Thursday, March 31, 2022

Sin, Humanity, and the Goal of Our Salvation

(Note: This is another piece from the first draft of my recent book, Who We Were Meant to Be, but which did not make the cut into the final edition. It comes from the early chapters, in which I explored the story of the Garden of Eden and of humanity's Fall. This piece underscores the book's broad theme of recapturing the patristic vision of salvation in terms of union with God, but I worried that its critique of Western Christian conceptions of sin might open up more of a can of worms than I wanted to deal with in the book itself. So if you have questions about the material below, it might be good to read it in context with some of the other pieces I've posted over the years concerning the classic Christian view of salvation: "The Mysteries" and "The Meaning of Salvation.")

What is the fundamental problem of humanity? We in the Western Chrisitan tradition reflexively answer, “Sin! Sin is the problem, and because of sin we bear the guilt and penalty of our crimes, for which we need atonement.” All of that is true in its own way, but it’s not really the whole story that the Bible is telling about the problem of the Fall. And if we don’t understand the whole story, we end up missing the forest for the trees, and we fail to grasp the immensity of God's plan of unity for all things in him (Eph. 1:9-10). 

You see, even if we include the notion of “separation from God” as part of our gospel presentation (as in, for instance, the famous “four spiritual laws” of Billy Graham), by setting sin as the linchpin of the story, we end up with a far more truncated view of salvation. The story we end up telling is about my personal, individual destiny—it’s all a question about whether I end up bearing the guilt of my sins, whether I face the penalties for those transgressions, and ultimately, where I end up spending eternity. Now, clearly, those are important considerations: it’s a matter of great significance to me where I spend eternity! But just in framing the question in this way, I’ve already made it hard for me to see the full picture of God’s salvation story, which is not limited to me (nor, really, even to humanity), and is far more about the consummation of God’s intention for his creation—a vast, communal entrance into the endless adventure of union with him—than about whether the thresholds of my eternal abode are framed with golden pavement or unquenchable fire. By framing the issue of the Fall as being fundamentally a matter of individual sins, we miss out on seeing the grand, breathtaking scope of communal and cosmic aspects of God’s salvation plan.

So let’s reset our assumptions for a moment, take the thing from the top, and try to read the story through the eyes of the early church. Our sins are part of that story, certainly, but, according to the earliest teachers of the Christian tradition, they are not so much the problem as they are a symptom of the underlying problem. If I may, I would suggest that we think about it not so much of our “sins” separating us from God, as our Sin (capital S): the human rebellion, beginning with our forebears in the garden, by which we chose to pursue our own way rather than to follow God’s grand design for us. From that Sin, we have fallen away from our intended journey of union with God, and, as a result of that, in the absence of the almighty grace with which we were always meant to be filled, our individual sins flow out, almost like symptoms from a disease. The ancient Christian tradition, particularly among the great Greek writers in the eastern heartlands of the church, were insistent that the problem of humanity was not best viewed as a problem of us committing crimes against God (though it certainly is that, in a certain sense), but rather as a disease that needs divine healing. Incidentally, this disparity between how we understand the true nature of sin is still one of the main markers of division between the Christian East and the Christian West.

Let me give you a historical analogy. We in the Christian West are often trained to think about our spiritual problem as being a matter of our sins, which we have committed against God (compounded by, and flowing from, the initial guilt of original sin). Again, that’s not untrue, but the perspective that it takes results in a rather narrow view of what’s really going on. It’s rather as if we were soldiers caught in the misery and torment of trench warfare in World War I, and we’re blaming our misery on the fact that we keep shooting bullets out of our guns. But while the shots we fire certainly are a part of what keeps that miserable war going on, our individual bullets are not really the problem. The real problem began with one shot at the beginning—one Sin—which, in World War I’s case, was the assassination of the Austrian archduke, and it resulted in the fracturing of the international order. It is that fracture that is the underlying problem. That’s the real story. Sure, my bullets are part of that story too, but more as a symptom than a cause. The real, underlying problem that has caused everything is the splintering of the peace between nations.

Now, this shouldn’t sound all that strange. We in the West are trained to put special focus on individual sins and the guilt associated with them, but we still recognize that the underlying problem is an issue of our separation from God. Even so, we still end up missing the view of some of the other marks of this story: what “union with God” means, beyond just a mansion by the crystal sea, and what it means that Christ not only saves me, but brings together all things in heaven and on earth.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Photo of the Week

In the day of trouble 
God will keep me safe in his dwelling;
He will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle
And set me high upon a rock.

