Monday, October 10, 2011

Fashion, Form and Faith


Jeff Pollard, Christian Modesty and the Public Undressing of America. San Antonio: The Vision Forum, Inc., 2005. 74 pages.
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
One of the women in our congregation picked up this small book at a national Women in the Church Conference for the Presbyterian Church in America. I suppose that there are many books that may be considered “must-reading.” This book, however, is one of those rare volumes that may threaten to turn your thinking upside-down on the subject that it addresses. It is my hope and prayer that it does, since Pollard challenges practices that have become ordinary, not only in the world, but in the Church.
What makes this little book so powerful is that it takes most of the subjective element away from defining standards of dress that are pleasing to God. This does not mean that the author argues for one style of clothing for every time and every place. It also does not mean that he provides a list of modern attire that is acceptable, and another list of attire that is not. He has not idealized any age in the history of the world as a standard. The true strength of this book is that, rather than taking the practical effects or temptations presented by various styles of clothing as his point of departure, he begins by demonstrating from Scripture that from the day that clothing was invented by God, He designed it to conceal human bodies rather than reveal them. The terms used in Scripture demonstrate that God has always clothed his people from the neck to the knees.
Every great book that deals with biblical ethics does not provide an exhaustive list of applications, but it gives us clearly established principles that provide the criteria that is necessary for critical thinking. Because he has done this, in the first chapter the author has noted the fact that some shall consider his work “legalistic,” while others shall consider it to be too vague. Both of these accusations reflect a shallow perspective on Christian ethics that negates thought. One option requires no thinking at all, and the other requires someone else to do all of your thinking for you.
In addition to his strong biblical arguments, Pollard provides invaluable historical evidence (particularly in chapter 5) to the effect that clothing manufacturers, along with the entertainment industry, have intentionally eroded the remnants of a once-biblical standard of modest dress. He has not rested his arguments upon the historical evidence, but upon the Scriptures. Nevertheless, it is eye-opening to uncover the philosophy that lies behind these changes. It should not surprise us that the philosophy that has shaped the modern fashion and entertainment industries are anti-Christian. We live in a world that is under the sway of the Evil One (1 Jn. 5:19). If anything is widely accepted in a sinful society, we should assume that there is something wrong with it. In this case, something is dreadfully wrong.
The primary issue that Pollard has placed a discomforting focus upon is the issue of swimwear. The conclusions of his book are not limited to the issue of swimwear, but the author has used this single issue in order to illustrate what is at root a basically unbiblical attitude towards clothing in general. By the end of the book, he has addressed matters related to style, clothing that accentuates the form, and most importantly, proper motives for selecting clothing that honors God. It is a strange anomaly in our society that a woman may walk down the street in her underwear and be arrested, yet she may walk onto the beach in “clothing” that is almost identical to her underwear, and it is considered “normal” (and if you take refuge in the “modest” one-piece suit, Pollard shall not let you escape either).
I must warn you that although the position presented in this book has always been associated with biblical Christianity, it is about as common in the modern Church as the great doctrine of justification by faith alone was when Martin Luther was born. My challenge to you is to read this book, to pray over its contents, and to digest it. It is easy to dismiss arguments simply because they are used to criticize practices that no one questions. It is easy to dismiss a position with terms such as, “strict,” “legalistic,” “old fashioned,” or “impractical.”  It is one thing to vilify someone or something with labels (which our society loves to do). It is another thing entirely to demonstrate that the Scriptures that have been misunderstood in the attempt to establish a position.
Pollard’s biblical evidence is a force to be reckoned with. The subject matter in this book is too important to dismiss, ignore, or left to collect dust upon a shelf. We should neither be afraid nor surprised by the fact that the Scriptures often require us to adopt radically different beliefs and practices than those that have been integrated into every level of our society. After all, we are Christians. Christians have no right to submit themselves to any other master than the Lord Jesus Christ. Like the apostle Paul, we must remind ourselves that if we still seek to please men, we cannot be bondservants of Christ (Gal. 1:10).

Children at the Lord's Table?


