I recently stumbled across John Bunyan’s little booklet, “Questions About the Nature and perpetuity of the Seventh-Day Sabbath,” a fascinating insight into Bunyan’s views on Covenant Theology and the continuation (or not) of the Mosaic Law.
The booklet is written with the purpose of refuting the “Seventh-Day Baptists”—Baptists who had apparently taken to the belief that it was necessary to continue the Jewish Sabbath, on Saturday, and meet for worship on Saturday. Which, of course, is not a very prevalent argument today, making the piece a bit of an oddity to the modern reader!
However, the way Bunyan chooses to refute these people turns out to be immensely relevant to many discussions that are still happening.
Bunyan’s argument against the Sabbath
On reading, his booklet immediately divides itself into two logical sections: first, he dismantles the idea that the Sabbath is, or has ever been, a moral law. He does this by making the following outline:
- In Question I, he establishes that the Sabbath is not evident by nature.
- In Question II, he establishes that God did not give the instruction before the Mosaic Law.
- In Question III, he establishes that it was only given to Israel, not the Gentiles, even after Sinai.
- In Question IV, he establishes that the Sabbath was done away with along with the other Jewish rites and ceremonies, at the time of the Apostles.
He makes excellent arguments. He attacks the fundamental assumptions of what we now call Covenant Theology. He attacks the idea of a “creation ordinance,” even. In short, he attacks the idea of a Saturday Sabbath not by setting out to prove that the Sabbath has been moved, but by proving that the Sabbath was never a moral law, rather a shadow of what was to come—Christ.
This is an interesting approach, and he is very successful. I have never read such a convincing anti-Sabbatarian piece. He pulls in relevant pieces from all over Scripture to disprove the notion that the Sabbath was moral, or that it continues today.
The seventh-day sabbath, as such, was a sign and shadow of things to come; and a sign cannot be the thing signified and substance too. Wherefore when the thing signified, or substance, is come, the sign or thing shadowing ceaseth. And, I say, the seventh-day sabbath being so, as a seventh-day sabbath it ceaseth also.
Bunyan’s argument for the Lord’s Day
The second part of Bunyan’s argument is found in one single, incredibly long question: Question V. Here he attempts to demonstrate why Sunday is the correct day for having worship. Since he spent the first four questions (less than half of the entire essay!) establishing that Saturday was not moral, without Question V, one would conclude that the Church could simply do whatever it pleased, or even nothing. These seventh-day Baptists could easily respond, well, we’ll keep our worship on Saturday, then!
So—he has something to prove, here, too. But Question V is difficult, because he appears to backtrack a little bit, and could even be said to contradict his own earlier points. Indeed, when my husband found out I had read Bunyan on the Sabbath, he recalled an essay by John Resinger who says Bunyan did contradict himself. Reisinger says, “on the one hand, [Bunyan] appears to be a full-blown Sabbatarian, but at the same time, he removes the foundation of that very position” and “Bunyan destroys the foundation of Covenant Theology’s view of law… [then] he changes direction completely and lays out Covenant Theology’s view of the Christian Sabbath. Bunyan’s position… is inconsistent and untenable” (p 2, 5, Reisinger, “John Bunyan on the Sabbath”).
Reisinger’s opinion surprised me. I had felt a little uncomfortable with the strength of some of Bunyan’s language in Question V, and indeed, at one point he does even say the day was “changed,” as Covenant Theology would—and that odd word choice stuck out to me—but I hadn’t seen his argument as untenable, or even disagreeable.
Bunyan begins this section by affirming two conclusions from his prior questions: 1) it is denied that the seventh day sabbath is moral, and 2) it is not to abide as a sabbath forever in the church. Then he asks, “What time is to be fixed on for the New Testament saints to perform together divine worship to God by Christ in?”
This question is an important frame for the very, very long argument that follows. Is Bunyan trying to prove that the Sabbath moved? Resoundingly not. Rather, his purpose here is to establish what is the proper time, appointed by God, for the Church to worship.
Bunyan begins with the precept that I found uncomfortable:
TIME to worship God in, is required by the law of nature.
On the one hand, this seems utterly self-evident. But he’s giving it a theological stamp of approval, and it is a major premise for the arguments that follow, and it’s absurd, honestly, how much he doesn’t even try to establish this precept from Scripture. He says it, and leaves it. Suddenly it’s very clear that when he said a “seventh-day Sabbath” wasn’t evident from nature, he really meant exactly that—the seventh-day Sabbath wasn’t evident from nature.
