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Part 2d: What are the Terms?

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Glossary 10

Moral Law. Also called lex naturalis: laws revealed in nature and the conscience. Based on the absolute holiness of God, these apodictic laws have widespread acceptance among most societies, indicating an innate consciousness of a commonly held moral behavior, such as protecting the sanctity of life, the right to own property, fidelity in marriage, respect and equanimity in relationships, and the virtue of truthfulness (Ps 98:2; Rom 1:18-32), with the concomitant responsibility to punish wrong-doers. As such, moral law transcends Mosaic law. Within the Mosaic law, God explicitly reveals moral and ethical standards that most cultures would assent to; however, only the Judeo-Christian religions attribute the source of this standard to a sovereign and holy God.[i] As such, any failure to act in a moral way, such as adultery and murder, is a sin against God and a challenge to His authority (2 Sam 12:13; Mic 7:1-9; Lk 15:21; Rom 8:7). “The sublime source of this law is the uncreated, absolute, and immutable moral perfection of the divine nature.”[ii] “The moral laws, then, are the remaining commandments that deal with fundamental issues of right and wrong, often found in many of the world’s cultures and religions, which humans, perhaps by general revelation or the image of God that remains in them (though marred) even as unbelievers, almost universally acknowledge as dictating how people should or should not behave.”[iii] In the beginning, all mankind was represented in Adam who was warned not to take of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Having taken from that tree, mankind fell into sin, becoming disposed to sin. Bavinck explored the meaning of Adam’s act and concluded, “By violating the command of God and eating of the tree, they [Adam and Eve] would make themselves like God in the sense that they would position themselves outside and above the [moral] law and, like God, determine and judge for themselves what good and evil was.”[iv] The content of law is known, but what people do with it is the problem of sin. People can deny this truth and begin a downward spiral into greater ungodliness and unrighteousness, even calling their evil deeds a moral good and approving such wickedness in others (Rom 1:18-32). For example, Israel received the [Mosaic] law and occasionally ignored it, therefore plummeting to the depths of the abominations of the Gentiles (Judg 19:29-30; Jer 8:5-8; Ezek 5:6-17). On the other hand, there are Gentile societies who do not possess the law of God, yet they express the generalities of moral compunctions in their civil laws and traditions (e.g., Gen 12:18; 1 Cor 5:1). This is not to their credit because they merely expressed the good of their conscience that originated from God (Jas 1:17) while denying Him the glory for it (Eccl 7:29; Deut 8:10; Phil 3:6-7).  “With respect to the moral commandments of the second table of the law there is always much agreement among the nations, inasmuch as the work of the law continues to be written in their hearts.”[v] Ursinus astutely summarized the significance of Adam’s choice: 1) pride, ambition, and admiration of self, 2) unbelief, 3) contempt and disobedience to God, 4) ingratitude for benefits received, 5) unnaturalness, and the want of love to posterity, and 6) apostasy.[vi] These are the sins for which the nations are judged; and this judgment is just even though they were not in covenant with God through the law of Moses (Gen 6:5, 11; Lev 18; Prov 10:2-4; Isa 16:6; Ezek 16:49; Dan 5:18-28; Col 3:5-7; Rev 18:1-3). The fallen disposition of man tends toward evil, but on the practical level, people are compelled to work together—indeed, humanity must maintain social order or succumb to total anarchy—but they want this world and their particular sins without the God who created them. “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.”[vii]

The concept of a body of law that applies equally to Jew and Gentile (Rom 2:15-29) can also be inferred from God’s condemnation of Gentile nations and their leaders, of whole populations and certain individuals, not only prior to the Mosaic law, but after its fulfillment. “The [moral] law was engraven upon the heart of man his creation, and is therefore known to all naturally, although no other revelation were given.”[viii] “God even apart from his written law, has preserved in us certain general principles of the natural law, sufficient to accuse and condemn us.”[ix] The moral law is not an antithesis to the gospel unless a person hopes to gain the favor of God by compliance to it (Acts 15:10).  But alas, no one is able to obey moral laws perfectly (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:10). So an understanding of and proper relationship to the moral law must be grounded in an understanding of the gospel. Paul explains to Timothy (1 Tim 1) that the ultimate goal of “the commandment” [moral law] is love toward God and fellow man (v. 5), according to the gospel (v. 11); and that “sound doctrine” [moral law] stands in opposition to immoral behavior (v. 8-10) to identify the need of salvation of sinners (v. 15). The gospel premises that no one can be saved by obedience to moral laws because no one can obey them perfectly, yet the gospel saves people so they can obey God’s [moral] laws guided by love. And when they sin, they have the assurance of forgiveness through Christ’s death on their behalf. See Gospel and Noachide Laws.

