What Is the Christian Sabbath?

Colossians 2:16–17: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” Paul’s triplet of holyday, new moon, and sabbaths can only be a reference to the holy days, new moons, and Sabbaths of the Old Testament. Clearly, Paul is not addressing Gentile asceticism. Nor can the supposition of Gordon Clark (normally one of the better Bible commentators) concerning verse 16 in his Colossians commentary be taken seriously: “The conclusion is therefore that Paul does not abrogate the Lord’s Day [by this, Clark means the Sunday Sabbath], but that he forbids the celebration of saints’ days, Easter, and Christmas.” Nowhere does the Bible equate holydays, new moons, and Sabbaths with saints’ days, Easter, and Christmas!

Why does Paul use the plural by saying “sabbath days,” or Sabbaths? Eighteenth-century Baptist theologian John Gill answers in his commentary on Colossians: “The ‘sabbaths’ were also shadows of future things; the grand sabbatical year, or the fiftieth year sabbath, or jubilee, in which liberty was proclaimed throughout the land, a general release of debts, and restoration of inheritances, prefigured the liberty we have by Christ from sin, Satan, and the law, the payment of all our debts by Christ, and the right we have through him to the heavenly and incorruptible inheritance. The seventh year sabbath, in which there was no tilling of the land, no ploughing, sowing, nor reaping, was an emblem of salvation through Christ by free grace, and not by the works of men; and the seventh day sabbath was a type of that spiritual rest we have in Christ now, and of that eternal rest we shall have with him in heaven hereafter: now these were but shadows, not real things; or did not contain the truth and substance of the things themselves, of which they were shadows; and though they were representations of divine and spiritual things, yet dark ones, they had not so much as the very image of the things; they were but shadows, and like them fleeting and passing away, and now are gone.”

So, Paul is saying that regulations concerning dietary laws and observing festivals, new moons, and all Sabbaths are shadows that are passed, but the substance (body) is Christ’s. Gill explains: “but the body [is] of Christ: or, as the Syriac version reads it, ‘the body is Christ’; that is, the body, or sum and substance of these shadows, is Christ; he gave rise unto them, he existed before them, as the body is before the shadow; not only as God, as the Son of God, but as Mediator, whom these shadows regarded as such, and as such he cast them; and he is the end of them, the fulfilling end of them; they have all their accomplishment in him: and he is the body of spiritual and heavenly things; the substantial things and doctrines of the Gospel are all of Christ, they all come by him; all the truths, blessings, and promises of grace; are from him and by him, and he himself the sum of them all.”

Therefore, we whose sufficiency is in Christ, who know that no law keeping can add to the salvation Jesus has bought for us, who know that the eating of certain foods and the keeping of certain days can only be indistinct and temporary shadows, should not allow anyone to judge or condemn us for exercising our freedom from dietary regulations and the keeping of days. Such things prefigured Jesus Christ, our separation through Him from sin, and our rest in Him. Now that the true substance of what these things pictured has come, the shadows have passed away. It is simply not possible for there to any longer be a need to keep days. This shows that even those who say they know they are not adding to their salvation by keeping a day but keep it to please God do err. Why should God be pleased with our keeping a shadow when the reality has come?

As we have seen, in Romans 14, Paul allows weak brethren to continue to keep days while they remain weak in faith (specifically, weak in their understanding of the concepts he teaches in Galatians and in Colossians 2). Of course, other Scriptures admonish us to not remain weak, but grow strong through knowledge (Ephesians 5:17; 2 Peter 1:2–8; 3:18). But in Galatians, Paul adamantly teaches against the false gospel that works such as circumcision (Galatians 5:2) and the keeping of days (Galatians 4:10–11) are necessary on top of the completed work of Christ. Any message that says or implies that Christ’s work is not enough is a false gospel. In Colossians 2, Paul tells Christians not to allow anyone to pass judgment or condemn them for their understanding that observing dietary rules and certain days are merely the “rudiments [this is the same Greek word translated “elements” in Galatians 4:3 and 9] of the world” (Colossians 2:8, and 20).

From this information, we can draw additional conclusions. Paul tells the Colossians not to allow themselves to be judged concerning days, and in Romans 14, he says it is wrong for Christians to judge others concerning days. Therefore, those Christians who charge others with breaking the Sabbath (whether seventh day or Sunday) or not keeping the Lord’s Day are violating the instructions of the Holy Spirit as written by Paul. Similarly, since we have seen that no day need be kept, those who accuse others of sinning when they do not keep a day are acting contrary to Scripture.

