by James MacGregor


The Sabbath Question: Part IV


IV. Rationale of the Sabbath Law as Moral

“As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which in scripture is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.” Westminster Confession of Faith XXI.vii.

That the Sabbath law is a law of nature, that the fourth commandment is a moral law, we conclude from the place of that law in the Decalogue, at the heart of a code of laws distinctively moral, and from a conjunct view of all the Bible statements regarding the Sabbath and Lord’s Day. But the question remains, how is this law a law of nature? how can the law be, properly speaking, moral as distinguished from merely positive, whether ceremonial or judicial? This question we might have been unable to answer. We might have been unable to point out the precise aspect or part of the natural constitution on which the law is based and yet be bound to believe that, somehow, it is moral, because we are so informed by the word of God. But the Bible not only declares the fact of the morality of the Sabbath, but also reveals its reason. And on that revealed reason or rationale I will now make some remarks.

The indisposition or incapacity to recognise the morality of this institution on the part of men who are willing to receive it as divine, originates mainly in a confusion of thought regarding what constitutes a moral law, or what proves its morality. The simple truth is, that a law is moral or natural if it be based on the nature of man. Some have imagined that it cannot be natural or moral unless, as soon as proposed, it commend itself to the conscience of all men. But (as we have seen) this imagination is a mistake. The laws of the first table of the Decalogue (though they are all moral) do not commend themselves to the conscience of Pagans in general. The conscience of an ancient Spartan, who deemed it a virtue to be a successful thief, would give no response to the law of the eighth commandment; nor will the sixth commandment find acceptance with the conscience of the Thug, who deems murder an acceptable worship of his goddess. Men are often so untrue to their nature as to be incapable of recognising what is based on that nature. And if a law be really founded on the nature of man in his relation to God or his neighbour, then, though all men should fail to recognise it, yet it is truly a moral or natural law, binding all men to obey it.

Again, the law is natural or moral, though it should not be founded on the nature of rational creatures in general, if only it have a foundation in the nature of man. Some have imagined that it cannot be natural or moral unless it be founded on the abstract nature of man as rational, the constitution he has in common with all rational creatures in the universe. But this imagination, again, is a mistake. All rational creatures are bound as firmly as man by those laws of the first table which bind man to have Jehovah for his God, to worship Him according to His nature and will, and to reverence His holy name; and also by those laws of the second table which bind man to love, and cherish, and defend as his own, his neighbour’s life, purity, property, good name. But these do not constitute the whole of what is truly moral or natural law.

Of what has been called “the law of nature and nations,” a very large part has no binding force to any creature but man; for it is founded, not on his abstract nature as rational, but on his concrete constitution, individual, domestic, social, as man, an incarnate spirit, the provincial of earth and time. These laws are not imperial, binding all rational creatures through infinity and eternity, but merely provincial, binding none but man, and binding man only in time on earth. And so of the last commandment of the first table, — “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The law of the Sabbath may be truly natural or moral though it should not be imperial, founded on the abstract nature of man as rational, but only provincial, founded on the concrete nature of man as man, the provincial of time and earth.

A provincial law thus founded on man’s nature is specifically distinct from a merely positive law — even of God. A positive law is not necessarily arbitrary or groundless. All the laws of God, whether positive or natural, are based by perfect wisdom on the circumstances of His creatures to whom they are applied. But of the circumstances on which His laws are based, some are local and evanescent in their nature. Such, for example, were the peculiar circumstances of His Church under the Old Testament, limited as she was to one land and race, and waiting for the promised Messiah. Correspondingly, the laws which were based on those peculiar circumstances — for example, the typical ceremonial of tabernacle and temple — are only of local and temporary obligation; they pass away with the circumstances on which they are based; they bind only some men in some ages and lands. But others, was we have seen, even of the provincial laws, are based on circumstances of man’s earthly condition which are inseparable from him in that condition, which are permanent and universal as his earthly duration. And these, from their very nature, are of an obligation correspondingly universal and unchangeable, binding all men in all ages and lands. And such, we maintain, is the law of the Sabbath.

