Is Sunday the 'Christian Sabbath'?

Robert A. Morey



The following Scriptural study of the Sabbath is given to the people of God in the hope that they will love God and His Word sufficiently to manifest a true Berean spirit by "eagerly searching the Scriptures to see if these things be so" (Acts 17:11).

Yet, we are aware that not all love God and His Word to this extent. Their fierce loyalty to cherished traditions make a Berean spirit impossible.

During our Lord's time on earth, there were those who would not honestly deal with the issues and questions which Christ raised. Since the teachings of Christ cut across their long-standing traditions, they responded out of fear and anger. Thus, they attempted to dodge the issues by attacking His character.

What did the religious leaders say against Christ in order to discredit His message, and thereby to keep people from listening to Him? I will paraphrase what they said:

1. "Jesus has deep-seated moral problems. His teaching is rooted in a moral problem in His own life. Therefore, do not bother to listen to Him or give His teaching an honest hearing" (Matthew 11:19a).

2. "Jesus has fallen into the wrong crowd. He is friends with those whom we no longer have any association. Do not waste your time in searching out what He says. Just trust us and the traditions we defend" (Matthew 11:19b).

3. "Jesus obviously has spiritual problems. After all, no one would attack our wonderful traditions for the right motives. As a matter of fact, we feel His teaching is inspired by Satan himself and He may be demon possessed! Surely, you do not want to waste your time examining what a demon says" (John 7:20).

4. "Jesus has mental problems. You should not waste your time listening to someone who is not mentally balanced. After all, anyone who would speak against our traditions has to be crazy! So, ignore Him" (Mark 3:21).

In the same way, we are aware of those today who will not give the teaching of our Lord a fair or honest hearing. We realize that some will brush aside the exegetical issues we raise, and that they may even attack our character and walk before God. But each reader must remember that whoever sidesteps Scriptural arguments by attacking the motive and character of the ones who put forth the teaching actually reveals that they have no answers, and thus they can only react out of fear and anger. The use of argumentum ad hominem [attacking the man] always demonstrates a lack of Scriptural arguments. When someone attacks the man, it usually means that they cannot exegetically refute the truth of what that man asserts.

Let the reader be assured that our motive is to glorify God and to edify the saints. We do not write out of anger or malice. We seek to walk before God in the ways of holiness. We hope that we can assume that the reader will approach the Scriptural study with the same motives. May we always be reforming ourselves to the Word of God.


The Reasons For This Study

We feel compelled to enter the present discussion concerning the Sabbath because of the need to clarify and establish the Biblical teaching on the subject, and to promote the spiritual well-being of the people of God.

At the present time there are multitudes of books, pamphlets, tracts and tapes which seek to defend the doctrine which has been historically called "Sabbatarianism," that is, that in the new age the Fourth Commandment is related to Sunday, not Saturday. The recent revival of Puritan reprints and secular Puritan studies has caused a renewed interest in Sabbatarianism, a doctrine that drove a wedge between the early Reformers and the Puritans. The Puritan view of the Sabbath was a radical departure from the Reformed theology of the Continental (European) divines. It was a major deviation from the definitive confessions and creeds of the Protestant Reformation. Yet, in the English-speaking world, the teaching of Sabbatarianism has been so ingrained that most modern-day Sabbatarians assume that they are representing the "Reformed position" on the Sabbath, while, in reality, they are carrying on the scholastic teaching of the medieval Roman Catholic Church! (Cf. Appendix I).

With the present emotional sentimentality attached to the English Puritans, anyone who even questions Puritan ideas about the Sabbath is immediately labeled as "antinomian," "libertine," "rebellious," or "non-Reformed." Yet, to assume that one cannot hold to the Reformation teaching on the Sabbath out of honorable motives is self-evidently absurd. It is hoped that all who read this article will have an open heart and mind to search the Scriptures. Let us examine the Word of God and be prepared to cast off the traditions of men.


Part I – The Sabbatarian Position Outlined

Part II – An Examination of Sabbatarian Arguments:

    1. The "Creation Ordinance" Argument

    2. The "Moral Law" Argument

    3. The "Sabbath Made For Man" Argument

    4. The Hebrews 4:9 Argument

    5. The "Remember" Argument

    6. The Exodus 16 Argument

    7. The Matthew 24:20 Argument

    8. The Argument From Silence

Part III – A Biblical-Theological Approach to the Sabbath

Part IV – A Brief Practical Theology of Corporate Christian Worship

Part V – Sabbath-Keeping in Church History



Utmost care has been taken to research the Sabbatarian position in order to give it a fair and positive presentation. The classic Puritan literature, such as the works of John Owen, have been carefully examined. The modern expositions of Sabbatarianism by such theologians as John Murray were consulted. The following presentation of Sabbatarianism, therefore, is not a straw man. It is, we believe, a factual exposition of the doctrine and the arguments given to support it.

The Sabbatarian Position STATED

God instituted a seven-day week for all mankind and his domesticated animals. This was instituted at creation and is to be observed in all ages by all men until the end of world. A week composed of less or more than seven days is sinful and in violation of the will of the Creator.

In this seven-day week, man is to sanctify or set apart one day out of seven. This sanctification of one-seventh of his time is to be composed of:

1. Physical cessation from all labor, except works of necessity, charity or mercy.

2. Wholly giving oneself to the worship of God through the use of public and private means of grace.

3. Abstaining from all activities which center in self-pleasure, or recreation that tends to distract the mind from spiritual worship and contemplation.

The Sabbath was appointed by God to be observed on the seventh day from Adam to Christ. God has now changed the Sabbath to the first day of the week from Christ's resurrection to the end of the world. The Lord's Day is now the Christian's Sabbath.

The Sabbatarian Arguments Set Forth

1. God commanded Adam and Eve to keep one day out of seven as a Sabbath rest. This means that Sabbath-keeping is a "creation ordinance." As a creation ordinance, it is binding on the entire human race throughout all generations. The Sabbath creation ordinance consists of three parts:

a. God instituted a seven-day week for man and his domesticated


b. God commanded man to keep one day out of seven as a Sabbath

c. God instilled into the very being of man and his animals a physical, psychological, spiritual and social need to observe one day out of seven as a Sabbath rest. There is a seven-day week and a one day out of seven biological cycle within man and his animals.