Cornelis P. Venema. Children at the Lord’s Table: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009. 183p.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Someone once said that that the strength or weakness of any theological system can be determined by its treatment of the sacraments. In the doctrine of the sacraments, virtually every branch of a theological system is put to the test and harmonized in one of its most practical expressions. Most believers who have come to the Reformed faith have struggled with the theology of the sacraments at some point. Questions arise such as: What is the relationship between the Word and the sacraments? What does it mean that the sacraments are an “effective means of salvation?”  How are the sacraments seals? Yet the question that troubles all at some point is: Who are the proper recipients of the sacraments?
Cornelis P. Venema’s, Children at the Lord’s Table?, is a clearly written and thorough response to paedocommunion, or the practice of admitting children to the Lord’s table based solely upon their membership in the covenant community. Too often it is the case that those who embrace paedobatism reject paedocommunion upon shaky grounds. Advocates of paedocommunion have ordinarily constructed an argument in favor of their practice similar to the defense of paedobaptism. Therefore, paedobaptists who reject paedocommunion by citing the command for self-examination in 1 Corinthians 11, are challenged with the fact that in the case of adults, faith and repentance are required prior baptism without invalidating the baptism of covenant children.
The strength of Venema’s book is that in seven chapters he takes the arguments in favor of paedocommunion seriously and presents them in their strongest form before providing a thorough refutation. After introducing the nature of the question, chapters two and three trace the practice of paedocommunion through church history and the major Reformed paedobaptist confessions. Chapter four assesses the assertion that in the Old Testament, all circumcised children participated in Israel’s feasts, culminating in the Passover. Chapter five addresses the New Testament teaching about the Lord’s Supper in light of the words of institution, the Book of Acts, and what it means to feed upon Christ by faith from John six. Chapter six contains an exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, which, as Venema contends, is the only New Testament passage that speaks directly to who should participate in the Lord’s Supper. The last chapter summarizes Venema’s observations and illustrates the manner in which contemporary debates over the “Federal Vision” and other aberrations in covenant theology have often clouded the debate over the nature and proper recipients of the sacraments. All of this is followed by a useful appendix on Covenant Theology and Baptism, which has been reprinted from another publication.
Venema cuts the heart out of the case for paedocommunion by demonstrating that the entire household was not required to participate in Israel’s feasts. At the first Passover, the entire family was required to participate in the feast. Those in favor of paedocommunion often argue that holding children back from the Lord’s Supper until they are able to make a public profession of faith declares that they are cut off from the covenant, even as those who did not participate in the Passover were liable to the Lord’s judgment. However, Venema clearly demonstrates that in the subsequent observances of the Passover, the adult males alone were required to attend and participate in the feast. This implies that children who did not participate in the feast were not cut off from the benefits of the covenant. This clearly demonstrates that the demand for children to come to the Lord’s Supper based upon the pattern of the Passover is entirely unjustified.
Once the Old Testament case for the participation of children in all of the privileges and obligations of the covenant has been dismantled, the foundation of paedocommunion has been demolished. When we ignore the covenantal arguments posited by advocates of paedocommunion by a naïve appeal to 1 Corinthians 11, we must recognize that they are justified in accusing us of the same error committed by Baptists in rejecting infant baptism. Since Venema has removed the arguments from the covenant first, his discussion of 1 Corinthians 11 appears in a different light.
The only downside to this useful volume is that Venema is unnecessarily repetitive, if not redundant. In the beginning of every new section, he re-states material that was presented only a few pages before using virtually the same words. It is even common for him to make a statement in the beginning of a paragraph and then repeat the same statement at the end of the paragraph! If all of the redundant material were excised from this book, its size would be reduced considerably. That being said, the arguments set forth in this book are theologically sound, rooted in careful exegesis of Scripture, fair to the opposing viewpoint, and, as a result, clear, satisfying, and convincing. This book is an indispensable tool for pastors, parents, and churchgoers with regard to their overall understanding of the sacraments.
____________
The preceding review was originally published in The Puritan Reformed Journal.

Science Fiction, Entertainment, and the Warrant for Belief: An Exercise in Popular Apologetics

By Ryan M. McGraw
Entertainment is never neutral. Human beings cannot set their hands to any task without communicating something of the world and life view that serves as the underpinning for their entire way of thought and life. This is not always a conscious process, but whether intentionally or not, the television and entertainment industries are inundating their audiences with a world and life view that, at its best, undermines and, at its worst, is openly hostile to the world and life view presented in the Scriptures. I do not pretend to be naïve enough to assume that all Christian families adequately reject the pressure to immerse themselves in popular entertainment. What concerns me deeply (even beyond this sad reality) is that popular entertainment has a tendency to indoctrinate many professed believers with challenges to the biblical world and life view that they are not equipped to deal with.[1]

A Popular Scenario

As a case in point, consider the theme of the last two seasons of the popular science fiction show, “Stargate.”  This show was so popular that it went through ten seasons, and it has spawned two daughter programs. In the last two seasons of “Stargate,” the team of heroes faces a new group of enemies. These new enemies possess unspeakable power that can hardly be resisted, and they demand that all human beings worship them. In exchange, devout followers or “believers” are promised “ascension” to a higher plane of existence (which in the story amounts to a form of deification), while all unbelievers must be destroyed (ie, annihilated). In order to back their claims, these new enemies (who, by the way, are incorporeal or purely spiritual beings) send “missionaries” to perform “miracles” as proof of the power of their “gods” and as sufficient grounds to warrant belief in them and submission to their power and authority. These beings not only claim to have been responsible for the creation of humanity, but the “good guys” in the story accept this claim as an undisputed fact. As it turns out, these powerful beings were once human themselves, but through a process of evolution combined with human ingenuity and the powers latent within the human brain itself, they ascended to become the powerful god-like figures that they are. The heroes of the show, never once doubting the power or superiority of these ascended beings, boldly respond to their evidences and demands by asserting that miracles, displays of unimaginable power, and being the creators of other beings does not give anyone the right to demand that the will of those whom they have created should bow down to them. On a popular level, this is the scientific community’s way of saying to Christians (and to any other religions that they mistakenly place in the same category with Christianity): “Let’s say that that your that God is the Creator of all, and that the miracles that he has done to prove his claims are true. So what?”[2]
Several assertions are implied in this story: 1. Gods gain their powers from their worshipers. If there is a “god,” he is the creation of man and his power is only as great as the number of people that worship him. The show assumes that there is no such thing as a “god” unless he is given his powers by man or is in fact a projection of man himself. 2. All miracles can be explained in terms of either technological advancements or the innate power of the untapped resources of the human mind. The result is that all people without exception have the potential to possess the “power” of the “gods.”  3. The status of creator demands some degree of respect, but being the creator of a people is not sufficient to demand worship, devotion, and service from them. The reason is that gods of this kind are altogether the same as those whom they have created. There is no Creator-creature distinction, and in due time, the creatures shall themselves become creators. Is it any wonder that the apostle Paul describes fallen human beings as worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever (Rom. 1:25)?
How is any of this relevant to the beliefs of contemporary society at large? After all, is it not merely science fiction? Interestingly, the plot of the show simultaneously serves as a polemic for atheistic science as well as the modern attraction to mystic religions that are currently in vogue. The point of commonality is that both atheistic science and mystical religion (such as the New Age religion) offer deification for man. According the world-view of “Stargate,” if there are any “gods,” man is entirely autonomous, his will is bound by no one, and the possibilities of what he is able to achieve are limitless. Mankind is not bound by omnipotence or humbled by omniscience, but rather through his limitless capacity for evolution and self-improvement, man achieves omnipotence and omniscience: it is simply a matter of enough time and effort.

