Is the Westminster Confession’s Doctrine of the Sabbath a Judaizing Doctrine?

Does observing Sunday as the Christian Sabbath lead to a judaizing of the gospel and a denying of Christ?


Indeed, this is a system whose Sabbath doctrine is inextricably intertwined with other central doctrines of our confessional system, such as its doctrine of the law of God. One wonders how ordained officers who embrace the position of the Minority Report could work in clear conscience within the context of a denomination and in cooperation with fellow church officers whose professed doctrine of the Sabbath would, by logical implication, make them in effect Judaizers and Christ-deniers.


In a day when it seems Presbyterians are drifting further and further away from the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, The Confessional Presbyterian journal was founded in 2005 to provide a forum for ecumenical discussion amongst conservative Presbyterians of different denominations, wishing to defend closer adherence to these old standards of biblical Christianity. The CPJ is an annual 2 column large format publication containing a range of theological, practical and historical material, which over the last twelve issues has amounted to 3,352 pages or 3,217,348 words (see table of contents here). The 2016 twelfth issue was the first fully thematic issue (contents listed below), and the topic is a doctrine in much decay in our day, The Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath. One of the important pieces run in v12 is Geoff Willour’s “Is the Westminster Confession’s Doctrine of the Sabbath a Judaizing Doctrine? A Critique of the First Minority Report of the OPC’s Committee on Sabbath Matters. Below is a summary.

Mr. Willour introduces his subject, noting the decay of observance of the Christian Sabbath in our day and that most of the professing church seems to view the commandment as merely ceremonial (pp. 195–196). After giving the historical background that gave rise to the Majority and Minority Reports on the Sabbath in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in 1973, pastor Willour summarizes the contents of the second minority report:

The position of the author of the Minority Report is that the Sabbath was exclusively a ceremonial law, binding only upon God’s people living under the old covenant administration. As such, it was a “shadow” that pointed forward to, and was fulfilled in Christ and the salvation-rest He graciously provides to His believing people. Consequently, the fourth commandment is no longer binding upon believers today, who are living under the new covenant administration of fulfillment in Christ and not the old covenant administration of types and shadows. Instead of observing the Sabbath of the fourth commandment, believers today observe the Lord’s Day—Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection—which the author of the Minority Report regards as the new covenant holy day, distinct and separate from the Sabbath, and thus not at all to be identified as the “Christian Sabbath,” as the Westminster Standards mistakenly teach (WCF 21.7; WLC 116 & 117; WSC 59). To require believers today to observe Sunday as if it were the “Christian Sabbath,” and as if such observance were an act of obedience to the fourth commandment, involves no less an act of Judaizing the gospel as the requiring of circumcision on the part of Gentile believers. Indeed, it is even a denial of Christ!

In the body of his argument, the author of this Report relies almost exclusively on the New Testament, especially Colossians 2:16–17 and related texts. In fact, he begins the Scriptural argumentation for his position with these words: “Colossians 2:16, 17 is the key passage for the understanding of the place of the Fourth Commandment in the Christian life” (Minutes, 40th G.A., 106; emphasis added). Conspicuously absent in his biblical argumentation for his position is any interaction with the exegesis of such key passages as offered by the authors of the Majority Report.

After giving examples of the author’s argumentation, the reverend Willour goes on to give a critique of the Minority Report under four points. 1. The Minority Report neglects to interact with either the Majority Report or the historic Westminster-confessing tradition of interpretation with respect to its exegesis of Colossians 2:16, 17 and other allegedly anti-sabbatarian Scriptural texts (197-200). 2. The position of the Minority Report is flawed in that it grounds the Sabbath ordinance in the Mosaic, old-covenant administration, rather than in creation (201). 3. The Minority Report does not give due weight to the inclusion of the Sabbath commandment within the Decalogue, the other commandments of which are clearly moral in nature (201-202). 4. The position taken and assertions employed in the Minority Report, to the effect that the observing of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath involves a judaizing of the gospel and a denying of Christ, is potentially divisive (202). The author then closes with a very brief positive note, but we shall close this summary by citing the brief explanation of the fourth point.

