At the outset, I have to acknowledge that the issues of when to observe the Sabbath and how we observe the Sabbath have not drawn much attention from Lutherans over the years. To this day, Lutherans are guided in large part by the way in which Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer, interpreted the Sabbath commandment in his Small and Large Catechisms.
In the Small Catechism, Luther renders the biblical text, “You shall sanctify the day of rest” (for the texts of Luther’s catechisms, see The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000]). As you can see, it looks a bit different than how we are perhaps accustomed to reading it. To better grasp the Lutheran view of the Sabbath day, we need to consider both its history and its current understanding.
THE GOSPEL AND THE SABBATH
Every tradition is shaped by the formative era from which it emerged. This is true also for Lutheranism. When Luther rediscovered the gospel, he stripped away encrusted layer after encrusted layer of legalistic regulations that required Christians to achieve their righteousness by what they do. From the sixteenth century forward, the central and foremost concern for Lutherans was, and is, the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel announces that God regards us as righteous, by grace, on account of Jesus Christ, by faith alone. This gospel gives all glory to Christ and brings complete comfort for distressed sinners. In order to keep the gospel story a gospel story, Lutherans have been, and continue to be, vigilant about opposing anything that might lean in the direction of legalism and works-righteousness, as they undermine the gospel.
So Luther rendered the Sabbath commandment so as to reject the legalistic interpretations of it that were so common in his day. Initially, he had to fight the legalism that he found within the medieval church regarding various regulations that the church had established for how the day must be observed. Later, he also found it necessary to reject attempts to re-establish the seventh-day Sabbath as “legally” binding on Christians in the New Testament era.
The parallels between the legalism that Jesus found among the religious leaders of His day and that Luther found in his day are clear. The Gospels on several occasions recount how Jesus resisted His opponents’ requirements for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23–28). Elsewhere, Jesus made the further point that He and His Father continue working to this day (John 5:10–17). Paul develops this further when he argues that Jesus is the fulfillment of the old covenant law and thus the end of this law (Rom. 10:4).
Another key passage for Lutherans with regard to the continued applicability of Old Testament requirements is Colossians 2:16–23:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.… If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
That means that none of the distinctively old covenant laws for Israel are binding upon Christians. Lutherans believe that the laws of the old covenant remain valid for Christians to the extent that they agree with natural law, that is, are woven into the fabric of creation and written on our hearts (for a good introduction to this topic, see J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law [Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 1997]). All others may be appropriated to the extent that they are useful and serve a good purpose, but they cannot be made binding.
Against this background, we can consider Luther’s explanations of the Sabbath commandment as found in Exodus 20:9–11. The entire text reads:
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Luther took his cue for his interpretation from verse 11. In doing so, he focused on “rest” and God’s word of “blessing.”
First, Luther renders the word sabbath as “day of rest.” God had rested and was “refreshed” on the seventh day (Ex. 31:17). The medieval church had often interpreted sabbath to mean “feast days” or “holy days.” These were days designated by the church as holy days or marked for special observance. Of course, these included Sundays, but not exclusively. Then a series of regulations were set in place that made observing the commandment more a burden than a blessing. In a sermon given in December 1528, Luther noted that man and beast must alike take time out to rest and be refreshed. A person cannot work 24–7–365 without breaking down. That one rests is more important than when one rests. So if Sunday does not work, then rest on some other day.
Second, how does one sanctify (make holy) the day of rest? Here Luther picks up the theme from Exodus 20:11, which says, “the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” In other words, God’s word of blessing made the day holy. Again, this contrasted with the tendency of the medieval church to regard the space of a church as holy because buried beneath the altar were the holy relics of a saint. Against this backdrop, Luther contended that God’s Word alone makes all things holy. The Word does what it says. When God says, “let there be light,” there is light. When God says, “I forgive you,” you are forgiven. So how do we make the day of rest holy? By attending to the Word of God. The Word made the day holy and it made us holy. One could do no better than to take time out and occupy oneself with the Word of Jesus Christ.
Every tradition is shaped by the age that gave rise to its story and values. That is certainly true for my own Lutheran tradition. Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel and his unapologetic rejection of bondage to legalism continues to shape my tradition’s approach to the law and to human regulations. Is there more that can be said? Certainly. In particular, I think that the account in Genesis regarding the seventh day of creation provides some fruitful directions for how we think about ourselves and our place within the narrative of creation and creation’s final renewal in Jesus Christ.
In some ways, the seventh day marks the completion and culmination of creation. Everything leads up to it. God liked what He had made and He delighted in it (see the helpful work of Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath [Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006]). He invites us, who are made in His image, to do the same. Of course, in Adam we made a mess of things. God promised to restore His people and His creation. Jesus came to set things right. He came to reclaim and restore His creation. In His death, He endured the curse. In His resurrection, the new creation burst forth in the midst of the first creation.
It is little wonder, then, that the early church regarded Sunday—the day of Jesus’ resurrection—as the eighth day of creation. The resurrection of Christ does not leave behind the first creation and with it the seventh day of rest. Instead, the first creation and its Sabbath are now caught up in the resurrection of Christ and find their fulfillment in the new creation. Just as God invited us to share in His delight over His original creation, He now invites us to share in His delight over the new creation that will be fully and finally revealed when Christ returns in glory. At that time, we will enter the eternal Sabbath rest (see Heb. 4:4–11) in which we shall rejoice in what God has done.
In the meantime, we need to rediscover the importance and value of Sabbath rest. Do we take time to rest our bodies and minds? Do we take time to relish and delight in God’s handiwork? Too often in our workaholic society, we race through life oblivious to the many wonders of His creation. We fail to notice all that God has made. Redemption restores us to God, to each other, and to creation. The Sabbath invites us to delight in all that God has done (creation and its renewal) and thus to be refreshed.