The Importance of the Sabbath Principle for Justification

I have loved this quotation from Vos as soon as I read it:

Before all other important things, therefore, the Sabbath is an expression of the eschatological principle on which the life of humanity has been constructed…The Sabbath brings this principle of the eschatological structure of history to bear upon the mind of man after a symbolical and a typical fashion. It teaches its lesson through the rhythmical succession of six days of labour and one ensuing day of rest in each successive week. Man is reminded in this way that life is not an aimless existence, that a goal lies beyond. This was true before, and apart from, redemption. The eschatological is an older strand in revelation than the soteric. The so-called ‘Covenant of Works’was nothing but an embodiment of the Sabbatical principle. (from Biblical Theology, p.  140).

It just struck me recently that the Covenant of Works functions as a Sabbatical principle because of the work-rest paradigm of the Covenant of Works. As God had rested from His labors, so also was Adam going to rest from his labors, had he obeyed.

This eschatological Sabbath-structure of the Covenant of Works plays also into justification and the Covenant of Grace, in that Christ has done the work while we get the rest of eternal life. Of course, this is only true in an “already” sense. There still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, which is why the Sabbath has not been abrogated. But the Sabbath character of the Covenant of Works is why all attempts to make Adam’s obtaining of eternal life solely by grace through faith fall to the ground, whereas Christ’s obtaining of that Sabbath rest for us (in an already/not yet schema) is the fulfillment of the Sabbatical principle of the Covenant of Works in the Covenant of Grace.



  1. July 9, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    […] July 9, 2008 in Uncategorized At GB […]

  2. July 9, 2008 at 12:51 pm


    This is very important indeed. One of the Dennison brothers (Perhaps Bill Dennison) has an article on Vos and the eschatological Sabbath on Kerux. Once I laid hold on this teaching I understood the probationary period. Vos on the probationary period, in “Biblical Theology,” is very good as well. Just as Adam would have rested from his labors and entered into the Sabbath rest as the repesentative of his posterity, so Jesus, who incidentally rested from His labors on the Sabbath, has ceased from His labors (see Owen on Hebrews 4:10) to enter into the archetypical Sabbath rest as the representative of His people.

  3. David J. Reese said,

    July 9, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    In fact, as you can find in “The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington”, early covenant theologians noted how the Saturday Sabbath corresponded to the Covenant of Works, while the Sunday Sabbath corresponds to the Covenant of Grace. The pattern of the COW is, “work to rest”, while the pattern of the COG is “rest, and then work”. We now begin the week first by resting in Christ’s finished work, and it is from that “in Christ” position that we then live out the rest of our life. I think this is one of the best BT arguments for the change of the day.

  4. its.reed said,

    July 9, 2008 at 1:27 pm


    Very, very insightful and helpful (as well as Nick and David’s comments). As a frustrated Sabbath “keeper,” I have found my growing joy in the Sabbath to be in direct correlation to my apprehension of and living in this eschatalogical perspective.


  5. July 9, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    The title and the content of this article raises these questions and points. Regarding the title, why link the Sabbath principle to justification?

    Regarding the content, yes, there still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. Hebrews 4: 9. But, John Calvin states in his Commentary on Hebrews 4:3-10: “For he who understands that the main object of the precept was not external rest or earthly worship, immediately perceives, by looking on Christ, that the external rite was abolished by his coming; for when the body appears, the shadows immediately vanish away. Then our first business always is, to teach that Christ is the end of the Law.”

    Calvin’s statement makes me conclude that the Fourth Commandment (observing the Sabbath) is included in the Law. Romans 7:7, which specifically includes the Tenth Commandment (to not covet), also supports the contention that the Law includes foremost the Ten Commandments.

    So then, why exalt the Sabbath as if our practice of our Sabbath is linked to our justification?

    Galatians 3:11-12 warns us: “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.”

    The purpose of the Law, including all the Ten Commandments and the Fourth Commandment, is to lead us to Christ. “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 4:24-26. As Calvin stated: “… our first business always is, to teach that Christ is the end of the Law.”

