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Arminians, Calvinists, and Two Theological Terms Worth Chucking

There are real theological differences, and then there are ways we just talk past each other. In this post I’d like to share two of my pet peeves with how Arminians and Calvinists sometimes define the terms of their debates. The differences are certainly real, and I don’t pretend to understand them in depth. But I’ve heard enough by now to be quite sure that the way we are using some terms probably isn’t helping anyone.

So, in the interests of pugnacity and peace (or at least the latter), let’s get started!

Since I’m more of an Arminian than a Calvinist—though I’ve benefited from listening to both and though I wish I had time to also explore molinism (such as in this book)—I’ll start closer to home and take Arminians to task first.

(1) Arminians, stop saying Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved”!

If you ask any well-trained Calvinist whether they believe this, they will certainly say “no.” As Craig Keener (an Arminian NT scholar) says, “‘Once-saved-always-saved’ as it is commonly taught in many churches is neither Calvinism nor Arminianism.” Similarly, I recall hearing Bill Mounce, a self-proclaimed 4-point Calvinist (I recall he doubts “irresistible grace”), strongly deny that he believes in “once saved, always saved.” He speaks passionately against the kind of gospel invitation that he heard as a boy—the kind where you are invited to come down the “sawdust trail” to the “altar” and “believe” and—in Mounce’s words—“have a moment of positive volition.” No repentance needed, and not even any clear specificity about what you are supposed to believe. And, if you respond, you are assured that you are eternally saved—no matter how grossly or freely you sin thereafter.

That, my friends, is “once saved, always saved.” And unfortunately, it is what some people promote (both some self-professed Calvinists as well as all true Free Grace advocates, etc.). And some who use the term do seem to use it to promote apparently orthodox Calvinist positions that do not match the scenario above. (For example, this is the first link that pops up on a Google search for the term.)

So what is the problem with using the term? The term “once saved, always saved” normally implies that there is no need for a Christian to live a holy life in order to be assured of salvation. But John Calvin didn’t believe this. Listen to Timothy George’s analysis:

In his commentary on John 10:28, Calvin declared:

…This is a remarkable passage, teaching us that the salvation of all the elect is as certain as God’s power is invincible… He who keeps what we have committed unto him is greater and more powerful than all; and so we have nothing to be afraid of, as if our life were in danger.

This is a rich and nuanced doctrine and cannot be reduced to the shorthand formula “once saved, always saved.” Calvin did not minimize the sin of apostasy, that is, a complete falling away and utter renunciation of the gospel. However, this sin could be committed only by one who had not received the “incorruptible seed” of the Spirit in the new birth. Such unbelievers might show evidence of the Christian life, and might even possess what Calvin called “temporary faith,” but in the end they would prove to be false saints… On the other hand, true believers might fall into sin, even gross sin, but, sustained by the Spirit, they would not totally or finally be lost. Those who took this teaching as an occasion for laxity were presuming on the grace of God and stood in jeopardy of divine judgment. (Theology of the Reformers, Kindle location 4941, bold added)

I am not convinced Calvin is right in every point (as summarized here by George), but clearly we are not doing him justice to claim he believed “once saved, always saved.”

So, what should we say Calvinists believe? Timothy George uses the term “indefectibility of faith” and the Dictionary of the Christian Church uses the term “indefectibility of grace” (pg. 268)—both implying that Christians will not defect (turn away from) from faith or grace. A more common term was made popular through the “Five Points of Calvinism” (TULIP) that attempt to summarize the conclusions of the Synod of Dort half a century after Calvin’s death (these are a summary of disagreements with Arminianism, not a summary of Calvin’s whole theology). This term is “perseverance of the saints,” and it is probably the best term to use if you want to describe what Calvinists actually believe.

A classic explanation of this term is found in the seventeenth chapter of the Westminster Confession of faith:

They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved… Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein… (bold added)

This conundrum naturally raises the question of assurance of salvation—how can one really know whether they are saved or not? The Westminster Confession addresses this topic in the next chapter:

…Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed… Therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness. (bold added)

This is not Arminianism, to be sure. But neither is it a flippant “once saved, always saved.” This more nuanced theological understanding explains why I have repeatedly heard multiple Calvinist pastors, theologians, and seminary teachers insist that a Christian has no right to be sure of their salvation unless there is evident fruit of holiness in their lives. Not perfection, certainly, and maybe not even the level of holiness expected in some Arminian or many Anabaptist churches. But definite evidence of the fruit of regeneration, nonetheless. Otherwise there is no assurance of salvation.