I would not be surprised to read such accusations against the Westminster doctrine of the Sabbath from confessional Lutherans, or dispensationalists, or other anti-sabbatarian brethren whose theological and confessional traditions stand opposed to our Sabbath doctrine. But to read a report written by a church officer in the OPC who has affirmed ordination vows which include the promise to receive and adopt the Scriptural system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards is befuddling to me. Indeed, this is a system whose Sabbath doctrine is inextricably intertwined with other central doctrines of our confessional system, such as its doctrine of the law of God. One wonders how ordained officers who embrace the position of the Minority Report could work in clear conscience within the context of a denomination and in cooperation with fellow church officers whose professed doctrine of the Sabbath would, by logical implication, make them in effect Judaizers and Christ-deniers. At the very least it would seem that a consistent adherence to the position of the Minority Report would make it difficult to cultivate a spirit of collegiality, confidence in, and mutual submission to the brethren, for how could one submit to and have confidence in fellow church officers whom one believes to be Judaizers and Christ-deniers? At its worst, the consistent embracing of the position of the Minority Report by those within the Westminster-confessing churches may have the potential effect of promoting schism. Arguably, embracing the position expressed in the Minority Report is a rejection of an important aspect of the Scriptural system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards, and thus poses a potential threat to the unity, purity, and peace of Westminster-confessing churches such as the OPC.

The 2016 12th issue of The Confessional Presbyterian journal is currently on sale for $20 postpaid. Sets of v2-12 currently are on sale for $140 postpaid (the 2005 v1 is out of print). The contents of volume 12 are as follows:

God’s Spirit or Human Hysteria? My Time Among the Charismatics

I’ve been a Southern Baptist all my life, and my Pentecostal/charismatic friends in high school good-naturedly referred to my congregation as “the frozen chosen.” I never fully understood what they meant by that phrase until I attended, at the invitation of a friend, a charismatic revival service.

At First Baptist Church, we sang from the hymnal and quietly listened to the preached Word. The closest thing to disorder was an occasional “amen” or “preach it, brother” during the sermon.

It’s a vast understatement, then, to say the charismatic experience was brand new for me.

On the first night, I heard numerous messages in tongues. I witnessed seemingly uncontrollable laughter (“Holy Ghost laughter,” they called it), fainting spells, intense weeping and wailing, prophecies ranging from predictions of deliverance from headaches and cancer to forecasts of God’s wrath on select American cities. I watched a man and woman run laps around the sanctuary. In the corner, a younger man bounced up and down, convulsing as if he’d grabbed hold of a live electrical wire. In a pew behind me, a woman was engaged in what appeared to be jumping jacks, arms windmilling vigorously as she praised the Lord.

At one point, an older woman asked if I’d like to have hands laid on me to have my needs met. Despite significant neediness, I nervously declined.

After a couple of these meetings, my friend—a continuationist—sought my impressions. I expressed deep discomfort with what I’d seen, but admitted I wasn’t certain whether such manifestations represented a genuine work of the Spirit. I was skeptical but didn’t want to dismiss all I’d seen as purely carnal for fear of opposing a work of God.

He posed another excellent question: “If we aren’t really speaking in tongues, and if the Holy Spirit isn’t causing people to faint and act that way, what are we doing, then?” I told him I wasn’t sure, and today, though I remain a fairly convinced cessationist, I still wonder what’s behind such profound agitations of the body and emotions.

This was the mid-1990s, when similar things were seen among Pentecostal/charismatic groups in places like Toronto and Pensacola. Many behaviors were being credited to the Holy Spirit, from miraculous healing to “holy laughter” to “surfing in the Spirit”—even to claims of gold dust and angel feathers falling from the sky.

Such controversial manifestations are occurring today in venues like Bethel Church in Redding, California, and in various other charismatic churches and organizations across the globe.

Test the Spirits

While some of these manifestations clearly seem beyond the pale of Scripture, their persistence among evangelicals continues to raise the questions my friend posed more than two decades ago: What’s behind these behaviors? Are they products of a genuine outpouring of God’s Spirit, or do they simply arise from unbridled emotion or the power of suggestion? Are they Satanic counterfeits, as some have suggested?

Scripture demands we test the spirits to discern if they originate with God (1 John 4:1). The Israelites’ greatest threat wasn’t from the pagan culture outside their camp, but from false prophets within—many of whom drew larger crowds and were better known than genuine prophets.

On the surface, the golden calf incident had all the trappings of genuine revival with its large, noisy, even celebratory crowd (Exod. 32). But it was the opposite of a life-giving, Spirit-led worship service.

Edwards’s ‘Distinguishing Marks’

We are by no means the first to wrestle with these questions. Every revival since Pentecost seems to have been a mix of gold and dross, wheat and chaff—sometimes requiring deep biblical and theological reflection to tell the difference.

