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Calvin on the Sabbath: A Summary and Assessment[1]

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Calvin’s teaching on the Sabbath or Lord’s Day finds its fullest expression in his treatment of the Fourth Commandment in the final 1559 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Two, Chapter 8, “Explanation of the Moral Law,” sections 28–34. That treatment is virtually identical to the 1539 edition,[2] with minor additions subsequently appearing along the way in intervening editions. The 1539 edition, in turn, is a lengthier restatement of the view found in the first 1536 edition. In other words, there is no significant development in viewpoint between the first and final editions of the Institutes. Relevant material is also found in the Catechisms of 1538 and 1545, as well as in commentaries and sermons on pertinent biblical passages. I would encourage reading of the sections in the final edition of the Institutes noted above before continuing with this article.

Calvin’s view may be summarized by the following propositions:

1. The Decalogue is a transcript of God’s immutable moral law and is binding on humanity in all ages.

2. The Fourth Commandment, being one element in the Decalogue, is one of God’s immutable laws and binding on humanity in all ages; in that sense the Sabbath institution (though not necessarily weekly Sabbath observance) is a creation ordinance.

3. The Sabbath day required under the old dispensation by the Fourth Commandment was a type or figure of spiritual rest.

4. Spiritual rest is ceasing from our own sinful works, mortifying our old nature, so that God may perform his sanctifying work in us; it may also be defined as conforming to God’s will or imitating him.

5. Observing the weekly Sabbath in the Old Testament did not simply involve ceasing from the labors of the other six days. That rest was to be used for public worship and private meditation on the promised reality such rest typified.

6. Since God was pleased to provide his people with a foretaste of the reality still only prefigured, the weekly Sabbath was a sign of an invisible grace. It was, therefore, a sacrament of regeneration.

7. At the coming of Christ, the light in whose presence all shadows disappear, spiritual rest became a full reality, consequently, the weekly Sabbath as a type and sacrament was abrogated.

8. Although the perfection of spiritual rest will not be realized until the eschatological Last Day, that rest is now an actual possession of the believer; spiritual rest, presently enjoyed, and eternal rest are the same in substance.

9. Christians, strictly speaking, are no longer obliged to keep a weekly day of rest; the relaxation of that demand, however, should not be understood as abrogating the Fourth Commandment but as intensifying and elevating its demands.

10. For Christians, keeping the Sabbath means, in the final analysis, experiencing the spiritual rest (freedom from sin, newness of life) they have by virtue of being buried and raised with Christ.

11. Such spiritual rest cannot be limited to one day of the week but must be practiced daily, perpetually.

12. The experience of spiritual rest necessarily expresses itself in deeds of piety and Christian service, meditation upon God’s works, and acts of worship. Since spiritual rest is perpetual, daily public worship is the ideal for Christians.

13. Since Christians are subject to the same sinful weakness as those under the old covenant, a practical necessity exists for certain stated times to be set aside so that believers, being released from worldly cares and distractions, might be free to meditate privately and to assemble publicly for worship.

14. The Jewish Sabbath was perfectly suited to meet that need, but because so much superstition became associated with it by the failure to see that the typical mystery had passed away with Christ, the ancient church substituted the Lord’s Day for it. That substitution was particularly appropriate because it memorialized Christ’s resurrection, the day on which the Old Testament figure ceased to exist.

15. Today the Lord’s Day still serves the need it was designed to meet. In principle, however, those Christians cannot be condemned who may wish to set apart some other day or even to pattern their lives by some other arrangement than a weekly day of rest, as long as they keep in view the need for stated times of public worship and meditation.

16. Christians, therefore, do not keep the Lord’s Day because it has some religious significance (that is, because it is a divine requirement). Rather, they observe it freely and voluntarily, solely out of a concern for harmony and order in the church.

17. The physical rest provided by the Fourth Commandment for servants and other laborers is extrinsic to the basic concerns of the precept. The rest of both Jewish Sabbath and Lord’s Day is not an end in itself, but a means to the end of meditation and public worship.