In summary, only bad Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved,” just as only bad Arminians believe that they earn their salvation by their good works rather than relying on grace. If you don’t want to be accused of the latter, don’t accuse Calvinists of the former!

Which brings me to my pet peeve for Calvinists…

(2) Calvinists, stop implying that Arminians don’t believe in “Doctrines of Grace”!

“The Doctrines of Grace” is a term Calvinists often use to summarize their classic five points (see above). A quick survey on Amazon shows that this term is currently a favorite phrase among Calvinists choosing titles for their books. A Google search of the term leads to a host of more Calvinist resources, headed by a link to the website of John MacArthur, a staunch Calvinist publicist if ever there was one.

The problem with this term—I am speaking with some authority now as a non-Calvinist listener—is that it implies (to at least some listeners) that those who disagree with the “Five Points of Calvinism” do not believe in, rely on, or teach the grace of God. Arminians deny such a charge wholeheartedly!

To be certain, I don’t think most Calvinist intend to imply quite that, despite their belief that Arminians misunderstand how grace works. But, intentional or not, their ownership of the term “doctrines of grace” can tend to leave that impression. (I see some others agree with me that the term feels offensive and misleading. See, for example, here and here. Note: I do not intend to affirm all other aspects of these links.)

The problem here is that grace is a much more slippery subject than is often imagined—by most people, not just Calvinists. What exactly is grace? Who gets to define it? Can grace come with any conditions and still be grace? Can it be resisted and still be grace? Can it be potentially withdrawn and still be grace? How is God’s grace different from the grace that humans show? How is it the same? And is our modern conception of grace the same as how ancient Jews—including the apostles–thought of it?

Some of my thoughts here are triggered by an interview with the author of an important new book on grace. I am referring to John Barclay and his 2015 book Paul and the Gift, which has been described as “must reading for all interested in Paul, and in particular in his concept of grace.” That endorsement comes from Ben Witherington—a prominent Arminian NT scholar—and he has interviewed Barclay at length on his blog.

Here are some extended interview excerpts that underscore (a) the complexity of defining grace and (b) the fact that Calvinists most certainly aren’t alone in affirming grace:

JOHN: …Paul is not just a covenantal theologian with an eschatological or a radical social twist. He has a radical, even dangerous, view of God’s grace, but I was struggling to see how to articulate that. I realized that to understand what Paul means by ‘grace’ I had to understand how gifts worked in the ancient world, and the deeper I got into that (which is a fascinating subject in itself) the more I began to see that there are different kinds of ‘grace’ in the ancient world, including the ancient Jewish world…

I have tried to trace… how we have acquired the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ with ‘no strings attached’, but I think it is increasingly recognized now that this is a very modern (indeed, modern Western) notion and not one that is shared in antiquity (or in most non-Western cultures)…

Paul radicalizes the incongruity of grace (grace given without regard to worth), and his understanding of the Christ-gift as an incongruous gift lies at the heart of his Gentile mission (and his own self-understanding). But this does not mean that God gives expecting nothing in return (what I call non-circular or unilateral grace): in fact Romans 6-8 expressly refutes that notion (of ‘cheap grace’) by saying that believers are ‘under grace’ (Rom 6.14). And on a human level, Paul does not think that gifts carry no obligations: see Romans 15.27 (on the Jerusalem collection as an obliged return gift), for example!…

I discuss Luther and Calvin at some length (after discussion of Augustine, on whom they both draw). I think Luther and Calvin were both absolutely right in emphasizing the incongruity of divine grace (given without regard for our merit or worth), but they also radicalized other aspects of Paul’s theology of gift (in Luther’s case, a clear move towards the gift as a unilateral, one-way movement) that go significantly beyond Paul. I also think that their (in their context necessary) emphasis on grace as the cure for sin, guilt and anxiety, left out another and very important social dimension of Paul’s theology of grace. Since God’s grace has no regard for human criteria of worth, it enables the construction of innovative, counter-cultural communities that sit loose to dominant cultural values… (Source for above quotes, bold added)

JOHN: I think are two questions here: i) should the gift be given without regard to the worth of the recipient and ii) should a gift elicit a return of some sort? The two can run together (a worthy recipient might be one more likely to express gratitude), but they are also seperable [sic]…. We have created notions of ‘altruism’ and ‘disinterest’ that are distinctly modern (making disinterest and interest mutually exclusive). It feels like that is Christian, and there are certainly Christian reasons for risky forms of giving that may not elicit a response, but the core Christian tradition is that even God’s giving wants a response from humans, even if it does not and cannot require it. Does God give to us ‘with no thought of return’? Does not God give to us, without regard to our worth, but lovingly wanting the return that fulfils our human potential, that is the return of thanksgiving (see Romans 1) and faith (see Romans 4)?