It is thus we understand the statement, — “The Sabbath was made for man.” It is made for man in the sense of being adapted to his constitution or nature, both as a boon to bless his life and as a law to rule his life. It is thus made for man alone of all the rational creatures, — that is, the law is provincial and not imperial. And it is thus made, not merely for Jews, but for man, for all men alike, — that is, it is not merely positive but moral or natural: — not merely the Jew, the man in exceptional circumstances, but every man in every age and land, is morally bound “to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”

How and where the law does really repose on man’s unchangeable nature, as distinguished from men’s accidental circumstances, may be learned from the “reason annexed” to the fourth commandment. This commandment is the only one of the Ten which is shown by the divine Lawgiver, in the very terms of the law, to be founded in the natural constitution of things. As was observed, the “reason annexed” to this commandment in Deuteronomy shows that the law is also founded in the supernatural constitution of the church. But in illustrating the morality of the law, I will, of course, refer mainly to the (fundamental) “reason” as given in Exodus.

1. Man lives in time. In eternity there is no periodic repose. Through all its infinite duration, the wicked find no peace nor rest, while the ransomed of the Lord run and never weary, walk and never faint. But man is now the denizen of time. So far as we know, he is its only rational denizen, the only immortal who has a life that ebbs and flows with the tides of mortality; whose constitution demands periodic repose, — repose not only returning every night, but also intervening in some days of his working life. And there is therefore a peculiar fitness to his nature, a grandeur of appropriateness in the law which ordains, that in all ages and lands every son of man shall consecrate to God in a holy resting a stated portion of his time. And at the same time the Creator, in claiming as a tribute what it blesses us to give Him, nobly illustrates the spirit of His law, — a spirit ever crying, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.”

This consecration of a part of our time is not a denial or evasion of the truth, that the whole of our time belongs to our Maker and Preserver. It is really a solemn recognition of that truth. In setting apart as “holy” to the Lord a fixed proportion of our worldly wealth, we do not deny, but solemnly acknowledge, that He is Lord of all, both of what we retain and of what we give away; that we are but His stewards, administering the whole in obedience to Him as paramount Lord and Proprietor. And so, in offering to Him the one day in a “holy” rest, we do not withdraw from Him the six days of work for our own mere pleasure; but we make solemn recognition of His sovereignty over all our time, — of the six days which He gives us for holy working, no less than of the one day He reserves for our holy resting: through that holy resting in God on the one day we seek His presence and power to dwell with us, and sustain us, and bless us all through the six days of our holy working for Him. The custom of all nations in observing religious festivals, or stated days of religious rest, is an unconscious testimony of religious humanity to the morality of the Sabbath law thus far, that it demands the consecration of a stated portion of our time for the solemn recognition and worship of God as the Lord of our life. But the “reason annexed” to the fourth commandment leads to the high Calvinistic form of that doctrine, — to the conclusion, that “one day in seven” is of the substance of the moral law.

Why should the adoring acknowledgment be made on “one day in seven”? Why should the week, the period of returning recognition, consist of seven days? Because, not only in general, man lives in time, but also, in especial —

2. Man lives on earth. From the inspired record of creation we conclude that it was the general plan of our world’s constitution that it should be a microcosm, or miniature image of the universe. This plan was completed in the creation of man, the subject-lord of earth, the image of God. He and his little earth are an image of God and His great universe. Thus the nature of man — in spirituality, freedom, and immortality — is an image of God’s nature. Man’s sovereignty over the creatures of earth is an image of Jehovah’s universal dominion. And in further prosecution of this plan through all possible details, man was made the image of his Maker in the distribution of his time. His week of seven days, six of holy working and one of holy resting, images the Creator’s work and rest of creation: “for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day.” Of the duration of those days of God, this “reason annexed” does not speak. Nor do the Westminster divines. Before subscribing the Confession, I made particular inquiry on this point, on which my mind was not made up; and ascertained that (1.) the Westminster divines were aware of the question of the duration of the Creator’s day; and that (2.) they have not pronounced any opinion on that question, but simply inscribed on their standards the words of Scripture, leaving the precise import of the words to be ascertained from any further light that God in His providence may reflect on this point.