Some Questions

The scenario presented above is not original to “Stargate,” but its basic philosophical underpinnings lie at the heart of every expression of the non-Christian world-view. In light of this, if a Christian watches a program such as this one, he or she is forced to come to terms with the question: “What grounds are sufficient to warrant belief and to demand worship and submission to divine authority?”  “Stargate” has provided an answer to this question that represents the most genuine expression of the principle of autonomy that lies in the heart of fallen man: “The are no sufficient grounds to warrant belief and to demand worship and submission to divine authority.”  How should the Christian respond to this challenge?
The proper answer to this question can be summarized by considering separately the role of miracles in substantiating the biblical world-view, and the rights possessed by God as our Creator. First, are genuine miracles sufficient to warrant belief in the God of Scripture and submission to his authority? Not necessarily. The miracles of Christianity must never be separated from the message of Christianity. When Philip arrived in Samaria, Simon Magus had gained the ear of the people by awing them through his magic arts. “And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time” (Acts 8:11). Simon Magus could easily have posed as one of the representatives of the powerful beings from the narrative in “Stargate.”  Philip came with his own miracles and even Simon was amazed when he saw them (v. 13). However, what drew the Samaritans away from Simon to the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not a contest as to whose miracles were better, “But,” we are told, “when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized” (v. 12). As important as miracles were in substantiating the message of the Gospel (Heb. 2:1-3), the miracles of the Bible can never substantiate anything if they are detached from the content of the message that they were designed to substantiate. In a similar connection, Jesus himself depicted Abraham as telling the rich man in hell that if his brothers did not first believe Moses and the prophets, then they would not believe even if they saw someone raised from the dead (Lk. 16:29-31). This is closely tied to the second question with regard to the rights possessed by God as the Creator of all.
Second, if Christians prove that there is a god (“a god,” not the God) that created the universe, is this a sufficient ground to demand submission to his authority? Again, not necessarily. You may immediately object: “Do not the Scriptures call us to worship and bow down before the Lord because he is our Maker (Ps. 95:6; 100:3)?”  This is true, but we must never dissociate the fact of creation with the character of the Creator. In other words, it is vital to ask what kind of Creator we are talking about. If the creator is himself a creature (as in “Stargate”), then the authority and respect that he deserves is necessarily limited. In a sense, every human father is partly responsible for the existence of his children, yet who would conclude from this that every human father has the right to worship and to unquestioning obedience from his children, merely because he is the source of their life? The fact that he is a father demands a measure of respect, honor, and even admiration. Even in this case, however, if the God of Scripture did not exist, the question should be asked why children should honor their parents at all, even if they are partly responsible for the existence of those children? Who says that those who “create” life deserve honor from their “creators” if there is no greater authority than “common sense” and human reason to say so?
The only message that is able to bind mankind with full and absolute authority and to warrant unwavering belief is the message that comes from God as He is revealed in Scripture.
A Few Practical Observations
First, beware of being inundated by popular culture, especially through means of popular entertainment. In the early fifth century, Augustine astutely observed that entertainment was the fastest and easiest way to change the thought and lifestyle of an entire culture. This thought pervades the early part of his City of God. The greatest weapon of Satan in the context of the popular culture of an unbelieving society is the gradual inundation and indoctrination of people with the anti-Christian world-view by means of entertainment. In the case of “Stargate,” I do not believe that the assault upon biblical Christianity is overt, or possibly even intentional. In an interview, the director stated that the only overt message he intended in the show was that no one has the right to murder innocent people because they will not accept their religious beliefs (directed at Islam perhaps?). This illustrates the fact that most people do not view themselves as being in direct opposition to the God of Scripture. This makes popular entertainment even more deadly and subversive to believers. In popular culture, you are not simply being presented with random beliefs and bits of information, some of which is “innocent” fun, and some of which you must reject as out of accord with your Christianity. If you submerge yourself in entertainment (especially through popular television), then you are likely undergoing a subtle shift in your thinking all the way across the board. After all, you are being presented with a philosophy of life, including its own epistemology, ontology, teleology, metaphysics, and resultant system of ethics. It does not matter whether this philosophy dons the garb of atheistic science, mystical religion, or anything in between. I do not doubt that that being inundated by anti-Christian philosophy via television, movies, and novels has been used by Satan as a primary cause of doubts for many believers as well as outright apostasy among others. The righteous must choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked shall lead him astray (Prov. 12:26). Somehow we have assumed that although bad company may lead us astray, bad television and bad movies shall have no negative effects upon our thoughts and behavior.
Second, beware of being entirely oblivious to what our culture is being indoctrinated with. We must always avoid that which is in itself immoral, but I have noticed that some believers are genuinely shocked when they discover what the average person in our culture believes. Sometimes the changes that God has brought about through sanctifying His people is so great that the pattern of unbelieving thought becomes so foreign to them that it seems incredible that anyone should think in such a manner. This is a virtue in many respects, and praise be to the Triune God if this is the case with you! Yet a danger arises when a naïve Christian is suddenly brought face to face with someone who does not think like a Christian and he or she finds himself or herself caught off guard and unprepared to give a reason for the hope that is in them (1 Pet. 3:15). Sometimes part of the problem is a complete unawareness of how the natural man thinks and why he thinks the way that he does. This does not mean that believers should indulge in the popular lust for entertainment in the name of being “in touch” with the world around them. If we are honest with ourselves, do we not often tend to pervert the mandate that we must live all of life to the glory of God into justifying ourselves in doing what we want to do? If we must make a choice, it is better to be out of touch with our culture than to be absorbed into our culture and conformed to it before we know what has happened.
Third, our greatest tool in defending the Christian faith is the content of the Christian faith itself. The reason for this fact is that just as the presentation of a coherent pagan philosophy teaches people to think in terms of that philosophical system, so the Christian world-view is an alternate (actually, antithetical) and all-encompassing philosophy of reality. It is too often the case that the Christian (biblical) philosophy is subjected to criteria that other philosophies are not. For example, Plato refuted the philosophical systems of his opponents and replaced it with his own, yet no one accused him of “fideism” or of having no grounds to believe in his system. Well, actually, I do accuse Plato of having no grounds to believe in his system of philosophy, but that is due to the fact that apart from the fundamental presupposition of the God of Scripture, no one has any foundation upon which to believe in anything. The Christian philosophy of reality, by contrast to other systems of thought, has the advantage of being unique and, ultimately, the only genuine alternative to non-Christian thought, whatever form it may take. The supreme strength of the Scriptural world and life view, however, lies in the fact that the Holy Spirit bears witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man (Westminster Larger Catechism Question 4). In a sense, this is why the preaching of the Word has “worked” over the centuries in bringing sinners to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The world-view presented in the biblical system of thought is sufficient to warrant faith in the God of Scripture through his Son Jesus Christ. This is nothing less than saying (as Paul did) that the Scriptures are sufficient, or “able,” to make one wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:16-17). As Owen pointed out in his Reason of Faith, there is neither a hint nor a command in the New Testament that in order to convince the non-believer, we must first gather a host of extra-biblical data and historical evidence before people have warrant to believe in the divine authority of the Bible. For instance, when the apostle John wrote his gospel, he expected that what he wrote was sufficient in itself to bring sinners to faith in Jesus Christ. This does not mean that we do not seek to convince the non-believer of the truth of the Bible, but as the material above illustrates, it means that if we do not begin with deeper and underlying questions (i.e., our presuppositions), then all the evidence in the world will not be able to offer a proper challenge to unbelief.
The longer someone sits under the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the more they are inundated with answers to questions of ontology, epistemology, cosmology, and every other branch of philosophy. In other words, sitting regularly under the preaching of the Word is the reverse principle of sitting regularly at the feet of popular entertainment. The difference is that the biblical philosophy is internally coherent and consistent, whereas the unbiblical philosophy in whatever form it presents itself always falls under its own weight. Yet the Spirit of God never blesses the Christian message because it is a philosophy of life, but because it is the will of God as revealed in Scripture. Therefore, do not meet the non-believer on their own ground, but drag them (kicking and screaming if necessary) onto yours. The fact that the non-Christian has presupposed that the God of the Bible does not (even cannot!) exist is sin and their part, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince the world of sin (John 16:8-9).
This scenario presented by the last two seasons of “Stargate,” though fictional, is a realistic representation of the type of thinking that believers must be prepared to deal with. This illustration demonstrates that the primary point of conflict between Christianity and non-Christianity is not a matter of evidence, but rather it is a matter of the world-view that provides the backdrop for interpreting the evidence. The carnal mind is enmity against God (Rom. 8:7) and unless the principle of autonomous rebellion that is lodged in the dark recesses of the heart of man is addressed, we shall always fall short of presenting a genuine challenge to all that he thinks and does. In addition, we shall fail to confront him convincingly with his need for the Gospel. As the philosophy behind “Stargate,” which is representative of much of popular entertainment, demonstrates, the most basic presupposition of man since the Fall is that man is the measure of all things. If you would stand against the assaults of Satan and stop the mouths of those who are in opposition, you must self-consciously, and unashamedly, begin with the principle that the God of Scripture is the measure of all things.