That the seventh day was observed as the Sabbath by man at creation is a positive or ceremonial law, and not part of the creation ordinance. God instituted only the principle of one day out of seven days. What day was chosen was not crucial. This accounts for the possibility of changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.

2. In the Ten Commandments, God commanded Israel to keep one day out of seven as a Sabbath rest. Since the Sabbath command is in the Decalogue, it must a "moral law." As such, it is binding on all mankind until the end of the world. The seventh day is not part of the moral law, but is a positive or ceremonial law.

3. The Fourth Commandment begins with the word, "remember." This proves that Moses was calling upon the Jews to remember what they already knew of and practiced, namely, the Sabbath. Moses was not introducing something new, but, rather, he was reminding them of Sabbath-keeping which had been practiced since man was created.

4. Christ said, "The Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27). This means that the Sabbath is a moral law because it was made for man, that is, mankind as a whole. The Greek word must mean all of humanity in all ages.

5. Hebrews 4:9 states that the Christian is still to observe a Sabbath day of rest. Christ as the Lord of the Sabbath has changed the Sabbath to the first day of the week.

6. The Sabbath was practiced before the Fourth Commandment was given (Exodus 16).

Therefore, it was observed since the creation itself.

7. In Matthew 24:20, Christ prophesied that Christians would be observing the Sabbath even at the end of the world.

8. The silence of the New Testament as to the Christian's obligation to keep the Sabbath proves that they were all keeping it.

a. Since it had been commanded in the Old Testament, and it is nowhere abrogated in the New Testament, it was still in effect.

b. The early church was Jewish and kept it automatically.

c. There were "pastoral reasons" for the silence.



1. The "Creation Ordinance" Argument

The Sabbatarian Position:
"God instituted Sabbath-keeping as a 'creation ordinance.'"

Examination of this argument:

1. What is a "creation ordinance"?

Answer: "An activity or institution which God set up at creation for all mankind to observe perpetually until the end of the world."

2. Some of the obvious creation ordinances are activities such as work (Genesis 1:28; 2:15, 20) and the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28), or institutions such as marriage (Genesis 2:8) and the family (Genesis 2:24).

3. What is needed to exegetically prove that Sabbath-keeping is a "creation ordinance"?

Answer: To prove that Sabbath-keeping is a creation ordinance, you must find in the creation account itself one or more of the following things:

a. A commandment given to man to keep a seven-day week.

b. A commandment given to man to keep one day in seven as a Sabbath.

c. An example of man keeping one day in seven as a Sabbath.

d. A precept for man to rest one day in seven.

4. The hard exegetical facts are that there is not a single command, example, or precept for Sabbath-keeping in the creation account. There is absolutely nothing in Genesis 1-3 or elsewhere to warrant the assumption that Sabbath-keeping was a creation ordinance. This Sabbatarian argument is not based on Scripture.

5. "But isn't the Sabbath creation ordinance found in Genesis 2:1-3?"

a. No, the word "Sabbath" does not appear in the text.

b. A biblical-theological approach would show that Genesis 2:1-3 is Moses' comment looking back to the creation period within the context of his own understanding of the Ten Commandments, and not a reference to Adam's understanding in the beginning of history.

c. It does not say in the text that "man" or "animals" sanctified the day or that they rested. It is a single statement that God's immediate creative acts were over. That God "rested" is clearly an anthropomorphic [attributing human characteristics to God] statement, for God does not get tired, and hence, does not need rest.

6. "But the seventh day is mentioned. This proves that it is a creation ordinance."

Answer: Not necessarily. Nudity and vegetarianism are also a part of the creation account. But who would claim these elements as creation ordinances just because they are mentioned? Besides, the seventh day was hallowed, not the first day after the Sabbath (Greek, mia sabbaton), which is Sunday.

7. "But doesn't Genesis 2:1-3 serve as a pattern or model for us to follow?"

a. We hope not. After God worked six days, He rested on the seventh day, and He has been "resting" to this very time (Hebrews 4:10-11). God did not begin another cycle of six days' work, and one day of rest. If man is to follow God's example, then he would have to work six days at the beginning of his "career," and then rest until the end of his life! At any rate, to prove that Sabbath-keeping is a creation ordinance, we must be shown an example of man's keeping it. Since this is true for any other creation ordinance, why should Sabbath-keeping have to be established on such exceptional grounds?

b. Adam would have never been able to observe a proper Sabbath because God's seventh day was only Adam's second day, whereas Adam's seventh day was God's fifth day. Which seventh day did Adam observe?

c. If Genesis 2:1-3 is a creation ordinance, then the seventh day is the permanent Sabbath, for the text does not say, "God sanctified one day out of seven," but, "God blessed and sanctified the seventh day."

d. All the Biblical passages, such as Nehemiah 9:5-38 (cf. verses 13-14), which give us a summary of redemptive history always place the beginning of the Sabbath with Moses and not Adam. If Sabbath-keeping began at creation, surely the Scripture would have placed it there when surveying the history of the world, but it does not.

8. There is no mention of a seven-day week as being commanded or observed in the Genesis account of creation. No example, command or precept can be given from Genesis 1-3. While a seven-day week evolved later on in redemptive history, there is no evidence that Adam or Eve observed such a measurement of time.

9. Anthropology and archaeology have proven conclusively that various ancient cultures used different ways of measuring time (13-day week, 9-day week, etc.). If the Sabbath was a creation ordinance, surely it would have been observed by ancient cultures just as they observed all other valid creation ordinances. A true creation ordinance is universal, but Sabbath-keeping is not.

10. Various psychological tests have also shown that there is no biological time rhythm, or clock, for a seven-day week in man or animals. Extensive tests have been done with isolated men and animals to see if there is a built-in time clock. The evidence is conclusive that neither man nor animals are Sabbath-keepers by nature or being.

Neither does Sabbath-keeping have anything to do with psychological or physiological well-being. Men and animals normally rest in their work instead of from their work. The classic Sabbatarian argument which claimed that Sabbath-keeping is physically constituted in men and animals should be laid to rest forever.

2. The "Moral Law" Argument

The Sabbatarian Position: "Sabbath-keeping is a part of God's moral law, and thus is binding on all men."