- Psalm 27:5

(Photo from Mukachevo, Ukraine, taken in 2014)

Monday, March 28, 2022

Quote of the Week

"Cultivate a habit of communion with God. This will produce that inward peace which will make you superior to your trials."

- John Flavel, 17th-century Puritan divine

Friday, March 25, 2022

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Church as Sacrament: A Theory of Low-Church Sacramentalism

 (This piece was originally written to be the conclusion to Chapter 10 in my recent book, Who We Were Meant to Be, but I cut it from the final version since it's tangential to the overall argument of the book, and I needed to pare down the final version a bit. It remains, as such, something of a rough draft.)

We should take a quick look at one of the underlying issues in the way Christians understand the meaning of the elements of worship: the question of sacramentalism. Are some of the rituals of worship “sacraments”? That is, do they actually function as physical, material vehicles for the ministration of spiritual grace to the believer?

This is a significant bone of contention between low-church Protestant traditions (like my own) and many of the more high-church traditions, like Roman Catholicism. The Catholic church has seven specific acts which are considered sacraments, while some other groups ascribe that term to only two, communion and baptism (as, for instance, Lutheranism), and the low-church traditions often prefer the language of “ordinance” rather than “sacrament.” Since we are pursuing our study of Christian life and worship under the guidance of the patristic age, we must acknowledge that early Christianity appears to have held a very sacramental worldview. This was not always done in a way that we would consider high-church in terms of ecclesiastical order, liturgy, and hierarchy--sometimes, especially early on, it was just simple gatherings of Christians in one another’s homes--and yet still there was a sense of sacramentalism that pervaded the way they talked about their experience of church.

I would suggest, however, that there is a conceptual bridge in the patristic perspective which may help show that, far from being just a source of division, it is precisely a sacramental worldview that ties all Christian groups together. I would even go so far as to suggest that the traditions we usually regard as anti-sacramental in their conception are, from a certain point of view, perhaps even a bit more sacramental than the sacramental traditions themselves are. That may strike some as a rather outlandish claim, so let me back up a little and explain what I mean.

The basis of sacramental theology is easy to understand: simply and plainly, it is through Christ that we receive grace. Jesus Christ, who is truly man and truly God, took on flesh for us, and thus made the material of his own body--the physical stuff of his incarnation--a conduit of grace for us. It is by the sacrifice of his body that our sins are atoned for, and it is by union with his body (represented by our incorporation in the church, the Body of Christ) that we experience the joy of fellowship with God. Sacramental theology, then, is based on the reality of the incarnation: it is through the body of Christ, given for us, that we enter into the experience of God’s grace. God used physical materials, and not just a set of spiritual teachings, to redeem the world. Both the physical and the spiritual are equally parts of God’s good creation, and he uses both in the accomplishment of his work. Saying or believing anything less would tend to make us Gnostics or Docetists rather than Christians.

The redeemed community of God, the Body of Christ, is in direct union with Christ and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And because this is so, everything that is done in the church is done in the Spirit and in union with Christ. Thus everything in the church and in Christian life may be properly considered a sacrament, at least in a certain sense, because everything done in faith is done in the context of our union with Christ. Grace comes from Christ alone, and we, in our daily experience and in the life of our church, are in union with him. That is to say, then, broadly speaking, everything in the church and in Christian life is a sacrament. As Irenaeus wrote, “Where the church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the church and every kind of grace” (Against Heresies 3.24.1). Some Orthodox voices today hold this to be the proper patristic heritage of sacramental theology: not seven discrete acts, but the church itself as the sacrament of Jesus Christ. The church is the Body of Christ, and when we abide in Christ through faith, we are always connected to the blessings of his grace. In this light, everything done in the church becomes a sacrament, and every aspect of one’s Christian life likewise.

Some Protestants might protest at this point and demand a clarification of terms: are we talking about saving grace, or about grace in terms of spiritual blessings imparted in union with Christ (sanctifying grace, sustaining grace, and so on)? Much of Protestant anti-sacramentalism is based on the perception that other traditions, like Roman Catholicism, view certain sacraments as effective means of saving grace, when Scripture teaches clearly that it is faith in Christ, not the motions of any ritual act, that constitute the only effective means of saving grace. This is a legitimate concern as part of a legitimate dispute; but to conceive of it in only those terms will prevent us from understanding the scope of what the ancient Christian perspective on sacramental grace is really trying to say.

