by James MacGregor


The Sabbath Question: Part III


III. Morality of the Fourth Commandment in Particular

The doctrine of a Trinity in Unity is evidenced by the system of Bible facts regarding the constitution of the Godhead, because this doctrine, and this alone, accounts for them all. And in like manner we maintain that our doctrine of the perpetual obligation of the Sabbath law is evidenced by the system of relevant Bible facts, because our doctrine, and it alone, accounts for the facts: it is the only real theory of them, enabling us to see them as a system, to comprehend them in one view, from center to circumference all round.

The facts to be accounted for are all connected with the institution of the week, — the distribution of time into periods of seven days, each containing six days for work and one day of rest. And in connection with this hebdomadal distribution of man’s time there are three leading facts of Biblical revelation, which no Bible reader can fail to perceive, no matter what may be his opinion regarding the Sabbath or Lord’s Day. First, in the Bible account of creation and man’s first estate, we find (Gen. 2:3) revealed the fact that God blessed the seventh day, and the reason why He thus consecrated the hebdomadal distribution of time, — a reason which applies not merely to Jews, but alike to all men in all ages and lands. Second, for that reason, He declared the Sabbath law on Sinai, and set it in the heart of a code of laws distinctively moral. And third, the New Testament Church, under the authoritative guidance of inspired Apostles, continued to observe the institution of the week, altered in its form by the transposition of the resting-day from its close to its beginning, but unaltered in its substance as consisting of six days for work and one day of rest. These three leading facts are the principal witnesses for our doctrine, furnishing the primary Bible evidence of its truth.

Again, around these three leading facts there are three clusters of secondary facts, — planets round their suns, — which constitute so many groups of secondary witnesses, furnishing accessory evidence of the truth of our doctrine. First, in connection with the narrative in Gen. 2:3, — It appears on the face of the God-given record that the Sabbath law was revealed to man unfallen in Paradise, and was not unknown to the patriarchs before and after the flood; and it is certain, not only that the week has been more or less fully known by the Gentile nations, but that the Sabbath was known and observed by the Jews before God declared the law on Sinai. Second, in connection with that Sinaitic legislation, — The Sabbath law (with ceremonial circumstances) was observed by God’s Church from Moses to Christ, for fifteen hundred years; during that period He gave indications of a purpose to preserve a Sabbath for His Church in the New Dispensation; and when His Son had come in the flesh, the God-man declared, not only in general that He had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it, but in special that “the Sabbath was made” — not merely for the Jews, but — “for man,” and is therefore a part of that indestructible inheritance of which “the Son of Man is Lord.” And third, in connection with the week, and weekly rest of the New Testament Church — a rest observed by the whole Christian world from the day of Pentecost to this hour — Neither the Apostles, nor the primitive Christians under them or after them, have left any trace of their having regarded this week as anything new or even surprising, so as to demand a divine institution or at least explanation: they present every appearance of having quietly accepted it as a matter of course, a thing with which the Church was familiar from of old, and which therefore demanded no formal explanation, in the New Testament.

These Bible facts, primary and secondary, must be accounted for by anything which plausibly pretends to be a theory of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day; and any supposition which really accounts for them all is evidenced by them all as being the Bible doctrine. Now our doctrine really does account for them all. It accounts for them as follows: — First, the Sabbath is moral or natural in its substance, as requiring the hebdomadal distribution of man’s time into periods, each containing six days of working for God and one day of resting in Him; and thus far it has remained in force through all ages of human history. Second, which day shall be the resting day is not determined by the substance of the law: the determination of this question does not arise out of the essence of the hebdomadal institution: the question falls to be determined by the positive institution of God. And it has been so determined: by God’s institution, the seventh day was kept holy in all the ages before, and the first day has been and shall be kept holy through all the ages that follow the resurrection of Christ for the justification of His Church. But third, while thus undergoing modification in its form, the law has been always unchanged in its substance: the week of man as prescribed by God has always contained seven days, — six days of holy working and one day of holy resting.

This manifestly is a clear and account of the system of Bible facts. Our doctrine is thus a veritable theory, enabling us to see the facts as a system, to comprehend them in one view, from center to circumference all round, in the light of a principle. On the other hand, no other “theory” of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day does account for the plain Bible facts. The Ecclesiastical and Dominical theories do not so much as pretend to account for them all. The Ecclesiastical theory, that the day has been appointed merely by the Christian wisdom of the Church, simply rejects the Bible facts as irrelevant to the question of our duty. The Dominical theory, that the day is kept only on the ground of apostolic institution, rejects all the Bible facts but one, — the fact of Apostolic institution of the Lord’s Day — and the one which it accepts it leaves utterly unaccounted for.

