Sabbath and the Protestant Reformation

By Leif L.

This is the 11th part of a series of articles about the Sabbath.

“Does God require us to observe the Sabbath and other holy days of the Old Testament? The Sabbath was a sign pointing to Jesus, who is our rest. Since Jesus has come as our Savior and Lord, God no longer requires us to observe the Sabbath day and other holy days of the Old Testament. Does God require the church to worship together on any specific days? God requires Christians to worship together. He has not specified any particular day. The church worships together especially on Sunday because Christ rose from the dead on Sunday.” – Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” p.66-67

20140219-123759.jpgSaturday Sabbath-keeping Christians often assume that Protestants who gather to fellowship and worship Jesus on Sunday do so out of a misguided attempt to keep the “Christian Sabbath”.

Many don’t know that during the Continental Reformation, Sunday was not understood to be a holy day, or the “Christian Sabbath”. Protestantism originally viewed the ritual practice of Sabbath observance as unnecessary to the gospel and for the Christian Church.

These early Continental Protestants believed that the substance of the Sabbath was realized in Jesus, and that Sunday is not “the Christian Sabbath”. They held that the Sabbath was a Jewish ritual which pointed toward the promises of God in the New Covenant. It was therefore fulfilled by Jesus, who has become the realization of all of the Old Testament types for all those who place their trust in Him.

Here is another quote from Martin Luther (emphasis mine):

“Now, in the Old Testament, God separated the seventh day, and appointed it for rest, and commanded that it should be regarded as holy above all others. As regards this external observance, this commandment was given to the Jews alone, that they should abstain from toilsome work, and rest, so that both man and beast might recuperate, and not be weakened by unremitting labor. Although they afterwards restricted this too closely, and grossly abused it, so that they traduced and could not endure in Christ those works which they themselves were accustomed to do on that day, as we read in the Gospel; just as though the commandment were fulfilled by doing no external, [manual] work whatever, which, however, was not the meaning, but, as we shall hear, that they sanctify the holy day or day of rest.
This commandment, therefore, according to its gross sense, does not concern us Christians; for it is altogether an external matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament, which were attached to particular customs, persons, times, and places, and now have been made free through Christ.” – The Large Catechism by Dr. Martin Luther, Translated by F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau, Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church.(St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), pp. 565-773 Part 5

This was not only the position of Martin Luther but of the Continental Reformation generally, as evidenced in the greatest of the early Protestant declarations of faith:

“Of this kind is the observance of the Lord’s Day, Easter, Pentecost, and like holy-days and rites. For those who judge that by the authority of the Church the observance of the Lord’s Day instead of the Sabbath-day was ordained as a thing necessary, do greatly err. Scripture has abrogated the Sabbath-day; for it teaches that, since the Gospel has been revealed, all the ceremonies of Moses can be omitted. And yet, because it was necessary to appoint a certain day, that the people might know when they ought to come together, it appears that the Church designated the Lord’s Day for this purpose; and this day seems to have been chosen all the more for this additional reason, that men might have an example of Christian liberty, and might know that the keeping neither of the Sabbath nor of any other day is necessary.” – Augsburg Confession, Article 28, Sections 57-60

These Protestants affirmed that Christians were not obligated to keep the Sabbath. They also deny that the Church transferred the sanctity of the Sabbath to Sunday, which was a ploy of Rome to deceive Protestantism.

The Continental Protestants recognized that the claim of the change of the Sabbath to Sunday by the Roman Catholic Church was a deception. The Augsburg confession answers the charge of Rome in more than one place. They met it head-on with the gospel, that we are justified by faith, and not by performing ceremonies, which can never merit grace or acceptance with God.

There are monstrous disputations concerning the changing of the law, the ceremonies of the new law, the changing of the Sabbath-day, which all have sprung from the false belief that there must needs be in the Church a service like to the Levitical, and that Christ had given commission to the Apostles and bishops to devise new ceremonies as necessary to salvation. These errors crept into the Church when the righteousness of faith was not taught clearly enough. Some dispute that the keeping of the Lord’s Day is not indeed of divine right, but in a manner so. They prescribe concerning holy-days, how far it is lawful to work. What else are such disputations than snares of consciences? For although they endeavor to modify the traditions, yet the mitigation can never be perceived as long as the opinion remains that they are necessary, which must needs remain where the righteousness of faith and Christian liberty are not known. – Augsburg Confession, Article 28, Sections 61-64

From the days of the apostles, gathering on the first day of the week was practiced (Acts 20:8, 1 Corinthians 16:2) and then firmly established by the Eastern Apostolic churches in the second century. When the Protestants make reference to “the Church” in the Augsburg Confession, they were referring to the Pre-Roman Christian Church. Long before the ascendency of the Roman Church, Christians universally observed the first day of the week, not as a Sabbath, but as a special day of Christian worship, which the Saturday Sabbath never was.

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