Most patristic sources did not make distinctions between various types of grace, since the Bible generally made no such distinctions either (with the exception of Paul’s occasional habit of referring to a grace associated with his apostolic office). Grace was, quite simply, what you got from being in Christ, beginning with your initial conversion. In this view, there’s no real distinction between saving grace and sanctifying grace, because all that there is, at bottom, is union with Christ. There is only one Christ, and no distinction between graces offered by our union with him: it was all grace. In answer to the question, “What saves us?” they probably would not have offered the Reformation dictum of “We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone” (as true as that is); they most likely would have just said, “Jesus.” Once connected to Jesus, we receive “grace upon grace” (John 1:16, NRSV): an unending flow of spiritual blessing and spiritual life, grace which has brought us to life and keeps us alive, like branches connected to the vine, simply because of our union with him. That said, it may nonetheless still be appropriate to distinguish the effects that grace might have in a particular situation, whether saving or sanctifying, but these things do not constitute different species of grace as such, which is the important thing to keep in mind when talking about sacraments.

So do baptism and communion convey saving grace? To put it in these terms tends to obscure the issue rather than clarify it. It’s true that these two particular rituals were seen as the highest representations of the sacramental life of the church in the patristic age, and for good reason; anyone can see that their symbology depicts the foundational movements of our faith: being born again and receiving Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Such rituals, as part of the vessels and fibers that make up the life of the Body of Christ, can convey the living grace of Christ to us when done in faith. To add a bit of botanical terminology to Jesus’ vine and branches analogy, one could say that these rituals, as features of our faith, serve as part of the xylem of our connection to Christ, conduits of living sap that bear and sustain our lives. They are part of our act of faith, just as praying “the sinner’s prayer” is, and so they do--like everything by which we participate in our union with Christ--convey God’s grace to us. It is Jesus who saves us, Jesus who sanctifies us, Jesus who sustains us, and all these means are part of our union with him.

If we must press the point and ask what the specific thing is that serves as the vessel for the grace given at the moment of conversion, then I (a low-church Protestant myself) would stand with the plain and evident sense of the New Testament text, and say, “faith.” It is through faith alone that we are united to Christ and transformed into a member of his New Creation. And the first moment of a person’s expression of faith will often look very much like a classic evangelical prayer of salvation, or something along those lines. But faith is more than just an act of intellectual assent in Christ’s lordship; it is a call on our whole selves and our whole lives, and some of the rituals of the church, like baptism, serve as a way to give our assent to God not only with our mind and our spirit, but with our body as well. All of these things become vehicles for the faith by which we are saved by God’s grace, vessels through which we pour out that faith to God. It is faith that unites us to Christ, and as we abide in Christ, it is faith--embodied in a thousand different acts--by which his grace abounds to us. It is these “thousand different acts” that serve as sacraments to us, continual bearers of God’s continual grace.

So, to return to the main point: in view of much eastern patristic theology, everything done in the church is a sacrament. The church is the Body of Christ, in which we are united to the fountainhead of grace. The church thus becomes, itself, the sacrament of Jesus Christ: a real, physical community in which we experience the blessings of his grace. The preaching of Scripture is a sacrament, the hymns of the church are sacraments, and the prayer of benediction is a sacrament. Even more, since every Christian is a member of the Body of Christ, everything done in faith is a sacrament, whether it’s done as part of a church service or not. Even means of so-called “common grace,” like the beauty of nature and the goodness of God’s provision, become transfigured by faith into conduits of Christ’s very life and peace and love, imparted to us on every side.

Even anti-sacramental traditions are sacramental in this way, whether they know it or not. Ask any evangelical off the street if they ever experience God’s grace through any of the following physical means: their Bibles, communion, a potluck supper, a sunset, a baptism service, a walk in the park, or a hug from a fellow believer. You’ll find that the general response is that all of these things may be avenues of God’s life-giving grace. They would resist the notion that any of these things are what saves us, but there is still a sense, in the heart of every Christian, that all such acts are banks along the river of God’s grace, which flows in torrents through our lives, and at any one of them we may pause and take a drink.

