by James MacGregor


The Sabbath Question: Part V


V. The Developed Calvinistic Church

The highest human authority that has ever pronounced on the Sabbath question is that of the Reformed Churches of Britain and the Continent in the first half of the seventeenth century. For these Churches had not yet, on the one hand, become dead and hard in their orthodoxy, nor, on the other hand, experienced the deadly chill of that “moderate” movement which extended all over Christendom in the eighteenth century, and which was signalised by a general break-up of Christian belief, the result as well as the cause of decay of Christian life and love. They were in the fullness of intelligent sympathy with the living Word of God. The study of that word was not only the habit but the passion of their members. Their divines were engaged in giving the last finishing touches to their symbols, in order that these might perfectly and definitively express the faith which at the Reformation God had given to His saints. And with reference to the Sabbath question, they were more favorably placed than the first Reformers. The first generation of Reformation divines had everything to begin — the very art of Biblical study to learn; and for the most part they were led, by their controversy with Rome, to look at our question only incidentally and cursorily, under some of its secondary aspects. But their successors in the second and third generations not only had the benefit of a previous generation of controversy as a discipline for theological study in general, but were compelled to study the Sabbath question in particular under all its aspects, by a controversy regarding it which had arisen between the orthodox Church on the one hand, and the fanatical Anabaptists and sceptical Socinians on the other. The beneficent influence of this controversy, which had begun to be felt before the first generation of Reformers passed away, was fully experienced by the second and third. And while all Protestant Churches were thus made awake and alive to the question of the Decalogue in general, the “Reformed” branches of the Reformation Church were free from the blinding influence of the festival-system with reference to the fourth commandment in particular.

Further, both in Holland and in England the mind of the Church had been led by providential circumstances, not merely to the general question — about which there was no difference in the catholic Church — of the perpetual obligation of the fourth commandment, but to the special question, whether “one day in seven” is not what is prescribed by that commandment in its substance, and whether the Lord’s Day is not the “Christian Sabbath.” And thus, in that first half of the seventeenth century, at least in the Reformed Protestant Church, every educated theologian had fully in view, with perfect comprehension of its bearings, the question — 1, in general, whether the Decalogue is a code of moral laws binding all men in all ages and lands; and, 2, in particular, whether the fourth commandment is a moral law of permanent and universal obligation.

This highest authority I will take at its culminating point, in the Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Assembly, — the two noblest Synods, in point of fullness and clearness of God-given light that have met on earth since the Council of Jerusalem. The two Assemblies of Dordt and Westminster are the principal witnesses on the stage of Church history. Their testimony is more important than that of all other human witnesses together. The Synod of Dordt had as its nucleus the divines of Holland, who — though no one of them equaled Francis Turretin — had by this time as a class borne away the palm from Geneva, and become the theological leaders of the Calvinistic branch of the Reformation Church. With them were associated representatives of the Reformed Churches of Britain, Germany, and France; so that the Synod was virtually a general council of Calvinistic Christendom. And though the articles on the Sabbath were occasioned by some dispute in Zeeland, and not drawn up till the foreign delegates had left, these articles, as may well be presumed, were simply the matured utterance of the real mind of all the Churches represented in the Synod. These articles (as agreed upon at the sitting of 17th May 1618) admit that the fourth commandment is partly ceremonial, in so far as it speaks of the seventh as the day of religious rest, and prescribes a rigidity in the form of observance which is distinctively Jewish. Here, I believe, the Synod was mistaken in point of fact: it is doubtful whether the Jewish Sabbath was really more rigid than the Christian; and it is certain that the fourth commandment does not prescribe any rigidity distinctively Jewish. But they also declare that the law is moral, of permanent and universal obligation, in so far as it prescribes a day to be kept holy as a day of religious rest, and forbids all such worldly recreations and employments as are incompatible with the due observance of that rest; and that, while the day thus prescribed by God’s unchangeable law of nature was the “Sabbath,” or Saturday, under the Old Testament, it is the “Lord’s Day,” or Sunday, under the New. How the fourth commandment can be made to bear on our observance of the first day of the week has been declared by this great Synod.

From this noble Synod we pass to what, perhaps, is a nobler. From the circumstance that the Westminster divines had no serious doctrinal difference among themselves it might be expected that their Confession would not protrude any doctrinal peculiarity into offensive prominence. From the circumstance that they stood at the culminating point of an epoch of serious research into Scripture, it might further be expected that their Confession would be unusually free from the exaggerations of crude immature thought. And in fact I believe that ninety-nine in every hundred of those who are seriously Presbyterian and Calvinistic, and who have studied the Calvinistic creeds and confessions comparatively, will regard our own Confession as the most complete and symmetrical, the freest from exaggeration or disproportion of parts. And I am certain that there is nothing in the general aspect of the Confession that ought to derogate from the Assembly’s authority with reference to the question of the Sabbath.

With reference to this question, the Westminster divines had the benefit of all the light derivable from the earlier controversies on the Continent, from the relevant articles of the Synod of Dordt, and from the luminous commentary on those articles by such first-rate divines as Walaeus. And to sharpen their faculties, they had enjoyed the discipline of a controversy in Britain. The Reformed Church of England had confessed the perpetual obligation of the fourth commandment, in that prayer of her liturgy to which all her congregations respond every Lord’s Day to this hour, “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” But long before the Westminster Assembly sat, the Puritan section of the English Church had found it necessary to fight the same battle which we are now fighting for the due observance of the weekly day of religious rest. That Assembly, therefore, by the influence of causes at home and abroad, had been made fully alive and awake to the nature of the Sabbath question under all its aspects, speculative and practical. And its decision on this question is thus invested with all the authority of what many have regarded as the noblest Assembly that ever met in Christendom, and what every one will confess to have been certainly the noblest Assembly that ever met in Britain.