[1] I wrote this article some time ago and decided to leave it “as is” in the hope of being useful, rather than never letting it see the light of day because I do not have time to add the footnotes. I do not intend this to be a “scholarly” article as much as a popular analysis of culture. Rather than filling this article with footnotes, I would rather alert the reader at the outset to my own biases. At the risk of being grossly misunderstood, I hold to what has been called Van Tillian Presupositional Apologetics. By presuppositional, I do not mean that Christians should not argue for their faith with non-believers, but that we insist that in a fallen world, mankind begins all thinking with one of two presuppositions. Either we presuppose the Triune God of the Bible as the necessary foundation to knowledge, being, purpose, ethics, etc., or we presuppose (as Adam and Even did in the Garden) than man’s autonomous reason is the unconsciously assumed presupposition of each of these same areas. This paper hopefully illustrates to some extent what this method looks like, without getting into extended controversies over apologetic methods. My primary influences are Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahsen (on Van Til), Scott Oliphant, and (strange as it may sound to those of a different apologetic persuasion) John Owen.
[2] Cornelius Van Til often made the point that if a Christian succeeded in demonstrating that the miracles of the Bible, such as the resurrection of Christ, were true, this would not demand faith in Jesus Christ from the non-believer because he would import his own understanding into those miracles, leaving his fundamental world-and-life-view untouched. In a way, the premise of a television program such as “Stargate” vindicates Van Til’s assertion that beginning with the historical evidences of Christianity is incapable of overthrowing the system of unbelieving thought that is ingrained into man’s heart. He must be challenged at the more basic level of his fundamental presuppositions before he is able to receive and understand the miracles of the Bible in their proper light.