Now notice some quotes from people who do this. Herbert W. Armstrong, a proponent of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, wrote on page 56 of his book, Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath?, “To work on the Sabbath, to defile it by your own pleasure-seeking, doing business, etc., is a major sin, punishable by eternal death! (Romans 6:23).” By saying this, Armstrong assumes that the Sabbath must still be kept today and that those who do not keep it are sinning and will earn the wages of eternal death. But as we have seen, the Sabbath does not need to be kept today. It is also significant that Armstrong’s reference to Romans 6:23 is obviously only to its first half. He totally ignores the second half of the verse, and thereby ignores the heart of the Gospel. In its entirety, Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Living Church of God, headed by Roderick C. Meredith, on a page of its web site titled “Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath?”, says, “Did you know that your willingness to keep holy the true Sabbath day, which God made holy, directly affectswhether or not you will be granted eternal life in the Kingdom of God? Did you know that keeping the true Sabbath is—and always has been—a special ‘test’ commandment in God’s sight?” God did, in Exodus 16, use the Sabbath to prove, or test, the children of Israel’s willingness to obey His law (see verse 4). But the Sabbath day is not given to the New Testament church.

John W. Ritenbaugh, of the Church of the Great God, writes, “God has also designated that the Sabbath is to be ’the sign’ between Him and His people. It is evidence that He, the Creator, is our God, and those that keep it are His children. Taken as a whole, what the Bible shows on this subject is that it is not merely that it is observed, but also the manner in which it is observed that makes it the sign” (Sermon: Sabbathkeeping Part 4). According to Ritenbaugh, the seventh-day Sabbath is the sign that identifies God’s children. That it identified the Israelites as God’s people under the Old Covenant is certainly true. But, as we have seen in Romans 14, Paul says that the keeping or not keeping of days is not a criterion of who should be accepted as a brother, and it is not a criterion over which we should judge one another. Obviously, then, under the New Covenant, the keeping of a day cannot be a sign of God’s people. Under the New Covenant, Jesus has given us a completely different identifying sign: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John13:34-35).

Seventh day keepers are not alone in accusing others of sinning for not keeping a certain day. J. C. Ryle (1816–1900) writes concerning Sunday, “There are two kinds of Sabbath desecration which require to be noticed. One is that more private kind of which thousands are continually guilty, and which can only be checked by awakening men’s consciences. The other is that more public kind, which can only be remedied by the pressure of public opinion, and the strong arm of the law” (http://www.apuritansmind.com/puritan-worship/the-lords-day/sabbath-a-day-to-keep-by-bishop-j-c-ryle/).

Charles Hodge (1797–1878), in his Systematic Theology (vol. 3, p. 347), writes, “We are bound, therefore, to insist upon the maintenance and faithful execution of the laws enacted for the protection of the Christian Sabbath. Christianity does not teach that men can be made religious by law; nor does it demand that men should be required by the civil authority to profess any particular form of religious doctrine, or to attend upon religious services; but it does enjoin that men should abstain from all unnecessary worldly avocations on the Lord’s Day” (http://www.apuritansmind.com/puritan-worship/the-lords-day/the-fourth-commandment-by-dr-charles-hodge/).

A Puritan minister, Samuel Slater, warns, “To profane sabbaths is a very great and notorious piece of profaneness.  Sins willfully and out of choice committed upon a sabbath are sins in grain, scarlet and crimson sins.  To mind worldly affairs, to sit brooding upon worldly thoughts, to follow the trades and callings of the world, to open shops, and buy and sell, upon a sabbath-day, are God-provoking sins, acts of profanenes.  These are lawful upon other days, in which God hath given you leave ‘nay, more, he hath made it your duty, to labour and do all that you have to do of this nature; but they are very sinful upon the Sabbath” (http://www.apuritansmind.com/puritan-worship/the-lords-day/an-excerpt-from-what-is-the-duty-of-magistrates-from-the-highest-to-the-lowest-for-the-suppressing-of-profaneness-by-rev-samuel-slater-a-m/).

