Gospel and the Sabbath

Themes of the gospel portrayed in the heartbeat of the Sabbath

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and a consulting editor of Ministry.


I accepted Jesus as my personal Saviour at the age of 8 or 9. The gospel had an overwhelming impact on me, and its power liberated me not only from what I considered great sins but also my fears and apprehensions. The forgiveness experience was so real that I did not hesitate to share Jesus with my friends, teachers, and neighbors. Observing Sunday faithfully, I went to church in the morning and the praise hour in the evening. Although our pastor's sermons, delivered in thunderous tones, were often boring and sometimes frightening, I never missed a service.

Then one summer a young evangelist pitched his tent in our town—and preached hitherto-unknown truths, such as prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, the soon coming of Jesus, the conditional immortality of the soul, tithing, and the Sabbath. Each truth leaped from the Bible, and nothing he preached went unsupported by the Scriptures.

Thus it was I chose to join the first seventh-day Sabbathkeeper—God. I had known Him before, but now it seemed as if I knew Him more fully. Immediately I be came the laughingstock of my friends and an object of scorn for my Anglican pastor. "You are a legalist, a slave to the law, and you can't have the joy of the gospel," he said. Never had he suggested any such thing when I observed Sunday just as faithfully.

Some 42 years later I can confidently say that I may have been a fool in the Pauline sense, but certainly not a legalist. My fellow ship with God increased, not decreased, be cause I chose to follow Him, His Son (Luke 4:16), and His apostles (Acts 13:14, 42) in keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. The joy of the gospel has only increased with my discovery of Sabbath. I could embrace the gospel as fully as ever and keep the seventh day holy without losing the joy of freedom or succumbing to the perils of legalism.

I say this for four biblical reasons: (a) the Sabbath tells me who I am; (b) the Sabbath reminds me that Jesus died for my sins; (c) the Sabbath provides me fellowship; and (d) the Sabbath points to my eternal rest in God.

The Sabbath gives me identity

Let us begin at the beginning: "And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation" (Gen. 2:2, 3).*

The seventh-day Sabbath shows that God is my Creator. A scientist may say I am "an accidental collocation of atoms." 1 A philosopher may trace my life to a first principle. A poet may say that life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."2 But the truth is that I am made in the image of God, and the Sabbath continually reminds me of that magnificent fact. It invites me to enter into God's rest, even as it invited Adam and Eve. Sabbath is to join the Creator in celebrating the joy of life and to recognize forever that life comes not as a result of our work but as a gift of God's grace.

As Barth says: "[Human] history under the command of God really begins with the gospel and not with the law, with an ac corded celebration and not a required task, with a prepared rejoicing and not with care and toil, with a freedom given to him and not an imposed obligation, with a rest and not with an activity.... The first divine action which man is allowed to witness is that God rested on the seventh day and blessed and hallowed it. And the first word said to him, the first obligation brought to his notice, is that without any works or merits he himself may rest with God and then go to his work."3

The One who made us also made the Sabbath. He rested on it. It was not a day of drudgery, but one of delight, an experience of supreme joy that can come only when one communes heart-to-heart with one's Creator. Adam and Eve along with "the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7), and bowed be fore their Creator in worship and adoration on that first Sabbath.

Could worship, praise, adoration, and fellowship be anything but a joyful experience—acknowledging the sovereignty of the Creator on the one hand and our identity as members of God's family on the other? Nowhere is this relationship between Sabbath and joy, between obedience to God and delight of the soul, stated more eloquently than in Isaiah 58:13,14: "If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own plea sure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

This passage is addressed to God's people. They did not become God's people because they were keeping the Sabbath. They were God's own because God had created them and chosen them. To acknowledge that choice, to cement the relationship that arises out of it, God calls upon us to keep the Sabbath. Thus Sabbath is no legalistic stricture. It is a point in the line of time through eternity to remind us continually of our special relationship with God. And it is "a delight in the Lord."

Sabbath reminds me God is my Redeemer

Sabbath not only gives me identity, but reminds me that I am part of God's re deemed family. When we Christians recite the Ten Commandments, we normally be gin with the words "You shall have no other Gods before me" (Ex. 20:3). But the Jews do it differently. They begin with the prologue from verses 1 and 2: "And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

Note the difference. God did not choose Israel because they were good people, obeying God's law. No, God chose them out of His mercy, out of His love and grace. When they were slaves in Egypt, when they were no people, when they had no dignity, God remembered them, redeemed them, and made them His own. To protect that close, reconciled, redeemed relationship, He gave them the law as an expression of His eternal moral nature, and He invited them to become part of His family. There is no legalism here; only liberty—eternal liberty, initiated and preserved by His grace alone.

Thus the Ten Commandments are principles outlining God's redemptive lifestyle for the human race. The fourth commandment, in a way, is unique. It charges God's people to "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8), for in six days the Lord completed the work of creation "and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it" (verse 11). Six days are there to do our work, but when the seventh comes around, it is time to remember that we are not our own. We belong to the Creator and the Redeemer. "The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization"4 and experience the mystery of God's commonwealth.

If Exodus provides Creation as the reason for Sabbath observance, Deuteronomy supplies a complementary reason: "You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day" (Deut. 5:15).

Sabbath observance is a continual and clear reminder that we are not our own. God created us. He sustains us. And when we are in an Egypt of our own, experiencing sin's oppression, loneliness, despair, drudgery, and death, we need the "mighty hand" and the "outstretched arm" of God. The breath of God created us; the blood of Christ re deems us. Both mighty acts are to be remembered by the keeping of the Sabbath.