Principles of Sabbath Keeping: Jesus and Westminster (1)


By Ryan M. McGraw

Not all corrective lenses help all people see clearly. A prescription that helps one person see may blur the vision of another person. The truths of Scripture are similar in some respects. Biblical truths do not change regardless of whether people understand them properly or not, yet one person may come to understand what the Scriptures say on a subject through one set of arguments, while another person finds an entirely different set of arguments convincing. Isaiah 58:13-14 is all that is needed to convince some people that “the Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 60-61). However, even though some do not believe that the catechism answer reflects a proper interpretation of Isaiah 58 (which is perhaps the locus classicus of debates over Sabbath keeping), it is possible to come to the same conclusion regarding the purpose of the Sabbath from other biblical principles.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the principles of Sabbath keeping set forth in the Westminster Standards are demanded by the principles upon which Jesus and his apostles interpreted and applied the Law of God. These principles demonstrate that the entire Sabbath should be set apart for the purposes of public and private worship in thought, word, and deed. The general characteristics of the Law of God combined with the New Testament application of the sixth commandment shall serve as a “template” for how to apply the fourth commandment. This approach to establishing biblical principles of Sabbath keeping will help bring clarity to the issue by placing Sabbath keeping within the broader context of the biblical and Reformed model of the relationship the attitude that those who love the Lord Jesus Christ should have towards the Law of God.[2]
Biblical Rules for Interpreting the Law
General Considerations
There are both general and specific considerations that are important in order to interpret the Law of God properly.[3]  Generally speaking, the Law of God is a reflection of the character of the God himself. The Law is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12). It is a mirror that reveals the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law on behalf of his people (Rom. 8:3-4). When we sin against the Law, we do not sin against an impersonal list of abstract principles, but we sin personally against God himself by violating the reflection of his own holy character. Loving the Law of God and loving God are inseparable. This is a vital point because it means that the moral Law is an eternal and immutable standard. Whoever is indifferent to the Law of God is indifferent to the God of the Law. Most people do not realize that they are sinners and that their carnal or unconverted minds are at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7) until they are confronted with the Law of God.[4]  To despise God’s Law is to despise God. Moreover, Jesus Christ was born of a woman and made under the Law so that he might redeem those who were under the curse of the Law (Gal. 4:4-5). Therefore, the Law is not only a reflection of the character of the God who is the Creator, but it is a reflection of the God who took on human flesh and obeyed the Law on behalf of his chosen people. As Walter Chantry observed, “The life of our Lord Jesus Christ was the first biographical inscription of the Moral Law.”[5]  Those who love God because Christ first loved them and gave himself for them, cannot help but love his Law because the Law bears the imprint and image of the God and Savior whom they love.
The fact that the Law is a reflection of the character of God also means that the Law of the Lord is as perfect as the Lord of the Law (Ps. 19:7). God demands allegiance from man in every respect: in body, in soul, and in all of man’s faculties. This means that the Law of God, which is summarized in the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:22), is a perfect standard for righteousness. There is no aspect of life – whether with regard to outward actions, words, and gestures, or “the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul” (Larger Catechism 99.2) – that the Law of God does not address. This is why the Psalmist, while meditating on the nature of the Law of God wrote, “I have seen the consummation of all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad” (Ps. 119:96). No one shall ever be able to say in this life that they have ceased from sin (1 Kings 8:46; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20; 1 John 1:8-10).  This applies even to those who have been redeemed from the power of sin by Jesus Christ. Until believers enter into the presence of the Lord in heaven, the holy and perfect Law of God is the path that has been paved for them to express their love to God through Jesus Christ. God has no other standard than his own holy character, which is reflected by his Law. The rule for God’s children is that they must be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1). Although Christians are neither condemned nor justified by the Law, and though they shall keep it imperfectly at best, they are, by definition, those who delight in the Law of God according to the inward man (Rom. 7:22). The Law of God is an inflexible standard of righteousness and that the implications of the commandments of God are far reaching. Additionally, because Christ has taken away the condemnation of the Law, the Law of God is the “perfect Law of liberty” (James 1:25) and has become “the Law of Christ” (Rom. 3:30).
A Specific Example
In general, the commandments of God reflect the character of the God who gave them, and the obedience demanded by those commandments reaches man’s inmost being as well as all of his actions. This has important implications for understanding and applying each commandment in particular. The best place to learn how to understand and to apply the commandments of God is from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Jesus Christ has given a useful pattern for interpreting and applying the Ten Commandments in his exposition of the sixth commandment, which is, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13).[6]  Each commandment is designed to serve as a “subject heading” or category, “That,” as the Westminster Larger Catechism summarizes, “under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto” (Larger Catechism 99.6). For this reason, Jesus contradicted the traditional Jewish interpretation of the sixth commandment, which relegated its observance to the outward act of murder (Matt. 5:21). Jesus added several qualifications, demonstrating that the meaning of the Law of God stretched far beyond the common understanding of his Jewish contemporaries. First, he demonstrated that this commandment forbade unjustified anger in the heart just as much as murder with the hand: “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (v. 22). Not only does God take seriously the breach of the sixth commandment in the heart, but he regards our speech in this commandment, for, as Jesus added, “And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (v. 22b).
