Jonathan Edwards on the Perpetuity of the Sabbath

Tim Brister —  March 8, 2007 — 1 Comment

The discussion in the comments of my last post about LifeWay’s decision to have their employee’s work on Sunday led me to do some reading over the past couple of days.  One of the most helpful things I read was a sermon by Jonathan Edwards entitled “The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath” (1 Cor. 16:1-2).  The sermon can be found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 2:93-103.  Edwards describes the doctrine as thus:

It is the mind and will of God, that the first day of the week should be especially set apart among Christians, for religious exercises and duties. . . . This is a doctrine that we have been generally brought up in by the instructions and examples of our ancestors; and it has been the general profession of the Christian world, that this day ought to be religiously observed and distinguished from other days of the week (93-94).

In usual Edwardsean style, he sets up two general propositions which he sets out to explain:

1.  It is sufficiency clear, that it is in the mind of God, that one day of the week should be devoted to rest, and to religious exercises, throughout all ages and nations.

2. It is sufficiency clear, that under the gospel-dispensation, this day is the first day of the week.

The part of his sermon that I particularly want to pick up on is his treatment of the perpetuity of the Sabbath.  Edwards argues that “the mind of God in this matter is clearly revealed in the fourth commandment.”  He adds,

This command, as well as the rest, is doubtless everlasting and of perpetual obligation, at least, as to the substance of it, as is intimated by its being engraven on the tables of stone.  Nor is it to be thought that Christ ever abolished any command of the ten; but that there is the complete number ten yet, and will be to the end of the world.

Some say, that the fourth command is perpetual, but not in the literal sense; not as designing any particular proportion of time to be set apart and devoted to literal rest and religious exercises.  They say, that it stands in force only in a mystical sense, viz. as the weekly rest of the Jews typified spiritual rest in the Christian church; and that we under the gospel are not to make any distinction of one day from another, but are to keep them all time holy, doing every thing in a spiritual manner.

But this is an absurd way of interpreting the command, as it refers to Christians.  For if the command be so far abolished, it is entirely abolished.  For it is the very design of the command, to fix the time of worship.  The first command fixes the object, the second the means, the third the manner, the fourth the time.  And, if it stands in force now only as signifying a spiritual, Christian rest, and holy behaviour at all times, it doth not remain as one of the ten commands, but as a summary of all the commands.

The “some” Edwards is speaking of that has offer such “absurd” interpretations include none other than John Calvin (see Institutes 2:8.28-34).  For brevity’s sake, I will conclude with a few applications which Edwards provides to his sermon.  As means of exhortation, he writes,

Let us be thankful for the institution of the Christian sabbath.  It is a thing wherein God hath shown his mercy to us, and his care for our souls.  He shows, that he, by his infinite wisdom, is contriving for our good, as Christ teaches us, that the sabbath was made for man. . . . It was made for the profit and comfort of our souls. 

The sabbath is a day of rest: God hath appointed that we should, every seventh day, rest from all our worldly labours. . . . We are strictly to abstain from being outwardly engaged in any worldly thing, either worldly business or recreations.  We are to rest in remembrance of God’s rest from the work of creation, and of Christ’s rest from the work of redemption. 

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One response to Jonathan Edwards on the Perpetuity of the Sabbath

  1. Although I appreciate Edward’s explanation, I think Calvin does a much better job at treating the fourth commandment. I glean two principles from his exposition:

    1. It is right and wise for the church to designate a day for the public meeting and for church members to order their time so that they might attend. New Testament practice points to this being on the Lord’s Day.
    2. Working people should take a day off. I would like to be shown, however, where in the New Testament it is required, by precept or practice, that this be the Lord’s Day.

    In fact, I think it would be interesting to consider whether those who were left out of the meal time in 1 Corinthians 11 were left out because they could not come as early as others, most likely because they were slaves who had to work. Perhaps there should be some reconsideration of morning as the best time for the public meeting.

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