The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath

by

The title of this essay is borrowed from a sermon bearing the heading by the esteemed American Puritan, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58).1 We borrow the title as a tribute to the scholar, teacher, and friend for whom this essay is written: first, because he has loved Edwards; second, because he too has loved the Sabbath Edwards loved.

The phenomenon of Puritanism has been aptly described as the history of an ideal. 2 An ideal hatched in the cell of a German monk, nurtured in a Swiss burg, and turned loose on an establishment directed by Elizabeth Regina. Puritanism’s basic design was the more thorough and complete reformation of the Church of England from the “rags of popery.” As such, the Puritans sought consistently to apply the Reformation’s fundamental article of authority: nothing is permissible in the church which does not have the sanction of the Scripture, either explicitly or by necessary deduction therefrom.3

Evangelical Puritans … insist wholly upon Scriptures as upon a sure ground; And of these I would we had many more than we now have.4

This regulative principle was refined on the fires of the Vestiarian controversy (1563-67).5 though its ore was embedded in the reign of Edward VI (1547-52).6 Apologists for the ecclesiastical establishment countered that anything was permissible in the Church of England which was not forbidden by the Scriptures and it was the custom of the church which determined what was permissible. 7

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign (1602), the “more precise sort” had applied their regulative principle not only to the question of cap and surplice, but to the questions of church government (presbyters not prelates), civil disobedience (the monarch is limited by the revealed will of God), the divine decrees (God determines the number of His elect; His choice is not made on the basis of foreknowledge of faith), and the Sabbath. It is imperative that the Puritan doctrine of the Sabbath not be isolated from the debate over the regulative principle.8 The Puritan Sabbath is a piece of whole cloth.

For the Puritan, the Sabbath was a perpetual, moral ordinance because God instituted it at the creation and republished His will on the matter at Sinai. For the Prelatic party, the Sabbath was a ceremonial and temporary custom of the Jewish church. For the Puritan, the Lord’s day was binding upon the Christian church because it was instituted jure divino. For the Prelatic party, the Lord’s day was an ecclesiastical custom binding only to the extent of establishmentarian dictates. For the Puritan, the Sabbath day was sequestered from the labors and recreations of the other six days of the week and devoted entirely to God. For the Prelatic party, Sunday was a day of worship and leisure, including “lawful recreations.” Puritans were consistent in the application of their regulative principle: the Lord’s day is required of Christians because it is divinely revealed as the New Testament Sabbath. The Prelatic party countered: the Lord’s day is not jure divino, but public worship may be conveniently observed on this day on account of the custom of the church.

Puritan sabbatarianism was also challenged from the extreme right. John Traske, Theophilus Brabourne, and the Seventh-day Baptists reduced the fourth commandment to a particular day, i.e., Saturday.9 The Puritans opposed these Seventh-day sabbatarians exegetically: the fourth precept enjoins only a proportion of time (one in seven), it does not enjoin a specific day (neither Saturday nor Sunday).

The Puritan Sabbath immigrated to New England with the Pilgrims.10 Without opposition from an inimical hierarchy, it flourished in the “new Canaan.” Nevertheless, the biblical basis for the Sabbath had to be made clear to succeeding generations. Jonathan Edwards, who stands squarely in the Puritan tradition, does just this in his sermon on the Sabbath.

In his list of theological questions (no. 76), Edwards asks, “How is it that the Sabbath is changed from the seventh to the first day of the week?”ll Citing proof-texts from the New Testament (I Cor. 16: 1, 2; Acts 20: 7), Edwards concludes “it is the mind and will of God, that the first day of the week should be especially set apart among Christians, for religious exercises and duties. “12 In view of the controverted positions, his rationale is clear. Antinomians reject all distinctions in days and hold neither the first day nor any other day to be God’s will.13 The Prelatic party of the seventeenth century regarded the first day of the week as a convenient ecclesiastical custom appointed by human tradition.14 The Saturday-sabbatarians agreed with the Prelatic position in maintaining that the decalogue prescribed a particular day, while differing from the Prelatic position on the immutability of the precept.