18. This provision of rest does remind masters or employers that they must not inhumanly oppress those who are subject to their authority. That, however, is a consideration that, strictly speaking, belongs to the second table of the law rather than the first.

19. The core of the Fourth Commandment and the essence of the Sabbath institution is that the creature should be conformed to the Creator, and that such imitation should be marked by a life characterized by public worship and private meditation upon God’s works.

Assessment

Any evaluation of Calvin’s view of the Sabbath and his explanation of the Fourth Commandment needs to keep in view that for him, like the other early Reformers, matters relating to keeping the Ten Commandments, particularly the fourth, while surely important, were not an overriding concern. Forced by the massive church-historical circumstances of his day to spend his life contending for a fully gracious salvation and for the Scriptures as the sole final authority in matters of doctrine and practice, the Sabbath question, including the question of Lord’s Day observance, did not receive the attention it might have otherwise. At any rate, that question did not take on the dimensions for Calvin that it did subsequently, especially in the Reformed tradition. Consequently, we should not expect from him a formulation in terms of later debates.

Appreciating Calvin in terms of his milieu, however, is not the same as ascertaining the validity of his views. How do Calvin’s views on the Sabbath institution and the Fourth Commandment stand in the light of Scripture?

In addressing that question certain deficiencies emerge. It should be noted that limiting attention to those deficiencies, as I do here for the most part, does not do justice to the value of what Calvin says for the church today in the course of his treatment of the Sabbath.[3]

There are two primary weaknesses in Calvin’s view: his failure to account adequately for the specific force of the Fourth Commandment within the Decalogue and his inadequate appreciation of the Sabbath as a creation ordinance. These two weaknesses are related.

1. The heart of the Fourth Commandment, Calvin says repeatedly, is the injunction to practice spiritual rest. Spiritual rest, he likewise makes abundantly clear, is cessation from sin so that God may perform his sanctifying work in us.

It is difficult to see any real difference between this notion of spiritual rest and Jesus’s summary of the whole law, including the Ten Commandments (e.g., Matt. 22:35–40). For Calvin, spiritual rest is ceasing from sin, and the positive side of such cessation is the wholehearted love of God and of neighbor as self.

The Decalogue, however, is a detailed revelation of God’s law, the explicit kind of enunciation summarized by the love command. The particular elements of the Decalogue are related to the love summary as specific aspects to what integrates the whole.

Consequently, to attribute to any one of the Ten Commandments the comprehensive force that belongs to Christ’s summary effectively deprives that particular commandment of its intended place in the Decalogue. That is what happens when Calvin discusses the Fourth Commandment. The notion of spiritual rest he finds there gives to it a basic force that it cannot have biblically; a part of the Decalogue receives the meaning intended for the whole. Jonathan Edwards, for one, already grasped this point. In commenting on Calvin’s views, he says, “And if it [the Fourth Commandment] stands in force now only as signifying a spiritual, Christian rest, and holy behavior at all times, it doth not remain as one of the ten commands, but as a summary of all the commands.”[4]

2. A basic error is Calvin’s failure to reckon adequately with the Sabbath institution as a creation ordinance. Other deficiencies in his views stem from this fundamental defect. He did recognize that the Sabbath and, correlatively, the Fourth Commandment, are mandated at creation and are perpetually and universally binding. For instance, in his commentary on Genesis 2:3 he concludes: “. . . but inasmuch as it was commanded to men from the beginning that they might employ themselves in the worship of God, it is right that it should continue to the end of the world.” But the creation Sabbath is not given sufficient attention. Its meaning does not have the controlling place it ought to have for determining a fully biblical notion of the Sabbath institution.

How substantially Calvin has missed biblical teaching about the Sabbath given at creation is clear in his notion of spiritual rest. The basic concern of the Fourth Commandment, he holds, is to cease from our own sinful works in order that God may perform his sanctifying work. Clearly, then, for Calvin the existence of sin and the consequent need for sanctification are indispensable to the basic thrust of the Fourth Commandment. In other words, the Sabbath institution has meaning only within the orbit of redemption. Considerations arising from the pre-Fall institution of the Sabbath, where sin and (the need for) redemption are necessarily absent, are effectively excluded.