The significance of the next scenario to which Jesus applied the sixth commandment may not be immediately apparent. In verses 23-24, he said, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  The word “therefore” not only demonstrates that these verses are connected with the preceding teaching about the sixth commandment, but that they are legitimately concluded from that teaching.[7]  In other words, reconciliation with a brother is a necessary part of keeping the sixth commandment. What is in view here is a man going to the temple with his gift in order to worship God. At the very foot of the altar, he remembers that he has a brother who is holding something against him. Reconciliation with his brother is so urgent that the man must temporarily delay worship in order to be reconciled to his brother first. The text does not say whether or not the complaint of the brother is legitimate; apparently it does not matter. The truth implied in these verses is that the sixth commandment demands appropriate actions towards others when they violate the commandment. Jesus did not teach anything new or surprising here. This concern had already been expressed in the Old Testament: “Deliver those who are drawn towards death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘surely we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does he not know it? And will he not render to each man according to his deeds?” (Prov. 24:11-12). This example reveals an important key to understanding the commandment: it is not good enough to be concerned with keeping the commandments of God without respect to how one’s neighbor keeps it. The negative commandment, “You shall not murder,” implies a positive requirement to preserve the lives of others, and to do all that is in one’s power to prevent anything that may cause them harm.
Building upon these principles, the Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the teaching of Scripture on the sixth commandment by stating that this commandment requires “all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others,” and that it forbids “the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto” (Questions 68-69). Those who are tempted to object that this conclusion stretches the intent of the commandment must recognize that Jesus Christ expected his contemporaries to apply the Law in light of similar principles. Outward acts of murder are the highest expression of violating the sixth commandment. Unjustified anger is murder in the heart because it is out of the heart that murders, adulteries, and other abominable crimes proceed (Matt. 15:19). Malicious speech harms a neighbor, and belongs to the same genre of crimes. That the positive duty of the commandment is to pursue the things that tend to preserve the lives of others is reflected by the fact that believers must seek to remove all participation in the sins of others against the sixth commandment, even when it involves sins of the heart. James went so far as to accuse some of violating the sixth commandment by showing favoritism to the rich and despising the poor (James 2:5-13). These are only a few examples of how people may keep or break one commandment of God in varying degrees. Truly the commandments are exceedingly broad!  Jesus’ use of the sixth commandment treats the Ten Commandment as a system of classification, under which every application of the Law of God should be placed. As Calvin noted, “In each commandment we must investigate what it is concerned with; then we must seek out its purpose.”[8]
Plugging the Fourth Commandment into the Equation
If Jesus and his inspired apostles serve as a model for how the Law of God should be interpreted and applied (and if the Church cannot appeal to their example, to what example can she appeal?), the fourth commandment must be understood and applied in a manner that is in harmony with this model. First, the Sabbath is both positive and negative in scope; it contains requirements as well as prohibitions. Second, the Sabbath must be observed and can be broken by outward actions in respect to both requirements and prohibitions. Third, the Sabbath must be observed and can be broken in the heart. Fourth, the Sabbath must be observed and can be broken through speech. Fifth, the Sabbath must be observed and can be broken by actions towards and relationships with other people. If the first two of these categories are combined, then the principles of biblical Sabbath keeping can be summarized under four headings.
What are the Basic Commands and Prohibitions of the Fourth Commandment?
The first thing to observe about the fourth commandment is that keeping it is primarily concerned with direct acts of love towards God. It is not that the first four commandments of the Law have nothing to do with man’s relation to his neighbors, but rather that these four commandments deal most directly with man’s relationship with God. No one can keep the Sabbath, therefore, unless he loves God through Jesus Christ. Only then shall he exercise that love by keeping the Sabbath accordingly. This is not the same thing as simply acknowledging God in thoughts and prayers while engaging in the daily business of life. In that sense, the saints can love God by loving their neighbors and by going to work. As John Murray astutely observed, “While it is true that we ought to serve the Lord every day and in all things we must not forget that there are different ways of serving God. We do not serve him by doing the same thing all the time. If we do that, we are either insane or notoriously perverse. There is a great variety in human vocation. If we neglect to observe that variation, we shall soon pay the cost.”[9]  The first four commandments address the love that people must have for God himself, which is the foundation of their relationship to anyone or anything else in the world. This is brought out clearly by what is required in the fourth commandment.
It has become common to treat cessation from labor or rest as the positive and summary requirement of the fourth commandment.[10]  However, “in it you shall do no labor,” is the prohibition of the fourth commandment rather than requirement. The positive and summary requirement is, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”  For this reason, Robert L. Reymond has observed, “‘Rest’ cannot mean mere cessation from labor, much less recovery from fatigue. . . . ‘Rest’ then means involvement in new, in the sense of different, activity. It means cessation of the labor of the six days and the taking up of different labors appropriate to the Lord’s Day. What these labors of the Sabbath rest are is circumscribed by the accompanying phrase, ‘to the Lord.’  They certainly include both corporate and private acts of worship and the contemplation of the glory of God . . .”[11]  Just as dedicating an object or person as holy to the Lord set apart that object or person exclusively for the worship of God, so the Sabbath, as a holy day, must be set apart for the purposes of worship.[12]  “In it you shall do no labor,” is a prohibition added by God as a necessary pre-requisite to keeping the day holy. No one can love a man unless he first stops hating him in his heart. Similarly, no one is able to keep the Sabbath until he ceases from ordinary labor. Thomas Shepard, who founded Harvard University, wrote”
The word Sabbath properly signifies, not common, but sacred or holy rest. The Lord, therefore, enjoins this rest from labor upon this day, not so much for the rest’s sake, but because it is a medium, or means of that holiness which the Lord requires upon this day; otherwise the Sabbath is a day of idleness, not of holiness; our cattle rest but a common rest from labor as well as we; and therefore it is man’s sin and shame if he improve the day no better than the beasts that perish.[13]
The word order in the title of John Owen’s work on the Sabbath reflects this in a significant manner. The abbreviated title is, “A Day of Sacred Rest,” as opposed to, “A Sacred Day of Rest.”[14]  The Sabbath is not a sacred day that is observed by resting. The Sabbath is a day on which the characteristics or quality of the rest is sacred.