From this particular viewpoint, one might make the provocative claim that these anti-sacramental traditions are perhaps a bit more sacramental than the high-church ones: where the latter only have seven sacraments, the former can claim to have an infinite supply! Even within low-church traditions, though, special priority will be given to certain precious rituals of the church, like baptism and communion. These are not thought to give a different kind of grace than anything else, but they are nonetheless held up as high points in the church’s ritual life. There is nothing disingenuous about trying to hold everything as sacramental while still giving special priority to two particular rituals; it is essentially the same perspective we bring to our experience of Scripture. While all of the Bible is considered “God-breathed,” Christians of all walks of life will focus special priority on a few sections that stand out from the others in special clarity and power. We spend a great deal more time applying the Gospels to our lives than we do the story of the rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, even if we consider both of these biblical narratives to be divinely inspired. Low-church sacramentalism operates in a similar way: anything may be a conduit of God’s grace in our lives if received in faith, as part of our communion with Christ, but certain ordinances of the church, like communion and baptism, reveal this connection in an especially precious and powerful way.

The foregoing theory of sacramentalism will not really clear up many of the disagreements between denominations, but it should, at the very least, give every Christian, even those from traditions who are suspicious of sacramental theology, a way to understand and enter into the sacramental worldview of early Christianity. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Photo of the Week

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.

- Baruch 5:1-3 (OT Apocrypha)

Monday, March 21, 2022

Quote of the Week

“Just as those who are deprived of light cannot walk straight, so also those who do not behold the ray of the Holy Scriptures must necessarily sin, since they walk in the deepest darkness.”

- John Chrysostom

Friday, March 18, 2022

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Blog Posting Schedule

We've come to the end of my Historical Theology series. I recorded it a few years ago in evening services at my church, covering the first century to the nineteenth, but for some reason never made it to twentieth century theological debates. I may pick up the series again at some point in the future, but that's all there is for now.

I'll be posting a few non-series pieces here in the Thursday slot over the coming weeks, and after Easter I may get back into producing some more of my Heroes of the Faith studies.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Photo of the Week

Ye little flock, whom Jesus feeds, d
ismiss your anxious cares;
Look to the Shepherd of your souls, and smile away your fears.
Though wolves and lions prowl around, his staff is your defense:
’Mid sands and rocks, your shepherd’s voice calls streams and pastures thence.

- from a hymn by Philip Doddridge

Monday, March 14, 2022

Quote of the Week

"The people of God are the most excellent and happy society in the world. That God whom they have chosen their God, is their father; he has pardoned all their sins, and they are at peace with him; and he has admitted them to all the privileges of his children."

- Jonathan Edwards

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Saturday Synaxis

High and Holy God,
Give me this day a word of truth
To silence the lies that would devour my soul, 
And kind encouragements to strengthen me when I fall. 

- Bernard of Clairvaux

Friday, March 11, 2022

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Historical Theology: Where Do We Go When We Die? - Debates on Personal Eschatology

The story of Saul summoning the spirit of Samuel
(Click here for other installments of this series)

Question: What happens to people immediately after they die?

Although the Bible doesn’t speak with indisputable clarity on this subject, the Christian faith has had a long-standing traditional position on this subject. When a Christian dies, their spirit/soul leaves their body and goes to be “with the Lord.” The Christian will remain in this intermediate state of spiritual bliss (often referred to as “being in heaven”) until the end of time, when Christ returns and they are resurrected into new, eternal bodies, as part of “the new heavens and the new earth.”

The Early Church Perspective

The early church believed in an “intermediate state” characterized by several levels. Before Christ came, the souls of the departed would go to Sheol, “the grave,” as referenced several times in the Old Testament (for instance, Job 7:9; 17:13-16; Psalm 6:5). Although the Old Testament doesn’t offer many details of what Sheol is like, the New Testament adds a few things. It seems to suggest that the souls of the wicked would go to a painful experience in a place called Hades (Rev. 20:13; Luke 16:23). The righteous, meanwhile, went to a place that Jesus refers to as “the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22). After the crucifixion, however, some early traditions hold that Christ descended into "the grave" and preached the gospel to those held captive there (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18-20; Eph. 4:9). Since the time of Christ, the departed faithful go to be in “paradise” in the presence of the Lord (Luke 23:43), and the departed unrighteous continue to go to the waiting-grounds of Hades. Only at the end of time will all people receive their final judgment and go either to Hell (also referred to as Gehenna or “the lake of fire,” and sometimes as Hades once again) or Heaven (ultimately, referring to what John calls “the new heavens and the new earth”).