This argument examined:

The following list illustrates the differences between moral laws and ceremonial laws, and thus demonstrates that the Sabbath command is a ceremonial law.


MORAL LAWS. It reflects some aspect of the moral character of God, that is, a moral law tells us what God is like.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. It is not a reflection of God's character. It is didactic in the prophetic sense of prefiguring the work of Christ.

SABBATH. It does not reflect some aspect of the moral character of God. It pointed backward to the creative work of God, and pointed forward to the redemptive work of Christ.

MORAL LAWS. It is an aspect of the image of God in man, that is, part of man's moral character as created by God. A moral law tells us how and in what ways we can bear God's moral likeness. It makes man man.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. It is not a part of the image of God in man. It is not a part of man's humanity. It is a tool used by God to teach man spiritual truth.

SABBATH. It is not a part of God's image in man. It is not a part of man's humanity. It is a tool to teach men spiritual truth.

MORAL LAWS. General revelation from the creation and the conscience reveal a moral law. Special revelation is not needed to know a moral law. It will be anthropologically universal since it is a part of man's nature and conscience.


General revelation from creation and conscience cannot give us ceremonial laws. They must be known by special revelation because there is nothing in God, man or the world to indicate a ceremonial law.

SABBATH. Nine of the Ten Commandments are anthropologically universal. Only the Fourth Commandment depends on special revelation. There is nothing in God, man, or the world to indicate a seven-day week, or one Sabbath-day out of seven days.


MORAL LAWS. It is eternally true, and it will never be done away with. It will be obeyed in the eternal state because man will always be in God's image.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. It is instituted for a specific period of time and then it is fulfilled.

SABBATH. It began with Moses and was fulfilled by Christ. As a day of rest it is not observed in Heaven now, and neither will it be observed in the eternal state.

MORAL LAWS. It is unchangeable and immutable because God's character and the image of God in man cannot change.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. Ceremonial laws change from age to age, according to God's appointment.

SABBATH. Christ as the Lord of the Sabbath fulfilled it and set it aside. Even Sabbatarians admit that it changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week. It is neither unchangeable nor immutable.

MORAL LAWS. It is universally binding on all men in all ages.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. It is binding only on those to whom it is given. Usually, it is directed only to the people of God and not binding on the Gentiles.

SABBATH. It was binding only for Israel. No Gentiles were ever commanded or condemned concerning the Sabbath law. It was not universally binding on all men in all ages. It was a covenant sign to Israel.


MORAL LAWS. A moral law always has precedence over a ceremonial law.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. It is always subservient to a moral law if any contradiction arises (that is, David's eating of the showbread, Matthew 12:1-6).

SABBATH. The Sabbath command was subservient to moral laws (Matthew 12:9-12). It was subservient even to other ceremonial laws (John 7:22-23).


MORAL LAWS. Since God's character is harmonious, moral laws never contradict each other in that you must break one to obey the other.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. There will be conflict at times between moral and ceremonial laws.

SABBATH. There have been occasions when the Fourth Commandment was broken in order to keep the Sixth (Mark 2:23-28). It cannot, therefore, be a moral law.

MORAL LAWS. A moral law is valid regardless of the situation because it is a moral absolute. We can never deal with it from the perspective of situational ethics. 1 Corinthians 10:13 teaches that we never have to sin.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. Whether you obey or disobey a ceremonial law depends on the situation (Matthew 12:1-6).

SABBATH. The priests "broke" or desecrated the Sabbath, but because of the circumstance and the situation were declared innocent (Matthew 12:5). No moral law has "except" clauses. If the Sabbath is a moral law, then why is it a situational law instead of a moral absolute?


MORAL LAWS. A consistent violation of a moral law is inconsistent with a Christian profession, and must be dealt with by church discipline, even unto excommunication.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. The punishment depends on the situation and circumstances surrounding the violation of a ceremonial law.

SABBATH. Sabbath-breaking depends on the situation. There are all sorts of "I had to" exceptions for breaking the Fourth Commandment. They are called "works of mercy, charity or necessity." No moral law has such exceptions.


MORAL LAWS. A moral law does not assume man's fall into sin. God's and man's nature at creation is sufficient to account for moral law.

CEREMONIAL LAWS. It assumes the fall and prefigures redemption. Thus, it is eschatological in character.

SABBATH. The Sabbath was eschatological in that it pointed forward to the Messianic age of the rest of faith (Hebrews 4). We cease trying to work for salvation, and rest instead in Christ's work.

One of the most telling reasons for rejecting the Sabbath as a moral law is that few modern Sabbatarians treat "violations" of the Fourth Commandment as constituting serious sin. You would be excommunicated for consistently breaking the other nine commandments. But to break the Fourth Commandment does not in most cases lead to any church discipline. Indeed, we know of situations where the pastor is a strict Sabbatarian, but his fellow elders go out to eat on Sundays! If it is a law, why is it not applied like one? Since the punishment was death in the Old Testament for Sabbath-breaking, on what grounds can anything less than excommunication be done to those who consistently "break" the Fourth Commandment? We might also add that what constitutes "violation" of proper Sabbath-keeping is determined in a variety of ways, and ends up in "do's" and "don'ts" which are purely subjective and arbitrary. Thus, what constitutes Sabbath-breaking in one church will be found to be acceptable in another church.

"But," the Sabbatarian replies, "regardless of all you have said, it is still found in the Ten Commandments and this means it must be a moral law, or it wouldn't be found there."

In reply, we must observe the following points:

1. Is everything in the Ten Commandments moral? Is there not a mixture of ceremonial and moral within the Decalogue itself?

a. Fifth Commandment – Obey your parents and "you will live long on the land which God has given to you." Who would say that living in Israel is a moral law? Even the Puritans point this out as a ceremonial element in the Decalogue.

b. Fourth Commandment – "The seventh day is the Sabbath." Who, besides those who view Saturday as the Sabbath, would say that this is a moral law? Sabbatarian authors such as Ezekiel Hopkins point out this ceremonial element.

2. Since it is admitted that there is a mixture of moral and ceremonial law in the Decalogue, the fact that the Jews were commanded in the Decalogue to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath cannot prove it to be a moral law.

3. Archaeology helps us to understand why in the midst of the covenant Decalogue you find a ceremonial law. In the covenant treaties of the Great Kings in the Ancient Near East, a ceremony would be given in the midst of the treaty to act as a sign of covenantal obedience and submissiveness from the vassal slave to the conquering king. The covenant servants could break the other parts of the covenant and find forgiveness, but if they forsook the ceremonial sign of covenantal obedience to the king, then the covenant as a whole was viewed as broken.

a. The structure of the Decalogue is like the treaties of the Great Kings (cf. Meredith Kline, The Treaty of the Great King [Eerdmans, 1963], pages 27-44).

b. The Scripture points out that the Sabbath was the sign of Israel's covenantal obedience and submission (Exodus 31:12-17; Isaiah 56:4-7; Deuteronomy 5:11).

c. Once Israel abandoned the Sabbath, God abandoned them (Ezekiel 20:12, 20-24).

There are further arguments which show that the Sabbath was a ceremonial law.

1. Old Testament and New Testament writers consistently place Sabbath-keeping in the lists of other ceremonial laws. No moral law is grouped or listed with ceremonial laws (1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4-8, 13; 31:3; Nehemiah 10:33; Ezekiel 45:17; Hosea 2:11; Colossians 2:16; Hebrews 4).

2. How could God despise Sabbath-keeping, and put an end to it if it were a moral law (Isaiah 1:10-14; Hosea 2:11)?

3. If it is a moral law, why is it never repeated in the New Testament like the other nine commandments?

4. The author of Hebrews treats the Sabbath like all other ceremonial laws, that is, as a type or shadow of Christ's work of salvation (Hebrews 4; Cf. Colossians 2:17).

5. Jesus clearly equates "Sabbath" with the ceremonial "sacrifice" in Matthew 12:7. Thus, He taught that it was a ceremonial law.

6. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 was faced with a direct question which certainly bears on the Sabbath issue. "How much of Mosaic law should the Gentile Christians keep?" If Sabbath-keeping was a moral law binding on Gentiles, they would have included it in their decision. But they did not bind the Gentiles to obey the Sabbath (cf. Acts 15:21 where there is an allusion the the Saturday Sabbath). The Sabbath was a ceremonial law fulfilled in Christ.

7. If it were a moral law, the apostle Paul would never leave its observance up to Christian liberty as he taught in Colossians 2:16.

8. If Sabbath-keeping was binding on New Covenant believers as a part of the moral law, then why did the early Christians:

(1) work on Sundays without complaint;

(2) never call the "Lord's Day" a "Sabbath"; and

(3) consistently teach that the Fourth Commandment was a ceremonial law fulfilled by Christ and as such no longer binding? Centuries went by before anyone talked about a "Christian Sabbath." Why? Where is the apostolic and historical pedigree for the Sabbatarian doctrine? It has no such pedigree.

9. It is geographically impossible for all men to keep the Sabbath. What would those in cold climates do without heat (Exodus 35:1-3)? In the far North where there are six months of day and six months of night, how can the Sabbath be kept? Is it not true that a moral law can be kept anywhere? But the Sabbath cannot be kept universally across the planet. Also, once man travels to other planets, which have days of different lengths, how will the Sabbath be observed? What will the colonies on Mars or on the space stations do about the Sabbath? These are issues that Sabbatarians will have to face in coming years, if the Lord tarries.

10. The Jewish Sabbath lasted from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. If the Fourth Commandment is still in effect as a creation ordinance, then why do Sabbatarians not begin their Sabbath on Saturday evening and end it Sunday evening? How can they brush aside the "sundown" to "sundown" structure of the alleged pattern of the Old Covenant Sabbath?

11. It is economically impossible to shut down our modern industrial society every Sunday. If the steel mills tried to turn off their furnaces one day out of the week, it would be impossible to produce steel, for it takes a week for them to heat up sufficiently to begin production (cf. Gary North, "The Economics of Sabbath Keeping," in The Institutes of Biblical Law, pages 824-836).


3. The "Sabbath Made For Man" Argument From Mark 2:27

The Sabbatarian Position: "Christ clearly taught that the Sabbath was a moral law in Mark 2:27 on two grounds:

1. The Sabbath was made for man; that is, it is a moral law.

2. It was made for man; that is, not for Jews only but mankind considered as a whole."

The following points can be made in response to this argument:

1. An examination of the context (verses 23-28) reveals that instead of seeking to establish the Sabbath as a moral law, Christ clearly equates it to the ceremonial law concerning the showbread. The Pharisees made too much of the Sabbath and Christ now instructs them as to a proper view of the ceremonial nature of the Sabbath. Christ and His disciples could "break" the Sabbath just as David and his men could "break" the law about showbread because both were ceremonial laws.

2. Christ's statement, "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," plainly reveals the ceremonial nature of the Sabbath.

a. Why was man created?
Answer: To bear God's image, that is, God's moral character.

b. What is the clearest expression of God's moral character?
Answer: The moral law, that is, man was made for the moral law; that is, to love God and neighbor.

c. Therefore, man was created to express the moral law; that is, man was made for the moral law.

d. In opposition to this, ceremonial laws are "made for man," that is, for man's assistance, help, ignorance, etc. Thus, Christ was teaching that just as the law regarding showbread was "made for man" and could not be used against the health and welfare of the people, so the Sabbath law was also "made for man," that is, it is no more a moral law than the law for showbread. It is clear that the Pharisees had twisted the Sabbath all out of proportion, and Jesus here puts it in proper perspective.

3. As to the argument that since Christ said "for man," instead of "for Israel," that this means "all mankind who ever lived or ever will live in all ages and places," we make the following observations:

a. An examination of the Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament on the usage of the Greek word translated "man" reveals that it rarely means "all mankind." In fact, in many places, such as 1 Timothy 2:1, it is impossible to understand it as "all mankind."

b. Most Sunday Sabbatarians are strict Calvinists who go to great lengths, when discussing atonement, to prove that this Greek word does not mean "all mankind." They rightly point this out in refuting the Arminian interpretation such places as Romans 5:18, 1 Timothy 2:4, Titus 2:11, etc. It is very strange that the same theologians who dogmatically state that "man" in Mark 2:27 must mean "all mankind," are equally strong in other passages as cited above that the word cannot mean "all mankind"! We wish for more consistency among the Calvinist Sabbatarians in using this Greek word.


