COVID has not shut the doors of our sanctuary since early 2020, but it has shut the doors of our kitchen. After the benediction and after-service catch-ups, the saints will by-and-large return home to sup with their families, while the hungry remnant plays hot-potato until someone gets stuck with choosing the restaurant. But after a few months of Sunday wings, our brother Sean came to the conviction that the new routine is not biblical. For the record, he has never made it out to be more than a personal conviction or insisted that we do otherwise, but because I take a potential violation of the Sabbath command seriously, I thought that it warrants a careful, systematic response. So, encouraged by the request of others, I will try to do that here. This practical issue is not its own island — it stems from our understanding of the scope, nature, and implementations of the Sabbath command. I pray that it will be useful even for those considering matters outside of this specific Sabbath question.
The Sabbath as Positive-Moral Law
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. Exodus 20:8-12
The Sabbath command is moral law. God thundered it out from Mount Sinai as part of His perfect, righteous standard to the condemnation of His hearers. The Hebrews begged the voice to cease (Exo. 20:19) — the Law pierced their hearts and revealed their worthiness of death, because it confronted them with the law already written in their hearts (Rom. 2:15). The commandment, which was ordained to life, they found to be unto death (Rom. 7:10), because it was that moral law they knew demanded the judgement pictured by the burning, black mountain. The Sabbath commandment cannot be excised from the other nine and treated as purely ceremonial; it was given with the others for the undoing of the Israelites, so that they might fear and submit themselves to the mercy of the great God who spoke. God circumvents any attempt to treat it as ceremonial law by grounding it in creation itself, leaving no excuse for those who would separate it from the other nine.
Yet, though the Sabbath command is moral law, it is not simply moral law. In the words of the Confession, it is a “positive moral” commandment (2LBCF 22.7). “Positive,” when used in this sense does not mean “good” (although the commandment certainly is good), but rather refers to something commanded by God in addition to what is dictated by the law of nature. To quote Richard Barcellos, “Positive laws are those laws added to the natural or moral law.”1 The Confession uses the same language to describe Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as non-natural institutions — they are God-given institutions given for a specific people living in a specific age.
The Sabbath command is uniquely described as positive-moral. How can it be both? Consulting the Confession again, it tells us “it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, be set apart for the worship of God” (2LBCF 22.7). The law written on the heart of man teaches him three things concerning this commandment:
1. God should be worshiped.
2. Worship requires a proportion of time.
3. The time and manner of this worship should be determined by the One being worshiped.
The last of those three precepts of moral law obligates man to seek positive law — there is a universal, binding demand upon all men to discover when, where, and how God has commanded Himself to be worshiped in the age they live in. Positive and moral law, accordingly, are intimately linked in the fourth commandment. But although they are linked, they are also distinct. The positive law necessitated by the moral law may be (and has been) changed according to the good pleasure of God. We must learn what has and hasn’t changed to worship Him correctly.
The Purpose of the Sabbath in its Covenantal Administrations
There is a two-fold purpose for the Sabbath. God tells us the first reason immediately after giving the commandment: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exo. 20:11). This Sabbath was given (according to the One who gave it) to point to God’s work and His completion of that work. It was not given merely for the ceasing of our work — our rest from our labors is a means to an end, which is to worship God for His work. But the work of God we must acknowledge is more than His first creation — we must principally acknowledge the completion of His work for the new creation. It is impossible to enjoy God’s Sabbath rest apart from the completion of His work for His new creation:
For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest. Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief: … There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.Hebrews 4:2-6,9-10
Those who enter into God’s rest are only those who believe and approach the throne of grace through the free salvation offered by the High Priest, Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:14-16). The true Sabbath, then, that our weekly celebration points to is the rest we have in Christ through His finished work of redemption. We dare not pollute this rest through our own works — by ceasing from our works and enjoying the fruits of His, we acknowledge that our rest was accomplished by the monergistic act of God. We cannot add to His work, because we cannot add to the perfection of Christ’s righteousness or to the infinite worth of His payment.
The second reason is implicit in the commandment and made explicit by the Lord: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Resting in God’s promises, meditating upon His work for us, and rejoicing in Him is for our good. God completed His works for our sake, and set His Son to be a propitiation for our sins because of His love for us. By observing the Sabbath, we proclaim the rest we have in our God to the whole world, modelling the fruits we enjoy because of His blessings in a small way. Contrary to a popular understanding, the Sabbath was not made for man because everyone needs rest. Scripture indicates no such thing, and God will give the wicked no rest day or night as the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever (Rev 14:11). Before God says anything about rest He tells us to keep the Sabbath holy, and any Sabbath-keeping that doesn’t involve holy rejoicing in God’s rest from His work is no Sabbath-keeping at all, and is no more worthy to be called a fulfillment of the Sabbath command than taking off work for St. Patrick’s Day. The rest is a means to an end, and that end is keeping the Sabbath holy by acknowledging the completion of God’s work and participating in the rest He bought us.
This will bring us to the meat of the matter — the Sabbath can only be kept by God‘s Covenant people. The Sabbath command, as we have said, is moral law and binds all men, yet it binds them by compelling them to seek the way God commands them to worship Him, and to join themselves to His Covenant people so they can do so. Covenant membership is an absolute prerequisite. The very framing of the commandment indicates this, with God telling Israel, “thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Exo. 20:10). There is no hint that the commandment is to be exercised outside of the Covenant nation and her members — the gates mark the boundaries of the cities of Israel (as a quick word study will bear out, it is never a reference to private property). In fact, this language indicates that it is only to be exercised by the Covenant nation. The same language is used for celebrating other Covenant holidays, like the Feast of Weeks: “And thou shalt rejoice before the LORD thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you” (Deut. 16:11). These, of course, were holidays only the Covenant nation could celebrate. It also parallels the language used to describe those who needed to be circumcised: “And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin … And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised” (Gen. 17:11-13). Every fourth commandment group that could be included in the circumcision commandment is found again (thou, thy son, and thy manservant). Only women and cattle are excluded (for obvious reasons), as well as the stranger in the gates, because — in the days of Abraham — there was only a Covenant house instead of a Covenant nation, and most people do not have unemployed strangers living in their house.