Even in his commentary on Genesis 2:3, where we might reasonably expect some reference to the meaning of the Sabbath institution for Adam before the Fall, discussion instead focusses on spiritual rest and the sinful weakness that requires certain times to be set aside for worship and meditation. The meaning of the Sabbath institution prior to the Fall seems not to have crossed his mind.

This failure to reckon with the creation Sabbath explains the characteristic emphases in Calvin’s view. Since he considers the Sabbath entirely within a context where sin is endemic, he finds nothing positive in the commandment’s mention of six days of labor. The command to rest on the seventh day is cut off from any positive correlation to the six days of work; these two elements can only be related antithetically, or the days of work viewed, at best, concessively.

This construal involves Calvin in a questionable reading of the language of the commandment: the six days of labor are a given, a fact; the rest on the seventh day, a command. His understanding is fairly paraphrased as follows: “You are laboring for six days and doing all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.” In other words, he takes the first two verbs, referring to the six days of labor, as indicatives, but the third, for resting on the seventh day, as an imperative.

This reading, while there is nothing that excludes it grammatically, is unlikely; it can hardly be insisted on. The three verbs, with the same stem and tense in the Hebrew text (in both Exod. 20:9–10 and Deut. 5:13–14), are syntactically parallel. Accordingly, lacking any contrary indication in the text, all three verbs have the same force grammatically. Since the third (not working) can only be imperatival, so, too, the other two (working) are also best taken as imperatival. But that conclusion is unavailable for Calvin; it would leave him faced in effect with introducing an exhortation to sin into one of God’s commandments.

We can now see how Calvin arrived at the ideal of daily public worship. Spiritual rest finds outward expression in exercises of piety; mercy, kindness, and other acts of love of neighbor are its reflexes. Before the Lord, it expresses itself most directly in acts of worship and devotion. But such rest, by the nature of the case, is to be enjoyed (we might also say, exercised) perpetually or not at all. So, with no other positive considerations in the Fourth Commandment to qualify the notion of spiritual rest he finds there, Calvin concludes that public worship is to be constant. As the heart of spiritual rest, it may not be confined to any one day of the week but should be practiced daily.

3. My criticism to this point rests on the assumption that the Sabbath institution is a specific creation ordinance whose essence is reflected in the Fourth Commandment. In other words, the commandment embodies a principle intended to govern human life and conduct both before and after the Fall. Further, this principle is specific; within the Decalogue it is coordinate with the other nine commandments, and so subordinate, not identical, to the love summary of the law.

A further observation about Calvin’s view serves a brief validation of this assumption here. One factor influencing his view of the Fourth Commandment is the belief that all types are redemptive in their significance; they postdate the Fall and so have been abolished by the earthly ministry of Christ, a point that he emphasizes repeatedly. Consequently, he plainly has difficulty in accepting the Fourth Commandment, without qualification, as binding for all times and places. The precept has been modified since it contains a typical element that has been abrogated with the advent of Christ. That conclusion, coupled with the neglected significance of the creation Sabbath, influenced his thinking toward the idea of spiritual rest as the basic concern of the commandment.

Undoubtedly, under the Old Testament economy, particularly for Israel as a theocracy, a body of types and symbols prefigured the earthly ministry of Christ and so was abrogated by that ministry. The writer of Hebrews, for one, is emphatically clear on that point (e.g., 9:1–10:18). But what about typical elements in special revelation prior to the Fall? Calvin’s mind on that question is difficult to know, since, as far as I can tell, he does not address it directly. But from those places where he maintains that Christ has abolished all types by his coming (e.g., Institutes 2.9.3; 2.11.2–6; 4.18.4), it seems likely that he would include all types, pre-Fall, pre-redemptive, if any, as well as redemptive.

