Is the Westminster Confession’s Doctrine of the Sabbath a Judaizing Doctrine?

The Confessional Presbyterian 12

The Confessional Presbyterian 12

In a day when it seems Presbyterians are drifting further and further away from the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, The Confessional Presbyterian journal was founded in 2005 to provide a forum for ecumenical discussion amongst conservative Presbyterians of different denominations, wishing to defend closer adherence to these old standards of biblical Christianity. The CPJ is an annual 2 column large format publication containing a range of theological, practical and historical material, which over the last twelve issues has amounted to 3,352 pages or 3,217,348 words (see table of contents here). The 2016 twelfth issue was the first fully thematic issue (contents listed below), and the topic is a doctrine in much decay in our day, The Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath. One of the important pieces run in v12 is Geoff Willour’s “Is the Westminster Confession’s Doctrine of the Sabbath a Judaizing Doctrine? A Critique of the First Minority Report of the OPC’s Committee on Sabbath Matters. Below is a summary.

Mr. Willour introduces his subject, noting the decay of observance of the Christian Sabbath in our day and that most of the professing church seems to view the commandment as merely ceremonial (pp. 195–196). After giving the historical background that gave rise to the Majority and Minority Reports on the Sabbath in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in 1973, pastor Willour summarizes the contents of the second minority report:

The position of the author of the Minority Report is that the Sabbath was exclusively a ceremonial law, binding only upon God’s people living under the old covenant administration. As such, it was a “shadow” that pointed forward to, and was fulfilled in Christ and the salvation-rest He graciously provides to His believing people. Consequently, the fourth commandment is no longer binding upon believers today, who are living under the new covenant administration of fulfillment in Christ and not the old covenant administration of types and shadows. Instead of observing the Sabbath of the fourth commandment, believers today observe the Lord’s Day—Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection—which the author of the Minority Report regards as the new covenant holy day, distinct and separate from the Sabbath, and thus not at all to be identified as the “Christian Sabbath,” as the Westminster Standards mistakenly teach (WCF 21.7; WLC 116 & 117; WSC 59). To require believers today to observe Sunday as if it were the “Christian Sabbath,” and as if such observance were an act of obedience to the fourth commandment, involves no less an act of Judaizing the gospel as the requiring of circumcision on the part of Gentile believers. Indeed, it is even a denial of Christ!

In the body of his argument, the author of this Report relies almost exclusively on the New Testament, especially Colossians 2:16–17 and related texts. In fact, he begins the Scriptural argumentation for his position with these words: “Colossians 2:16, 17 is the key passage for the understanding of the place of the Fourth Commandment in the Christian life” (Minutes, 40th G.A., 106; emphasis added). Conspicuously absent in his biblical argumentation for his position is any interaction with the exegesis of such key passages as offered by the authors of the Majority Report.

After giving examples of the author’s argumentation, the reverend Willour goes on to give a critique of the Minority Report under four points. 1. The Minority Report neglects to interact with either the Majority Report or the historic Westminster-confessing tradition of interpretation with respect to its exegesis of Colossians 2:16, 17 and other allegedly anti-sabbatarian Scriptural texts (197-200). 2. The position of the Minority Report is flawed in that it grounds the Sabbath ordinance in the Mosaic, old-covenant administration, rather than in creation (201). 3. The Minority Report does not give due weight to the inclusion of the Sabbath commandment within the Decalogue, the other commandments of which are clearly moral in nature (201-202). 4. The position taken and assertions employed in the Minority Report, to the effect that the observing of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath involves a judaizing of the gospel and a denying of Christ, is potentially divisive (202). The author then closes with a very brief positive note, but we shall close this summary by citing the brief explanation of the fourth point.

I would not be surprised to read such accusations against the Westminster doctrine of the Sabbath from confessional Lutherans, or dispensationalists, or other anti-sabbatarian brethren whose theological and confessional traditions stand opposed to our Sabbath doctrine. But to read a report written by a church officer in the OPC who has affirmed ordination vows which include the promise to receive and adopt the Scriptural system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards is befuddling to me. Indeed, this is a system whose Sabbath doctrine is inextricably intertwined with other central doctrines of our confessional system, such as its doctrine of the law of God. One wonders how ordained officers who embrace the position of the Minority Report could work in clear conscience within the context of a denomination and in cooperation with fellow church officers whose professed doctrine of the Sabbath would, by logical implication, make them in effect Judaizers and Christ-deniers. At the very least it would seem that a consistent adherence to the position of the Minority Report would make it difficult to cultivate a spirit of collegiality, confidence in, and mutual submission to the brethren, for how could one submit to and have confidence in fellow church officers whom one believes to be Judaizers and Christ-deniers? At its worst, the consistent embracing of the position of the Minority Report by those within the Westminster-confessing churches may have the potential effect of promoting schism. Arguably, embracing the position expressed in the Minority Report is a rejection of an important aspect of the Scriptural system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards, and thus poses a potential threat to the unity, purity, and peace of Westminster-confessing churches such as the OPC.