Edwards, as had Puritan theologians before him, noted the chief source of controversy in this entire matter. Was the first day of the week instituted jure divino as the Christian Sabbath? The evidence of I Corinthians 16:1,2 and Acts 20:7 was the strength as well as the weakness of the Puritan doctrine. That the early Christians gathered on the first day of the week was incontrovertible. But an explicit injunction for observing the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath was absent from the New Testament. Antinomians would argue: Christian liberty has released us from all observance of days. Prelatists would argue: the absence of explicit ratification of the fourth commandment in the New Testament is tantamount to abrogation of the Sabbath. Seventh-day adherents would maintain: the silence of the New Testament is explicit endorsement of the inviolability of the Saturday-Sabbath of the decalogue.

The absence of explicit New Testament repetition and ratification of the fourth commandment calls for the exercise of a justly famous principle of Puritan hermeneutics. The Westminster Assembly stated this rule as follows: “the whole counsel of God … is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture… .”15 In other words, implications drawn from Scripture are as much indicative of the will of God as express commandments. Edwards writes, “the mind and will of God, concerning any duty to be performed by us, may be sufficiently revealed in his, word, without a particular precept in so many express terms, enjoining it.”16

What “good and necessary” consequences may be deduced from Scripture to show that it is God’s will that the first day of the week be the Christian Sabbath? Edwards begins with the observation that God has revealed His desire that “one day of the week should be devoted to rest, and to religious exercises, throughout all ages and nations.”17 Consequently, setting apart one day of the week is moral.18

What, then, is a moral law: “Those laws whose obligation arises from the nature of things, and from the general state and nature of mankind, as well as from God’s positive revealed will …” are moral.19

From the nature of things, i.e., man’s creaturehood, it is apparent that some time ought to be set aside for the worship of the Creator. Thus, it is moral for God to require the separation of some time for His service. From the general state of mankind, i.e., that they are engaged in secular pursuits, it is appropriate that the time separated for the worship of God be fixed. Furthermore, one proportion of time would be more suitable than another (one day in seven would be more suitable than one day in thirty or one day in 365). Thus, it is moral for God to require a fixed and suitable proportion of time for His service. All this is reasonable, agreeable with human reason, even discoverable by human reason.20

From God’s positive revealed will, the inadequacy of human reason is demonstrated. The particular proportion of time to be set apart for the worship of God cannot be determined by reason (though, once revealed, it may be shown to be eminently agreeable to reason). This proportion is revealed in a positive manner by means of the example of God at creation:

… mankind should, after his example, work six days, and then rest, and hallow or sanctify the next following; and that they should sanctify every seventh day, or that the space between rest and rest, one hallowed time and another, among his creatures here upon earth, should be six days.21

Therefore, the proportion followed by God in the creation is morally binding for the sanctification of one day in seven. That which is apparent in exemplary fashion at the creation is renewed and ratified preceptively at Sinai. And the inclusion of the proportion one in seven in the decalogue renders this ratio “everlasting and of perpetual obligation.”22

Edwards has shown that the Sabbath commandment is both naturally moral and positively moral. Other parties to this controversy would disagree with the Puritan’s doctrine. Prelatic theologians would have followed their Puritan brethren in acknowledging some fixed and convenient time for the worship of God to be of the law of nature, but a positive morality for the proportion one in seven they would not grant. For the Prelatists as well as the Seventh-day sabbatarians, the positive morality of the fourth commandment was not a proportion, but a particular day, i.e., Saturday. Prelatists would argue that this was the ceremonial aspect of the precept, abolished in Christ; Seventh-day proponents would perpetuate the particular day. The Puritan doctrine was the mean between two extremes.23

Further confirmation of the morality of a weekly Sabbath is found in the eschatological portions of Isaiah (56; 58: 13, 14) and in Matthew 24:20.24

Having shown that a weekly Sabbath is moral and of the will of God, Edwards proceeds to prove that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath. The fourth commandment must be shown to be agreeable to this change, for the Seventh-day sabbatarians maintain that the commandment is unalterable for Saturday. Edwards again emphasizes that the precept enjoins a ratio of time, not a particular day.25 The particular day on which God began to create is unknown and unknowable, and thus the particular seventh from that day is unknown and unknowable. As a consequence, no particular day could be moral naturally. For precisely this reason, the fourth commandment does not assign a specific day as the Sabbath. Determination of the particular day necessarily awaited revelation by other means. From the time of the Exodus and the formal ratification of the old covenant, this determination was made through raining a double portion of manna on the day preceding the particular day intended to be set apart as the Sabbath (cf. Ex. 16).

The fourth command does indeed suppose a particular day appointed; but it does not appoint any. It requires us to rest and keep holy a seventh day, one after every six of labor, which particular day God either had or would appoint.26

The particular day was not known to the Jews by the fourth commandment. “The precept in the fourth command is to be taken generally of a seventh day, such a seventh day as God should appoint, or had appointed.”27 Manifestly, the first day of the week is as much one in seven as is the seventh day of the week. Therefore, the day of resurrection is as agreeable to the morality of the precept as is the day following the double portion of manna.

The change brought by the new covenant dispensation is not an alteration of the commandment; it is the alteration of “another law, which determined the beginning and ending of their working days.”28 God’s example is not a moral institution of work Sunday through Friday with rest Saturday; rather it is a moral institution of six and one, i.e., six days labor and one day rest. Thus, the New Testament makes no change in the moral substance of the commandment.

Next, Edwards produces biblical-theological evidence to buttress his arguments for the first-day Sabbath. The work of God in both the old and the new creation have been commemorated in the sanctification of a Sabbath.

We read that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and the church of old were to commemorate that work. But when God creates a new heaven and a new earth, those that belong to this new heaven and new earth … are to commemorate the creation of their heaven and earth.29

Since the gospel state is the state of a new creation, Christians ought , to “remember” this fact by a Sabbath. Thus, the fourth commandment is as much for the rest commemorating the new creation as it is for the rest commemorating the old creation. According to Edwards, this is the doctrine expressly taught in Hebrews 4: 10. Furthermore, the deliverance from Egypt is a type of the resurrection of Christ; if the former was commemorated by a Sabbath (cf. Deut. 5: 15; Neh. 9: 14), how much more the latter antitype? The day of resurrection was the day on which the Savior appeared to His disciples (John 20: 19, 26); it was the day He poured out His Holy Spirit (Pentecost was a Lord’s day, according to the Puritans); it was the day of worship (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:1,2). And it was even assigned a special name (Rev. 1:10).

God has clearly revealed, to every reasonable person, His will for the sanctification of one day to His service; for the sanctification of one day in seven; for the sanctification of whichever one day in seven He designates by some positive revelation. He has designated the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath by the resurrection of His Son from the grave. All objections that the gospel does not repeat the fourth commandment and thus implicitly repeals the Sabbath by its silence are irrelevant. A moral law once delivered is perpetually obligatory until expressly repealed. The silence of the New Testament is a confirmation of the Sabbath, not an abrogation thereof. Explicit testimony from the New Testament must be produced to show that the Sabbath of the decalogue is abolished.30 Absence of such testimony is a confirmation of the perpetuity of the Sabbath even though the particular day has been changed. So much for the morality of the Sabbath rest.