Two New Testament passages preeminently point to typology before the Fall and specifically to the pre-Fall weekly Sabbath as a type. In 1 Corinthians 15:44b–46, based on Genesis 2:7 Paul argues from the original, “natural,” order of the creation instanced in (pre-Fall) Adam to its eschatological, “spiritual,” order, the order of the Spirit, inaugurated by Christ, as the last Adam become the “life-giving Spirit” at his resurrection. Similarly and with a more explicit bearing on the Sabbath, in Hebrews 4:4–10, the writer connects the seventh day rest of the creation week with eschatological Sabbath-rest (vv. 4 and 9).[5]

The teaching of these passages yields the following four considerations: 1) Creation was from the beginning and continues to be oriented toward eschatology; by its very constitution (“natural”) it anticipates the eschatological (the “spiritual”). 2) Since the original creation thus implies the eventual emergence of the new creation, typology is inherent in the original creation and therefore antedates the Fall; the natural is typical, prefiguring and anticipating the spiritual. 3) Given the Fall, redemption becomes the essential means for the natural order to come to its full realization in the spiritual order; redemption, made necessary only because of the Fall, leaves its imprint on the eschatological state. 4) The weekly Sabbath is a type; it points to the rest that marks the eschatological order as a whole. Calvin in his own way recognizes this eschatological significance in quoting Isaiah 66:23 to show that the Sabbath will not be fully celebrated until the Last Day.

The typology inherent in the original creation and the eschatological reference of the Sabbath give the following picture of the pre-Fall Sabbath. Genesis 2:2–3, together with the commentary on them in the Fourth Commandment, show that the weekly Sabbath given to Adam served a function in the creaturely realm similar to the seventh day of the creation week for the Creator. As God rested from his completed work of creation, so man would enter into his rest after completing his God-given tasks as vicegerent over the creation. This analogy between Creator and image-bearing creature, however, involves an important difference. The creating work of God had been completed and his rest begun (Heb. 4:3b–4). The task entrusted to Adam/man had yet to be performed; his rest lay in the future. Eschatological Sabbath-rest was a still future goal (cf. Heb. 4:9).

The weekly Sabbath served as a continual reminder to Adam that history is not a ceaseless repetition of days; his toil was meaningful and would result in rest. At the beginning of each week he could look forward to the rest of the seventh day. That weekly cycle was to impress on him that he, together with the created order as a whole, was moving toward a goal, nothing less than an eschatological culmination. The rest of each week was a type that prefigured the ultimate goal of the whole created order and, at the same time, emphasized its present state of pre-eschatological incompleteness. As a weekly day of rest was instituted to remind him of the purposefulness of his work, it also provided rhythmic refreshment, periodic psycho-physical rest appropriate to him in the integrity of his “natural,” pre-eschatological existence.

This conclusion prompts the following observations. The language of the Fourth Commandment does not suggest anything but a positive correlation between the six days of labor and the seventh day of rest. In fact, that latter is unintelligible without the former and vice versa; the day of rest gives meaning to and, in turn, receives its meaning from the six days of labor. The seven-day week is a divinely ordained whole; it implies a philosophy of history that even the most unreflective mind can intuit.

As already noted, a basic weakness in Calvin’s view is the failure to see this positive correlation. Even were it to be granted that the Fourth Commandment only applies in the context of redemption, it remains puzzling how he finds a contrast between our sinful works and the rest that God commands (or, at best, a concessive relationship between our work and the rest commanded). Since the Fall sinners are in themselves no more capable of rest acceptable to God than they are of performing acceptable works.

In light of the significance of the Sabbath instituted at creation, we should appreciate that the primary concern of the Fourth Commandment is not pragmatic—to provide time for public and private worship and religious instruction. Rather, the original concern of the weekly Sabbath continues. It is for restful reflection on our lives, before God, in view of the ultimate outcome of history—when the present pre-eschatological order will be transformed into the eschatological order—and for reviewing our cultural calling and activities of the past six days in light of that future consummation.