I now proceed to show, under the head of answers to objections, that there is no real insoluble difficulty in this case — no difficulty that does not, on calm and close inspection, vanish away into nothing. When closely examined, the objections alleged against it will be found to corroborate the Biblical demonstration of its truth.

The alleged counter-evidence of Scripture is derived from two remarks of the Apostle Paul — one in deprecation of a certain regarding of “days” (Rom. 14:5-6) and the other in disparagement of “Sabbaths” (Col. 2:16) in connection with “new moons.” As to these remarks, the question is, How do you account for them on the supposition that your doctrine is true? And to this question I answer:

1. As to the remark about regarding “days”: the question is, What species of regarding? And our answer is, a Judaical, superstitious regard: — a superstition consisting not in the religious observance of a day prescribed by God, — for the Apostles themselves observed a day, the first of the week. 2. As to the remark about “Sabbaths,” in connection with new moons: the question again is, What “Sabbaths”? And our answer is, Jewish Sabbaths, observed on the seventh day of the week. It is doubtful whether the name of Sabbath is given to the Lord’s Day so much as once in all the New Testament Scriptures. It is certain that the Jewish Sabbath is what is ordinarily designated by the name in the New Testament throughout. And it is notorious that the Hebrew members of the New Testament Church went on observing the Jewish Sabbath along with the Lord’s Day, as they went on observing the Jewish circumcision along with the Christian baptism, for a considerable time after the Jewish form of Sabbath and sacrament had been confessedly antiquated by the death of Christ. Their observance of this antiquated form was, as I have said, tolerated as a harmless weakness, and, in the case of the “Sabbath,” as a useful preparation for observing the Lord’s Day. But the observance of the Jewish form was in some cases regarded and inculcated by Judaisers as being necessary to salvation, or at least as incumbent on Christians by God’s law. And on this account the Apostles found it necessary to throw out such warnings with reference to the “Sabbath,” — i.e., the antiquated Jewish form of the weekly rest — as they more emphatically uttered with reference to circumcision, the antiquated Jewish form of the sacrament of initiation.

These two remarks are the only things which so much appear to be Scripture counter-evidence against our doctrine. We have seen that they are so only in appearance, and that even the appearance vanishes away on close inspection.

But in the absence of positive evidence of Scripture against us, some have based an argument on the silence of one part of Scripture: — “The Apostles do not formally declare your doctrine; and how can their silence regarding it be accounted for on the supposition of its truth?” To the advocates of the Dominical theory of the Lord’s Day, we might answer this question by proposing another: How do you account for that which is involved in your doctrine, the very singular circumstance that an institution (of the Lord’s Day), entirely new, and vitally affecting all human life, created by the Apostles, and universally observed by the primitive Church, has not in all the New Testament any record of its creation, nor even so much as one indication of its novelty? The institution of the Lord’s Day is thus wholly unaccountable on the Dominical hypothesis, but is easily and naturally accounted for on the Sabbatarian.

But we can give a more generous answer than this argumentum ad hominem. The question is, “If our doctrine be true, why do the apostles not formally and expressly declare it?” And the answer is: Because, if our doctrine be true, it had no need of formal and express Apostolic revelation: it was already well known: the institution of the week, as prescribed by moral law, was part of the immemorial revelation of God in His truth; and had thus been made familiar to the Church as the air she breathed, become inwrought into her constitution, by four thousand years of Sabbath observance.

For the sake of illustration, let us look at what most Christians will regard as a parallel case. The practice of infant baptism rests on the doctrine of infant church membership, and implies the substantial oneness of baptism and circumcision. But against circumcision, the antiquated Jewish form of the sacrament of initiation, the Apostle speaks much more strongly than he speaks against “Sabbaths,” the antiquated Jewish form of the weekly day of rest. Yet the Apostles take no pains to guard the Church against errors which might easily arise from misconception of such statements against circumcision. They do not explain, that what the statements are directed against is not the substance of the sacrament, but only its antiquated Jewish form. They do not formally and expressly declare the doctrine of infant church membership, as establishing the right of infants to be baptized. This doctrine they leave to be inferred, from the nature and circumstances of the case as revealed in Scripture as a whole: e.g., from an incidental allusion in Col. 2:11-12, not more conclusively clear than the allusion to the Sabbath in Heb. 4:9; or from the substantial identity of the Church’s constitution under both dispensations, Rom. 11:16-21, as we reason for our doctrine on the ground of the unchangeable constitution of man, for whom “the Sabbath was made”; or from the reason of the Old Testament institution, Rom. 4:11, a reason which equally applies to infants under the New, as we appeal to the “reason annexed to the fourth commandment,” because this reason equally applies to all men in all ages and lands. And why do they not formally and expressly declare the doctrine of infant Church membership as the basis of the practice of infant baptism? Because it did not need any express and formal Apostolic revelation: it was already well known: it had become familiar to the Church as the air she breathed by sixty generations of infant circumcision. This is a conclusive answer to the objection: — “If your doctrine be true, why do the Apostles not formally and expressly declare it?” And the same answer amply accounts for the Apostolic silence regarding our doctrine of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day.

It must always be remembered that, historically, the Jewish Church is the vine on which we Gentiles have been grafted. Of the Apostolic Church membership a very large proportion were Jews by birth and education. They alone brought into the Church a definite religious character and habit of thought and feeling and action, — a character and habit which had been formed in them by the Old Testament revelation of God; — so that Paul served God, no doubt “in Christ,” yet “from his forefathers.” The Gentile converts, on the other hand, with hearts renewed, but character and habits quite unformed, were, so to speak, as the molten gold. The Jewish element was the strong mould in which the Christian Church was cast, giving its own definite form to the Gentile. And thus it came to pass that the primitive Church accepted as a matter of course the seemingly reasonable institution of infant baptism; because the doctrine of infant Church membership, on which that practice is based, had been inwrought into the Jewish mind, so as to constitute a sort of religious “second nature,” by two thousand years of infant circumcision. So of our doctrine of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day. The primitive Church fell easily and naturally into the habit of observing the Lord’s Day, because the doctrine on which that observance is based had been known to the Church from the dawn of revelation in the form of “Sabbath” observance; — because, in short, the Sabbath law is a law of nature, and therefore the Lord’s Day was not a new institution, but an old institution, as old as the nature of man — the old institution under a new form, gradually acquiring, on account of its true nature, the proper name of “Christian Sabbath.

Thus by the system of Bible facts as a whole we are shut in to the conclusion, that the Sabbath law is natural or moral, and as such binds all men in all ages and lands. The same conclusion is significantly indicated by God’s own finger, writing the law of the Sabbath on the two stony tables, in the heart of that imperishable code of which not a jot nor a tittle shall ever pass away. If the fourth commandment be merely positive, why has it been set, by God’s own hand, in the heart of a code of laws distinctively natural?

But the question remains, Is this doctrine of ours of such practical importance that it ought to form part of a Confession of a Church? And to this question we answer, That our doctrine is the only thing that will secure a real bona fide observance of a weekly day of rest. Let us look, for instance, at the doctrine which comes nearest to it, that of a Lord’s Day prescribed by the Apostles, but having nothing to do with the fourth commandment, not resting on “the law of nature.” This Dominical theory, in point of mere logic, leads to the same conclusion, as to the manner of observing the day of rest, which we contend for on the grounds on our doctrine: for a Lord’s Day is “one whole day in seven” devoted to religious rest. But it is one thing to show that the observance of the day is obligatory in mere logic, and another to secure the practical discharge of the obligation. In point of mere logic, the due observance of the Lord’s Day ought, perhaps, to follow from the merely Ecclesiastical theory of the day, i.e. from the supposition that it has been appointed merely by the Christian wisdom of the Church, on the ground that she finds the day of rest to be necessary to her completed well-being, temporal and spiritual. But this Ecclesiastical theory, whatever may be its logical consequence, is found in practice an utter failure. It never has secured a real observance of “one whole day in seven” as a bona fide day of religious rest. For it gives the institution no adequate hold of the conscience of man in the mass. And the Dominical theory, though not in the same degree, is characterised by the same practical weakness.

A Christian, no doubt, would be bound to observe the institution merely of inspired Apostles, as truly as though the law of that institution had been written by the finger of God, in an imperishable code, many ages before it issued with new sanctions from the Apostolic mint. But though as strongly bound in practice, the mass of men will never feel so strongly bound in practice. Again, we may be as strongly bound in logic, but we do not feel so strongly bound in practice, to obey a mere positive precept, which has no recognised root in the nature of things, as to obey the same precept when we recognise its rationale, its root or living foundation, in the whole revealed constitution of the world and the Church.

