Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

John Calvin On The Sabbath Commandment For Christians

John Calvin On The Sabbath Commandment For Christians

Last week I wrote a post explaining why I’m not a Sabbatarian. Put more simply, I argued why I do not believe the fourth commandment is binding on Christian believers, outlining three reasons. Firstly, nowhere in the New Testament are the Sabbath and Sunday viewed synonymously. Secondly, considering the historical context to the New Testament writings, very few Christians would have rested on Sundays. The “Lord’s Day” meant engaging in worship, not observing some kind of Christian Sabbath. This was the case for the first two centuries of the Christian church. Thirdly, I questioned any appeal to Hebrews 4:9 as support for abiding authority of the fourth commandment. In this post I will unpack John Calvin’s understanding of the Sabbath commandment, from his Institutes.

Sabbath As “Shadow Rite”

Regarding the Sabbath or fourth commandment, Calvin writes: “Christians ought…to shun completely the superstitious observance of days” (2.8.31). Amen. In that section, Calvin cites Colossians 2:16-17. For, after telling the Christians at Colossae not to let anyone judge them regarding the Sabbath, Paul says: “These are a shadow of the things to come” (2:17). These verses prompted Calvin to refer to the Sabbath as a “shadow rite” (2.8.34), and he builds a lot of his argumentation against ongoing Sabbath observance on this New Testament text.

Calvin quotes Augustine to show that the Sabbath day foreshadowed Christ’s coming and our salvation and spiritual rest in him (2.8.28). Thus the commandment given to Israel was always only a promise of something much greater (2.8.29). This promise was fulfilled in Christ, whom Calvin describes as the truth in whose presence all the old figures vanish (2.8.31). The Son’s coming dispels the shadows.

Yet The Sabbath Is Not Consigned To The Shadows

Yet Calvin cautions against consigning the fourth commandment to the ancient shadows (2.8.32). Statements like this one are latched onto by those in the Reformed tradition who want Calvin in their corner. But if one reads further, it becomes apparent that Calvin in no way advocated for any kind of Sabbatarian observance or obedience to the fourth commandment. Instead Calvin upholds the abiding relevance of the Old Testament, without viewing it as law for Christian believers. That is to say, he applies God’s Word in the Old Testament to Christians without demanding adherence to the fourth commandment as Jews understand it. In this way the Sabbath commandment is not made redundant, nor is it to be literally obeyed by Christians today.

Application Of The Sabbath For Christians

Without transferring the literal meaning and practice of the Old Testament Sabbath onto Sundays, Calvin draws three applications from the Sabbath commandment. Firstly, Christians meet to worship on Sundays, sitting under the Word and participating in the sacraments. Secondly, Calvin charged Christians to give rest to anyone who worked for them. Thirdly, Christians should meditate throughout life on God’s everlasting and promised Sabbath rest. Below I will address the first two of Calvin’s applications, for I hope to dedicate an entire post to the third, which I consider to be the primary meaning of Hebrews 4:9.

1. Go To Church On Sunday

Calvin’s first application of the Sabbath commandment is an important one—partly because it may raise a few eyebrows. For Calvin anticipates the question: Why do we meet on Sunday rather than on every or any day to remove all distinction (2.8.32)? Calvin does not really present a compelling argument here. Noting that Paul spoke against observing the Sabbath in no fewer than 3 epistles, he simply suggests that Paul was prohibiting a servile or superstitious view of that Sabbath (2.8.33). Yet he also thinks it is a foregone conclusion that Paul’s churches met for worship on a specific day (1 Corinthians 16:2). So as Battles, the editor of my edition of the Institutes, points out: Calvin understood Sunday worship as a distinctly Christian institution adopted at the abrogation of the Sabbath.

His reason for singling out one day, Sunday, for corporate Christian worship was, “to prevent religion from either perishing or declining among us, [thus] we should diligently frequent the sacred meetings, and make use of those external aids which can promote the worship of God” (2.8.34). As Battles appends, Sunday was retained for spiritual health and church order. But, contrast with the Westminster Confession of Faith (21.7), Sunday was in no way a “Christian Sabbath.” As Calvin writes, “the ancients did not substitute the Lord’s Day—as we call it—for the Sabbath without careful discrimination” (2.8.34).

2. Spend The Sabbath In Selfless Service

This brings us to Calvin’s second application of the fourth commandment for Christians. Similarly to the Old Testament Sabbath, a principle undergirding Sabbath observance was to prevent the inhumane oppression of workers or slaves. You may have disagreed with both myself and Calvin—or my interpretation of the great Reformer—up to this point, but his second application is crucial in remembering that the Sabbath was not simply about resting. It was about extending rest to others. Both Calvin and the Westminster Confession of Faith developed this ‘rest giving’ aspect of the Sabbath as practical mercy.

As the Westminster divines explained, Sundays are kept holy when we, “are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (21.8). The implications should be obvious to the reader, as it is to myself. Whether we practise a strictly Sabbath like observance of Sundays or remain unconvinced that the the fourth commandment is binding, the Sabbath should be spent in service of others—rather than in barely veiled selfishness that turns the Sabbath into something about me. This is a theme that I hope to develop in the fourth article of this series on the Sabbath.

In Conclusion

John Calvin was no Sabbatarian. He did not view the fourth commandment as binding on Christian believers. Nor did he conflate Sunday worship on the Lord’s Day with the Sabbath. In keeping with the New Testament’s consistent presentation of Sabbath observance, he considered it a “shadow rite.” However Calvin argued that while Christ’s coming abrogated any strict cultic sense of the fourth commandment he also sought to apply it to the Christian life. As we saw, he retained the Sabbath’s emphasis on a single day of the week set aside for corporate worship. Secondly, he exhorted Christians to see the Sabbath as command to give rest to others as well as an opportunity to serve, both coming under the rubric of mercy.

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