Though this early church perspective was fairly consistent, we should note that the Bible refers to the possible destinations of souls after death with a wide array of terms—Sheol, Hades, the Bosom of Abraham, Paradise, Hell, Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, Heaven, and the New Heavens and the New Earth—and it is not entirely clear from Scripture whether these different terms actually speak of several different regions of the afterlife (as the early church thought) or if they’re merely overlapping, poetic descriptions of merely one or two possibilities (many Christians throughout the ages, for instance, have used Hades/Hell interchangeably, and Paradise/Heaven interchangeably as well).

The Rise of the Soul-Sleep Interpretation

Lazarus and the Rich Man
Along with their new interpretations of Old Testament Law, the Seventh-Day Adventists and a few other similar groups from the 1800s began to question the traditional position on the intermediate state. In its place, they advocated a position called “soul sleep”—the idea that the souls of the dead did not go anywhere after the body died. They were either dormant or, in a certain sense, dead themselves. It was only at the resurrection that was to come at the end of time that the dead would be raised and re-created into a new bodily existence. Thus there was no intermediate state at all—the dead would simply experience what seemed (from their perspective) an “immediate” reawakening at the Judgment Day at the end of time.

The Biblical Case for Soul Sleep

Humans were created as unified, wholistic beings—body and spirit inseparably joined together. Throughout the Old Testament, the understanding seemed to be that when the body died, the spirit too experienced a sort of death in Sheol, “the grave.” This idea of humans being unified creatures carries over to the New Testament, where we are told that our ultimate destiny is not a disembodied state, but a new body at the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:42). The faithful dead in the New Testament are often described as those who have “fallen asleep” (John 11:11; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18; 1 Thess. 4:14), and the NT notes that the Last Day is the time when we “put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:52-53; i.e., the human soul/spirit is not inherently immortal in and of itself). The one possible reference to a specifically disembodied state is not necessarily a favorable one—Paul describes it as “being found naked” (2 Cor. 5:1-4). Further, the one clear case of a disembodied human spirit appearing in a biblical story is in Saul’s attempt to contact the spirit of Samuel through a witch (1 Sam. 28:15); that story seems to imply that Samuel’s spirit has been in a state of rest until that moment.

The Biblical Case for a Spiritual Intermediate State

The strongest argument for the traditional position comes from a parable in which Jesus creates a hypothetical story about a rich man and a poor man dying and experiencing a negative and a positive version of an intermediate state (Luke 16:19-31). While it’s possible that Jesus was just using the possibility of an intermediate state as a rhetorical device to make his larger point, it seems unlikely that he would create a fanciful scenario whose premise he knew to be untrue. Further, Jesus famously tells the repentant thief on the Cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (though this phrase is open to several interpretations), and Paul says that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6-8). In regards to the terminology of “falling asleep,” most Christians have simply taken this to be a euphemism of death rather than a theological statement about what happens after death, and 1 Thess. 4:14 might be read to imply that those who have “fallen asleep” have been with the Lord during the interim and will be returning with him at his Second Coming.


Most Baptists continue to hold the traditional position. In the long run, though, this is a distinction that has very little bearing on the Baptist practice of the Christian faith, other than the language we use to console those who grieve. Both positions agree that the big picture is the same—that the dead will experience what seems like an instantaneous transportation into the presence of Christ, and that our ultimate destiny is a new embodied existence in resurrection bodies at the end of time. In other traditions, however, in which the doctrine of "the communion of the saints" assumes that the dead remain spiritually alive in Christ, the matter carries greater weight.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Photo of the Week

Christ is made the sure foundation, 
Christ, our head and cornerstone,
Chosen of the Lord and precious, binding all the Church in one;
Holy Zion’s help forever, and our confidence alone.

- from a hymn translation by John Mason Neale

Monday, March 07, 2022

Quote of the Week

"The only real sadness,
The only real failure,
The only great tragedy in life,
Is not to become a saint."

- Leon Bloy (French novelist)

Friday, March 04, 2022

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Historical Theology - How Should We Keep the Sabbath? The Rise of Adventists and Sabbatarians

Question: Should Christians observe a biblical Sabbath (meaning a Saturday observance of a day of worship and rest, following the stipulations in the Old Testament Law)?

The traditional answer to this question is: No, Christians don’t have to observe a Saturday Sabbath, but there may be good reasons for using some of the Old Testament guidelines for our observance of Sunday as a day devoted to the Lord. This question had been largely settled for eighteen centuries, since the very beginning of Christianity. As early as the first century AD, Christians were observing Sunday, the first day of the week (rather than the seventh day), as “the Lord’s day.” Though there were not always hard-and-fast rules about what you could or couldn’t do on Sundays, many Christian groups have tried to keep some of the ideals of the biblical Sabbath observance in their practice of the Lord’s day.