Then he moves into a second precept, taking Hebrews 4:10 and using it to draw a parallel between God resting on the Sabbath and Christ resting on Sunday:
Now God rested from his works, and sanctified a day of rest to himself, as a signal of that rest, which day he also gave to his church as a day of holy rest likewise. And if Christ thus rested from his own works, and the Holy Ghost says he did thus rest, he also hath sanctified a day to himself, as that in which he hath finished his work, and given it (that day) also to his church to be an everlasting memento of his so doing, and that they should keep it holy for his sake.
Again, it is hard to argue with what Bunyan is actually saying, but that it seems to lead him into a second Sabbath-like mandate, a day of rest for the Church in imitation of Christ, is—awkward. It’s very clear why Reisinger says he appears to be a “full-blown Sabbatarian.”
However, this is only on the first page or two of Bunyan’s seventeen-page-long answer. And it is necessary to ask, what does Bunyan mean by a “sanctified day,” and what does he mean by “rest” and by “holy”? What’s the significance of his calling Sunday a “memento” rather than a “mandate” here?
It certainly seems like he is setting up traditional Covenant Theology again, but… this isn’t a sermon where someone possibly wandered off mid-stream and got their train of thought mixed up. This is a well-executed, well-edited essay by a very intelligent thinker. Moreover, this is an essay written by someone who didn’t have twentieth-century theological terminology and all its nuances at his beck and call. I’ve noticed this with Gill—even while refuting Covenant Theology, he uses some of their terms which we would probably not use today. So it is doubly important to try to understand what they actually mean, and not base so much off of signal language.
The term “the Lord’s Day” is a good example of this, as it appears not a single time in the entire essay, despite being the phrase that would be on the tips of our modern tongues. “Sunday” is also completely and totally absent. What is not absent is “the first day,” which appears 108 times, almost all of which in this latter section. In fact, while he occasionally calls Sunday “the Christian Sabbath,” the vast majority of his references to “Sabbath” are to either the Old Testament Sabbath, or to the eternal Sabbath we have in Christ. And he has a clear preference for calling our meeting-day “the first day of the week,” rather than a “Sabbath.” (Although, again—he does call it a sabbath occasionally.)
I think we should begin with the assumption that Bunyan wasn’t setting out to completely contradict himself, and take careful note of what he said of the old sabbath:
This sabbath then, was God’s rest typically, and was given to Israel as a sign of his grace towards them in Christ. Wherefore when Christ was risen, it ceased, and was no longer of obligation to bind the conscience to the observation thereof… All the rests therefore that Moses gave them, and that Joshua gave them too, were but typical of another day, in which God would give them rest (Heb 4:9,10). And whether the day to come, was Christ, or Heaven, it makes no matter: it is enough that they before did fail, as always shadows do, and that therefore mention by David is, and that afterward, made of another day.
So the old Sabbath was a sign, and the first day is a memorial, a “memento,” as Bunyan says. The old Sabbath had a sanction, which it lost:
By this last clause of the verse, ‘Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind,’ he doth plainly declare, that such days are now stript of their sanction. For none of God’s laws, while they retain their sanction, are left to the will and mind of the believers, as to whether they will observe them or no. Men, I say, are not left to their liberty in such a case; for when a stamp of divine authority is upon a law, and abides, so long we are bound, not to our mind, but to that law: but when a thing, once sacred, has lost its sanction, then it falls, as to faith and conscience, among other common or indifferent things. And so the seventh day sabbath did.
The old law of works is changed to a rule of life in Christ:
the whole law, as to the morality of it, is delivered into the hand of Christ, who imposes it now also; but not as a law of works, nor as that ministration written and engrave in stones, but as a rule of life to those that have believed in him
This is, in fact, the very heart of Bunyan’s argument for a sanctified first day:
So then, that law [of Christ] is still moral, and still supposes, since it teaches that there is a God, that time must be set apart for his church to worship him in, according to that will of his that he had revealed in his word. But though by that law time is required; yet by that, as moral, the time never was prefixed. The time then of old was appointed by such a ministration of that law as we have been now discoursing of; and when that ministration ceaseth, that time did also vanish with it. And now by our new law-giver, the Son of God, he being ‘lord also of the sabbath day,’ we have a time prefixed, as the law of nature requireth, a new day, by him who is the lord of it; I say, appointed, wherein we may worship, not in the oldness of that letter written and engraven in stones, but according to, and most agreeing with, his new and holy testament.
