Conclusion: Sabbath Principles and Practices

Sabbath Study, Part 38

For the last several months, we have studied the doctrine of the Sabbath (i.e., what the entirety of the Bible has to say about the Fourth Commandment). During this time, I have attempted to explain why I think the weekly rest is far from an outdated command—and why it is a source of abundant grace and soul-satisfying pleasure. Properly viewed and obeyed, the Fourth Commandment can greatly benefit the Christian’s life.

So what about application? What exactly does a Sabbath rest look like? What are we allowed and/or forbidden to do during this day? Christian authorities have not been in complete agreement over the answer to these questions, and I won’t pretend to have unlocked all the secrets to a proper application of the Fourth Commandment.

I think it is best to answer the above questions with a short list of principles rather than a list of specific steps. Application points can be debated, but I think the Biblical principles are more clear-cut…and they can lead each of us to a God-honoring, soul-satisfying application, even if that application slightly differs from person to person. The following are the first three of seven guiding principles for enjoying a Sabbath rest. (The last four will be given in the next post.)

First, the weekly rest was designed for our good. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, we are prone to ignore the “unblushing promises” of God and the infinite joy He offers us because we are so familiar with “making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea.” Similarly, I think we are prone to view the Sabbath rest as a legalistic inconvenience because we do not understand its blessings (which are explained in especially poignant language in the Isaiah passages we looked at earlier). The study of God’s Word and the refreshment of the soul are far from inconveniences: they are life. The solution is to change our views of what is truly restful and beneficial. Far from being a burdensome prescription, the Christian Sabbath is a refreshing provision.

Second, the weekly day of rest is more than a mere suggestion. It is a command from God Himself. His glory and our good are at stake. At the same time, observing a day of rest cannot and will not add anything to our right standing with God. Adhering to the law never makes a person more justified in God’s sight. We are accepted by God because of Christ alone. No amount of rule keeping can add to our right standing with our heavenly Father. A Christian who doesn’t observe a day of rest is no less justified than a person who does.

By saying this, I am not treating the Fourth Commandment as inconsequential. Far from it. (After all, I’ve spent the last seven months arguing to the contrary.) The Fourth Commandment is incredibly important. It is not, however, a means of justification. If we obey any of God’s commands with the intent of impressing Him or adding to our worth or making us acceptable in His sight, our law keeping is nothing more than skin-deep righteousness—or, as Isaiah calls it, “filthy rags” (see Isa. 64:6). The only reason we have hope to be accepted by God is because Jesus Christ, the only perfect Sabbath-keeper, suffered in the place of all of us who scorned His law (including the Fourth Commandment).

Third, the weekly rest is not a rule to keep in and of itself; it is a means by which we can know God more intimately. Like any other directive, the Fourth Commandment reveals to us aspects of the nature of God—who He is, what He is like, what His purposes and intentions for the world are. Through the Sabbath, we see God’s provision for us more clearly: in His goodness, He calls us to rest in His sufficiency, knowing that we could never achieve salvation—and, to a lesser extent, we could never achieve all we intend to do each week. (In other words, the Sabbath provides a unique weekly opportunity to preach the gospel to ourselves.) Our Savior supplies us with abundant grace and promises both to finish what He starts and to provide for us with His sufficiency. To remind ourselves of these truths on a weekly basis is to revel in the nature of God.

In the next post, we will look at the last four principles.