New Christian Movements Question the Old Consensus

Proof that Jesus is coming back in 1843
By the 1800s the splintering of Protestantism had accelerated, and a whole host of new varieties of Christianity appeared, some of them not entirely orthodox (like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons), and some of them largely orthodox but willing to dispute long-settled points of practice (like the Adventist and Sabbatarian movements). Though there were Sabbatarian impulses earlier on in Protestantism (including among Baptists), the Adventist and Sabbatarian movements truly began to take off with the ministry of William Miller in the mid-1800s. He predicted the return of Christ in 1843 or 1844, and many of his followers sold all their possessions in expectation of this event. Christ’s physical return did not happen in the 1840s, so some of Miller’s followers re-interpreted that event and went on to form new denominations to preserve and pass on their new theological perspectives. Both the Advent Christian Church and the Seventh-Day Adventists developed out of the Millerite movement. Many points of alternative Christian practice were developed by these denominations (including some already dealt with in previous Historical Theology sessions), and the two that concern us here are the claims that (1) Christians ought to practice the Sabbath day as commanded in the Old Testament, and (2) that Christians undergo “soul sleep” rather than a spiritual intermediate state after death (the latter will be dealt with in the next Historical Theology session).

The Biblical Case for the Sabbath

The Old Testament is very clear about the importance of keeping the Sabbath and very specific in giving rules for how it ought to be kept. Keeping the Sabbath is enshrined as one of the Ten Commandments, and no Christian would dare to suggest that infractions of any of the other nine would be morally permissible. Further, it is clear from the New Testament that Jesus and his followers kept the Sabbath as laid out in the Law (Luke 4:16; Mark 16:1), though not always following the additional rules laid down by the Pharisees (John 5:18). Further, although Jesus re-interprets the Sabbath laws in new ways (Matt. 12:1-8), he never explicitly gives permission for his followers not to observe the Sabbath, and at times he seems to defend the legitimacy of the Old Testament Law for continued practice (Matt. 5:17-19).

The Biblical Case against a Mandatory Sabbath for Christians

While it’s possible that some of the first-generation Jewish Christians continued to observe the Sabbath according to the Law, this seems to have been the exception in the early church. Every record we have of weekly Christian gatherings, from the New Testament and beyond, specify Sunday as the day of worship (aside from Paul’s outreach in Jewish synagogues, which necessarily would have to be on Saturdays). Luke specifically notes that the church in Troas “came together to break bread” on “the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7). Even within the New Testament, the first day earned its own title: “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10), in honor of Christ’s resurrection. Until the rise of the Sabbatarian movements, this was the consistent and unanimous practice of all the churches.

Why would the early church make such a radical change, if Jesus himself had observed the Sabbath?

First, the early church viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17)—that is, the early church saw Christ himself as the true Sabbath of the people of God (Col. 2:16-17), and it is because of him that we can enter into the true Sabbath-rest (Heb. 4:9). If the Sabbath was simply an allegory pointing the way to Christ, and in Christ we now have hold of the real thing, then we are not constrained to hold onto the shadow too.

Second, the New Testament consistently teaches that we are not under Law, but under grace (John 1:17; Rom. 6:14; Gal. 5:4; Col. 2:13-14)—that is to say, our status with God is not governed by lists of rules, but simply by his favor, lavished on us in Christ. While breaking the other nine of the Ten Commandments certainly would constitute a sin for us, this is because the other nine outline moral realities inherent in the person of Christ himself, and breaking any of them would be to step outside of the way of Christ. Thus, while the Ten Commandments remain important for Christians, they are important in a moral sense and not in a legal sense; and so the legal (not moral) stipulation of honoring the seventh day as the Sabbath no longer applies.

Third, the rule of thumb with such matters in the early church was that, while not mandatory, certain practices could be retained for their devotional value or for the sake of not offending others. Thus, although Christians changed the day of Sabbath-observance to the first day of the week, many Christian groups throughout the centuries have thought it wise to retain the spirit of the law and to keep that day as a day devoted to the Lord rather than giving it over to work or frivolous amusements.

Conclusion: Though the New Testament and Christian tradition do not hold Christians under a strict obligation to observe the Sabbath, it’s worth recognizing that God gave these commands to Israel for a reason, and it would serve us well to keep the practice of a day devoted to the Lord.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Photo of the Week

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee.
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

- from a hymn by George Matheson