Gift [grace] is a phenomenon that has at least these three facets. The six I have identified are: superabundance (the size of character of the gift); singularity (God’s character as giver and nothing-but-giver); priority (the timing of the gift before any initiative from the other side); incongruity (the mismatch between the gift and the worth of the recipient; efficacy (the ability of the gift to achieve the giver’s intentions); and non-circularity (gifts that escape any system of exchange or reciprocity)… The point of this analysis will become clear as the book proceeds. It helps to clarify the differences in the highly influential history of reception of Paul (e.g. the differences between Augustine and Pelagius, or between Luther and Calvin: they all believed in grace, but in significantly different ways)… (Source for above quotes, bold added)

BEN: On p. 575 you define ‘gift’ as follows: “Gift denotes the sphere of voluntary, personal relations, characterized by goodwill in the giving of benefit or favor, and eliciting some form of reciprocal return that is both voluntary and necessary for the continuation of the relationship.” I like this definition a lot, and I notice that the word ‘voluntary’ shows up twice in the definition. I would imagine however, that a uber-Calvinistic theologian (e.g. John Piper) would not be happy about that word in a definition of grace, if by voluntary you mean ‘the recipient of the gift could have done otherwise than respond positively’. In other words, a certain kind of theology of predestination, would say that the ‘gift’ and the relationship were predetermined from before the foundation of the universe…

JOHN: First, note that my definition is a definition of gift (the domain of human relations as analysed by anthropology and traced in human history) not a definition of grace, if by the latter we mean ‘the divine gift of grace, given ultimately and definitively in Christ’. However, it would be problematic for Paul, as for us, if our response to grace could not be considered in any sense ‘voluntary’ (i.e. truly willed). Note how much he emphasises in 2 Corinthians 8-9 that the Corinthians’ gift (‘charis’) to Jerusalem should be voluntary and not an extraction (2 Corinthians 9.5); otherwise in his eyes it would not be a gift. Now, ‘voluntary’ in Paul’s eyes does not mean ‘free of any external influence’ (see how much effort he puts into persuading them to make this voluntary gift!): he does not labour under our illusion that we can and should act as completely autonomous individuals. But he does expect that God’s work in us generates our own willing (Phil 2.12-13), as freed agents who could do otherwise (it is possible, in Paul’s eyes, to fall out of grace).

What you are touching on here is the tendency, in a line of interpretation from Augustine, through Calvin, to Jonathan Edwards, to ‘perfect’ (radicalise or absolutise) the efficacy of grace, to the point where it causes, constrains, or compels our own wills. This is to turn God’s agency/will and our agency/will into a zero sum game: the more of one, the less of the other. But God’s will is not on the same level as ours, working in the same causal nexus… To perfect the efficacy of grace in the way you describe is certainly not necessary, even if it is understandably attractive to some. (Source for above quotes, bold added)

Back to the “uber-Calvinistic theologian” John Piper. (Please understand I am using him only because he is a prominent Calvinist proponent, and I hasten to add that I have been greatly blessed by much of his teaching.) Here is Piper’s explanation of the term “doctrines of grace”:

Probably the most crucial kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. That is what the five points of Calvinism are about. Not the power and sovereignty of God in general, but his power and sovereignty in the way he saves people. That is why these points are sometimes called the doctrines of grace. To experience God fully, we need to know not just how he acts in general, but specifically how he saves us — how did he save me? (“What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism“, bold added)

Given this explanation, we can see that the “doctrines of grace” are really the “doctrines of how God saves people.” More accurately, they are the “Calvinist doctrines of how God saves people.”

That phrase is not nearly as snappy for book titles, I know, but it is much more accurate! After all, when we probe the finer points of exactly how God saves people, there are many complexities and mysteries, and there have been many different balances of understanding throughout church history. All orthodox Christian understandings, however, have centered on the reality that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. This is an understanding shared by Arminians as much as by Calvinists.

To deny our need for grace is to deny our need for Christ! Thus withholding the term “doctrines of grace” from Arminians is tantamount to denying that they are Christians at all.

To call one theological system but not the other “the doctrines of grace” is begging the question—assuming the answer before the discussion has begun. Instead, we should be debating this: What are the differences between the Arminian and Calvinist doctrines of grace? And which matches Scripture best?

In sum, it would be helpful if Calvinists would stop insinuating that Arminians are denying our dependence upon grace. Denial of grace is not a classic Arminian stance, just as universal human salvation by grace apart from any human response—at the other end of the spectrum—is not a classic Calvinist belief.


So there you have it: two pet peeves from me, one for Arminians and one for Calvinists. As my dad used to tell me and my brothers, let’s fight nice!

Please add your peaceable thoughts in the comments below. Thank you!


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Anabaptists, Flat Bibles, and the Sabbath

When I was a teenager, on many a weekend we youth from our small church drove for 3-1/2 hours to spend time “down south” with church friends. Then on Sunday afternoon or evening, after a fine (or angst-laden) time in the Kitchener-Waterloo region with friends who sported last names like Bauman, Biehn, Martin, Frey, Horst, Martin, Koch, Weber, Martin, and Zehr, we would reluctantly hit the road north for Parry Sound and home. Usually our homeward journey took us through the little town of Arthur. There we would fill up with cheap(er) southern gas.

Yes, you read correctly. We bought gas on our homeward Sunday journey. I don’t remember ever buying supper in Arthur, however. Gas was a necessity. Food was not. If we were fortunate, our weekend hosts had already stuffed us with food. But not always. I clearly remember the hunger I felt during many long trips home, stomachs rumbling in the car as we rolled past many a welcoming restaurant.

If we timed things just right, the story ended more happily. I also remember many Sunday nights, driving home late after perhaps an evening revival meeting, when we rolled into the city of Barrie just as the clock struck midnight. On such nights–after 12:00 but not a moment before (usually!)–McDonalds was more than a welcome bathroom break. It was also the scene of happy teenagers scarfing cheezeburgers and fries. Ah, the salty satisfaction of stepping out of the sphere of the Law! McDonalds fries never tasted better.

This morning in Sunday School we discussed the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Our class had an interesting and profitable conversation. But it wasn’t until the sermon that this post started to form in my mind. The sermon this morning was more  of a teaching session, perhaps because the preacher recently returned from several weeks as a Calvary Bible School instructor. His presentation today contrasted Anabaptists and Protestants, explaining how differing theologies have led to differing behaviors. Some such presentations stick in my throat on the way down, but this one contained enough caveats and compassion that I thought it was quite helpful. Beliefs do matter, after all, and different beliefs do tend to produce different results, and I do find myself affirming a higher percentage of Menno Simon’s beliefs than those of Martin Luther.

One of the contrasts between Anabaptists and Protestants that was mentioned today was in our approach to Scripture.  Protestants, we heard, have tended to have a “flat Bible.” That is, they have tended to draw principles and practices from both testaments quite equally. Thus, they while they affirm salvation through Jesus’ blood, drawing this from the New Testament, they usually also affirm that Christians can go to war, swear oaths, and baptize infants–often basing these affirmations on Old Testament precedents. Anabaptists, in contrast, have historically interpreted the OT through the NT, reading all through the “Jesus lens” (as a recent evangelical book encourages us to do!). Thus Anabaptists have rejected practices such as war, oaths, and infant baptism based on the teachings of Jesus and his apostles.

This general distinction is historically true. But, while talking with friends after the service this morning, I realized there are important exceptions. For example, my mind drifted back to our Sunday School topic: the Sabbath.

Let me state two theses for the heart of my post:

  1. I think that many conservative Anabaptists today take a very “flat Bible” approach to the question of Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.
  2. I think that this is due, at least in part, to Protestant influence. Update: And also due to much older influence—Constantinian law.

Let me briefly defend my first thesis and suggest research pointers for me second.

Many Anabaptists that I know are much like the teenaged me. Without even thinking about it, we tend to assume that the Lord’s Day replaces the OT Sabbath. More specifically, we believe that, just as the Sabbath was the day of rest for OT saints, so the Lord’s Day is the day of rest for NT saints. But this idea is not taught anywhere in Scripture.

Here are some things I do find in Scripture:

  1. Christians are not bound to “remember the Sabbath day” (Ex. 20:8). This command given to the Israelite nation. As NT believers, our general relationship toward the Law of Moses is that we are not under its authority (Rom. 6:14; Rom. 7:6; 1Cor. 9:20; Gal. 3:10, 23-26; Gal. 5:18; Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:12; etc.). While Jesus reaffirmed 9 of the 10 Commandments as part of new covenant ethics, he never clearly reaffirmed the Sabbath command. If we only had Jesus’ direct words, you might be able to argue fairly convincingly that Christians should observe the Sabbath. But, after his resurrection, Christ clarified many things through his Spirit and his apostles. Paul answers our question very clearly: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in question 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” (Col. 2:16-17; cf. Rom. 14:1-6; Gal. 4:9-11). If you want to hang onto the Sabbath law, then please enjoy your kosher meat and your new moon celebrations! The author of Hebrews makes a similar point. In his argument that Christ is “better than” all things previous, he notes that Israel’s rest in Canaan was not the final fulfillment of God’s seventh-day rest (Heb. 4:4-8). Rather, “we who have believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3). And in classic already/not-yet tension, he adds, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:9-11). To supplement our rest in Christ with Sabbath laws makes as much sense as insisting that we must also move to Canaan and rest in that earthly promised land.
  2. We find examples, but no rules, regarding the Lord’s Day. Our Sunday School booklets asked the blunt question: “Is there anything unlawful for us on the Lord’s Day?” To answer this well, we first need to ask, “Does Scripture give any laws about the Lord’s Day?” The answer is “no.” Here are some of the things we do find about the “Lord’s Day.” This term is use only once in Scripture–in Revelation 1:10, where John writes, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” John does not say which day of the week this was. However, based on what we know of early church use of this term, it seems reasonable that he was referring to the first day of the week. Elsewhere in the NT we read of other Christian activities on the first day of the week: meeting to break bread and receive apostolic teaching (Acts 20:7) and setting money aside for collections for poor believers (1 Cor. 16:1-2). It seems reasonable, again based on early church history, that the reason Christians began meeting on the first day of the week was because this was the day that Jesus rose from the dead (Matt. 28:1) and also the day when the Spirit was poured out (based on calculations for the date of Pentecost).

In summary, Scripture makes it clear that : (1) Christians are not bound to obey the Sabbath. (2) We are not required to observe any other holy days. (3) Rest in and through Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Sabbath law. (4) The origin of the Lord’s Day is unrelated to the Sabbath. (5) No rules are given for the Lord’s Day.

At this point some of you may be thinking: “But what about Genesis 2? What about God’s example of resting on the seventh day–an example that precedes the Law of Moses?” Good question!

Here is how I think that question can be answered:

  1. It is crucial to note that God’s example does not overturn the clear statements of the NT: Christians are not bound to observe any holy day.
  2. However, I think God’s example–as well as his institution of all sorts of Sabbaths (weekly and otherwise) in the Law of Moses–reflects the reality that all of creation flourishes best with regular times of rest. This is a creation fact, and I know it to be true in my own life: I flourish best with regular days of rest.
  3. However…! (This is where some of you may finally fall off my train.) I don’t think we should expect to enjoy now all of God’s original provisions for our flourishing. Put more bluntly, I don’t think Christians have a right to demand a weekly day of rest. A comparison may help. In Genesis 2:3 we read that God “blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” And in Genesis 2:18 we hear God say, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” This blessing, the blessing of a wife, is the greatest blessing that God gives to man in Genesis 2. Most men–myself included–generally flourish best if they are married. (I’m speaking here as a male; most of what I’m saying is true for women, too, I think, although I have a hunch that on average single women fair slightly better than single men. Let’s put the lid back on that can!) So we have these two great Genesis 2 blessings provided for humanity: a day made holy because God rested, and marriage. But when we come to the NT, what do we find? Well, what might Paul say? Let’s listen:

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion… 

27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 27-35)

This is uncomfortable theology for many of us, but I think Paul possessed exceptional insight. Given life post-Fall, and given the NT call to proclaim the gospel, Paul sees that marriage is not for all. Indeed, for those who can do without, marriage is sometimes actually a hindrance, a distraction from serving the Lord. God said “It is not good that the man should be alone,” but Paul knows we no longer live in the Garden, so he writes, “It is good for them to remain single.”

What does this have to do with a weekly day of rest? Well, back to a question from our Sunday School booklets:

Can resting on the Lord’s Day become laziness? (Consider Proverbs 10:5 in light of Matthew 9:35-38.)