Any interpretation of the fourth commandment that makes cessation from labor the sum and substance of the commandment is not in harmony with Jesus’ manner of applying the Decalogue. No commandment of God contains a prohibition only. If a requirement is not stated in any commandment, it is always implied. Prohibiting labor cannot stand by itself without a corresponding positive requirement. Those who interpret the fourth commandment purely in terms of avoiding weekly employments end up with only a mutilated half-Sabbath. This is like a man who clears land to prepare to build a house and thinks that his work is done without laying the foundation. The outward actions required by the fourth commandment are attending the public and private exercises of God’s worship. People cannot keep the Sabbath unless they “keep it holy.”  The positive requirements of the Ten Commandments must always govern the Church’s understanding of the prohibitions, not vice versa. The only reason why labor, or any activity, is prohibited on the Sabbath day is because it contradicts the positive purposes of the day. Labor is the greatest example of what is prohibited in the fourth commandment, but labor is not the only example of what is prohibited in the fourth commandment. The command to keep the Sabbath day holy excludes “worldly recreations” as much as “worldly employments” because the holiness of the day does not consist in recreations. This does not mean that recreation cannot be “holy” on other days in the broad sense of the term, but the holiness required in keeping the Sabbath requires setting the day apart from common uses to holy uses.  If we must observe a prohibition and a requirement in the sixth commandment, then we must observe a prohibition and a requirement in the fourth commandment. “Rest” and cessation from labor are synonymous expressions. If we rest on the Sabbath day, then we have obeyed part of the prohibition of the commandment, but how do we “keep it holy?”
How Should Christians Observe the Fourth Commandment in their Hearts?
Just as the sixth commandment is violated by unjustified anger in the heart, so the Sabbath can be violated in the heart. It must be sanctified in the heart by calling the Sabbath a delight (Is. 58:13) through loving the day and the activities of the day. For a believer, the highest delight of the Sabbath should be celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who inaugurated the New Testament Sabbath on the day that he rose from the dead. What is more conducive to worship and joy? If the duties of the day become a burden and Christians cannot wait until the Sabbath is over, they are guilty of Sabbath breaking. The Israelites committed this sin in the days of the prophet Amos. They said, “When shall the New Moon be past, that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath that we may trade wheat?” (Amos 8:5). If people cannot wait for the Sabbath to be over in anticipation of any activities that they prefer, then they are violating the Sabbath day. Should believers not love the one day that is specially designed for worshiping their God and Redeemer? Sadly, few people are willing to give much attention to the disposition of the heart in keeping the Sabbath. If our hearts do not rest upon the glory of God and his worship, then the praise of our mouths on the Lord’s Day has become forced hypocrisy. Like the depiction of the “worshiping” Jews in the last book of the Old Testament, we effectually say, “O what a weariness!” (Mal. 1:13). Even from the standpoint of ceasing from weekly labors, can we genuinely say that we are resting from our labor when we do so with our bodies only on the Sabbath, but not with our hearts? If we must keep the sixth commandment in our hearts, then we must keep the fourth commandment in our hearts.
How Should Christians Observe the Fourth Commandment in their Speech?
The Sabbath must be kept in word as well as in the heart and in outward actions. The more God’s people grow to love the Sabbath day and its purposes, the more naturally this shall come to them. If believers occupy their time with the worship of God in the corporate assembly, in the family, and in private, as well as with edifying conversation with his people, it is impossible that their speech shall not correspond to what is in their hearts. They shall rejoice in their hearts that they have nothing else to concern them on the Lord’s Day. Our speech shall often betray us. If we are not at work on Sunday and we attend church, enjoying fellowship with our brethren in Christ, but we speak predominantly about what is happening at the office, or about our favorite sporting events, how can our hearts be in our Sabbath keeping? If a Christian’s body is where it should be on the Sabbath, but his or her mind and mouth travel abroad, his or her bodily presence is more like that of a corpse than of a living, worshiping soul. On the contrary, the speech of God’s people on the Sabbath should be filled with the glories of their God and his worship.
Some things that are lawful and appropriate topics of conversation on other days of the week become signs of apathy and disregard for God glorious presence on the Lord’s Day. If spiritual conversation proves difficult even for genuine Christians, the Sabbath is the best occasion for them to grow in this area. If you object that you struggle with material for conversation, then consider what materials you have to glean from the preaching of the Word in corporate worship. Is it not part of our calling as believers to seek the profit of others in all that we say and do? If we must keep the sixth commandment in our speech, then we must keep the fourth commandment in our speech.
How Does our Sabbath Keeping Relate to Other People?
In what respect must God’s people exercise care and concern for others in their Sabbath keeping? If all people must keep the Sabbath, they must not encourage their neighbors to violate the Sabbath.[15]  According to Jesus, if a brother has something against you, you must do all that is in your power to be reconciled to him so that neither of you are guilty of violating the commandment not to murder. In a similar manner, if your neighbor is working on the Sabbath, then the least that you can do out of love to his soul is to avoid giving him your business. If you hire others to break the commandments of God for you, then you have still broken them. If you hire someone to kill another person, then you are guilty of murder. If you hire someone to steal something you them, then you are guilty of theft. If you bribe someone to act as a false witness in a courtroom, then you are guilty of perjury. This principle of keeping the law in relation to others is not required by Scripture alone, but even the laws of modern secular society recognize that this is a necessary moral implication of law. Is it not strange when the Church does not apply this to Sabbath keeping? Is it not strange when Christians do not hesitate to hire pilots and flight attendants to break the Sabbath for them? Is it not strange when believers hire waiters and waitresses to break the Sabbath for them? Is it not strange when God’s people hire attendants at gas stations and cashiers at grocery stores to break the Sabbath for the sake of their convenience? Can we in good conscience invite these people to attend church to hear the gospel, when perhaps we have skipped worship in order to hire them to help us travel that day, or when we leave worship early in order to beat the line at the lunch buffet? Can we call them to repentance and to sincere faith in Jesus Christ while we are in the act of hiring them to break one of the King’s laws? If we must keep the sixth commandment in relation to others, then we must keep the fourth commandment in relation to others.

