The question of Sabbath observation, historically, has provoked many debates and controversies involving separate issues. The first great debate about the Sabbath is whether, as an Old Testament ordinance particularly emphasized in the Mosaic covenant, it is still obligatory in the context of new covenant Christianity. Augustine, for example, believed that nine of the Ten Commandments (the so-called “moral law” of the Old Testament) were still intact and imposed obligations upon the Christian church. His lone exception with the commandment with respect to the Sabbath day. Since Paul spoke about keeping Sabbaths or not keeping Sabbaths as a matter adiaphorous (indifferent), Augustine was persuaded that the Old Testament Sabbath law had been abrogated. Others have argued that because the Sabbath was instituted originally not in the Mosaic economy but in creation, it maintains its status of moral law as long as the creation is intact.
The second major controversy is the question about the day of the week on which the Sabbath is to be observed. Some insist that since the Sabbath was instituted on the seventh day of creation, when God rested from His labors, and since the Old Testament Israelites celebrated the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, which would be Saturday, we should follow that pattern. Others have insisted that the New Testament changed the Sabbath to the first day of the week because of the significance of the resurrection of Jesus on that day. They also point to the New Testament practice of Christians coming together on Sunday as the Lord’s Day for worship. The argument focuses on whether the Sabbath is a cyclical command that requires worship and rest on every seventh day or whether it is specified to a particular day of the week. John Calvin argued that it would be legitimate to have the Sabbath day on any day if all of the churches would agree, because the principle in view was the regular assembling of the saints for corporate worship and for the observation of rest.
Within the Reformed tradition, the most significant controversy that has appeared through the ages is the question of how the Sabbath is to be observed. There are two major positions within the Reformed tradition on this question. To make matters simple, we will refer to them as the Continental view of the Sabbath and the Puritan view of the Sabbath. Both views acknowledge that the Sabbath is still in effect. Both views agree that the Sabbath is a time for corporate worship. Both agree that the Sabbath is a day of rest when believers are to abstain from unnecessary commerce. But two areas are in dispute between the two schools and the most important of these is the question of recreation. Is recreation a legitimate form of rest-taking, or is recreation something that mars a sacred observation of the Sabbath day?
The Puritan view argues against the acceptability of recreation on the Sabbath day. The text most often cited to support this view is Isaiah 58:13–14 and following: “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The crux of the matter in this passage is the prophetic critique of people doing their own pleasure on the Sabbath day. The assumption that many make with respect to this text is that doing one’s own pleasure must refer to recreation. If this is the case, the prophet Isaiah was adding new dimensions to the Old Testament law with respect to Sabbath-keeping. Whereas the rest of the Old Testament law is virtually silent with respect to recreation, this text in Isaiah is cited to indicate a further revelation from God about Sabbath observance — a prohibition of recreation.
There is another way to understand Isaiah 58, however, following the thinking of those who hold the Continental view of the Sabbath. The distinction in Isaiah 58 is between doing what is pleasing to God and doing what is pleasing to ourselves in opposition to what is pleasing to God. Presumably, what is in view in the prophetic critique is God’s judgment against the Israelites for violating the Mosaic law with respect to the Sabbath day, particularly regarding involvement in commerce. There were Israelites who wanted to be able to buy and sell seven days a week, not simply six days a week. Therefore, they violated the Sabbath commandment by seeking their own pleasure, which was to do business on the Sabbath rather than to do that which was pleasing to God. According to this view, the text has nothing to say directly or indirectly about recreation on the Sabbath day.
There is an old story, which may be apocryphal, that when John Knox came to Geneva to visit John Calvin at his home on the Sabbath, he was shocked to find Calvin engaged in lawn bowling. If the story is true, it may indicate that the theologian most devoted to Sabbath-keeping in history, Calvin, did not see recreation as a violation of the Lord’s Day, but as a part of the rest-taking or recreation that is to be part of this day. Recreation would never have been acceptable to Calvin if it had interrupted or supplanted the time devoted to worship on the Sabbath.
One other point of debate remains between the two sides on this issue. It has to do with works of mercy performed on the Sabbath. The example of Jesus is cited, that on the Sabbath He engaged not only in worship and rest but also in works of mercy. Such works brought Him into conflict with the Pharisees over the question of Sabbath-keeping. Some have drawn the conclusion that since Jesus performed works of mercy on the Sabbath, the Christian is obligated to do the same. However, the fact that Jesus did works of mercy on the Sabbath, though it clearly reveals that it is lawful to do so on the Sabbath, does not obligate us to do such works on the Sabbath. That is to say, Jesus’ example teaches us that we may do works of mercy on the Sabbath but not that we must do such works on the Sabbath.
All of these issues continue to be examined and debated as the church seeks to understand how God is best honored on this day.