This decision was uttered, not as a mere opinion, in the shape of a resolution, but as a deliberate judgment on a matter vitally affecting the permanent welfare of the Church. First, in that Confession it is declared (chapter XIX) in general, that all the Ten Commandments deserve the name of moral law, because they are of permanent and universal obligation. And second, in the Catechisms it is declared, not only in general that “the moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments,” but also in special that the fourth commandment is part of that moral law, and morally binds all men, in all ages and lands, whether on the Old Testament seventh day, or on the New Testament first day, to observe “one whole day in seven as a religious rest.”

I now proceed to deal with certain utterances of the first Reformers which have often been quoted against the defenders of the Sabbath among us. 1. “That the selection of the Sunday to be the Lord’s Day has been determined, not by the sovereign will of Christ, but by the Christian wisdom of His Church.” This militates against the Puritan theory of the substantial oneness of the Old Testament Sabbath and New Testament Lord’s Day, by contradicting one of the Scriptural witnesses in behalf of that doctrine. But it does not so much as touch the catholic doctrine of the fourth commandment, even upon the Westminster view of that commandment, as in its substance or moral part prescribing “one whole day in seven.” For whether the Saturday, or Sunday, or Monday be observed as the Lord’s Day, there is “one day in seven” observed as a religious rest; the fourth commandment is therefore obeyed in its substance, as understood by the Westminster divines. In their estimation the commandment does not determine which day of the seven shall be kept, but leaves that to be determined by positive institution of competent authority. What is a competent authority on this point may be a question. Romanists may answer “The Church,” as consisting of lordly Prelates; Lutherans, Anglicans, and not a few early Calvinists, have answered, “The Church,” as consisting of the members and ministers; while the Westminster divines believe that the only competent authority is the “Lord of the Sabbath.” If, then, it were seriously proposed to keep the Saturday or Monday instead of the Sunday as the Lord’s Day, the Westminster divines would resist the proposal on the ground of the second commandment, because the Lord, through his apostles, has chosen the Sunday for His day. But they would not and could not oppose it on the ground of the fourth commandment; for this commandment, in their estimation, while prescribing some “one day in seven,” does not determine which. This first proposition, though (in our estimation) mischievous and untrue, does not so much as touch the catholic doctrine of the commandment, even in the “high” view of the Westminster divines.

2. “That the fourth commandment in its substance does not prescribe one day in seven, but only some days in the year.” This, again, militates against the Westminster view of the divine institution of the week, by contradicting one part of the evidence of one of its Scriptural witnesses. And thus it comes short of what we regard as the completed Scriptural fullness of the catholic doctrine of the Sabbath law. But it does not contradict, but so far affirms, the catholic doctrine even of the fourth commandment, and does not so much as appear to contradict the catholic doctrine of the Decalogue. It only, if true, would show that the question (not which day of the seven, but), what days in the year shall be consecrated to God, falls to be determined by positive institution of competent authority. But it shows, at the same time, that the fourth commandment binds us with the force of moral law — 1, in commanding us to observe some stated days; and, 2, in prescribing the form of observing whatever is really a consecrated day, by presenting the divine ideal of a consecrated day, as being negatively a day of cessation from secular work, in order to be positively a day of religious rest.

This incomplete view of the substance of the Sabbath law has proved by its fruits the evil of incompleteness. It was accepted by Romanists, Lutherans, and Anglicans, because it left them a standing ground even in the fourth commandment for their man-made system of Church festivals, — a system which has always been the leading stronghold of Antichrist in the Church, and which, wherever it has prevailed, has practically brought down the Lord’s Day far beneath the ideal of a bona fide day of religious rest. And once they had accepted it as a justification of their false position, their false position kept them ever after from rising to the true and complete Scripture doctrine. And thus, while the “Reformed” Churches, having abandoned the man-made festivals, have grown up to the fullness of Scriptural knowledge and privilege with reference to the God-given festival of the Sabbath, the Lutherans and Anglicans, pressed down by the festival system, have never grown an inch from their infancy, but, in their view of the Sabbath law, still remain as stunted and inadequate at this hour as at the first Reformation, — no unimpressive illustration of the vital importance of a pure scriptural worship, were it only in order that we may know and believe, not only “the truth,” but “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” as God has revealed it regarding His ordinances.

Further, the Reformers, while coming short of the Westminster theory, really gave important though unconscious testimony to its truth. For they affirmed the leading facts on which that theory is founded, namely, — 1st, in the primeval revelation of God, the institution of the Sabbath in Eden; 2d, the revelation of the Sabbath law on Sinai as a law of nature, with a “reason annexed,” which obviously points to “one day in seven” as being of the substance of the law; and, 3d, the continued observance of that week, determined by a day of religious rest, which has been observed by God’s Church ever since she first began to be on earth. These three Bible facts, with accessory facts, can be accounted for only by the Westminster theory. Hence, the theory of “one day in seven” was accepted even by some of the first Reformers, e.g., Beza; in the second Reformation, it was generally adopted by the “Reformed” Churches, as we find in Francis Turretin, the greatest of systematic divines; and in the third generation, it was inscribed on those creeds which are the definitive expression of completely developed Reformed theology.


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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