Summary Observations

The pattern that the Son of God has provided in order to interpret the commandments of God demands that the Sabbath requires much more than cessation from labor. Too often the fourth commandment has been interpreted in such a manner that it can be kept in perfection with relative ease. Is it not easy to think of the fourth commandment with regard to outward actions only, with little regard to keeping the day holy in heart, speech, and with respect to others? Yet is this not the very problem Jesus was confronting when he expounded the sixth commandment in the Sermon on the Mount? Any interpretation of any of the commandments of God that gives the impression that it is possible for sinners to keep them is suspect at best. It has become common in Reformed churches to interpret the fourth commandment in a manner that is out of accord with the way in which all of the rest of the commandments have been interpreted.
In light of Jesus’ principles of interpreting and applying the Law of God, believers must come to terms with several questions. If you say that the prohibition is, “You shall do no work,” and that the requirement is, “rest,” then what kind of “rest” does God require? It cannot be inactivity; therefore, what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy? If you do not break or keep the Sabbath by thoughts about your employments and recreations, then how else can you apply this commandment to your thoughts? If you cannot break the Sabbath by speaking about labor and recreation, then how is it possible to break it in speech at all? Yet if you do not speak about these things, then which subjects of conversation do you replace them with? If you do not believe it is a sin to support the labor of others on the Sabbath day, then how does your Sabbath keeping relate to your neighbor? These are questions that we must come to terms with. Unless other viable answers are supplied from Scripture, what better conclusion is there than this: “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by an holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days, and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so far as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy,” as well as by avoiding, “unnecessary thoughts, words, or works about our worldly or recreations?” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 60-61).  Can this conclusion be averted without implying that Jesus misinterpreted the sixth commandment? May the Church reassess how she interprets and lives according to the Law of God, and may she love the Law out of love to her Savior!


[1] Most of this material has been adapted from chapter 7 of my The Day of Worship: Re-assessing the Christian Life in Light of the Sabbath (Forthcoming, Reformation Heritage Books).
[2] Some of the most helpful recent works on Sabbath keeping are: Robert L. Reymond, “Lord’s Day Observance,” in Contending for the Faith: Lines in the Sand that Strengthen the Church (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 165-186; Joseph A. Pipa, The Lord’s Day, Geanines House, Fearn, Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1997; Iain D. Campbell, On the First Day of the Week: God, the Christian, and the Sabbath, Leonminster, UK: Day One Publications, 2005; and Rowland S. Ward, “The Lord’s Day and the Westminster Confession,” in ed. Anthony T. Selvagio, The Faith Once Delivered: Essays in Honor of Wayne R. Spear (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007.
[3] For an excellent treatment of the interpretation of the Law, see the introductory chapters of William S. Plumer, The Law of God, Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1864, reprint, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1996. I am greatly indebted to Larger Catechism Question 99 throughout this article.
[4] Jonathan Edwards wrote: “The strictness of God’s law is a principle cause of man’s enmity against him.”  Jonathan Edwards, “Men Naturally God’s Enemies,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (orig. pub: n.d., reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), vol. II, 133.
[5] Walter Chantry, God’s Righteous Kingdom (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980), 78.
[6] Since my purpose in this article is not to give a full defense of the Reformed view of the Law, but simply to establish principles that should be used in interpreting and applying the fourth commandment, space does not permit a full defense of these principles. For the most part, I am only able to identity and describe them. For a detailed and powerful exposition of the principles set forth here, see John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), 157-167.
[7] Ibid., 162.
[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeil (  , vol. I, 375. Book II.8.8.
[9] John Murray, “The Sabbath Institution,” in The Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), vol. I, 209.
[10] For example, see Robert Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2007), 284, fn 4, who wrote: “The sole goal of the weekly Sabbath is rest.”
[11] Reymond, 181.
[12] See chapter 1 of my Sabbath Keeping. Contra Jay E. Adams, Keeping the Sabbath Today? (Stanley, NC: Timeless Texts, 2008), 89, 91. See Vaholz, Leviticus, 278-281 for a useful treatment of holiness.
[13] Thomas Shepard, Theses Sabbaticae (Orig. pub., 1649, reprint, Dahlonega, GA: Crown Rights Book Company, 2002), 254.
[14] John Owen, A Day of Sacred Rest, in, An Exposition to the Epistle to the Hebrews (orig. pub. N.d., reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), vol. II, 263-460. This is an outstanding and powerfully argued work that has not been outdated.
[15] There is an excellent example of this in Nehemiah 13, which I have treated at greater length in chapter 1 of my Sabbath Keeping.