Nor are such statements to be found only in the writings of past centuries. Notice this from the Sunday-Sabbath keeping Protestant Reformed Churches: “…it cannot be denied that desecration of the Sabbath is in our day an evil that is assuming alarming proportions, and that the danger is more than imaginary that the Christian pilgrim, as he lives and travels through this strange land, will defile his garments and adopt the habits of the world in this respect” (http://www.prca.org/pamphlets/pamphlet_36.html). And, “Great issues are at stake in the Sabbath-question. And, alas, it is a question today, not merely in a society that, having once showed some influence upon it from Christianity by ‘closing up shop’ on Sunday, now works and plays on the Lord’s Day as on any other day, but also among Reformed Christians. It is serious enough that the Sabbath is desecrated in practice—the poor attendance at the second worship service (where a second service is still held) and the extent to which professing Christians “skip church” altogether are witness enough to this widespread Sabbath-desecration. More serious still is the growing ‘solution’ to the problem that consists of denying that there is any Sabbath Day at all!… Although the apostasy from the truth of the Sabbath receives little attention, we consider it to be one of the most serious departures in our day; and we consider our call to return to the old paths of our fathers, or to continue in those ways, as the case may be, to be urgent” (http://www.prca.org/pamphlets/pamphlet_39.html).

The Reformers: Interestingly, while Reformed and Presbyterian churches trace their origins to the sixteenth-century Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564), Calvin believed the Sabbath to be past and the keeping of days to be superstitious. He advocated only a “practical Sabbath.” By this, he meant that one day should be set aside each week for church services, and that early Christians (not the Bible) had decided this should be Sunday in honor of Christ’s resurrection.

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Henry Beveridge, trans.), Book II, Chapter 8:31, 33, Calvin wrote, “Hence, as the Apostle elsewhere says, ‘Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ,’ (Col. 2: 16, 17;) meaning by body the whole essence of the truth, as is well explained in that passage. This is not contented with one day, but requires the whole course of our lives, until being completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God. Christians, therefore, should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days…. Paul informs us that Christians are not to be judged in respect of its [the Sabbath’s] observance, because it is a shadow of something to come, (Col. 2: 16;) and, accordingly, he expresses a fear lest his labour among the Galatians should prove in vain, because they still observed days (Gal. 4: 10, 11.) And he tells the Romans that it is superstitious to make one day differ from another (Rom. 14: 5.)” (http://www.reformed.org/books/institutes/books/book2/bk2ch08.html).

Calvin “regarded the external observance of the Sabbath rest as a Jewish ceremonial ordinance and no longer binding on Christians.” He said of Sabbatarians that they “surpass the Jews three times over in a crass and carnal Sabbatarian superstition” (both quotes from Winton Solberg, Redeem the Time—The Puritan Sabbath in Early America, p.19). Calvin saw Sunday, not as a day to be kept, but as an issue of church order; it was a convenient time for the church to meet. According to Solberg, “in Calvin’s Geneva, citizens were free to amuse themselves after Sunday worship, and they did so with military drill and bowling. Calvin himself bowled on Sunday and was buried on a Lord’s Day afternoon” (Redeem the Time, p. 19).

Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, writes in his exposition of the Ten Commandments,

But to grasp a Christian meaning for the simple as to what God requires in this [the Sabbath] commandment, note that we keep holy days not for the sake of intelligent and learned Christians (for they have no need of it [holy days]), but first of all for bodily causes and necessities, which nature teaches and requires; for the common people, man-servants and maid-servants, who have been attending to their work and trade the whole week, that for a day they may retire in order to rest and be refreshed.

Secondly, and most especially, that on such day of rest (since we can get no other opportunity) freedom and time be taken to attend divine service, so that we come together to hear and treat of God’s and then to praise God, to sing and pray.

However, this, I say, is not so restricted to any time, as with the Jews, that it must be just on this or that day; for in itself no one day is better than another; but this should indeed be done daily; however, since the masses cannot give such attendance, there must be at least one day in the week set apart. But since from of old Sunday [the Lord’s Day] has been appointed for this purpose, we also should continue the same, in order that everything be done in harmonious order, and no one create disorder by unnecessary innovation.
The Large Catechism, V

So, Luther also held a practical view. He believed that a day should be set aside so that laboring people can rest and so people can have the time away from work to attend church. Notice also that Luther put no special significance on Sunday. He did not say that the Bible required that we keep Sunday, only that it was a day appointed, apparently by the church, from antiquity. Luther said that if Sunday were ever observed as holy for the day’s sake or were put on a Jewish foundation, “then I order you to walk on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian Liberty” (from Solberg, Redeem the Time, p.17). Luther’s and Calvin’s treatment of days and their practical approach to Sunday put them very close to the God’s Rest view.

Copyright © 2007-2009 Peter Ditzel