Such was the case in the 1730s and 40s during the famous revivals in America and England known as the First Great Awakening. The preaching of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), George Whitefield (1714–1770), and many others resulted in a profound outpouring of the Spirit, with thousands converted on both sides of the Atlantic.

While many were clearly under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Edwards and others admitted there were distortions and problems during the revivals. This included radical emotional and physical manifestations similar to those described above. Some church leaders criticized the revivals for such excesses, dismissing them as “extraordinary enthusiasms.” Others rejected it outright as a work of Satan.

Edwards responded with his pen, writing and publishing The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), an assessment of the revival in light of 1 John 4. He surveyed what he called “neutral signs”—things that neither affirm nor deny a genuine work of the Spirit.

Edwards’s Distinguishing Marks offers sage wisdom in helping us sort wheat from chaff in questions like those posed by my friend and many others throughout history.

Neutral Signs

In Section I of Distinguishing Marks, Edwards riffs on things that are not necessarily marks of a work of God’s Spirit. Such things include:

  • Bodily effects. Emotional or physical responses such as fainting or shouting aren’t necessarily validating signs that the Spirit is moving. Convulsing, jerking, laughing and many other things were present in the First Great Awakening; Edwards warned, however, that these can be attributed to residual factors such as personality type or a tendency toward radical behavior under emotional duress, but not necessarily the Spirit. The Bible doesn’t offer a precise formula for how the body or emotions act under the influence of the Spirit.
  • Wrought-up emotions. A “soul-ravishing view” of the beauty and love of Christ might overwhelm a person, Edwards said, and work up their emotions. He warned against canonizing emotional responses, though, since persons of a different emotional makeup might not respond so radically and yet might truly be under the Spirit’s influence.
  • Immediate personal revelation. Among contemporary charismatics this is often phrased, “Brother, God gave me a word for you.” Sometimes that word will be Scripture. But Edwards pointed out that Satan knows the Bible and can readily quote and twist it, just as he did in tempting Jesus. Therefore, mental promptings—even those involving Scripture—cannot always be trusted.

Revivals have always been plagued by errors in judgment from leaders and participants alike, Edwards warned, and have suffered from the delusions of Satan. Great care and discernment are always the order of the day.

Positive Signs

So what does constitute a work of the Spirit? Edwards identified five lines of evidence that accompany a genuine outpouring.

1. A deep and aiding love for the person and work of Christ.

When the Spirit of God operates profoundly in a human being, he or she emerges with great affections for the gospel of Jesus. Christ is the chief object of a believer’s delight. Moreover, the Spirit does not shine a light on himself, but on Christ.

2. A desire to kill sin and break the bonds of worldliness.

The Holy Spirit creates in regenerate Christians a hatred for sin and accompanying desire for holiness. Their esteem of worldly pleasures—even good things—decreases by comparison.

3. A deep love for and desire to feast on God’s Word.

Since Scripture is the Word of God given to lead sinners to Christ and along the path of holiness, Edwards pointed out that Satan would never beget such a desire in people. “The Devil has ever shown a mortal spite and hatred towards that holy book the Bible,” Edwards wrote. “He knows it to be that light by which the kingdom of darkness is overthrown.”

4. An unshakable conviction of sound doctrine.

The Spirit will never lead a believer to embrace a doctrine not taught in Scripture. Where he is truly at work, the Spirit convinces men of the holiness of God, the reality of eternity, and the certainty of a day of reckoning. These convictions become a bedrock foundation for those whose blind spiritual eyes have been opened.

5. An increased love for God and man.

A genuine work of the Spirit will instill in Christians a humility leading them to renounce expressions of self-love. Love for God will necessarily lead to love for neighbor. As Edwards wrote, “It is love that arises from apprehension of the wonderful riches of the free grace and sovereignty of God’s love to us in Jesus Christ; being attended with a sense of our own unworthiness, as in ourselves the enemies and haters of God and Christ, and with the renunciation of all our own excellency and righteousness.”

Wisdom for Today

Some charismatics have claimed Edwards as the theologian who supports a bombastic expression of continuationism. Yet in his sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, published posthumously as Charity and Its Fruits, Edwards argues in favor of the cessation of sign gifts. Still, I think there’s much wisdom from his insights on revival for cessationists and continuationists alike.