This is not at all to imply that cultic elements do not have a proper, even integral, place on the Sabbath. Indeed, such worship is crucial and ought to be prominent, especially in the post-Fall Sabbath, when believers must focus attention on Christ, rather than themselves, as the one who for them has fulfilled the command for six days of labor and in whom, based on his fulfillment and by the power of his Spirit (e.g., Rom. 8:9–10), they are obeying that command (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:58; Rev. 14:13; 19:7–8). Where the Sabbath institution is properly appreciated and functions as it should, cultural concerns and avocations, on the one hand, and cultic activities, on the other, are neither confused nor polarized.

Vos is worth quoting at length here:

From what has been said about the typical, sacramental meaning of the Sabbath it follows that it would be a mistake to base its observance primarily on the ground of utility. The Sabbath is not the outcome of an abnormal state of affairs in which it is impossible, apart from the appointment of a fixed day, to devote sufficient care to the religious interests of life. On such a view it might be maintained that for one sufficiently at leisure to give all his time to the cultivation of religion the keeping of the Sabbath would no longer be obligatory. Some of the continental Reformers, out of reaction to the Romish system of holy days, reasoned after this fashion. But they reasoned wrongly. The Sabbath is not in the first place a means of advancing religion. It has its main significance apart from that, in pointing forward to the eternal issues of life and history. Even the most advanced religious spirit cannot absolve itself from partaking in that. It is a serious question whether the modern church has not too much lost sight of this by making the day well-nigh exclusively an instrument of religious propaganda, at the expense of its eternity-typifying value. Of course it goes without saying that a day devoted to the remembrance of man’s eternal destiny cannot be properly observed without the positive cultivation of those religious concerns which are so intimately joined to the final issue of his lot. But, even where this is conceded, the fact remains that it is possible to crowd too much into the day that is merely subservient to religious propaganda, and to void it too much of the static, God-ward and heavenly-ward directed occupation of piety.[6]

A critique of Calvin’s views, as one among “the continental Reformers,” seems likely.

4. We may now consider further the effects of the Fall upon the Sabbath institution, i.e., the relation of the creation Sabbath to the redemptive Sabbath. Above all, the Fall does not abrogate either the creation Sabbath or its typical function. The present creation still anticipates the new creation, albeit with the need for the removal of the added burden of sin and its corrupting consequences (Rom. 8:19–22). Sinners are not capable of living up to the demands of the Fourth Commandment (work and rest). The task of bringing the original creation to its eschatological fulfillment has been taken from them and given to the better and more worthy Servant. The Father has begun, through the work of the Son, to bring history to its Spirit-transformed and -complexioned climax (1 Cor. 15:46). The last Adam achieves the task forfeited by the first Adam.

The impact of the history of redemption on the Sabbath institution is apparent in the theocracy, an impact that Calvin readily saw. What is not so apparent in analyzing the Mosaic Sabbath, however, is the distinction between the Fourth Commandment as it reflects a universally binding creation ordinance and what in the commandment was peculiar to its old covenant administration. That distinction, it appears, Calvin did not observe, particularly when he argues that the typical element in the Fourth Commandment has been abrogated.

There is validity, of course, in Calvin’s idea that the Jewish Sabbath typified the spiritual rest brought by Christ. That is so because all the forms and rituals of Old Testament religion, instituted after the Fall and especially at Sinai, anticipated the work of Christ “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). On the other hand, it is less than biblical for Calvin to construe the specific concern of the Fourth Commandment as spiritual rest that is equivalent generically to freedom from sin and love of God and neighbor.

Spiritual rest, typified under the Mosaic economy by the Sabbath and fulfilled by Christ, has its sense in terms specific to the Fourth Commandment. The spiritual, redemptive rest already brought by Christ assures believers of the eventual future realization of the eschatological rest typified by the creation Sabbath. It does so by granting them to share by imputation in union with Christ in his perfect righteousness, on which basis the Spirit is now at work in them, preparing them for the consummate enjoyment of all the blessings of that rest. Present spiritual rest in Christ is a firstfruits foretaste of the eschatological blessings subsequently to be enjoyed in their fullness (Rom. 8:23).