  6. Bruce said,

    July 9, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    Calvin is great on the 10C, including the 4th. I highly recommend Benjamin W. Farley’s translation of John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Baker, 1980; paperback reprint 2000). They were preached in the summer of 1555.

    From the Introduction:
    “Second, Christ is the end of the Law. This is especially true of Calvin’s understanding of the “ceremonial law,” with its “figures” and “foreshadows” of the clearer revelation to be given in the gospel.48 But the “shadowy” nature of the Law is not limited to ceremonial law. The moral law is also proleptic; it points forward to the Christ and has its end in him.49

    “In the sermons, few themes receive as much attention as the “shadowy” nature of the Law whose end is Christ. But what Calvin stresses is the enduring and permanent worth of the moral law, whose authority is in no way mitigated by the shadowy nature of the ceremonial law. As Calvin states in ‘The Thirteenth Sermon’:

    “‘Now in particular he waned to write … [the Law] on two tablets of stone that it might endure, for it was not given [to last] for just a brief period [of time] as something transient. It is true that the ceremonies have ended, which is why the Law is called temporal, but what we must keep in mind is that this order, which was established among the ancient people to serve until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, has now been abolished and the things have become perfect, indeed to the extent that we are no longer under the shadows and figures which prevailed then. In any event, the truth and substance of the Law were not [confined] to one age; they constitute something permanent which shall abide forever.50′” (p.25)

    And here, I would like to add just a few words from “The Fifth Sermon”, which, along with “The Sixth Sermon”, address the 4th commandment:

    “Now from the foregoing we see what attitude68 we hold all Christianity and the service of God. For what was given to us in order to help us approach God, we use as an occasion for alienating ourselves from him even more. And as a result we are led astray. We must recover it all. Is not such a diabolical malice in men? Would to God that we had to look hard for examples and that they were more rare. But as everything is profaned, we see that the majority hardly care about the usage of this day which has been instituted in order that we might withdraw from all earthly anxieties, from all business affairs, to the end that we might surrender everything to God.

    “Moreover, let us realize that it is not only for coming to the sermon that the day of Sunday is instituted, but that in order that we might devote all the rest of the time to praising God. Indeed! For although he nurtures us every day, nevertheless we do not sufficiently meditate on the favors he bestows on us in order to magnify them…. But when Sunday is spent not only in pastimes full of vanity, but in things which are entirely contrary to God, it seems that one has not at all celebrated Sunday [and] that God has been offended in many ways. Thus when people profane in the manner the holy order69 which God instituted to lead us to himself, why should they be astonished if all the rest of the week is degraded?”

    Are the Westminster divines so far from Calvin’s position? Methinks not so…

  7. July 10, 2008 at 7:22 am

    Thank you Bruce! What great input!

    Here is what the Heidelberg Catechism states in summary in regards to the Ten Commandments, which obviously would include the Fourth Commandment (observing the Sabbath) which is the subject matter of this post:

    “Q & A 114
    Q. But can those converted to God
    obey these commandments perfectly?

    A. No.
    In this life even the holiest
    have only a small beginning of this obedience.

    Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose,
    they do begin to live
    according to all, not only some,
    of God’s commandments.

    Q & A 115
    Q. No one in this life
    can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly:
    why then does God want them
    preached so pointedly?

    A. First, so that the longer we live
    the more we may come to know our sinfulness
    and the more eagerly look to Christ
    for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.

    Second, so that,
    while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit,
    we may never stop striving
    to be renewed more and more after God’s image,
    until after this life we reach our goal:

    In summary, I do think there is a tension between being not under the law or dead to the Law AND recognizing as you quote Calvin: “In any event, the truth and substance of the Law were not [confined] to one age; they constitute something permanent which shall abide forever.”

    I think the Holy Spirit helps us to do that by both producing the fruit of the Spirit so that we find ourselves not violating the Ten Commandments AND leading us in all truth, using all of Scripture, including the Ten Commandments to profit us.

    But, I think that it is important for us to accept our justification and sanctification by faith and not try to prove ourselves by “doing” and keeping the Ten Commandments hanging over our heads as the ultimate judge.

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