Whatever happened to the Sabbath?

It has been a bit of a momentous week – Jonathan George Nathanael MacLean was born on Wednesday!  So, as you might guess I’m a bit tired at the moment so any sloppy reasoning below should be attributed to that 🙂  If my post isn’t of sufficient quality you might wish to check out this good post on James Durham and the free offer:


The Sabbath concept has all but disappeared from “evangelical” piety.  The situation we are now in can be summarised by a well known rhyme (adapted slightly!):

“There were ten great words written on a stone
and if one great word should accidentally fall
There would be nine great words written on a stone”

James Durham could write that “in it [the fourth commandment] is contained a main foundation of godliness” (The Ten Commandments, rept. Naphtali Press: 2002, 206) and yet today mention of Sabbath observance is often regarded as destructive to piety – it is legalistic and opposed to the “freedom” we now have in Christ.  In responding to this criticism it is good to bear in mind that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that many of these criticism’s have been heard before.  Indeed in Durham’s excellent discussion of the Sabbath in The Ten Commandments he responds to three common objections to the abiding validity of the fourth commandment which are heard today.  But before I discuss these some groundwork.

To state that the duties of the fourth commandment are “moral and perpetual” is not to deny that “the fourth commandment might … possibly have had something ceremonial in that seventh day, or in the manner used of sanctifying the seventh day.”  So it is not “everything hinging on this command” in the Old Testament that Durham pleads for “but … that the command is moral-positive as to its main scope, matter, and substance, and that it is still binding…” (207).  Durham adduces some arguments to demonstrate the fourth commandment’s morality:

  • The frequency of mentioning of the Sabbath – e.g. Gen2, Ex 16 “before the law was given”, Ex 20, 31, Lev 23:3, Deut 5, Neh 9:13, Ps 92, Is 56:58, Jer 17, Exek 20:22, Matt 24:20, Luke 23:56, Acts 13:14,15,21, 1 Cor 16, Rev 1:10. (208-9).
  • “How weightily, seriously and pressingly, the Scripture speaks of it”  E.g. It is “backed with a reason” Gen 2; It is “spoken of as a mercy” Ex 16:29, Ezek 20:12; it has promises associated with it (Is 56:58 ) etc. (209).
  • It is in the Decalogue!  Because this is written by God himself directly the ten words are special and are known as the moral law.  Christ himself affirms his commitment to the ten words in Matt 5:17 “where by law must be necessarily be understood the moral law” (212).

But Durham is aware that not all have accepted the perpetual and binding nature of the fourth commandment and so he considers three objections (common today).  They are:

  1. “This law (Sabbath) is not mentioned as being renewed or confirmed in the New Testament” (219).  For Durham this is simply a faulty hermeneutic as “Its authority depends not on the mentioning of it so in the New Testament.  The law is God’s Word and has its authority as well as the Net Testament”  Indeed we all admit some laws not mentioned in the New Testament are still binding e.g. for a man not to marry his sister
  2. “The apostle seems to cast away differences of times, especially of Sabbath days (Rom 14:5-6; Gal 4:10; Col 2:16); which could not be if this command were moral” (219).  For Durham this is a failure to read these verses in context.  Having done this it will appear that “We must understand these places not as simply casting [away] all days and times, but ceremonial and Jewish days, or days invented by men, because the scope of the places runs that way, viz. against the bringing in of ceremonial worship as necessary…” (220).
  3. “The fourth command precisely commands the seventh day from the creation to be kept; but that is not moral.  Therefore, neither is the command so.” (220).  For Durham this is to miss the point of the commandment which is “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  It says remember the Sabbath, or the Holy rest ,what ever day it shall be on” and indeed “why may not the seventh day in order … be changed to the first day of the week, which is a seventh day in number still, without abolishing the morality of the fourth commandment” (220-1).

I would urge a careful reading of all Durham has to say on the fourth commandment.  As John MacLeod (of Scottish Theology fame) notes Durham’s discussion of the fourth commandment shows “how the various questions that have in recent times been raised in regard to it [the Sabbath] were discussed in the seventeenth century, and that our historical Scottish teaching as to the observance of the Lord’s Day did not take root in the faith of our fathers in any ignorance of what can be said against it.” (John MacLean, Some Favourite Books, BoT, 1988, 29).

If you dont have it in print version Durham on the fourth commandment is availabe here:


6 Responses to “Whatever happened to the Sabbath?”

  1. thomasgoodwin Says:

    You’re a dad? Congrats. Now watch your studies go out the window ….

    Sorry for the doom and gloom 😉


  2. Christians and the Sabbath « Leviticus and Stuff Says:

    […] is in this light that I commend to you this post over at James Durham Thesis. As the Lord Jesus Christ declared, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the […]

  3. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Mark

    Yes, second time round – we also have a 3 year old girl. She was born when I was in the middle of my actuarial exams – now that was hard!


  4. Steven Carr Says:

    Congratulations to your new little one. Is it proper to call them bairns when they’re new borns? By the way thanks for the link.

  5. puritanismtoday Says:

    Dear DJM,

    I am increasingly convinced that our view of the Sabbath has an enormous effect upon how much genuine progress we make in godliness.

    This is certainly how our forefathers viewed things.


  6. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Steve

    Yes barins is an appropriate word!


    Yes, I would agree. Nor is this a distincive Scottish view as J.C. Ryle says “vital religion never flourishes when the Sabbath is not well kept” (On John 5:16).

    Evey blessing

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