4. The Hebrews 4:9 Argument

The Sabbatarian Position: "In this chapter, the author clearly states that there remains for the Christian a Sabbath-day of rest (4:9)."

The following points are salient in replying to this argument:

1. This argument's greatest proponent was the Puritan, John Owen. But the exegetical evidence against his Sabbatarian position is so great that before or after him virtually no commentators can be cited who concur with his interpretation. We have examined most of the great commentators on Hebrews since Calvin, and find that the Sabbatarian position is usually rejected. Even some of the Puritans, such as John Brown, rejected Owen's interpretation. With almost all the classic commentaries and exegetes against the Sabbatarian position on Hebrews 4, this at once makes us suspicious of its validity.

2. A close exegesis reveals that Hebrews 4 is teaching the exact opposite of the Sabbatarian position. The context is clear on the following points:

    a. God's "rest" in Hebrews 3:18 stands symbolically for the promised land. Because of unbelief, most of that generation died in the wilderness instead of entering His "rest" (3:16-19).

    b. From this Old Testament example, the author now informs his audience that the promise of a greater "rest" stands before them (4:1a).

    c. This "rest" is of such a nature that:
(1) We can fall short of it (1b).
(2) We fall short if we do not believe the gospel (verse 2).
(3) It is entered into by faith (verse 3).

    d. This "rest" is now drawn from another Old Testament example: God's Sabbath rest (verse 4).

    e. The author combines God's Sabbath rest with the "rest" of the promised land (verse 5), and states that disobedience to the gospel hinders anyone from entering "rest" (verse 6).

    f. Even now in the age of salvation, the age of "Today" (verse 7; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:2), God calls us to enter a "rest"; a rest like God's Sabbath rest; a rest like that in Canaan (verses 8-9). The only reason for putting the word "Sabbath rest" (Greek sabbatismos, verse 9) instead of just "rest" as in the rest of the context is that the author had just used God's "Sabbath" as an illustration or example.

    g. The nature of the "rest" or "Sabbath rest" of verse 9 is explained in verses 10-11.

(1) Just as God ceased forever from His works, even so we are to cease from depending upon or trying to produce works to merit salvation. The works we produce are elsewhere called "dead works" (6:1).

(2) Let us enter the "rest of faith" in the gospel, and persevere to the end. We must not fall away into or rest upon dead works. The danger to which the author was addressing himself was apostasy, not which day was to be observed by Christians. The audience was tempted to return to Judaism. Thus the author exhorts them to persevere in the faith, and he warns them of condemnation if they become disobedient to the gospel. That this is the theme of the entire book and the thrust of chapter 4 is accepted by nearly all commentators.

Why do the Sabbatarians ignore this broader and immediate context? The emphasis in Hebrews 4 is on a future rest that is yet to come for all those who persevere to the end in faith (cf. 10:38-39), and the author's fear that by moving back under the Old Covenant they would fall short of that sabbatismos.

(3) The conclusion of the author's argument is given in verses 14-16. In order to enter God's rest, we must "hold firmly to the faith" (verse 14) in Christ's meritorious priestly atonement. Therefore, let us "approach the throne of grace with confidence" (verse 16) in view of Christ's work for us.

CONCLUSION: Hebrews 4 is a passage which shows that God's Sabbath was an eschatological foreshadowing of the believer's rest in the gospel of salvation, accomplished by the sealing of the New Covenant by the blood of Christ. Hebrews 4:9 does not say "Sabbath day" but rather "Sabbath-like rest" (sabbatismos). The context rules out the Sabbatarian interpretation, for the emphasis falls not on a day to be observed in this age, but on an eternal rest awaiting all who live by faith until the end (cf. 3:14).

6. The Exodus 16 Argument

The Sabbatarian Position: "The Sabbath was observed before Moses, starting with the creation. This can be shown in Exodus 16 where the people started resting on the seventh day as a Sabbath before the Ten Commandments were given. Thus, it was already being observed by the people of God."

We answer this argument by saying:

1. Exodus 16 is still during the lifetime of Moses. There is nothing to indicate a pre-Mosaic origin of the Sabbath in Exodus 16. This is further borne out when we remember the "sign" nature of the Sabbath in Israel's covenant relationship with God.

2. On the contrary, the following points are clear:

a. It is doubtful that the Egyptians allowed the Jews a Sabbath day during their 400 years of bondage. Thus, it was not the practice of the people of God to rest the seventh day when they were Egyptian slaves.

b. Special revelation is not needed for a moral law or for something already observed. If something is going to be introduced for the first time, there must be a special revelation and a training period so that the people can adapt to the new practice or ceremonial law.

c. In Exodus 16:4-5, God sets forth a new test for the people of God. He would give manna six days, with a double portion on the sixth day.

d. When the sixth day arrived, the people gathered a double portion. But they did not know why a double portion was given. It is obvious in verse 22 that the people asked Moses what a double portion meant.

e. Moses responds in verses 22-26 with his interpretation of the revelation/test given in verses 4-5. "Since God gives us a double portion on the sixth day, He does not plan to give us any manna on the seventh. It is a day of rest. So, cook up your extra manna to eat tomorrow and stay home."

f. Some of the people still did not understand this new test of a day of rest. Thus, they went out for manna but found none (verse 27).

g. Since the previous revelation of this new regulation had been ignored by many people, God once again revealed to Moses that this new test of obedience was to be strictly observed (verses 28-29).

h. So, the people finally gave in to the new law and rested on the seventh day (verse 30).

CONCLUSION: An accurate exegesis of Exodus 16 reveals that the Lord was foreshadowing the Fourth Commandment by giving a new test or commandment in Exodus 16. The purpose of this incident was to introduce the people of God to a new concept and a new law which had not been previously known or observed. Consequently, this passage cannot be used as proof that Sabbath-keeping began at creation.


7. The Matthew 24:20 Argument

The Sabbatarian Position: "Christ prophesied that Christians would be observing the Sabbath even at the end of the world when He returns – 'pray that your flight be not on the Sabbath day.'"

The weakness of this argument can be shown by considering the following points:

1. Christ is in verse 20 discussing what believers should do in A.D. 70 when Titus would come to destroy the Temple and Jerusalem. He is not dealing here with the end of the world, but with the end of the Temple (verses 1-2).

