Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Defense of the Sabbath

Originally published in Denver Journal.

Bruce A. Ray. Celebrating the Sabbath: Finding Rest in a Restless World. P&R Publishing, 2000. 125 pages. $8.99 paperback.

Although it has been out for several years, I recently discovered this small gem and read it in connection with my teaching on the Ten Commandments at Denver Seminary. For about twenty-five years, I have attempted to make Sunday a day different from other days with regard to rest and worship, as I believe Scripture teaches. That is, I try to keep Sunday as a Sabbath. Evangelicals, of course, are quite divided on this issue. Most probably do not view Sunday as a distinct day of rest. They may view Sunday as God’s chosen day for corporate worship; although many churches now offer their regular services on days besides Sunday and would likely take the Sunday as Sabbath view to be legalistic. Others, usually from a more Reformed or Calvinist perspective (those who find strong covenantal connections between the Testaments), view Sunday as “the Christian Sabbath” and endeavor to honor it as such. But these folks often disagree as to what exactly this means in practice. Some evangelicals, such as Seventh Day Baptists, do honor one day in seven as a day of rest, but take that day to be Saturday. However, I have yet to see a book called something like The Sabbath: Three Christian Views. This may be because many evangelicals do not give the issue that much thought. The book would hardly be a best-seller.

Theological disputes aside (for a moment), our culture as a whole knows little of any sacred pattern or rhythm of work and rest. Most stores are open seven days a week and on-line businesses never close (unless the web page breaks down). The common patterns of work and rest seem to be these: (1) Burn out and recovery. (2) Compulsive work that becomes an idol. (3) Laziness as a way of life. (4) Some kind of balance of work and rest, but not one based on the six-and-one principle of the Sabbath. Nothing in our culture cultivates a fixed temporal ordering of labor and rest. The general attitude is that time, work, rest, and money are ours to order as we desire, given our assets and opportunities. The claim that a higher authority might have structured human life according to a given model is deemed authoritarian or even outrageous. After all, we are told that we can “have it our way” and design our own “lifestyle.” And if our life fails to satisfy, we can “reinvent ourselves” and try something else.

Pastor Bruce Ray sees things very differently. Jesus proclaimed that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). As such, the Sabbath is a divine creation for human good; but it also indicates God’s sovereignty over time, a sovereignty that many postmoderns resent and reject. Ray clearly and winsomely argues for Sunday as a day of rest unto the Lord. Although he charts a biblical argument for Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, he refrains from bickering over too many specifics as to what constitutes work and what is rest. He rather defends and presents deep biblical principles applicable to American Christians whose lives typically lack the wise temporal arrangement that he counsels. Those who want a systematic and in-depth defense of the essentially Reformed view that Ray gives, need to consult other sources, such as D. A. Carson’s From Sabbath to Lord’s Day. For the most thorough exposition of a Reformed doctrine of the Sabbath, see The Westminster Larger Catechism.

While Ray’s focus is more popular than intensely scholarly, he does argue for his position from Scripture and cites numerous biblical authorities along the way, usually of the Reformed persuasion. Ray reckons the Sabbath to be a gift, despite modern views: “Many people see the Sabbath, or Lord’s Day, as an infringement of their personal liberty—a day that God has taken from them instead of a gift that he has given to them for rest, worship, and celebration” (4). He is helpful in giving a view of the Sabbath that incorporates major themes from the entire Bible. For example, he says: “As a sign of creation, the Sabbath testifies that the world depends on God, not man, for its continued existence. As a sign of grace, the Sabbath declares that salvation depends upon the power of God and not on human works” (36). The book helps the reader process the material by providing helpful review and response questions, making the book ideal for small group discussion.

Ray explores the meaning of the Sabbath in the Fourth Commandment, its Old Testament roots and New Testament fruits, and engages various disputes over the Sabbath during Jesus’ day. He concludes with two chapters on the practice of the Sabbath: “Keeping the Sabbath Holily and Happily” and “Keeping the Sabbath Honestly and Humbly.” I found this short work to be a deeply biblical and edifying reflection on the meaning and application of the Sabbath today. Consider taking a Sunday afternoon to read and ponder it.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.

No comments: