified and adapted by extrinsic and ecclesiastic forces, and then came to compete with another day of worship (Saturday/Sabbath). He finishes with the hope of returning to the ideals that hallmarked the Lord’s Day in the earliest centuries.
There were many times that I wish he provided references for some of his statements. In his section for further reading, he did not mention From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, D. A. Carson, ed., which is a seminal work on this topic. As is common nowadays, even Christians attribute the seven-day week to ANE cultures other than the Jews and that it somehow evolved and became acculturated within Judaism, rather than believing what the Bible relates: God gave the Jews the Sabbath. To me, that’s history. And nothing he cited comes close to refuting this claim.
The Lord compelled Israel to record their history, rather His history with them: the highs and the lows, so they could avoid past mistakes and have hope for the future. Likewise, it is beneficial for believers to understand the history of the Christian day of worship for the same reasons. Unfortunately, not many Christians can articulate why they meet on Sunday and the theological importance of this particular day, the first day of the week. I heartily recommend this book to help Christians rethink their Sunday experience and recommit to this essential practice. Another good book review is here: https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/07/10/book-review-brief-history-sunday-new-testament-new-creation, but the comments are not helpful.