Law, Grace, and Sabbath for the Christian: An Open (Anonymous) Letter

Dusting off the old blog once again! In my teaching role, I have just been asked by a student for my Christian position on Sabbath observance for today. Since I’ve taken the trouble to state my position succinctly for her, perhaps it might start a conversation or stimulate your thinking on the topic if I record my reply here. Keep in mind that I’m from a rather free-church, not-very-hierarchical and not-very-liturgical Protestant tradition as an Australian Baptist.

I find that there are two main NT influences on my thinking here. First I think is Paul’s teaching, and his emphasis on the free atmosphere that the grace of Christ produces for the Gentile believer. In particular, I think of Romans 14:5: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” Then the minimal requirements of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:20 come to mind, which laid four requirements on the Gentile Christians, none concerning holy days, though this could be arguably just a first step in their teaching. Then in Gal. 4:10 Paul rebukes the Galatians for “observing special days and months and seasons and years” as a kind of retrograde step.

So I am by nature very nervous about legalism. You could say that I see the Sabbath commandment as especially targeted at Israel as the covenant nation in OT times. But on the other hand, in a society one of whose besetting sins is workaholism, I think that there is a principle that does survive, a principle with two sides. The negative side is to prevent this idea we get that just by striving harder and working non-stop we might achieve security and prosperity for ourselves. By being determined to stop working for part of the week, we learn to be less self-focused and less self-reliant at the same time, and not start playing the rat-race game to the dishonour of God.

On the positive side, there is the discipline of stopping ordinary working life to deliberately pay attention to God, and do it publicly and corporately. So though my enjoyment of church attendance varies, and I have some hang-ups about it, I studiously attend church with my family every Sunday out of a kind of public spiritual discipline, something close to a Sabbath mindset, consciously prioritizing the things of God and letting Him slow me down and be Lord again. And I deliberately don’t do any serious work for the rest of the day, in the sense of the same hard work I do during the week, though I might tinker with a maintenance project or do some lighter reading that still helps my teaching. (And my wife and I are very careful of what we are modelling to our kids as well.)

But we must never forget Galatians. We are not under law but under grace. That is so important.

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