Take, for example, the case already referred to, of the baptism of infants. Paedobaptists justify their practice by Apostolic institution. But the New Testament evidence of that institution is by no means overwhelming. The mass of Christian men are not able to appreciate the corroborative testimony furnished by the facts of sub-Apostolic church history. And while their conduct is ruled by what they believe to have been the practice of the Apostles, their judgment and conscience ultimately rest, their belief itself is really rooted in the Biblical rationale of that practice, that which lies at the root alike of infant baptism and of infant circumcision — the Scripture doctrine of infant Church membership.

So with reference to the Lord’s Day. The Dominical theory represents it as a merely positive institution of the Apostles, having no vital connection with anything that went before; — leaves it to be regarded as a really arbitrary institution, standing in no vital connection with the constitution of man, either as citizen of the world or as member of the Church. And this, in the experience of the mass of men, must greatly detract from the force of the evidence for the institution itself. I believe that the evidence of the New Testament Church history, corroborated by the evidence of post-Apostolic Church history and doctrine, is logically conclusive for the observance of the Lord’s Day as a day of religious rest. But at the same time I believe that this evidence is by no means so practically indisputable and impressive as to rule the lives of men in the mass. The Lord’s Day without the fourth commandment would be what infant baptism would have been without a preceding infant circumcision. Some men might doubt whether, after all, the Apostles and their Church did rest on the first day in a sense in which they did not rest on the second or the third. Others might reason, even on the supposition that they did, that since they have given no express precept to us, their practice does not bind us to rest as they rested. And both classes might affirm, with really great force of reason, that it is antecedently improbably, ex facie incredible, a thing quite unprecedented in the constitution of the New Testament Church (a constitution which rests on the Old Testament), that there should be for us a binding law which has no reason in the nature of things, no root in the Old Testament, no living foundation even in the New Testament system, not even so much as an express and formal Apostolic institution, — but which rests only on a practice by no means indisputable, either in point of fact, or in point of relevancy to the question of our duty as Christians.

The force of these considerations is silently confessed by the advocates of the Dominical theory themselves, when they speak of the Apostles as having perhaps been guided, in instituting the Lord’s Day, by the analogy of the Sabbath law. In so speaking, they really, though perhaps unconsciously, rest on the ground of the God-given Sabbath law as a law of universal and perpetual obligation. And in truth, a rational soul can find no other possible rest. The Dominical theory is weak and ineffectual in practice, were it only on this account, that it is weak and poor in speculation. It is a lame and beggarly theory. It does not so much as appear to account for the system of Bible facts regarding the Sabbath. It does not even account for — it leaves wholly unaccountable — the one isolated fact on which it professes to stand, the fact of the universal acceptance of the Lord’s Day on the part of the Apostolic and post-Apostolic primitive Church. In fact, it really accounts for nothing. It gives no rationale of anything. It merely affirms one isolated fact, and calls the affirmation a theory! And therefore it is not entitled to the name of a theory. A theory is that which enables us to see many facts as one system, to comprehend them in one view, from center to circumference all round. A bare, bald, isolated, assertion of one fact is not a theory.

On the other hand, our Sabbatarian doctrine is practically strong and impressive, were it only on this account, that it is complete. So far from excluding any one of the Bible facts regarding the Sabbath, it demands them all. Recognising the fact of Apostolic institution of the Lord’s Day as frankly and fully as the poor Dominical theory, it presents that institution to our view as organically connected with the whole historical revelation of God in His word. And in thus showing the foundation, deep and wide, in the whole system of revealed truth regarding the nature of man in his relation to God, it secures to the Lord’s Day a place of corresponding depth and breadth in our affectionate veneration.


James MacGregor (1830-1894) trained for the ministry under William Cunningham, whom he regarded as Scotland’s master theologian. After MacGregor had been a pastor for ten years, he was called in 1868 to the chair of systematic theology at the Free Church College, Edinburgh, in succession to James Buchanan. He responded to rising errors of his day by writing in defense of the Sabbath and against Amyrauldianism. Illness forced him to migrate to New Zealand in 1881, where he was again the pastor of a church, and published expositions of the confessional teaching about election and eternal punishment. The following material is excerpted from his book, The Sabbath Question, Historical, Scriptural, and Practical (Edinburgh 1866).

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