The Puritan View of the Sabbath - 2
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Contained in the Moral Law

In the last issue we surveyed how the Puritans understood the relationship between the Sabbath of Genesis 2 and our weekly day of rest.  By grounding the weekly Sabbath in Genesis 2, the Puritans demonstrated that it was not simply a law for the Old Testament church but is for the church from the creation of man to the end of time.  In this article, we go a step further and survey how they understood the fourth commandment.

The Puritans insisted that since the command concerning the sanctification of the Sabbath was included in the Ten Commandments it is a moral law. The Decalogue as a whole is a summary of the moral law which is perpetually binding on all of mankind, not just Old Testament Israel. Therefore its individual commands must also be morally binding on everyone.  Regarding the morality of the fourth commandment, James Usher observed: first, to take away the fourth from the moral law, would reduce the commands to nine, “which is contrary to God’s word, (Deut. iv. 13)”; second, “this commandment … was written by the finger of God, … whereas no part of the ceremonial law was; and third, “it was written in tables of stone … to signify … [the] perpetuity of this command.”1 John Willison adds that the tables were placed in the ark, as a sign of the perpetual, holy demands of God.2  Furthermore, the Fourth commandment is positioned at the heart of the Decalogue and contains more grounds than the other commandments. It is also is pressed more and expressed in both a positive and negative command.3  Given this position in the decalogue, the command for a day of rest could not be dismissed or spiritualised by the Puritans.

Yet, the Puritans did allow for some ceremonial elements in the Old Testament Sabbath.  Though the kernel was moral, there was a ceremonial husk surrounding it.  Greenham considers Saturday observance as a ceremonial element, while the moral principle is one day in seven.  The curse and rigour of the law, the ceremonies prescribed on the day, and the observance from sundown till sundown are all appendices to the moral substance.4 Thomas Shepard defines the moral principles as: a time for worship, a day, and “a seventh day determined.”5

This view on the morality of the Sabbath embroiled the Puritans in debate with those Anglicans who differed from them.  The point of difficulty was that moral law must be a reflection of the natural law. Natural law is known by all, regardless if they have God’s word, and is grounded in the character of God.  However, the Sabbath can only be known by divine revelation, and even if it was given to Adam, it was given after, not when, he was created.  Therefore some Anglicans concluded it was based on the arbitrary will of God, and not perpetually binding.

In reply to these charges, the Puritans affirmed the Sabbath’s moral nature and its roots in what William Ames calls “natural moral law.”  Ames reasoned as follows: “Natural reason dictates that some time be set apart for the worship of God.”  In ordaining religions activities, God ordained “a certain time as a necessary circumstance.” Therefore, “that some particular day should be set apart for the more solemn worship of God is a natural moral law.”  “Positive law” decrees this is to occur at least once in seven days.  This decree “has the same force and reason” as those who flow from natural law in that it “fixes” that which natural reason “approximates”.6  In response to those that were unconvinced by this argument, the puritans added that, even if the Law would be purely positive, it may still be perpetually binding due to the sovereign will of God.7  This reasoning was typical of the Puritans who argued that the positive command clarifies what is naturally known.

The divide between positive law not absolutely required by the character of God and natural law is further lessened by John Owen.  He makes clear that all law is given by God.  A “law of nature” is “a law given unto our nature” by God.8  Purely positive laws are not based on the character of God.  However, a moral law may appear positive due to the darkened understanding of the natural man.  The fourth command is cast in a positive form, but the basis is moral due to the necessity of worship and the hebdomadal (sevenfold) revolution of time.  As a result, the command is “moral-positive.” God’s goodness is displayed in recording in tables of stone his law, which depraved man had lost sight of.9  Jonathan Edwards builds on this view, noting that God must consider the Sabbath to be the fittest time for worship, based on the “universal state and nature of mankind.” Hence, the command is as moral as the other commands, which are founded on “the fitness of things themselves,” even if the natural man does not perceive its fitness.10

Being based on creation and contained in God’s moral law, the fourth command must remain binding throughout time.  The reason it appears less moral than the other commands is only due to the darkened nature of man’s understanding. This doctrine was the foundation of the practical Sabbath observance of the Puritans.  They could delight in the Lord’s Day as a divine institution, on which man is to perform the most delightful activity possible – worship to the divine Creator of the world and re-Creator of His church.

[1]James Usher, A Body of Divinity (London, 1841), 295.
2John Willison, A Treatise concerning the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day (Philadelphia, 1788), 41.
3 James Durham, The Law Unsealed (Edinburgh, 1802), 183-89.
4Richard Greenham, Works (London, 1599), 311.
5Works of Thomas Shepard, vol. 3, Theses Sabbaticae(Ligonier: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), 57-59.
6 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Durham: Labrinth Press, 1983), 287.
7Jonathan Edwards, Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath [article online]; available from; accessed 25 February 2000.
8 John Owen, Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, vol. 2, 342.
9 John Owen, Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, vol. 2,355, 408.
10Jonathan Edwards, Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath.