The Puritan View of the Sabbath - 3
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From Sabbath to Lord’s Day

If the command is to keep the seventh day holy, why do we keep the first day of the week holy? If Israel was to keep it holy in remembrance of how they were delivered from Egypt, does this command still apply to us? Is this not a command only for the Old Testament? These questions may be very contemporary, but are not new.  The puritans grappled with them. The two previous articles have indicated that the Puritans were convinced that the command concerning the Sabbath is rooted in creation and part of the moral law.  The natural conclusion is that this command must remain in force until the end of time.

The Puritans were convinced that if the Old Testament truth concerning the Sabbath were taken seriously, the New Testament church must continue to observe it. In response to those who spiritualised it for the New Testament era, Jonathan Edwards states: “this is an absurd way of interpreting the command, as it refers to Christians. For if the command be so far abolished, it is entirely abolished.”[1]

Their key argument for the Lord’s day is that the specific day in the seven day cycle may be altered by the authority of God himself.The fourth commandment does not specify which day must be kept.  Exodus 20:9-10a says: “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God.”  On the surface the “seventh day” man appear to refer to the seventh day of the week.  However, Edwards asserts that it “implies no more, than that after six days of labour, we shall, upon the next to the sixth, rest and keep it holy.” The Jews rightly considered the fourth commandment to refer to the last day of the week because the last day of the week had already been instituted at creation as the day on which they were to observe the Sabbath.[2]Thus, the morality of the command is not destroyed with the change of day.

Yet, the Puritans did not allow the day of Sabbath observance to become an arbitrary choice.  Shepard states that “the seventh determined and appointed of God for holy rest” must be observed.  He proceeds to argue that it must be either the first or last day of the week, because otherwise one would break the week into two working units of less than 6 days: an action which is contrary to the call to work six consecutive days.[3] Regardless of the validity of Shepherd’s limitation of the Sabbath to the first or last day of the week, his contention that God must determine which day it is remains valid.  Dennison argues that the medieval theologians as well as the earlier reformers placed much weight on tradition; but the Puritans sought divine appointment for the Lord’s Day, as the first day of the week.[4]

The question now remains: What is the change of day from the last to the first day of the week based on?  In reply the Puritans begin by stating that Christ, as “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:28), appointed the change of day.  Thomas Watson remarks that Revelation 1:10 calls it the Lord’s Day “because of the Lord’s instituting it, and setting it apart” just as the Lord’s Supper is so called due to Christ’s institution of it.[5] Verses 19 and 26 of John 20 indicate that the Lord Jesus appeared to the disciples on the first day of the week.  Christ also poured out his Spirit on Pentecost, which was the first day of the week (Acts 2:1).  Christ’s other appearances may have been on the Lord’s Day although Scripture does not state this explicitly.  These appearances of Christ sanction the gatherings of the disciples on the first day of the week.

That the first day of the week was observed in apostolic times, presupposes a divine command.  The Lord Jesus commanded the disciples to teach “whatsoever I have commanded you.”  Shepard declares it blasphemy to think that the disciples taught more than Christ commanded.[6] As to how Christ commanded: first, he taught them many things after his resurrection (Acts 1:1-3); and second, he promised the Spirit who would lead the disciples “into all truth” (John16:13).  Thus, all that the apostles taught was by divine command.  Acts 20:7 states: “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them.”  On this verse, Shepard notes that this was a general church gathering for the purpose of “holy duties.”  The text seems to indicate a special gathering on the first day of the week was common.[7] In 1 Corinthians 16:2 Paul exhorts: “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.”  Ames notes that the gathering on the first day appears to be “something long since accepted by the disciples of Christ.”[8] Furthermore, verse one sets this exhortation in the setting of a binding command in that there Paul speaks of having “given order”.  Since the Apostles taught the Christians to observe the Lord’s Day and all the apostles taught was of divine command, the observance of the Lord’s Day was a divine command.

The divine command is rooted in the significance of the resurrection of Christ.  Here again, the puritans go back to creation, viewing it as an analogy of Christ’s resurrection.[9] John Owen outlines how Christ ushered in a new age based on his “work of a new creation.” On the first day of the week, Christ “rested from his works, in and by his resurrection.”  Thus, just as God’s resting on the day after creation indicated it was the day on which the Jewish Sabbath was to be observed, so also in the New Testament, Christ’s resting on the day after recreation was the day on which the Christian Sabbath was to be observed.[10] As Adam was to rest and delight in the works of creation; so the church is to rest and delight in the work of Christ.

By shedding the light of creation on the fourth commandment, the Puritans clarified the doctrine of the Sabbath as a moral ordinance binding on the New Testament age.  If one day following six working days was ordained by God to be a day of rest and worship of him when Adam was in the state of innocence, this ordinance must apply to all of Adam’s fallen descendants.  Basing itself upon creation, 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.  The change of the day of Sabbath observance to Sunday is upon a divine principle which reflects that of creation.  Therefore the Lord’s Day is required by the fourth commandment.  This doctrine was the foundation of the practical Sabbath observance the Puritans are known for.  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.


[2] Jonathan Edwards, Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath [article online].

[3] Thomas Shepard, 139.

[4] cf. James T. Dennison, 31; see also Jonathan Edwards: “The precept in the fourth command is to be taken generally of such a seventh day as God should appoint, or had appointed.”

[5] [book online] (Institute of Practical Bible Education, 1999); available from; accessed 9 May 2000.

[6] Thomas Shepard, 199.

[7] Thomas Shepard, 205-206; cf. John Owen, 423.

[8] William Ames, 295; cf. John Owen, 434.

[9] cf. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990), 238.