Puritan sanctification of the Sabbath day, i.e., those ways in which they set the Sabbath apart from the other six days of the week, has been popularly caricatured as a bore. The Puritan response would have been: what is boring about setting aside one whole day to delight in the Lord Jesus Christ; what is boring about sequestering one day to enjoy the sweet presence of Christ in public, family, and private worship; what is boring about sanctifying one day in teaching one’s children the way of salvation, in opening the Scriptures to them at home, in dealing tenderly, lovingly, personally with their souls;31 what is boring about setting aside one day to visit and pray over the sick, to comfort and relieve the poor,32 to sit beside the lonely, to minister consolation to the bereaved, to join in warm fellowship with other Christians?33 The joyful spirit of the Puritan on the Lord’s day was due to his participation in the eschatological fulfillment available inaugurally in the Lord of the Sabbath:

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shalt honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father… (Isa. 58:13,14).

And his spirit rested in hope of the consummation – the eternal Sabbath face to face with his Lord. His Sabbath keeping was a testimony to the world that he was a pilgrim – in the wilderness, between Egypt and Canaan. As long as he sojourned, he would sanctify a Sabbath; for his rest had been inaugurated in the victory of the Lamb, yet he awaited the consummation beyond the Jordan in the heavenly Canaan. Would that God would reveal to His pilgrims today what the Puritan pilgrims so clearly understood.

Chapter Notes

      1.   Jonathan Edwards, “The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath,” in The Works of President Edwards (New York: Leavitt & Allen, 1854), IV, 615-37.

      2.   M. M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939).

      3.   On the Puritan principle of authority see Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), p. 27; Knappen, op. cit., pp. 354-66 (but without his pejoratives). Also see the excellent survey of the question from the theological standpoint in William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967-reprint), pp. 31-39 with his Historical Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1870), I, 64-73.

      4.   Comment of Sir Francis Hastings, MP, during a debate over a bill urging attendance at church on the sabbath (sic!) in Sir Simonds D’Ewes, The Journals of All the Parliaments, During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (London: John Starkey, 1682), p. 683.

      5.   On this argument over the cap and surplice (vestments) see Collinson, op. cit., pp. 67-96, and Patrick McGrath, Papists and Puritans Under Elizabeth I (London: Blandford Press, 1967), pp. 86-96.

      6.   Cf. lain Murray, “Scripture and ‘Things Different,”’ in Diversity in Unity (papers read at the Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1963), pp. ,15-35.

      7.   This is the famed via media of the Church of England. Her apologists are often called Prelatists on account of their defense not only of this principle, but of prelacy (episcopacy) as a form of church government. Cf. “The Puritan Doctrine of the Sabbath,” The Banner of Truth 147 (Dec., 1975), 6-14.

       8.   On the whole question see my unpublished Th.M. thesis, “The Puritan Doctrine of the Sabbath in England, 1532-1700” (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1973).

       9.   For these viewpoints, see my thesis, pp. 70-72, 79-82, 141-166.

      10.   Cf. the sabbath views of their pastor, John Robinson, in his Just and Necessary Apology 1625) in Works (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1851), III, “Of Holy Days,” pp. 43, 44; “Of Sanctification of the Lord’s Day,” pp. 46-54.

      11.   The list is in vol. III of the edition of his Works cited in note 1 above, pp. 554-56. Question 75 reads: “How do you prove that the institution of the Sabbath is of perpetual obligation?”; question 77 reads: “How do you prove that public worship is to be celebrated on the Sabbath?” Thus, Edwards’ sermon is a formal answer to his own inquiry.

      12.   Edwards, Works, IV, p. 616.

      13.   The proponents of this view regard the fourth commandment as ceremonial in toto and thus abrogated in toto by Christ. John Saltmarsh was an able representative of the antinomian “every-day-is-a-Sabbath” view; cf. Sparkles of Glory (London: 1648), pp. 195-97.

      14.   The classic proponents of this view wrote during the Episcopal administration of Archbishop William Laud (1633-39). They were: Francis White, Peter Heylyn, Christopher Dow, Gilbert Ironside, and David Primrose (for details, see my thesis, pp. 92·115). Principle arguments of this school were: the Sabbath is not a creation ordinance; the fourth commandment is not equally moral with the other nine precepts since it prescribes the Saturday-Sabbath; that the fourth commandment is chiefly ceremonial is proved by the abrogation of the seventh-day Sabbath; the first day of the week is agreeable to the natural morality of the fourth commandment (i.e., that some convenient time be set apart for worship), but only by human law-the first day of the week is not jure divino.

