by James MacGregor


The Sabbath Question: Part VI


VI. The Duty of Christians

It is not my purpose here to give anything like a Christian directory for Sabbath sanctification at all times. What I have in view is to give some practical hints regarding some special aspects of Christian duty in connection with the controversy now fairly begun regarding Sabbath railway traffic. And these hints I will arrange on an ascending scale, beginning with what I reckon the least important, and concluding with what I reckon the most important.

1. There are certain public duties in connection with the Sabbath, to which we all are providentially called by the recent course of events in our land.

(1.) Political duties. — There is among some Christians a disposition to forget that they are citizens, and as such invested with certain powers, for the due use of which they are responsible to God. This disposition sometimes disguises itself under the name of peculiar spirituality, as if spirituality meant ghostliness, as if humanity had been carnality. But it is rebuked by the Spirit of God in the words, “If any man provide not for his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” The saving work of that Spirit is not to unman the man, but to restore the man whom sin has unmanned, in all his aspects, personal, domestic, social, and political, — to make him a true “man of God, . . . thoroughly furnished for every good work.” And the current history of the Sabbath question is well fitted to awaken all Christians from the indolent torpor of that real carnality which has assumed the aspect and usurped name of spirituality. For it has shown us that, were it only for the interest of their divine religion, Christians must now be up and doing their part as citizens of the nation.

The first political duty in this case is to ascertain the state of the civil law, or get it adjusted to the wants of our time. The Bible is the common law of every Christian country. The Ten Commandments, declared by the Confession of Faith to be a code of moral laws, are part of the statute law of Scotland. Of course the application of this divine law by the civil magistrate is limited by the principles of the Bible and the Confession regarding God’s sole lordship over the conscience, and Christ’s sole headship over the Church. But this limitation has nothing to do with ordinary systematic secular traffic, or pretends that to abstain from it would be a sin against God; no one imagines that in forbidding such traffic the magistrate would be invading the independence of the Church. But in such cases as that of Sabbath railways, it is doubtful whether the statute law of the Sabbath has not fallen into disuse. And it would be a good service to God and man to ascertain by some judicial process, whether the law of the land as it stands does not put it in the power of those who love the Lord’s Day to suppress the traffic, as not only a robbery of God and man, but a statutory offence against the Queen.

But the judges may possibly hold that so many years of Sabbath railway traffic have exempted this species of secular business from the control of the statute Sabbath law. And if it should be so, the question will remain, whether we ought not to agitate for a law that shall effectually suppress this nuisance; either wholesale, a Six Days’ Railway Act for Scotland; or, in detail, a clause prohibiting Sabbath traffic in the charter of every railway company.

This political aspect of the question ought to influence Christians in their choice of representatives, and dealings with their actual representatives in Parliament. There is no other national interest now at stake nearly so great as our interest in the Sabbath. And it is right and proper for every Christian citizen to see to it that those who represent him in the legislation of the country shall be “sound” on the great question of the weekly day of rest. Citizens should strengthen the hands of their magistrates, and see to it that they are faithful and uncompromising in the administration of the existing law for the protection of the Lord’s Day. And whether for the maintenance of existing laws or for the obtaining of new laws for Sabbath protection, Christians are bound to avail themselves fully of their constitutional right of public meeting and petitioning the legislature, so that the makers and administrators of our laws may have no room to doubt what is the opinion and feeling and wish of the serious Christian people of the land.

It is no real breach of logic to bring in under this head of political duties the duty of dealing by petition and remonstrance with railway proprietors. For if they really have by law the power of extending a Sabbath railway traffic over the country, they constitute a veritable “fourth estate,” and wield a formidable influence for good or evil to the nation as a whole. Whether they have this power de jure or not, they certainly exercise it de facto at present. In Christian prudence, therefore, we ought not to neglect them, but should endeavour, in every lawful way, to influence them in favour of that institution. Of course, in the event of our being met on their part by a cynical ungodliness, we are not only absolved from the obligation to approach them, but forbidden to approach them with any Christian memorial, by the law, “Cast not your pearls before swine.” We ought, therefore, to keep all Sabbath-trafficking railway companies fully informed regarding our conviction, that their traffic is in itself a sin.