Accordingly, we may properly speak of the abolition of the Jewish Sabbath at the coming of Christ—as Paul does in Galatians 4:10–11 and Colossians 2:16–17—in the sense that the typical element that had become associated with it under the old covenant has been abrogated. Present spiritual rest, as it has already become a reality in Christ, is no longer typified by the weekly Sabbath. But the weekly Sabbath, instituted at creation as a type of eschatological rest, points to that rest in its perfect finality. It therefore continues to serve that typical function until the eschatological consummation it prefigures is realized. That consummation, as 1 Corinthians 15 makes clear, will not be until the resurrection of the body (vv. 42–49).

Certainly, believers have already received the Spirit as an actual deposit on their eschatological inheritance (Eph. 1:14). But to conclude that the Sabbath institution has been abrogated because blessings of the eschatological order are presently realized in the New Testament church is to fail to see that the weekly Sabbath now points to the still future consummate glory of the blessings of the new heavens and new earth and will continue to serve as the type of that still future perfection until it becomes reality.

The old covenant Sabbath was not, strictly speaking, the Sabbath institution expressed in the Fourth Commandment, but the expression that creation ordinance took in redemptive history from the Fall until Christ. Since the particular redemptive considerations which that old covenant Sabbath typified have been fulfilled in Christ, it is no longer in force. That fulfillment, however, has left an indelible imprint on the Sabbath as a creation ordinance. Confirmed redemptive rest, achieved by Christ for believers, is their guarantee of the full realization of the eschatological rest in view already in the creation Sabbath.

These considerations provide the most satisfying rationale for the change of the weekly Sabbath from the seventh day to the first. The guaranteed realization of the eschatological Sabbath by Christ’s fulfillment of the redemptive Sabbath in its old covenant typical form marks the eschatologically momentous arrival of the new creation within history (2 Cor. 5:17). In Christ the ultimate goal of history in its unfolding, typified by the creation Sabbath, is assured; the probationary element for obtaining that goal has been sustained by him and is no longer in force.

Specifically, Christ’s resurrection is the signal event of this achieved certainty, so that the day of the week on which it occurred is now appropriately the day of rest. The rest day pointing to that still future consummate state is now enjoyed at the beginning of the week rather than at the end, an indication that the goal of creation is now certain and no longer a matter of unresolved probation.

To say that New Testament Christians are still bound to keep this type—a widely held view among many evangelicals—is not to compromise the freedom brought by Christ. Rather, observing the Lord’s Day is an expression of that freedom. The weekly rest day, faithfully kept by the church, is a concrete witness to a watching world that believers are not enslaved in the turmoil of an impersonal, meaningless historical process but look with confidence to sharing in the consummation of God’s purposes for the creation; Sabbath keeping is a witness that there does indeed remain an eschatological Sabbath-rest for the people of God (Heb. 4:9).

The Sabbath is there each week as a constant reminder to the church that the new heavens and earth to come will arrive with a splendor and glory beyond our present comprehension. The weekly Sabbath is there to remind us that the rich and manifold blessings we now enjoy in Christ will, by comparison, be far transcended by those we will possess “when he appears, [and] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). About that comparison Calvin would surely agree.

Endnotes

[1] This article adapts material from my Calvin and the Sabbath: The Controversy of Applying the Fourth Commandment (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus/Mentor, 1998), principally from chapter 5.

[2] There is no English translation (to my knowledge); it is only available in the Latin original (which can be reconstructed by English readers from the editorial apparatus provided in the Battles translation of the 1559 edition).

[3] For a further elaboration of lines along which this critique unfolds, see my chapter, “Westminster and the Sabbath,” in J. L. Duncan et al, eds., The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2004), 123–44.

[4] The Works of Jonathan Edwards (London: 1834), 3:95; quoted in J. Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 1:401.

[5] Calvin and the Sabbath, 150–53 provides detailed exegesis of the 1 Corinthians passage; for Hebrews see note 6 below.

[6] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 157.

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and emeritus professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Springfield, Virginia and attends Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. Ordained Servant Online, April 2017.

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