      15.   Westminster Confession of Faith, I, vi. See the excellent discussion of this section in B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (Cherry Hill, N. J.: Mack Publishing Co., 1972-reprint), pp. 226, 227.

      16.   Edwards, op. cit., p. 617.            

      17.   Ibid., p. 618.

      18.   In the Puritan exegesis of the fourth commandment, it is the proportion that is the immutable moral substance of the precept. “… the words of the fourth command do not determine which day of the week we should keep as a Sabbath; they merely determine this, that we should rest and keep as a Sabbath every seventh day, or one day after every six” (ibid., p. 622).

      19.   Ibid., p. 620.

      20.   Seventeenth-century Puritans subsumed these conclusions under the heading moral-natural, i.e., moral by the light or law of nature, or simply moral. As such, this is also a part of the revelation of God, i.e., the fourth commandment expresses God’s will that a time, a fixed time, a suitable proportion of time be set apart for His worship. Thus, what reason (even fallen reason) apprehends as agreeable and suitable is confirmed by revelation.

      21.   Ibid., p. 619.

      22.   Ibid.

      23.  The extremes held much in common, however. Both Prelatists and Seventh-day Sabbatarians believed the fourth commandment enjoined Saturday. Both rejected the Lord’s day as the New Testament Sabbath. Both believed that the Lord’s day was not jure divino. As Edmund Warren aptly put it, the Seventh-day Sabbatarians have “… no game to play but what the Anti-Sabbatarian Prelatists have played and lost before… . Only one card more, which was none of their pack.” The Jews Sabbath Antiquated, and the Lords Day Instituted by Divine Authority (London: 1659), p. 205.

      24.   This much-debated text was interpreted by the Puritans as a prediction of the Sabbath in apostolic times. Edwards writes, “It is plainly implied in the words of our Lord, that even then (A,D. 70) Christians were bound to a strict observance of the Sabbath” (ibid., p. 622).

      25.   “The words of the fourth commandment afford no objection against this being the day that should be the Sabbath (i.e., Sunday), any more than against any other day, That this day, which, according to the Jewish reckoning, is the first day of the week, should be kept as a Sabbath, is no more opposite to any sentence or word of the fourth command, than that the seventh of the week should be the day …” (ibid.).

      26.   Ibid.

      27.   Ibid., p. 623.

      28.   Ibid.

      29.   Ibid., p. 624.

      30.   Puritan exegesis of Col. 2:16 (cf. Rom. 14:5;  Gal. 4:10) found the apostle condemning the superstitious observance of the Jewish (Saturday) Sabbath, not the moral one-day-in-seven Sabbath of the decalogue (cf. Thomas Shepard, Theses Sabbaticae (1649) in The Works of Thomas Shepard (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1853), III, p. 77.

      31.   This is a reference to the Puritan custom of catechizing their families Sabbath afternoon; cf. Edwards’ practice, Works, I, pp. 27, 30.

      32.   This is a reference to the Puritan custom of distributing the funds of the deacons to the poor on the Sabbath.

      33.   Puritans found three types of work lawful on the Sabbath in imitation of the practice of the highest authority of all, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord of the Sabbath customarily went to the synagogue for public worship (Luke 4: 16); He performed works of mercy and charity in healing the sick (John 5:1-18, etc.); He performed works of necessity (Matt. 12:1-8). Little time remained for recreations (which the Puritans regarded as lawful on the other six days), even though their use was contrary to the sanctification (set-apartness) of the Sabbath.


The Rev. James T. Dennison, Jr. received a B.A. from Geneva College, and his B.D. and Th.M. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He has served as librarian and lecturer at Westminster Theological Seminary, California, and is the editor of Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary.

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