Although they are moral law, then, the Ten Commandments were couched in language peculiar to the Covenant they were given in, and could not be framed the same way in all other periods of redemptive history. In a small way, we see this in the fifth commandment when God promises long days “upon the land” for those who honor their parents (Exo. 20:12); when Paul repeats this in the New Testament, it becomes “on the earth” (Eph. 6:3), because the New Covenant people will inherit much more than the physical land promised in the Old Covenant — they will inherit the New Heaven and Earth. But as positive-moral law — as the universal, binding commandment to seek how God commands to be worshiped in the current age — the Sabbath command is more dependent on its covenantal administration than any other. Most obviously, the day has been changed from the seventh to the first. God having finished His work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His people no longer celebrate the Sabbath rest at the end of the week — as something at that we experience at the end of our toil. God has finished the work and plunged us into the Sabbath rest found in Christ, and this rest opens the new week — inaugurating the new work of the new creation. But another change has taken place: God’s Covenant community has progressed from a Covenant house, to a Covenant nation, and now finally to a worldwide Covenant people. No longer a mixed community of believers and unbelievers, the members of the New Covenant are only those who have the law of God written on their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). Gone are the days of a physical institution representing God’s people, with everyone in them participating in the ordinances, celebrations, and blessings regardless of whether they had a right to the reality pictured by them. Now, only those circumcised in the heart have a right participate in the Lord’s Passover, to receive God’s ordinances, and to celebrate the rest they have in Christ. Try as one might to import the second half of Exodus 20:10 lock, stock, and barrel, it’s an impossible task, because the Church has no gates for a stranger to be within (unless you’re a theonomist). Verse 10, above all, indicates that the Sabbath is to be celebrated within the Covenant community, which is now composed only of believers. Yes, it’s a command that binds all, but it binds all to first become believers so they can observe it.
The Issue at Hand
The argument against eating out on a Sabbath goes as follows: “It’s a violation of the Sabbath command to go to restaurants, because the commandment forbids us from forcing others to work on the Sabbath. And as a moral law, we sin by supporting others when they break it.” My answer to the first part follows from everything outlined above: the Sabbath is to be observed by the Covenant community, and cannot be observed outside of it. The language God uses in Exodus 20:10 is a standard way of denoting the entire Covenant community, which in those days was the whole nation-state of Israel. Even those who had no part in the object of our Sabbath rest points to had to cease from their labors, because the Covenant nation as a whole was designed to point to the rest God’s true people would have. It nowhere forbids people outside of the Covenant community from working, nor is there any place in where believers are worried about the Sabbath-keeping of foreign pagans in the Old Testament or neighboring unbelievers in the New Testament. Since the commandment only forbids the working of those living in the Covenant community, and since the only New Covenant community is the Church of believers, it goes beyond the commandment to forbid the working of an unbelieving waitress. It is certainly no part of the law of nature that unbelievers should benefit from the worship God institutes any more than it’s the law of nature that unbelievers should receive the ordinances of Covenant entry, which was then circumcision. Their involvement was part of the positive (as opposed to moral) aspect of the commandment, and was permitted only because of the corporate nature of the Old Covenant. Not only does it not logically follow for unbelievers outside the New Covenant to participate in a commandment meant to be exercised by the Covenant community, it is also the case that all positive law falls under the regulative principle of worship, and must be explicitly be given by each covenant to be validly practiced. Therefore, it is no more legitimate to enforce Sabbath-keeping for unbelievers than to baptize infants.
As for the second part of the argument, it presupposes something that will not be granted — that unbelievers are more guilty of a Sabbath violation when they work than when they don’t, and so we participate in their sins by paying for their services. The chief end of the Sabbath command is not to rest, but “to keep it holy.” The rest is a means to an end — a command to stop concerning ourselves with the things of the world so that we can focus on worshiping God in the way He has commanded, and enjoy the rest He has given us through Christ. If unbelievers are not working, they are certainly not worshiping God, but spend the day worshiping their idols — literal or figurative. If they take off the Sabbath as a way to share in its blessings while having no part in Christ, they violate two commandments: they profane the Sabbath and take the Lord’s name in vain. Those outside the Covenant have no right to share in the blessings of its rest, but will have their part with those who will never know rest — “There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked” (Is. 48:22). It was necessary for a time that those belonging only to the Old Covenant should enjoy Covenant holidays and Covenant ordinances, but that time has ceased. God was eager to make it cease, and never enjoyed the lip service of the pretenders. These are His words against them:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.Isaiah 1:11-15
Why should we compel unbelievers to do that which God has no delight in? Why should we encourage them to act as if they have a part in the Covenant blessings? Why should we affirm any attempt to keep the Sabbath without joining God’s Covenant, when Scripture no where tells us that this is possible? Our message to unbelievers should be this: repent and believe, be baptized, and keep the Sabbath — in that order. We should no more want them to keep the Sabbath before joining the covenant than we should want them to be baptized before professing faith. Until then, they will do more good preparing food for believers then taking the day off to engage in whatever sin their heart delights in. By making food, they at least give believers one less secular task to worry about, giving them a bit more time to keep the Sabbath holy.