2. Jesus was simply saying, "Since the Jews forbid travel on their Sabbath, pray that you as Christians do not have to escape to the hills on that day, for the Jews will hinder you."

3. The "Sabbath" referred to in this verse is the Jewish Saturday-Sabbath, and obviously has no reference to the "Lord's Day." And it is certainly stretching the point to suggest that Christ has in view a time when the "Sabbath" would be transferred to Sunday.

4. Christ was simply referring to things which would hinder escape from Jerusalem's destruction:

a. Greed for material possessions (verses 17-18).

b. Pregnancy or nursing babies (verse 19).

c. Winter time (verse 20).

d. Jewish Sabbath (verse 20).


8. The Argument From Silence

The Sabbatarian Position: "The New Testament is silent about the Sabbath and this silence proves that they observed it. We do not need a command, example or precept in the New Testament to prove that the Sabbath is to be kept. It is proven by the following reasons:

1. Since God had already commanded people to observe the Sabbath as a creation ordinance and as a moral law in the Old Testament, it is obviously still in force in the New Covenant age. Anything commanded in the Old Testament, and not explicitly abrogated in the New, is therefore still in effect.

2. The early church was Jewish and they kept the Sabbath, even though they changed it to the first day after the Sabbath. No one contested this practice, or the change from the seventh to the first day. Thus it was never an issue of controversy to be mentioned in the New Testament.

3. There were also 'pastoral concerns" for not mentioning the Sabbath in the New Testament. Why would the New Testament writers bring up something which was already assumed? To be silent on the Sabbath would not cause controversy, but to discuss it would do so."

INTRODUCTION: Many Sabbatarians scholars readily admit that the New Testament neither repeats the Fourth Commandment nor applies it to Christians. Virtually all sides agree that there is a conspicuous silence in the New Testament about any present obligation of the Christian to observe the Sabbath. No rules or regulations are ever set forth for keeping the Sabbath. No examples of Christians keeping the Lord's Day or a Sabbath can be found. No one is ever disciplined for breaking the Sabbath. The only perceptual passages seem to abrogate the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16-17).

Why is the New Testament silent? It is interesting to note that Calvinistic Baptists upbraid the Paedobaptists for their use of the argument from silence to justify infant baptism, and yet these same Baptists will employ this same argument to defend Sabbatarianism.

The following comments are in order with reference to the argument from silence.

1. The silence of the New Testament is crucial in this controversy. The fact that the other nine commandments are reinstated in the New Covenant as binding upon believers, and only the Fourth Commandment is missing, cannot be brushed aside lightly. If this argument from silence is valid, why were the other nine reinstated and the Sabbath specifically stated to be a "shadow" (Colossians 2:17)?

2. If the "commanded in the Old/never abrogated in the New/therefore still in effect" argument is true, it proves too much.

a. We do not have explicit verses in the New Testament where the ceremonial laws are abrogated one by one. If the Sabbatarian argument is true, then all the ceremonial laws never mentioned in the New Testament are still in effect! This puts us in impossible difficulties by binding believers' consciences to many of the rules found in the Levitical Holiness code (cf. Leviticus 11-12; 15:19-24).

b. Why are the Sabbath commands about all debts liquidated every seventh year and all land returning to the original owners every seventy years not observed even by Sabbatarians? They are never specifically abrogated in the New Testament.

3. The plain truth is that the New Covenant is not to be like the Old Covenant according to Jeremiah 31:31-32. Notice especially these words: "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers."

4. We must approach the New Testament with the important assumption that whatever is not reintroduced and reinstated in the New Covenant is no longer in effect. Everything in the Old Testament has been abrogated by fulfillment in Christ. Whatever the New Testament sets forth is what the New Testament believer is responsible to observe.

5. The argument from silence can be valid when it is used to demonstrate the in principle all ceremonial laws have been abrogated, and if something is not reinstated, it is no longer binding. This is using silence in a Scriptural manner.

6. That the argument from silence can be used against the Sabbath can be seen from an exegesis of Hebrews 7:14. Here the author builds his argument for the unique priesthood of Christ on the silence of the Old Testament.

7. The early church was not made up exclusively of Jews or Jewish proselytes. The missionary labors of Paul and others brought in raw pagan converts. These Gentiles had no Jewish background, and were never instructed to keep a Sabbath after becoming Christians.

8. The history of the early church clearly shows that they did not observe the Lord's Day as a Sabbath or refer to the Fourth Commandment as binding on Christians. They taught that the Sabbath command was a ceremonial law fulfilled by Christ.

9. That the early Christian Jews could change the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day, and not get involved in a controversy with the Jews or Judaizers is so foolish as to be self-refuting.

10. There were no "pastoral reasons" for the silence of the New Testament. The pastoral concerns of the apostle Paul led him to state clearly that the Sabbath was a "shadow" ordinance (Colossians 2:17). No one, therefore, can condemn you for not observing dietary laws, feast days or the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16). It is clear that Paul is dealing with the Jewish seventh-day Sabbath – and not the so-called "Christian Sabbath" – because he also speaks of the dietary laws and "new moons." The New Testament, therefore, is not silent on the matter, but specifically indicates its passing away with the coming of Christ.

CONCLUSION: While the New Testament never re-institutes the Sabbath, it positively abrogates its significance as a day to be observed. The Sabbath found its fulfillment in Christ, Who is the Lord of the Sabbath. Thus, it is declared "nailed to the cross."

The arguments of the Sabbatarians have been examined and found wanting. We feel somewhat like a child who cried, "The emperor has no clothes!" But let not our research be viewed as an attack upon the character or motives of Sabbatarians. We can esteem many of them as "fathers" in the faith without their becoming "masters." Christ alone in His Word can bind the conscience of the child of God.

The practical fruits of Sabbatarianism have historically led to many evils such as:

1. Legalism: Church leaders making up arbitrary rules and regulations.

2. Anarchy: Each Sabbatarian sets forth his own rules of what can and cannot be done on Sunday (cf. Appendix II).

3. Party spirit: It breeds pride and an air of superiority.

4. It fosters a critical and judgmental spirit.

5. It kills the joy of the Christian's worship day by fostering a gloomy, morbid, and even fearful attitude.

6. It hurts families by forbidding laughter, play, and, historically, even sexual relations between husband and wife.

7. It has divided churches and split communities.

8. It has brought about a state of bondage by taking away Christian liberty, and imposing some beggarly elements from the Old Covenant upon the Christian's conscience.