The 2016 12th issue of The Confessional Presbyterian journal is currently on sale for $20 postpaid. Sets of v2-12 currently are on sale for $140 postpaid (the 2005 v1 is out of print). The contents of volume 12 are as follows:

  1. Editorial

Articles

  1. Pastoral Letters on the Observance of the Sabbath. By Thomas E. Peck, T. V. Moore and Benjamin Morgan Palmer
  2. Southern Presbyterian Sabbatarianism. By James Henley Thornwell, et al.
  3. Dropping the Subject, Again? The Decline of Sabbatarianism in the Old Southern Presbyterian Church and in the Presbyterian Church in America. By Chris Coldwell
  4. The Doctrine of the Sabbath with a Particular look at its Application in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. By Benjamin P. Glaser
  5. Politics, International Relations, and the Sabbath: The 1915 International Lord’s Day Congress. By Frank J. Smith
  6. Leviticus 23 and the Christian Sabbath. By Benjamin Shaw
  7. What Should a Typical Sabbath Look Like and Why? By Ryan M. McGraw
  8. The Christian Sabbath: Destiny not Drudgery. By Roy Mohon
  9. John Calvin, the Nascent Sabbatarian: A Reconsideration of Calvin’s View of Two Key Sabbath-Issues. By Stewart E. Lauer
  10. The Sabbath Day and Recreations on the Sabbath: An Examination of the Sabbath and the Biblical Basis for the “No Recreation” Clause in Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8 and Westminster Larger Catechism 117. By Lane Keister
  11. Regulae de Observatione Sabbathi: The Synod of Dort’s (1618–19) Deliverance on the Sabbath. By Daniel R. Hyde
  12. Our Reasonable Service: Sabbath Doctrine of the Nadere Reformatie. By Justin B. Stodghill
  13. Is the Westminster Confession’s Doctrine of the Sabbath a Judaizing Doctrine? By Geoffrey L. Willour
  14. The Fourth Commandment: Annulled or Sustained? By Carl E. Erickson

Table of Contents Continued

225 Reviews & Responses: Terry L. Johnson, Worshipping with Calvin: Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism and Serving with Calvin: Leading and Planning Services of Worship in the Reformed Church (Barry Waugh) 225 ■ Nicholas P. Lunn, The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9–20 (Benjamin Shaw) 226 ■ John C. Clark and Marcus Peter Johnson, The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology (Scott Cook) 229 ■ R. Baines, et al, Confessing the Impassible God: The Biblical, Classical & Confessional Doctrine of Divine Impassibility (Peter Sanlon) 234 ■ Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Broken Home; or Lessons in Sorrows (C. N. Willborn) 235 ■ Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church (Lane Keister) 236■

239 Psallo: Psalm 5:1–12

242 In Translatiōne: John Brown of Wamphray: Recreations and the Sabbath

262 Antiquary: A Transcription of James Durham’s Sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12, taught before the Synod of Glasgow, October 5, 1652.

284 Bibliography

295 The Editors

In Brief: The Lord’s Day is no Human Constitution (134) ■ In Brief: John Owen on Isaiah 58:13 (141) ■ In Brief: Zanchius on “Remember the Sabbath day” (148) ■ In Brief: We must rest also from speaking & hearing of worldly matters (172) ■ In Brief: The Sabbath Day a Creation Ordinance (183) ■ In Brief: Junius on the Morality of a Sabbath day (203)■

Chris Coldwell is general editor and publisher of The Confessional Presbyterian. The editing board consists of The Revs. C. N. Willborn, Ph.D., James J. Cassidy, Ph.D., Jeffrey C. Waddington, Ph.D. (Articles), and Glen J. Clary, Ph.D. (Reviews). Since 1988 through Naphtali Press, Mr. Coldwell has published classic works from seventeenth century Presbyterian authors. The most recent publication is the first critical edition of Nicholas Bownd’s True Doctrine of the Sabbath (1606) co-published with Reformation Heritage Books in 2015 (592pp, hardback, dj). This seminal work set the general Puritan position and argument later encapsulated in the Westminster Standards.