(2.) There are ecclesiastical duties, to which Christians will do well to give heed. My remarks under this head may all be summed up in this one, — that Christians are now providentially called to be peculiarly faithful and firm in the administration of the discipline of the Church; i.e., in seeing to it that their ministers preach, and their members practice, the catholic doctrine of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day.

Under this head, I will say that the denial of the perpetual obligation of the Decalogue in general, and of the fourth commandment in particular, is a calamity. If that calamity had befallen the Church of which I am a minister, I for one would not stop short of bringing the heretic either to retraction or to deposition. And I would feel that I had a claim on the sympathy and support of all honest Christians in the Church. For a minister is not a licensed sceptic, with a commission to experiment on the credulity of his hearers; but a public officer, who has freely and deliberately undertaken to teach certain doctrines. If he do not believe these doctrines, no one asks him to undertake the office of teaching them. If he cease to believe them, and yet continue to cling to the office, he is simply a dishonest man. And if his Church allow him to retain her ministry while he denies her doctrine, she is a dishonest Church, and, at the same time, is consciously guilty of sending a wolf in sheep’s clothing to “feed the flock of God, which He has purchased with His blood.” Therefore I say that it is our public duty as Christians to see to it that our ministers teach the true doctrine of the Sabbath; or that, if they do not teach it, and much more if they teach a false doctrine, they cease to be ministers of ours. For if, while retaining our ministry, they teach a false doctrine, we, in the just estimation of God, are responsible for the consequences of their teaching.

At the same time, we ought to be peculiarly conscientious in seeing to it, that our members of churches do not scandalously offend against the Christian law of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day. When the ministers are loose in their doctrine, the members will be correspondingly loose in their practice. And this loose disposition may be regarded by some as a reason for corresponding looseness of church discipline. As well might they reason that where a fortress is strongly assailed, there it should be feebly defended. In reality, the prevalent looseness of doctrine and practice in relation to the Sabbath is a reason why we should be peculiarly firm and uncompromising in our discipline in relation to that institution of God. But we must distinguish between firmness and obstinacy, Christian law and ecclesiastical domination.

The Sabbath law is distinguished from the other nine commandments by expressly recognising the exceptional case of “necessity or mercy.” There is hardly a limit to the extent to which a Christian might conceivably be working on the Lord’s Day in the body while really resting in the spirit. We ministers do our hardest work on the Lord’s Day; and yet, if we be Christians, we really and fully enjoy the spiritual rest. And in the case of a slave in the primitive Church, under a pagan master, the outward rest of the Lord’s Day may often have been a thing utterly unattainable from the cradle to the grave, while yet, as often as the first day of the week came round, the man may have thrown himself, with all his heart and soul, upon the bosom of the Redeemer as the soul’s true rest and feast. In this respect the fourth commandment, as authoritatively expounded by our Lord, is obviously contrasted with the seventh or the ninth: there may be unlimited lawful occasions for working on the day of rest; but no occasion can justify adultery or false swearing. And this we must always keep in view in dealing with cases of alleged Sabbath desecration. We must remember that God has prescribed the exception in cases of “necessity and mercy”; that what is not necessary or merciful in one case may be in another; that there is no limit to the conceivable extent to which a sincere Christian, e.g., if he be a slave, may go on working on the day of rest; and that, therefore, the question whether this or that piece of Sabbath work is a breach of the Sabbath law is always a jury question of fact, and is not necessarily determined by the letter of the law.

Here, therefore, it may be imagined, is a backdoor of unlimited license of Lord’s Day non-observance. And here, certainly, for personal guidance, there is a very wide field of Christian casuistry. But for the practical purposes of church discipline, the guidance of God’s Word is amply sufficient. In our very complicated state of society, I do not know that we can safely or wisely be more precise and definite in our Sabbath legislation than our Westminster standards, which, declaring as the ordinary rule, that the “whole day” shall be devoted to religious rest, go on to state that the rule does not apply in cases of “necessity and mercy.” But this exception will amply suffice for our guidance in all really doubtful cases. When we remember that no one among us is a slave, that every grown man is his own master, we see that the number of doubtful cases must be really very small. And the question, Is this or that case a case of real “necessity or mercy”? may be very safely left to any jury of honest Christian men.

Such a jury we have in our kirk sessions, and, on appeal from them, in our presbyteries, synods and assemblies. Particularly, I value the judgment of a session, composed of Christian men, the elite of the congregation, who to an amount of Christian gifts and graces greater than is possessed by ordinary members of the Church, add a practical acquaintance with men and things not usually enjoyed by the minister. From personal experience in town and country, I have learned to regard the judgment of a really Christian kirk session on any such practical case as that of alleged Sabbath desecration, as being the best guide that, humanly speaking, we can hope to have in detailed matters of truth and duty.

It is therefore the ordinary duty of Christians, in reference to the Sabbath, to support the disciplinary judgments of the Church they belong to. There may be cases of real injustice perpetrated by a Church court — Humanum est errare — in which it may be the Christian’s duty to dissent from the judgment, and reclaim against it to Christ. But with reference to Sabbath observance in our day, Church courts are much more likely to be unduly loose than to be unduly stringent; Sabbath desecrators can easily get up a clamour for them, and against their judges, from the ungodly world; and, therefore, in all ordinary cases, what Christians have to do is to support the discipline of their Church against the ignorant clamour of a world “which lieth in the wicked one.”

2. Private duties. — Our Sabbatarianism is (falsely) represented as being essentially gloomy and ascetic. The Bible Sabbatarianism is essentially bright and festive. So is the Sabbatarianism of true Christians among us: it is a very common remark of theirs, that the Sabbath is the happiest day of their week. And in our present circumstances, it is their duty to show that it is so. I mean that Christians in their Sabbath day life should show on the face of their observance the glad festivity which fills their heart.

This remark does not need to be made with reference to their attendance on public worship; for even in their very attire they show that public worship is to them a festival; they do not wear sackcloth and ashes, but their best. But it may require to be made with reference to the Sabbath in the family. In Christian families, children are sometimes made to wear an aspect of gloom, or at least of something not joyous. And for this there is no reason in the nature of the Christian Sabbath. To children, there is nothing more fascinating than the Bible stories which Christian parents are most likely to make the theme of conversation on the holy day. The “psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs,” which Christian parents among us are most likely to add to the theologico-historical instruction, are things which our children will relish at least as much as their parents. In the nature of the thing, there is no reason why, to children, the domestic Sabbath should not be felt and remembered as a veritable festival. And to give our family Sabbath-keeping this festive aspect, we are peculiarly bound in our time, by the circumstance that the Christian Sabbath is sedulously misrepresented as an institution essentially gloomy and ascetic. But while seeking to be duly festive in the spirit of the Lord’s Day observance, the circumstances of our time demand that we should be peculiarly careful and conscientious in attending to its form.

The most important duty at present is to know and profess and defend the true principle of Lord’s Day observance, — the catholic doctrine of the fourth commandment, as being a law of nature preternaturally revealed. Those who deny the truth of human responsibility for belief will probably not admit that the recognition of that doctrine, though it should be true, is, properly speaking, a duty at all. But an authority whom Christians adore has taught us that we are responsible for belief as for all other rational actions.

And this duty is the most important duty of Christians at present with reference to the Lord’s Day. For, first, Christians are the “pillar and ground of the truth”; to hold up the truth, as the candlestick holds up the candle, is one leading office of God’s Church on the earth. And the truth, the principle of Lord’s Day observance, and not the mere form of observing it, is what is most openly assailed at present. But, second, this truth is given, not only as precious in itself, but for the practical purpose of securing the due observance of the day among the peoples. The truth which God has given for that purpose is, we may presume, perfectly adapted for that practical purpose; and anything less than the God-given truth is, we may presume, not perfectly adapted for that practical purpose; so that, we may presume, in order to a due observance of the Lord’s Day among the peoples, there must be known and believed “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” which God has given for that end.