Proverbs 10 teaches that a prudent son will gather during harvest. Matthew 9 records Jesus’ command to pray for more laborers in the spiritual harvest and describes him working hard in this harvest–including on each Sabbath, when he was “teaching in their synagogues.” Jesus did not rest his body on his Sabbath day; he knew there was a harvest urgently awaiting laborers.

Jesus did not have a flat Bible. Neither did Paul. But I fear that conservative Anabaptists sometimes have flatter Bibles that we realize. While discussing this after church, a friend suggested that we also have a flat Bible approach to our understanding of who is or is not authorized to preach. I agree that at least some of our ideas about leadership seem to arise as much from OT kingship and priesthood as from the NT. Our thinking about ordinances has suffered in similar ways. (I have not forgotten that essay.)

What did the early Anabaptists believe about a weekly day of rest? I don’t know, and don’t have time now to check. Edit (5/4/2015): John D. Roth, writing in his book Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness, summarizes early Anabaptist belief on this topic:

Initially, the Anabaptists do not seem to have elevated any particular day of the week above another for their worship. They gathered for prayer and Bible study throughout the week, and some even went out of their way to work on Sunday as a public expression of their opposition to the Catholic mass. By the end of the sixteenth century, however most Anabaptist groups had settled into a pattern of Sunday worship. Traditionally, Mennonite groups in North America took God’s example of Sabbath rest quite literally. Although practices varied widely, many Mennonite communities prohibited their members from all forms of buying and selling, from participation in sports, and from most forms of entertainment on Sunday. (pp. 157-58)

How did we get to where we are today, so that most of us have grown up believing it is wrong to work on Sunday? Again, I don’t know all the influences. I do know that the Puritans in the 1600s enacted laws prohibiting work and pleasures on Sunday. And I do know that there was a Sabbatarian movement again in the 1800s and early 1900s, when “blue laws” were enacted prohibiting businesses from being opened on Sunday. Both of these are examples of Protestant influence. I also know that this Protestant influence was codified in Anabaptist thinking in part through the efforts of Daniel Kauffman, who wrote the following of the Lord’s Day in his Doctrines of the Bible:

It is a day of rest… This is not a mere arbitrary command, a religious dogma, a scriptural “blue law” to restrain man of his liberties… Let us give this beneficent provision of an all-wise God our respect and obedience by laying all secular labor aside on the Lord’s Day. (pg. 177-78)

Edit (5/5/2015): I now have confirmation that the idea of Sunday as a day of rest goes back far beyond Protestant influences. Dom Gregory Dix, writing in The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), summarizes how early Christians contrasted the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, and how this changed:

It is still too often assumed that the observance of the christian Sunday is a continuation on a different day of the jewish sabbath. It is more than likely that the idea of such a weekly observance was suggested to the first jewish christians by familiarity with the sabbath; hellenism [Greek culture] furnishes no close analogies. But the main ideas underlying the two observances were from the first quite different. The rabbis made of the sabbath a minutely regulated day of rest, the leisure of which was partly filled in by attendance at the synagogue services which were somewhat longer on sabbath than on other days. But though the sabbath rest was emphatically a religious observance, based on the fourth commandment, it was the abstinence from work, not the attendance at public worship, which pharisaism insisted on; and indeed this was the only thing the commandment in its original meaning prescribed.

By contrast Sunday was in the primitive christian view only the prescribed day for corporate worship, by the proclamation of the Lord’s revelation and the Lord’s death till He come… But there was no attempt whatever in the first three centuries to base the observance of Sunday on the fourth commandment. On the contrary, christians maintained that like all the rest of the ceremonial law this commandment had been abrogated; and second century christian literature is full of a lively polemic against the ‘idling’ of the jewish sabbath rest. Christians shewed no hesitation at all about treating Sunday as an ordinary working day like their neighbours, once they had attended the synaxis [gathering for prayers, readings, and psalms] and eucharist [Lord’s Supper] at the ecclesia [church gathering]. This was the christian obligation, the weekly gathering of the whole Body of Christ to its Head, to become what it really is, His Body. It was only the secular edict of Constantine in the fourth century making Sunday a weekly public holiday which first made the mistake of basing the christian observance of Sunday on the fourth commandment, and so inaugurated christian ‘sabbatarianism’.