Part of the question about classifying laws as moral or not is whether the Jews thought or determined that there were differences among the laws of the Mosaic covenant. Jesus mentioned the “weightier” matters of the law as justice, mercy, and faith as opposed to overly scrupulous attention to the payment of tithes (Matt 23:23; Num 18:21; Deut 14:22). The Pharisees gave attention to the law (Mal 2:8-10), even to the extreme, however their hearts were unmoved by more important commands of justice, mercy, and humility (Mic 6:6-8). In another instance, a scribe inquired of Jesus which is the “first of the commandments”; that is, the first in rank and value or the foremost of all commandments (Mk 12:28-34). Following Jesus’ answer (which did not refer to the Ten Words) the scribe remarked: to love God…and one’s neighbor “is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v. 33).[x] Clearly, the Jews recognized the difference between interpersonal obligations and ritual obligations, even though the latter were Godward expressions of obedience. One could believe that ALL the laws are part and parcel of the Mosaic covenant yet still view individual laws as different in character. So, recognizing differences among the 613 mitzvot is not a challenge to the unity of the [Mosaic] law. This is why Kaplan (JS) can explain that Torah is composed of ethical and ritual laws: “Among the many rituals of Judaism, we find one prime ritual that stands above the rest. That is Shabbos—the Jewish Sabbath.”[xi] There is a difference between moral and ceremonial laws. The Jews were aware of this in part, but it was made well known through the new covenant. “The moral law of God took precedence over the civil and ceremonial laws in that it was based on the character of God. The civil and ceremonial laws functioned only as further illustrations of the moral law. That is why holiness and love could serve as veritable summaries of all that the law demanded.”[xii] The unity of the Mosaic covenant made Israel legally obligated to observe ceremonial laws. The only way to be released from the Mosaic covenant, which is called the “first covenant” in the book of Hebrews, is to enter the new covenant with God (Heb 8:7, 13; 9:15; 10:9).

With regard to the Sabbath, the controversy surrounds its classification as a moral or ceremonial command. Many in the Reformed tradition believe the Sabbath is a moral command, either wholly or in part. Bavink (CS) muses about the creation rest: “Before the fall our first parents did not yet enjoy the eternal heavenly Sabbath. Just as they were subject to the alternation of day and night, they were also bound to the rule of six days of labor and one of rest. A day of rest and days of labor were therefore also distinct before the fall.”[xiii] Bavink hopes to associate the first seven days of creation with the enduring sequence of the nychthemeron or night-day phenomenon in order to claim that humanity is “bound” or morally compelled to a sequence of work and rest. But he has not sufficiently established the least amount of moral boundedness connected to our revolving planet. And he has not sufficiently explained how God’s work of creation and His rest is equivalent to the Jewish workweek and their Sabbath rest. His mention of “the rule of six days of labor and one of rest” is true only of the Jewish Sabbath. There was no rule or command for anyone prior to this. During the creation week, God was not bound by some hypothetical rule as if this “rule” existed outside Himself and compelled Him to behave in such a manner; nor was God bound by this supposed rule after the creation week as clearly attested by Jesus (Jn 5:17). It is not a divine attribute to work six days and rest one day ad infinitum. God worked and rested only once in His eternal career and Adam was a late-comer to that supernatural event, having been fashioned on the sixth day. In the book of beginnings, God is the only one said to have worked six days and rested on the seventh day.

We can agree with Bavink that mankind is subject to the transition from night to day, but there are no rules, no moral obligations associated with it. There are no ethical guidelines regarding the amount of sleep one obtains each day, otherwise night-watchmen labor in sin. The repetition of night and day is an observable natural phenomenon, and its predictability provides the basis for measuring time just as God decreed in the beginning (Gen 1:14-19). However, a week or “seven period” is not a discernible phenomenon because it may it may begin on any day of the month and it must be counted. Therefore, the week is substantively different from the day or the month (lunation) or the year. If the greater markers of time carry no moral force, then less so the artificiality of a seven-period.

Bavink mentions a “heavenly Sabbath,” but this is not a textual term—it is a term to describe the typological fulfillment of rest, which is heaven itself. The fact that Bavink associates the creation rest and weekly Sabbath with an eternal rest demonstrates his intuition that these are essentially typological events, not moral. Night and day are not eternal concepts—there was no night or day before creation and there is no night or day after the new creation; less so, measuring eternity in 7 periods. A seven-period only has meaning inside the created realm, not in the heavenly spheres. Therefore, the Sabbath is not a moral commandment. It is an earthly religious commandment that is not able to perfect the worshiper according to his conscience (Heb 9:9-10).