Our hearts and minds cannot stand to see so many dear brothers and sisters in bondage. A bondage which, if they are honest, has made their Sundays a day of dread, dullness, or sleep, instead of a day of joy!

Some have been forced to give up wonderful times of Christian fellowship following worship services because of the zeal of contemporary Sabbatarians. May God break the chains of bondage and set the prisoners free by the light of His Word!



A. We must see that the Sabbath is a concept unfolded in the context of the Mosaic covenant. Thus the Sabbath did not appear until Moses' time. The creation ordinance argument obscures the covenantal "sign" nature of the Sabbath. This is why Sabbatarians have yet to develop the distinctively covenantal character of the Sabbath as a test or sign of covenantal obedience to God (cf. Exodus 31:12-17; Isaiah 56:4-7; Deuteronomy 5:11).

B. When the concept of the Sabbath was first introduced, it only signified physical rest. It did not have any immediate spiritual overtones at all (Exodus 16). But as the history of redemption unfolded, the concept of the Sabbath deepened in its meaning and began to have spiritual significance. The worship of God in private and public, slowly became part of the Sabbath.

C. If the Sabbath had been instituted since the creation of man, it would have deepened beyond mere physical rest by the time of Exodus 16. Since the Sabbath did not develop spiritual overtones until the later prophets, this reveals that it could not have been observed from the beginning of history, for then the dynamic unfolding and deepening process of Biblical truth would have been stagnant from Adam to Moses.

D. As the unfolding spiritual character of the Sabbath developed, it came to signify a day of "rest in God," a rest of faith in God, and a day spent in the worship of God.

E. But the Pharisees in our Lord's time externalized the Sabbath and made it a day of gloominess. They produced a legalistic zeal and attention to the strict outward observance of the day. They sought to undo and to reverse the unfolding dynamic spiritual meaning of the day. They did not see that the Sabbath was essentially eschatological in nature, and that it prefigured the Messianic age in which believers would rest from dead works by having a conscience void of offense due to Christ's perfect work on the cross (Hebrews 4:1-16; 10:1-25; Colossians 2:14-17).

F. The Lord of the Sabbath, has ushered in the age of the Sabbath. The shadow of a weekly Sabbath is no longer needed for that which prefigured it has come.

G. Weekly Sabbath-keeping is part of the Old Testament "promise" and has no place in the New Testament "fulfillment." Sabbath-keeping has served its purpose, and, just as the scaffolding around a building is taken away once the building is completed, so the weekly Sabbath has been done away by Christ, the Master-Builder of the New Temple, which is the new Israel of God, the Church.

H. We look forward to a greater fulfillment of the Sabbath age. It prefigures the saints' rest in Heaven and the eternal state.

I. Sabbatarianism is retrogressive and reactionary. It tries to stop the unfolding dynamic of the eschatological character of the Sabbath. It attempts to turn back the hands of the clock of redemptive history, by keeping the shadow and ignoring the reality which cast the shadow. Let us go on in faith and embrace the reality which cast the shadow of the weekly Sabbath.

CONCLUSION: The Sabbatarian position cannot stand up under close exegetical scrutiny. In its place we need to develop a practical theology of our corporate gospel duties in the light of passages like Hebrews 10:25.



A. The "Lord's Day" has historically been identified with Sunday, called in the New Testament "the first day of the week," which is the day Christ rose from the dead. That this is true has been demonstrated to such a degree in debates against the Adventists by such writers as Walter Martin that we will not here develop the argument (cf. Walter Martin, The Truth About Seventh-Day Adventism [Zondervan, 1965]). The fact that Sunday is specifically referred to in the New Testament as mia sabbaton (literally, "the first after the sabbath") should raise serious questions about the wisdom of identifying Sabbath as Sunday. The New Testament clearly designates Sunday as a day other than the "Sabbath."

B. During this day, Christians historically have assembled for worship, fellowship, instruction, and the Lord's Supper. This is obvious from the post-resurrection appearances of Christ (some of which took place on "the first day after the Sabbath"), the data in the Book of Acts, and the subsequent history of the early church.

C. What are we to do when we assemble is given in the New Testament by way of example and command. The examples and commands found in Acts 2:41-42; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 5:4; 11:2, 23ff.; 14:26; 16:2; and Hebrews 10:25 delineate the essentials. We must attend the gathering together of the saints to hear preaching, observe the ordinances, give offerings and minister to each other in the context of the Body of Christ. Such mutual ministry is even to take place "daily" (Acts 2:46; Hebrews 3:13).

In light of the New Testament teachings, there are several theological reasons (such as the first day being the time of the resurrection and Pentecost) for Christians preferring to meet on Sunday. But there are no preceptual directives which indicate that it is sin for the brethren to meet together some other day. The New Testament emphasizes our corporate duties, not a day on which those duties must be fulfilled. Sin is committed if these duties are not fulfilled. Sin is committed if these duties are not fulfilled in the Christian's life; but there is no indication that sin is committed by fulfilling these duties on the "wrong" day.

D. If you faithfully fulfill your corporate New Covenant duties on the day of worship in the local church where you are a member, then you are free to do whatever God leads you to do. No one has the right to set up extra-Scriptural rules regarding what can and cannot be done on the worship day by which to judge you (Colossians 2:16). Your conscience is to be under God and His Word, and not in bondage to the traditions or laws of men.

E. Our assembling together should be a time of great joy and rejoicing, for Christ has ushered in the "Year of Jubilee" and has proclaimed liberty throughout the earth. Our times together should be filled with joy and Christian fellowship. The resurrection of Christ signifies hope, life and joy. These things, not fear or gloom, should characterize our corporate gatherings.

F. Since Christian liberty (with reference to the observance or non-observance of days) is clearly to regulate such external matters, no Christian should judge another Christian in areas of personal freedom (Romans 14:4-23; Colossians 2:16; Galatians 5:1).



