Sundays, Sabbaths and Legalism

Yesterday, I wrote about the decline of the Sunday evening service. This was in response to some discussion about it on social media. In that conversation, one person shared a link to this article which seeks to set out a Biblical basis for attending both a morning and evening service.

I wonder what you make of it?   Personally, I thought it was horrendous. It completely fails to provide us with a Biblical case for Sunday evenings at all. Instead we are offered a ton of legalism mixed in with a good dose of eisegesis.

Eisegesis is when we read our own ideas and views into Scripture (from the Greek word eis – into) as opposed to exegesis (from ex – out of) where we seek to draw out meaning and application from the text.  We can fall into his trap when we allow our particular doctrinal statements, confessions and theological frameworks dictate our understanding of Scripture.

The writer here starts with a particular view of Sunday. I’ve seen it described as “The Reformed view of the Lord’s Day.” In fact, it arises out of one specific Reformed approach, that found in the Westminster Confession. I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of the Westminster Confession’s position on the Sabbath here. In fact, I’m pretty sympathetic to it overall. However, I want to draw your attention to the problematic interpretation that it leads the author to here.

The gist of the article is that the Christian Sunday replaces the OT Sabbath as a day of rest fro  normal work. This rest is expressed through corporate worship, participating in the Lord’s Supper and teaching from God’s Word. Whilst some people see Sunday as distinct from the OT Sabbath, there isn’t really anything much controversial here. However the author goes on to say:

“Why should we apply this regularity to both morning and evening on Sundays, though? Although we are free from the ceremonial and civil laws of the old covenant, there are still principles that we derive from those legal codes that still apply to us today. So, although our worship does not look like old covenant worship, the principle abides that God instructed the people how to worship which means God cares about how we worship and that we should worship in the way that he commands, now according to the New Testament.”

That’s where he runs into difficulties because in order to prove his point, he takes us to Exodus 29:38-39 which says

38 “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old day by day regularly. 39 One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight.”

Well, that looks like a slam dunk doesn’t it? Well perhaps not. You see, first of all, as with problematic approaches to baptism, if the author was correct and OT texts about sacrifices could be used to provide a pattern for Sunday worship, then they might also provide proof texts for all other kinds of things. If we follow the Old Testament in that kind of way, then we might end up concluding that proper Christian worship is only present when we ensure that we attend Word Aliv ein the Spring, Keswick in the summer and the FIEC leaders conference in the Autumn to properly follow the OT pattern of gathering in one place for the big festivals. Now whilst the organisers of such events may be delighted to welcome more people next year, I suspect that they wouldn’t want it to be on the basis of such faulty exegesis.

Here’s the second problem. Look again at the text in context. What do you notice? First of all you will spot these words in verse 38 “day by day regularly.Moses isn’t setting out a pattern for weekly Sabbath observance. He is telling the priests what they are to do on each day of the week.  Look again and you will see that the context to this command is the consecration of the priests for service. In fact, it seems reasonable to me to read verses 38-39 in conjunction with v35-37 which speaks of a specific time-period of 7 days being set aside for this consecration.

The author has taken a text, ripped it out of its context, dropped some crucial words and then sought to apply it in a way that was never intended. We don’t accept this kind of behaviour from prosperity teachers. We should not allow it to be smuggled into our teaching simply because it appears to support something we agree with.

There is no way that any reasonable person reading the whole text, carefully and in context might conclude that it has anything to do with Sunday evening services. It’s spurious arguments like this designed to foist legalism on people that backfire.  It’s harder to encourage people to engage faithfully with the life of the church when they associate what we are encouraging with this kind of argument.

Now, this brings me to the heart of my concern here.  The problem of legalism. Back to conversations about legalism, I was asked what I considered legalism to be. Is it legalistic to insist that God’s Law requires believers to gather for worship? Or does it only become legalistic when we insist that they must attend twice.

First of all, legalism is not about insisting that God commands things or that the OT Law has no application at all today because we are under grace. Resistance to such a view is rather at odds with the NT and referred to as antinomianism.

It is clear that the New Testament does include a call to obey God’s commands. Jesus talks about the New Commandment to love one another. He instructs his followers to go and make disciples. These disciples are to be taught to obey everything that Jesus taught. Paul in Ephesians 6 grounds his instruction to families in the commandment to honour your parents. This also implies that we should pay serious attention to the rest of the Ten Commandments.

Therefore, I believe it reasonable to identify two related commands which have implications for Christians, the command to rest on the seventh day and the command in Hebrews 10:23-25

23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Legalism is not to do with calling people to obey Christ’s commands. Indeed, one thing I’ve learnt is that God’s law is always more compassionate and full of grace than our attempts at mercy.  Rather legalism is about two things.  It is about adding to what God requires of us, going beyond his clear word and it’s about misunderstanding the purpose and tone of God’s commands.

This means that we fall into legalism when we add additional commands or additional detail to the commands. This is one of the things that the Pharisees where doing in Jesus’ day. They took the Old Testament Law and added requirements to it.  It also includes placing people under obligations that they are no longer under such as the attempt to impose circumcision and kosher laws on Gentile converts when the New Covenant meant that these obligations were on neither Jew nor Gentile.

It also means that we fall into legalism when we see rule keeping as necessary or central to salvation both in terms of how we come in and how we stay in. That was the problem with Pelagianism and then with the semi-pelagianism that the medieval church fell into.

Then there are the ways in which we misunderstand the purpose and tone of commands. I recently looked at the example of Psalm singing.  Despite what some people think, there isn’t a direct stand alone command in the New Testament to sing the OT Psalms. There is a command to be filled with the Holy Spirit and there is a description of how the consequences and evidence of this will include psalm singing.

When thinking about The Sabbath, we do well to see the call to draw near and to keep meeting together as a generous and wonderful invitation. Jesus said that the sabbath was made for man and not vice versa.

So, when thinking about Sunday attendance, it is helpful to consider whether or not our appeal and exhortation both arises out of and is seen to arise out of grace or legalism.  I intend to return to how we can do this well in a future post.

For more on grace and legalism see The Grace Driven Life -a series of short talks

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