Early christian documents on the contrary go out of their way to oppose the two observances. So e.g. the so-called Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 100-130) introduces God as rebuking the whole jewish observance of the sabbath, thus: ‘“It is not your present sabbaths that are acceptable unto Me, but the sabbath which I have made, in the which when I have set all things at rest, I will make the beginning with the eighth day, which is the beginning of another world.” Wherefore we (christians) also keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested ascended into the heavens’. Here Sunday is a festival, but not a day of rest…

It seems likely, therefore, that Sunday was from its first beginnings a christian observance independent of the sabbath, though its weekly observance was probably suggested by the existence of the sabbath… [Dix also suggests that Jewish Christians, probably from the earliest times, observed both a weekly Sabbath and the Lord’s’ Day, but with differing purposes for each.] (pp. 336-37, emphasis added)

Later Dix explains how Sunday’s role was reevaluated during the time of Constantine, as the year-long Christian calendar was developing. With the development of liturgical events such as Holy Week observances, the role of weekly Sunday worship evolved:

A new basis was therefore found for Sunday by making it what it had never been before, a weekly holiday from work. In A.D. 321 Constantine issued an edict forbidding the law-courts to sit upon that day, and the enforcement of an official holiday brought daily life to something of a standstill (as in the case of a modem Bank Holiday). The result was in large part to carry out Constantine’s design of rendering attendance at christian worship possible for all his subjects, christian or otherwise-it was largely a propaganda measure; though the church had difficulty in some places in securing that its provisions were extended to that large proportion of the population who were slaves. (p. 360, emphasis aded)

Thus, the idea of Sunday as a day of rest has a very long history—but a history which is clearly post-biblical in its origin, and unbiblical as a mandated practice.

Well, much more could be said, but this is nearly enough work for one Lord’s Day! Before going to some final exhortations, let me summarize how I now make decisions about work and purchases on the Lord’s Day. In short, I follow two principles:

  1. I remember all the above: I am not under any rules about any holy days.
  2. However, I also remember the multiple NT instructions for believers to gather together regularly for exhortation, teaching, worship, and more. I ask myself, “What can I do to make it as easy as possible for others to gather with God’s people? What can I do to make it easy for both saved and unsaved to gather under the sound of the gospel?”

Since Sunday morning is the time when it is easiest for most people in America to obey these NT commands to gather under the gospel, I do what I can to make it easy for others. I am free in my spirit; I sense no compulsion. If the goals of the gospel will be best accomplished by me working or buying on Sunday, so much the better. Most times I find that it is best to help others to be free from work, and to take Sunday as an opportunity to take a break from my own non-essential work.

Except of course when it is time to do the work of writing a blog post. 🙂  But now I better stop. It’s time to gather again with God’s people to do the work of worship!

If you agree with what I’ve written about Sabbath:

  1. Honor your neighbor. Don’t flaunt your Christian liberty before those who do not yet understand the freedom you possess (Rom. 14:19-20). Remember how long it took for you to reach your current understandings; remember those topics where you are still uncertain about the limits of your freedom. Give your neighbor the same time for growth that you require.
  2. Honor the Holy Spirit. Despite the freedom God has given you, there may still be times when God says, “For you, for the next while, I am calling you to regular Sabbath rest.” You have been freed from the Sabbath law; don’t replace that law with another that forbids the Holy Spirit from ever calling you to Sabbath observance. Even Paul, who thunderously forbade mandatory circumcision (Gal. 5:1-4), still practiced it at times for strategic reasons (Acts 16:3).
  3. Honor God’s Word. From time to time, when you can do so in love, teach others about what the New Testament says about holy days. Share your Scripture-based convictions with others. Don’t let fear of man keep you from honoring God in this way.

If you disagree with what I’ve written about Sabbath:

  1. Honor your neighbor. Your neighbor has been instructed to not “let anyone pass judgment” on him “with regard to… a Sabbath” (Col. 2:16). Make it easy for your brother to obey this verse! Don’t set rules for your neighbor or expect him to live up to your conscience on this matter. But do…
  2. Honor your conscience. Don’t work or buy on Sunday if you truly feel it is wrong to do so. Your conscience is one of the ways that God guides you (Rom. 2:15), and to reject your conscience is to act without faith–to sin (Rom. 14:5, 14, 23). So don’t trample your conscience. Rather, train it: Study and…
  3. Honor God’s Word. Be a Berean (Acts 17:11-12)! You might be surprised to find, as the Bereans did, that the good news is even better than you imagined.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!


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