[i] This would include Islam.
[ii] Hodge, A. A. Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine, Banner of Truth:Edinburg (1990 reprint), p. 273.
[iii] Blomberg, Craig L. “The Sabbath as Fulfilled in Christ” in Perspectives on the Sabbath, p. 319.
[iv] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 33.
[v] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, p. 134.
[vi] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 33-34.
[vii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith, p. 490. (Emphasis added)
[viii] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 104.
[ix] Ursinus, Zacharias. The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 36.
[x] Jesus cites Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18, both of which are among the 613 mitzvot. The beauty of Jesus’ answer plays with the word “first” [πρώτη protos], because it must always be remembered that the Lord is singulary one, yet foremost. Therefore, love should be directed to Him (who is love) and to those made in His image. The angry crowd of religious onlookers fail to love Jesus on both accounts. This is why the scribe was “not far” from the kingdom of God, because he recognized truth and respected Jesus for stating it. However, to be a part of the kingdom of God, he must love Jesus as God. “If this scribe would now…come to Jesus as his Savior and Lord, he would have advanced to one of being ‘inside’ the kingdom of God.” (Hendriksen, William. NTC, Vol B: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, p.496). Rafael’s comments are not a little sad: “The subject matter of the Talmud, reflecting centuries of rabbinic argument in the post-Destruction period, give great weight to defining the sacrificial system. This preoccupation is particularly striking in the endless discussions of festival sacrifices, as if this was where the most bitter-sweet memories were expressed” (Chaim Rafael, The Festivals, p. 19).
[xi] Kaplan, Aryeh. Sabbath Day of Eternity, p. 6.
[xii] Kaiser Jr., Walter C. “The Law as God’s Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 190. I agree that some ceremonial laws do exhibit, illustrate, or promote obvious moral behavior. For example, the often cited law to place a rail on the rooftop (Deut 22:8) illustrates a concern for safety, and more widely a love for fellow man. It protects the homeowner from a potential lawsuit for a careless disregard for others, and from personal guilt should a fatal accident occur. But is it fair to expand this “moral duty” to such an extent that we are culpable for every preventable accident that happens in the home and thereby subject to the law of lex talonis? One could assert that even the most unusual laws and severe punishments in the Mosaic covenant promoted trust and devotion and obedience from the Israelite. The law requiring cutting off the hand of the wife who grabs by the genitals her husband’s assailant, punishes her for the immoral act of immodesty, even while coming to the defense of her husband (Deut 25:11-12; cf. Matt 5:30). By knowledge of this law, Jewish women learn that modest behavior and respect for men must ever be in their mind even under extreme circumstances. And the Jewish magistrate learns the underlying moral virtues of humility and obedience, for he must not pity the women as if he were to be more gracious than God. However, just because we can imagine a moral virtue associated with any law of the Mosaic covenant, it does not mean we are morally bound to obey the letter of that law. One could attribute the moral virtues of devotion and trust to the Sabbath and conclude that it is morally responsible to observe a 24 hour rest every seven days. However, the same virtues of devotion and trust are tied to the seven annual Sabbaths. Consistency demands that it is equally a moral duty to observe a 24 hour rest at those intervals as well.
[xiii] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, p. 574.

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3 Comments

  1. Manfred says:

    It’s interesting to me to hear Christian Sabbatarians declare a creation ordinance for the weekly (Jewish) Sabbath by pointing to the example YHWH pointed out in 20:11 as if that established the pattern (Moses said to “remember the Sabbath” after all). I have yet to hear one of them use Deut 5 to defend their weakly practice nor have I read or heard them handle the word “remember” which more likely means “keep in mind” – considering all that’s in context with this topic.

    I do think that every command God has given to man is a moral command or law. The covenant one is in reveals if and how a given command from God applies. To the first century Jew, the Sabbath was a moral law; to the Gentile it was an interesting religious practice.

    • I think you are right about the word “remember,” that it is not so much implying a recollection of former times as it is about giving attention to the practice being prescribed. Calvin states that “remember” in Exodus and “keep” in Deuteronomy essentially mean the same thing. That is how I addressed it in my book. Says Calvin, “Hence we infer that it is no trifling matter here in question, since God enforces the sanctity of the Sabbath by these two words, and exhorts the Jews to its scrupulous observance, thus condemning carelessness about it as a transgression.”
      The actual dating of the Sabbath ceremony must be established by the historical record–not by the word “remember”–and that is plainly documented for the first time in the wilderness. Thus, the example of God in creation became a theological impetus for the observance of the Sabbath at that point in time and for those under the Mosaic covenant. There is no indication in the Bible or in the annals of human history that anyone ever construed the creation week as a moral imperative prior to Judaism.
      So yes, the Jew was “morally” compelled to observe the Sabbath–it was commanded and it was the paramount sign of the Mosaic covenant. But it is fading law now. Calvin also recognized that the Sabbath is essentially a ceremonial law when viewed through the lens of the new covenant. “And first of all, that this was a ceremonial precept, Paul clearly teaches, calling it a shadow of these things, the body of which is only Christ.” Since the “morality” of the Sabbath would change when a Jew became a follower of Christ, then its “morality” must be of a different order than love for God and neighbor.

  2. Manfred says:

    Amen! When a Jew who lived in the Mosaic Covenant (none of which do now – Gal 3:23 – 24) came to faith and believed on Christ, he was moved from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant – dead to the law of Moses.

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