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The Christian and the 4th Commandment

Last week I read about a recently ordained PCA minister who took an exception to the Westminster Confession's articulation of Sunday as the "Christian Sabbath." It's not suprising to hear of a minister taking exception to the Confession's teaching regarding the restrictions that apply to the Sabbath. Over the years I have heard many ministers express their concerns that the language of the Confession regarding what is required on the Sabbath - "a holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words and thoughts about their wordly employments and recreations" - is overly restrictive.

However, this particular minister was not merely taking exception to the restrictions that the Confession places on the Sabbath, but to the very concept of the Sabbath itself. In his understanding, the Sabbath as an institution no longer has bearing on the New Testament Christian. In support of this view, the minister cited Romans 14:5 as evidence that the Sabbath is no longer a binding commitment on the Christian, but a matter of personal conviction. There Paul writes "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind."

Is this conclusion warranted from what Paul says Romans 14:5? While there is much more to say about the relationship between the Christian and the 4th Commandment, I remain unconvinced that Romans 14:5 teaches that the 4th Commandment is no longer binding on Christians today. I would refer the reader to John Murray's commentary on the book of Romans. In an appendix Murray deals directly with this question, and in my mind at least, provides the definitive response to those who intrepret Romans 14:5 as removing the Sabbath obligation. What follows is a summary of his argument.

First, Murray lists several implications of adopting the interpretation that Romans 14:5 abolishes the weekly Sabbath:

  • The 4th commandment then no longer has binding authority upon Christians. The observance of one day in seven would be abrogated and in the same category of other ceremonial rites of the Mosaic economy. To insist on observing a Sabbath day would be just as ‘Judiazing’ as to demand the continuance of the Levitical feasts.
  • The first day of the week would no longer have any prescribed religious significance. It cannot properly be regarded as the Lord’s day in distinction from the way in which any other day of the week is to be lived in devotion and service to Christ.
  • Observing the Sabbath as a day commemorating the Lord’s resurrection would then be a feature of the weak brother! The strong brother would be one who recognized that observing a weekly Sabbath was unnecessary.

Next, Murray lists several reasons against interpreting Romans 14:5 as abolishing the 4th commandment:

  • The Sabbath is a creation ordinance and did not begin with the Mosaic Covenant (Gen 2:2-3. Further, to assume that the Sabbath no longer applies is to assume that the pattern provided by God himself in the work of creation and which Christ declared is a benefit for man (Mark 2:27-28) no longer has any relevance for the regulation of man’s life on earth. It also assumes that only 9 of the 10 commandments have authority for Christians, of which there is no evidence at all.
  •  The N.T. recognizes the first day of the week as having a special significance because Jesus rose from the dead on this day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2, Rev 1:10). If Paul in Romans 14:5 implies that all distinctions of days has been obliterated, then there would have been no legitimacy for the early church and apostles to recognize the first day of the week as the Lord’s day in this way.

What does Paul mean in Romans 14:5 according to Murray?

  • Romans 14:5 is best understood as referring to the ceremonial holy days of the Levitical institution. This understanding fits perfectly in the context of Romans 14 and with the teaching of Scripture as a whole. To include the weekly Sabbath as falling under the scope of Paul’s statement goes beyond the exegetical warrant of the text and contradicts clear principals that are embedded in the total witness of Scripture.