The reason or rationale of the commandment is, that the life of man, being portioned out into weeks, should be an image, perpetually recurring, of the week of God. And for this end, it matters not whether the picture be full length or miniature, whether the image be of the same magnitude with the original or only on a scale indefinitely small: — all that is needed is a due proportion of parts. Thus man’s nature and dominion are faithful images, though only miniature images, of the Creator’s nature and dominion. The general plan is, therefore, that the image should be on a scale indefinitely small, that the picture should be a miniature. And if, as may by parity of reason be supposed, the same scale be observed in the distribution of time, and man’s week be only a miniature image of God’s, in the same proportion with his nature and dominion, this will not hinder the image from being true: a miniature may be as faithful a likeness as a full length; and the grand week of God is perpetually imaged in the life of every man who truly keeps the Sabbath law. In every such life there is a perpetual recurrence of the week of seven days — six days of work, productive toil, the image of God’s work in creation; and one day of rest, contemplative, conservative, restorative repose, the image of God’s providence, including the grand episode of redemption.

But here, too, we observe the universal and permanent obligation of the law, its reference to man on earth in time. Its reason applies to all men alike. For that reason is found, not in any exceptional circumstances — for example, of the Jews — but in the universal and permanent circumstances of men here below. Not only the Jew, but the man in all ages and lands, is bound by nature to make solemn acknowledgment of God as the Lord of his time. Not only to the Jew, but to the man in every age and land, the truth comes home as part of the life history of his world’s creation and preservation, that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is; and rested the seventh day.” And therefore, not only to the Jew, but to the man in every age and land, God’s work of creation and rest of providence perpetually preach as a law of nature, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” — that is, Be the image of God in the distribution of your time.

We see the value of a positive revelation of this law of nature. It is antecedently probable that the obligation to obey it shall not be universally felt and confessed by wicked men — and even that the law itself shall be forgotten or ignored by the nations which know not God. So, in fact, it has happened to monogamy, the natural law of the family. This law has been to a large extent ignored or trampled under foot by the Pagan nations. For the knowledge and due application of this law of nature we are largely indebted to the revelation of God’s grace in Him who has come to “restore all things,” — not only to bring a new creation into being, but to pour a flood of new light upon the old, and a flood of new life into its natural institutions. But though the family institution be thus restored by Christ, no one imagines that it is not an institution of nature: we all admit that it was “at the beginning” what He by His grace has made it to be again; that He has simply restored and adorned what He had created at the first, and we had corrupted and lost by our sin.

So of the twin institution of the Sabbath. It has been restored by Christ, as part of that original heritage which man had lost by sin; and therefore He claims it as part of His mediatorial possession, — just as, in the baptism of infants, He claims a lordship of grace over our families. It has been almost though not quite forgotten or ignored by the nations which knew not God; and He has reclaimed it and redeemed it with His blood. But from this it does not follow that the Sabbath is not, like the family, an institution of nature. It follows only that we had lost a precious pearl in the darkness of our sin, and that for the recovery of that “pearl of days” we had need of the saving grace of God revealed in Christ.

A railway proprietor reasons that it is lawful to run trains on the Sabbath, because “the Sabbath was made for man.” This reasoning would have been conclusive if the Sabbath had been made for man to run trains on. But if the Sabbath has been made for man “to keep it holy” as a day of religious rest, then the reasoning really amounts to this, that because the Sabbath was made for man “to keep,” therefore its divinely appointed keeper may lawfully break it! The same reasoning, if valid, will justify polygamy, adultery, disobedience to parents, cruelty to children; for the family, in the same sense of the Sabbath, was made for man, — that is, was made for him alone. But the circumstance of its being made for him alone, to bless and rule his life, surely gives him no right to corrupt the institution and violate its law. The Glasgow water-works were made for Glasgow, for Glasgow alone. Does this give the Glaswegian a right to break the law of the works, to poison the water, to refuse to pay the water rate? Surely not.


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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