Thus, as to the nature of the case, we have seen that the Ecclesiastical theory does not result in a real observance of the Lord’s Day at all, as an act of obedience to Christ as King of the Church; for the observance resulting from that theory is dictated by the mere wisdom of man. We had seen that the Dominical theory, though it result in an observance which is an act of avowed obedience to Christ, yet does not result in a real observance; because it does not result in —what is required by God’s Word — an observance which is an express and formal homage to Christ as God, — the God who gave the law on Sinai, and is the ultimate fountain of all moral law, including the moral law of the fourth commandment. Thus the Ecclesiastical theory immediately results in mere pharisaical “will-worship”; and the Dominical theory falls far short, at its best, of producing the due worship of God required by the Scriptures. Experience teaches that the sure, though it should be remote, result of anything short of the catholic doctrine will be the disappearance even of the due outward form of Lord’s Day observance among the peoples.

This might have been anticipated from the fact, that, generally speaking, the practical purpose for which low doctrines of the Lord’s Day have been advocated, is to justify a low practice of Lord’s Day observance. It might have been expected that in proportion as the moral law disappears to men’s apprehension in the firmament of positive revelation, in that proportion it ceases to be known and observed, ceases to be mirrored in the hearts and lives; and that, while the Ecclesiastical theory expressly denies the divine institution of the Lord’s Day, the Dominical theory presents the fact of that institution so shorn of its scriptural evidences, as to have no adequate hold for practical purposes on the understanding and conscience of the mass of men. But what we might thus have divined is impressively demonstrated by modern Church history.

I have said that while the whole catholic Church from the Reformation downwards has maintained the doctrine of the morality and perpetual obligation of the fourth commandment, yet the doctrine as held by her has assumed two forms, which may be described as respectively high and low. Thus, on the one hand, the Reformed (Calvinistic and Zwinglian) branch of the Reformation Church, having thrown off the bondage of the system of church festivals, and being thus free to embrace the true doctrine in its fullness, gradually rose to the high form of the doctrine as definitely declared by the Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Assembly. On the other hand, the Romish Church, and the Ritualistic Protestant Churches, having clung to that system of man-made festivals, were not free to accept the high forms of the doctrines — to accept the fourth commandment as prescribing only “one day in seven.” They have felt constrained to construe the commandment more vaguely and loosely, as prescribing only that some stated days shall be consecrated to religious rest, and leaving the question what days, to be determined by the Church.

And this lower form of the doctrine has borne appropriate fruit, in the “Continental Sunday” of Popish and Protestant countries; the Lord’s Day, set theoretically on the same foundation with the man-made festivals, has sunk along with them in practical observance to the level of a secular holiday with a sprinkling of religion (like holy water on a robber). On the other hand, the only communities in modern Christendom in which there has been realised in practice anything approaching to the ideal which is prescribed by every theory of the Lord’s Day, are those Puritanic communities in Europe and America which have earnestly embraced the catholic doctrine in the high form it assumed in the developed Calvinistic Church.

This historical induction impressively illustrates the practical importance of holding the Catholic doctrine in its high Calvinistic form. And at the same time it furnishes an a posteriori evidence of the truth and divinity of the doctrine in this form. For it may be presumed that the doctrine which God has revealed shall accomplish the practical purpose for which He has revealed it.

If, then, we would see the Lord’s Day duly honoured, and the peoples fully blessed by its observance in our time; and if we would leave to our posterity a heritage of Sabbath observance and consequent prosperity such as our Puritanic forefathers have transmitted to us; let us know, and believe, and profess, and defend that high Calvinistic doctrine of the Sabbath which was embraced and inculcated by them with such broad and far-reaching beneficent results: if we would reap as they have reaped, let us sow what they sowed — the seed of that doctrine which God has revealed in His Word.

And let us remember that the most impressive form of preaching the doctrine is the practice of it. In the experience of the modern Church, we have seen how a low doctrine tends to bear fruit in corresponding low practice. If we would have our children to become unconsciously imbued with the high doctrine, we must accustom them from infancy to the high practice, teaching them by precept and example to follow in the footsteps of the saints of old, under both Testaments, “Calling the Sabbath a delight, holy of the Lord, honourable.” And a thorough-going practice of the truth, like the practice of the Puritans and the primitive church, is that which will, next to God’s own Word, most impressively commend it to the acceptance of God-fearing individuals, families, and communities which have not yet attained to the God-given truth in its fullness of life-giving light. The most effective answer to the popular objections to the Sabbath prescribed by God’s Word is a due observance and enjoyment of that Sabbath by God’s people.


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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