Sabbath provides fellowship

Sabbath is also a day of fellowship and worship, when God's family comes together in an absolute sense of unworthiness before their Maker. Christians are reminded of their unity and equality in Christ. "Before God's throne," writes Ludwig Koehler, "there will hardly ever be a greater testimony given on your behalf than the statement, 'He had time for me."'5

The Sabbath commandment is a great leveler of people: the son and the daughter, the manservant and the maidservant, the stranger within the gates must all be blanketed by the rest of the Sabbath. Thus "the Sabbath," says Heschel, "is an embodiment of the belief that all men are equal and that equality of men means the nobility of men."6 Is this human equality not what the gospel also proclaims (Eph. 2:11-16)?

We cannot observe the Sabbath without taking seriously the social responsibility that comes with it. Worship is not enough; fellowship must follow. We must become responsible for our neighbors. One Jewish writer states the truth superbly: "The uneven divisions of society were leveled with the setting of the sun. On the Sabbath there was neither banker nor clerk, neither farmer nor hired-hand, neither mistress nor maid, neither rich nor poor.... The carriage driver could not be ordered to wait for his master outside the synagogue to drive him home after the services; instead, both prayed together, both wore the talit."7

Did not Jesus Himself point to this social obligation of life in His Sabbath sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-19)? He observed the Sabbath "as His custom was," and He pointed out that such observance has meaning only as it is bonded "to preach the good news to the poor," "to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind," and "to set at liberty those who are oppressed."

Sabbath points to eternal rest

On Sabbath we cease all work, reaffirm our self-abandonment, come to God in total surrender, and enter into His rest. This entering into His rest is symbolic of entering into the eternal rest that Hebrews speaks about: "There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God" (Heb. 4:9).

The continuation from the present to the future, from current reality to future hope, must not be missed. Just as surely as the kingdom of grace and the blessings of salvation are a present experience and a future anticipation, so are the blessings of Sabbath a present experience and an indication of the future entry into rest in God's kingdom of glory. In that light Isaiah's prophecy takes on a special meaning: "For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord; . ..

from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me" (Isa. 66:22,23). Thus the Sabbath links the joy of today with the hope of tomorrow; it is a day that celebrates the gospel and acknowledges God's sovereignty. As Karl Barth says, it points to "the God who is gracious to man in Jesus Christ.... It points him away from everything that he himself can will and achieve and back to what God is for him and will do for him."8

Embracing the gospel and observing the Sabbath

But is insistence on Sabbath observance—particularly the biblical seventh day—legalistic? Can biblical insistence on a particular lifestyle—compassion, love, going the second mile, the Beatitudes—be legalistic? The answer is yes and no and is de pendent on the motivation. A legalist keeps the law or follows a particular lifestyle as a way of salvation. But no amount of keeping Sabbath or any other commandment can save a person. Salvation is possible only through the gospel of Jesus Christ, for "it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith" (Rom. 1:16). "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8).

Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the law because He healed on Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11; Mark 3:3-6; John 5:1-16; etc.), and Jesus' answer in each case was consistent with the meaning of Sabbath, that it was a day to bring glory to God and not to indulge in self. The miracles of Jesus showed the real purpose of His coming: to restore and re deem life. The Pharisaic obsession was legalism; the attitude of Jesus was grace in action. Ellen White has said it well: "God could not for a moment stay His hand, or man would faint and die. And man also has a work to perform on this day. The necessities of life must be attended to, the sick must be cared for, the wants of the needy must be supplied. He will not be held guiltless who neglects to relieve suffering on the Sabbath. God's holy rest day was made for man, and acts of mercy are in perfect harmony with its intent. God does not desire His creatures to suffer an hour's pain that maybe relieved upon the Sabbath or any other day."9

Christian discipleship is not achievement of a moral status, but the reception of Christ's calling; it is not moral perfection, but an abiding in Him. It is a love relation ship with Jesus. Once that abiding is established, fruit follows as a natural course. The principle is a simple one: first love, then its fruit; first grace, then obedience. Obedience does not produce love; love produces obedience. Obedience does not bring about forgiveness; grace does that. Any attempt to distort the order inevitably leads to legalism. And in rejecting legalism, any bid to deny obedience its role in discipleship turns to cheap grace. Christian discipleship has no room for either the heresy of legalism or the illusion of cheap grace.

Thus a Christian, who loves the Lord and who is saved by His grace, will obey the Lord. The embrace of the gospel is the first step; the observance of the Sabbath is an inevitable follow-up — a delight in the Lord. For the Sabbath is an "exodus from tension," 10 "a sanctuary in time,"11 "a palace in time with a kingdom for all,"12 and its observance "the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonder land of time."13

We can come to that wonderland only when we have first been to the cross.

* All Scripture passages in this article are
from the Revised Standard Version.

1 Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic
(New York: Doubleday, 1929), p. 45.

2 Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, 5, 17.

3 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edin
burgh: T & T Clark, 1958), vol. 3, part 4, p.

4 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath:
Its Meaning for Modern Man
(New York:
Noonday Press, 1975), p. 27.

5 Ludwig Koehler, "The Day of Rest in the
Old Testament," Lexington Theological
, July 1972, pp. 71, 72.

6 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search
of Man
(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
Inc., 1976), p. 417.

7 Samuel H. Dresner, The Sabbath (New
York: Burning Bush Press, 1970), p. 4.

8 Barth, p. 53.

9 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub.
Assn., 1898), p. 207.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid

I2 lbid.,p.2l.

13 Ibid., 18

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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and a consulting editor of Ministry.


May 1997

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