Is insistence on Sabbath-keeping legalism?
The blogpost that has generated the most comments on my blog is “I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?” This post was written in 2011. No one has clicked the “Like” button, but at least 18 people have left comments. So it has generated lots of discussion. Most of the commentators disagree with the opinion expressed in the post.
After his commentary on the book of Galatians, MacDonald (1989) states that “On completing a study of Galatians, one might conclude that Paul defeated the teachers of legalism so effectively that the issue would never trouble the church again. History and experience prove otherwise! Legalism has become so important a part of Christendom that most people believe that it actually belongs. Yes, legalists are still with us.”
The major example MacDonald gives of contemporary legalism is insistence on Sabbath-keeping. He refers to those who warn Christians that they must keep the Sabbath if they are to be saved at last. Then he gives the following warning of this false teaching and how to answer it.
The (false) teachers of the Sabbath usually begin by preaching the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ. They use well-known evangelical hymns to lure the unwary, and appear to place much emphasis on the Scriptures. But before long, they put their followers under the law of Moses, especially the commandment concerning the Sabbath. (The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, or Saturday).
Moral law and ceremonial law
How do they do this in the light of Paul’s clear teaching that the Christian is dead to the law? How do they get around the plain statements of Galatians? The answer is that they make a sharp distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law. The moral law is the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law covers the other regulations given by God, such as rules concerning unclean foods, leprosy, offerings to God, and so forth.
The moral law they say has never been revoked. It is an expression of God’s eternal truth. To commit idolatry, murder, or adultery will always be contrary to God’s law. The ceremonial law, however, has been done away in Christ. Therefore, they conclude, when Paul teaches that the Christian is dead to the law, he is speaking about the ceremonial law and not the Ten Commandments.
Since the moral law is still in effect, Christians are bound to keep it, they insist. This means that they must keep the Sabbath, that they must do no work on that day. They assert that one of the popes of the Roman Catholic Church (or the Emperor Constantine) ordered the change from Sabbath-observance to observance of Sunday, in utter violation of the Scriptures.
This reasoning sounds logical and appealing. However, its great condemning feature is that it is entirely contrary to God’s word! Note the following seven points.
- In 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, the Ten Commandments are definitely stated to be “brought to an end” for the believer in Christ. In verse 7, the law is described as “the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone”. This could only mean the moral law, not the ceremonial law. Only the Ten Commandments were engraved in stones by the finger of God (Ex.31:18). In verse 11, we read that the ministry that brought death, though glorious, was “being brought to an end” (ESV), “fading away” (HCSB), “made ineffective” (NET), or “transitory” (NIV). Nothing could be more decisive than this. The Sabbath has no claim on the Christian.
- No Gentile was ever commanded to keep the Sabbath. The law was given to the Jewish nation only (Ex. 31:13). Although God Himself rested on the seventh day, He did not command anyone else to do so until He gave the law to the children of Israel.
- Christians did not switch from the Sabbath to the first day of the week because of the decree of any pope (or Roman Emperor). We set aside the Lord’s Day (Sunday) in a special way for worship and for service because the Lord Jesus rose from the dead on that day, a proof that the work of redemption was completed (Jn. 20:1). Also, on that day the early disciples met to break bread (celebrate the Lord’s Supper), showing forth the Lord’s death (Acts 20:7), and it was the day appointed by God for Christians to set apart their offerings as the Lord had prospered them (1 Cor. 16:1-2). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit was sent down from heaven on the first day of the week.
Christians do not “observe” the Lord’s day as a means of achieving holiness, or from fear of punishment; they set it apart because of loving devotion to the One who gave Himself for them.
- Paul does not distinguish between the moral law and the ceremonial law. Rather, he insists that the law is a complete unit, and that a curse rests on those who seek to attain righteousness by it, yet fail to keep it all.
- Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament as moral instruction for the children of God. They deal with things that are inherently right or wrong. The one commandment which is omitted is the law of the Sabbath. The keeping of a day is not inherently right or wrong. There is no instruction to Christians to keep the Sabbath. Rather the Scripture distinctly states that the Christian cannot be condemned for failing to keep it (Col. 2:16)!
- The penalty for breaking the Sabbath in the Old Testament was death (Ex. 35:2). But those who insist on believers keeping the Sabbath today do not carry out the penalty on offenders. They thus dishonour the law and destroy its authority by failing to insist that its demands be met. They are saying, in effect, “This is God’s law and you just keep it, but nothing will happen if you break it”.
- Christ, and not the law, is the believer’s rule for life. We should live as He lived. This is an even higher standard than was set by the law (Mt. 5:17-48). We are empowered to live holy lives by the Holy Spirit. We want to live holy lives because of love for Christ. The righteousness demanded by the law is fulfilled by those who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4)
Thus, the teaching that believers must keep the Sabbath is directly contrary to Scripture (Col. 2:16), and is simply a “different gospel” upon which God’s word pronounces a curse (Gal. 1:7,9).
May each one be given wisdom from God to discern the evil doctrine of legalism in whatever form it may appear! May we never seek justification or sanctification through ceremonies or human effort, but depend completely and only on the Lord Jesus Christ for every need. May we always remember that legalism is an insult to God because it substitutes the shadow for the Reality—ceremonialism for Christ.
MacDonald William (1989) “Believer’s Bible commentary”, 2nd edition, Thomas Nelson, p. 1928-1930.
Written, April 2017
Also see: What about keeping the Sabbath day?
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?
What does the New Testament say about the Sabbath?
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses. Is this true?
The Sabbath day difference between Jesus and Paul
Why the new covenant is better
The sin of legalism