In short, Bunyan argues that in Old and New Testament alike, we must have a time for worshipping God together, and then he spends many, many pages explaining that the day in the New Testament for worship is Sunday, and that it is sanctified by the Resurrection.
Yet what does he mean by sanctified? It is worth pointing out that he, earlier in his argument, showed that the regulations of the old sabbath no longer apply—
Now if these be the laws of the sabbath, this seventh day sabbath; and if God did never command that this sabbath should by his church be sanctified without them: and, as was said before, if these ceremonies have been long since dead and buried, how must this sabbath be kept?
Thus, the rules, the regulations of the old, do not apply to the first day. He even says the first day is ordained “to perform that worship to him which was also in a shadow signified by the ceremonies of the law.” The ceremonies of the old (including the sabbath) are fulfilled in the worship of the New Testament church, the regulations and rules fulfilled in the reality of a New Covenant in Christ. This is not a new “ceremony” Christ imposes.
What “rules,” then, does Bunyan apply to the first day? He goes through the New Testament and systematically pulls out the commands for corporate worship, and calls this “the work” to be done on the first day: 1) to break bread; 2) to collect for the saints; 3) to worship.
He also warns specifically against entangling the seventh-day sabbath with the first day:
A new covenant, and why not then a new resting day to the church? Or why must the old sabbath be joined to this new
ministration? let him that can, show a reason for it… Christians, beware of being entangled with old testament ministrations, lest by one you be brought into many inconveniencies. I have observed, that though the Jewish rites have lost their sanction, yet some that are weak in judgment, do bring themselves into bondage by them.
Bunyan notably doesn’t repeat the admonitions of his time and contemporaries to avoid recreation, or any of the other Puritan prohibitions. Further, he elucidates against prohibitions,
Nor can I believe, that any part of our religion, as we are Christians, stand in not kindling of fires, and not seething of victuals, or in binding of men not to stir out of those places on the seventh day, in which at the dawning thereof they were found.
He is not concerned with enumerating the laws thereof, but of emphasizing what Scripture calls us to do on the first day, what is our privilege to do on the first day. He shows that the early church did it by agreement, by custom, on that most logical day that encompassed the Resurrection and Pentecost and many other happenings—but is clear throughout that even still, even sanctified as the day was, it was their custom to devote the day to a memorial. Bunyan speaks often in terms such as “this day is appointed… to do this duty in,” and speaks of some specific duty (such as gathering an offering for the poor) which Scripture describes as being due on that day. He says we “mark” the day, “for so many memorable things were done on it… let saints be ashamed to think that such a day should be looked over, or counted common… when kept to religious service of old, and when beautified with so many divine characters of sanctity.” He points out that in Acts 20:7, the church was clearly intending to spend the entire day to worship, and he clearly finds this a model, although he falls short of describing it as a mandate—rather, as a custom. A delightful custom, as Bunyan demonstrates by contrasting, again, the old Sabbath with the first-day:
…the first day of the week is the Christian’s market day, that which they so solemnly trade in for sole provision for all the week following. This is the day that they gather manna in. To be sure the seventh day sabbath is not that. For of old the people of God could never find manna on that day. ‘On the seventh day [said Moses] which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none’ (Exo 16:26).
Again, a great distinction. Where the old sabbath was somber, empty, waiting for fulfillment, the first day is the day of rejoicing in what has been provided.
And Bunyan concludes,
Let this [essay] then to such be a second token that the Lord’s day is by them to be kept in commemoration of their Lord and his resurrection, and of what he did on this day for their salvation.
He’s gone full-circle, dismantling the old Sabbath, and appearing for a moment to build a new one, but ultimately, it is a “sabbath” without regulation, except for worship, and not for the purpose of law, but of grace, and not a sign, but a commemoration. The law of the sabbath was not a creation ordinance, but worship was. The rest is not from day-to-day endeavors, but a rest in Christ. It is not a fast of Moses, but a time of feasting on the Bread of Life.
I find it hard to disagree with him, and don’t find his arguments to be Sabbatarian or Covenant Theology, to the end. He has his moments of questionable terminology, but these seem easily understandable by his temporal context, and not the substance of his arguments. He would surely offend those who believe Sunday worship is not instructed in Scripture, but believing in Sunday worship is not the same thing as the Covenantal / Sabbatarian position, especially since his purpose in this article is not to dismantle Covenant Theology (although he does!) but to dismantle the idea that Christians should not meet on the first day—which necessitates that he vigorously defend first-day worship.