A. The early church did not see any relationship between the Lord's Day and the Fourth Commandment. The Sabbath was viewed as a ceremonial law fulfilled in Christ (cf. Phillip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. I, pages 477-479; Vol. II, pages 202-205; Vol. III, pages 378-385).

B. The Middle Ages saw the union of church and state, beginning with Constantine. The Sabbath was introduced by theocratically-minded religious and civil leaders who drew from the Old Testament their societal laws. Sabbatarianism had its greatest day in the scholastic period of Roman Catholic theology (cf. R. A. Morey, "Exclusive Psalmody," BRR, Winter, 1975, pages 41-56).

C. The pre-Reformers and early Reformers threw out the medieval Catholic Sabbath and returned to the theology of the early church (cf. Dr. Richard Gaffin, Calvin and the Sabbath).

D. The Puritan period continued the tradition of church-state union, and in this context the Sabbath was re-established in these seventeenth century theocracies. It was a return to scholastic Catholic thinking.

E. Today, only within the Reformed community is there any serious attempt to revive the Sabbatarian position. To some, it has become a sacred cow or a theological shibboleth. At the same time, Reformation studies on the position of the early Reformers are reviving the Continental Reformed stance, which was the perspective of the early church. Which way the Reformed community goes, must be determined once again in this century.



It is hoped that this study will in some small way be used of God to liberate the burdened consciences of God's people. Let each child of God come to his or her own conclusion before God's Word concerning this issue. But whatever position you take, let the love of Christ and love for the brethren keep you from a critical spirit. We must learn that all true Christians—weak and strong—are part of the Body of Christ, and we are all in the process of maturing in the whole counsel of God. We all "see through a glass darkly" until we one day see Him "face to face." Then, and not until then, will all the theological controversy cease, and with one faith we will worship the Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Until then, it is our responsibility on earth to accurately ascertain the truth of the gospel, being confident that Christ's sheep will grow in the truth and reject error (John 10:4-5; Galatians 5:1, 10; 1 John 4:4; 5:4).



Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 8, sects. 28-34.

Gaffin, Richard B. Calvin and the Sabbath, unpublished Th.M. thesis at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Hessey, James A. Sunday: Its Origin, History and Present Obligation; Cossell & Co., London, 1889.

North, Gary. "The Economics of Sabbath Keeping," in R. J. Rushdoony's The Institutes of Biblical Law; Pres. & Ref., 1976, pages 824-836.

Ward, Hiley. Space-Age Sunday; Macmillan Co, 1960.

Zens, Jon. "'This Is My Beloved Son . . . Hear Him': A Study of the Development of Law in the History of Redemption," BRR, Winter, 1978, pages 42-50.


Appendix I.
The Rise of Sabbatarianism in England

(From Douglas Campbell, The Puritan in Holland, England, and America [New York, 1893], Vol. II, pages 155-160).

The feature of the national life which was most objectionable to the Puritans was . . . the desecration of the Sabbath. They found in the Old Testament two commandments referred to constantly as of paramount importance, one prohibiting the worship of idols, the other enforcing the observance of a day of rest. The fight against idolatry was largely ended with the destruction of the [Spanish] Armada. Then the Sabbath question was taken up in earnest, with the results still felt, not only in England and Scotland, but in a large part of the United States . . . .

In 1585, Parliament took the subject up and passed a law for "the better and more reverend observance of the Sabbath." This law the queen vetoed . . . . Thus matters remained until after the destruction of the Armada. Sunday was the favorite day for theatrical representations, and was . . . by the majority of the community who were not engaged in labor, given up to riot and intemperance. But the idea that they were God's chosen people was taking hold of the popular mind, and preparing the way for one of the most remarkable books, so far as influence is concerned, that ever have been written. This was a "Treatise on the Sabbath," by Dr. Richard Bound, which appeared in 1595 . . . .

Unless society was to be thoroughly demoralized, and largely through the abuse of its day of rest, the mode of observing this day must be radically changed. This was brought about by the book of Richard Bound . . . .

He argued that although the Lord's Day had been changed, we were to look to the Old Testament alone for the mode of its observance . . . . and that therefore not only labor, but every form of recreation, should be given up on the Christian Sabbath . . . . The doctrine fell on comparatively dull ears until after the destruction of the Armada, when the English were at once attracted to the history of their prototypes as related in the Old Testament . . . . From its appearance dates the establishment in modern Christendom of the Sabbath of the Pharisees, in regard to which Paul makes such trenchant observations (Colossians 2:16; Romans 14:5-6) . . . .

Elizabeth and her prelates were much excited by this publication. They denounced the doctrine as a restraint on Christian liberty . . . .

But all repressive measures were in vain. In 1606, after Whitgift's death, a new edition of the work was published, and thenceforth the Puritan was distinguished by his rigid observance of the Sabbath . . . .

Very early ministers began to teach that to throw a bowl or to do any servile work on the Lord's Day, was as great a sin as to kill a man; that to make a feast or make a wedding dinner on that day, was as bad as for a father to cut his child's throat, and even that the ringing of more bells than one as a summons to church, was "as great a sin as might be."

Appendix II.
The Outworking of Sabbatarianism in Puritan New England

(From Emil Oberholzer, Delinquent Saints—Disciplinary Action in the Early Congregational Churches of Massachusetts [New York, 1968], pages 57-60. Printed with permission from Columbia University Press, New York).

The most faithful churchgoer of today, were he transported back to seventeenth-century Massachusetts, would find the Puritan Sabbath a gloomy day . . . .

In the Puritan tradition, all work was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath, which began not on Sunday morning but, overlapping Jewish practice, on Saturday evening. In 1691 the First Church of Boston instructed its members to close their shops before sundown on Saturday lest the Sabbath be polluted . . . . Blue laws, providing for fines ranging from five to forty shillings, whipping, or imprisonment in the stocks for persons who defiled the Lord's Day by work or play, or by travel beyond the limits of the township without a good reason—aided the ecclesiastical enforcement of the sanctity of the day, and in Plymouth smoking within two miles of the meetinghouse was illegal on the Sabbath. The court records of Essex and Suffolk counties clearly demonstrate that these laws were enforced in the seventeenth century. When a man was trapped in a well on a Sabbath, the Christians of Yarmouth held a debate to determine whether it was lawful to dig him out on that day, or whether they must wait until Monday.