How might Edwards advise us to approach today’s claims of revival? We can’t know, but given the thrust of his revival writings, I can imagine him offering four lines of counsel.

First, we must beware of accepting everything as from the Lord. Weigh spiritual experiences carefully on the scales of God’s Word. If it doesn’t balance, dismiss it as spurious.

Second, not all spirits are holy. As R. C. Sproul writes, the Spirit of holiness is also the Spirit of truth, whose operation is validated by the truth of Scripture he inspired and illumines. If it doesn’t push you toward a deeper love of Scripture and more passionate love for Jesus, then it’s probably counterfeit.

Third, we should be skeptical of any movement that draws attention away from the local church and its preaching ministry. Modern-day revival movements tend to focus on the individuals who lead them and the parachurch venues in which they occur. Wittingly or unwittingly, such experiences de-emphasize the ordinary means of grace—especially biblical preaching—found within the local church.

Finally, such movements often foster what I call a “lightning-bolt spirituality.” Adherents are encouraged to seek sanctification through intense emotional encounters at certain venues as dispensed by certain teachers—you’re struck by a spiritual lightning bolt and become instantly more sanctified. This response runs contrary to the Bible’s portrait of progressive sanctification through God’s ordinary means of grace, which develops slowly over a lifetime. As to cults of personality, Edwards pointed converts away from himself toward Jesus, away from the revival meetings toward the local church. A genuine work of the Spirit today will do the same. As Jesus said of prophets, whether false or true, you will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16).

So how might I answer my friend’s question today? I remain skeptical about those things I saw two decades ago, and I agree with Edwards that a close encounter with the Spirit of God ought to result in a radically changed life—both in the frozen chosen and in the on-fire charismatic.

Jeff Robinson

Jeff Robinson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. He also pastors a church plant in Louisville, Kentucky, and serves as senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. Prior to entering ministry, he spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper journalist in Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, covering various beats from politics to Major League Baseball and SEC football. He is co-author with Michael Haykin of the book To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Mission Vision and Legacy. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children. You can follow him on Twitter.

New post on This Day in Presbyterian History

October 7: Here We Stand, On the Word of God.

by archivist

“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever.”—Isaiah 40:8. 

The following brief editorial served as an introduction to the first issue of 
THE PRESBYTERIAN GUARDIAN, a periodical which began on October 7, 1935 and ran up until its merger with THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL in October of 1979. So much of Dr. Machen’s writing remains prescient and timely even for our day and age. Not much in the world has changed over the last eighty-one years. Humanity is still born in sin and still desperately needs a Savior. And the Word of God has not changed either. It remains the very Word of God, infallible and inerrant, our only rule of faith and life.

machen02The Changing Scene and the Unchanging Word
by the Rev. J. Gresham Machen
The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 1, No. 1 (7 October 1935)

We certainly have before us today a changing scene, and very ominous are the figures that stalk across it. Twenty years after a war which was supposed to have been fought to make the world safe for democracy. Russia stands under the most soul-killing despotism, perhaps, that the world has ever seen; and despots rule also in Italy and in Germany. One of these despots, after the approved tradition of despotic rulers, is now engaged in plunging the world, so far as his actions can accomplish it, into another world war.

These have been kaleidoscopic changes indeed. Who would have thought a few years ago that all freedom of speech and of the press would have been destroyed in great sections of Europe and thus that the achievements of centuries would suddenly have been wiped out? Who would have thought that after a century-long struggle upwards to light and liberty, Europe would suddenly return to a worse than medieval darkness?

In our own country, a man has to be blind indeed not to see that the same forces are mightily at work. Religious liberty has not yet been destroyed among us, as in Mexico; religious edifices and schools have not yet all been taken over by government. But when teachers even in private schools and Church schools and other institutions of learning are, as in New York and elsewhere, required to take an oath of office, as though they were state officials, we have in principle the totalitarian state; and liberty, just at the most important point, I in principle being destroyed. Everywhere we find centralization of power under an arbitrary bureaucracy; the area of liberty is slowly but very surely being reduced. Solemn contracts public and private are being treated as scraps of paper; the solid foundations of liberty and honesty are crumbling beneath our feet.

Yes, it is certainly true that we have before us today a changing scene.

In the midst of that changing scene, is there anything that is constant? Is there anything solid at all in the midst of the shifting sands? Can we find a safe refuge anywhere from the destructive forces that are so mightily at work? Is there anything at all that we can trust?

Certainly we cannot trust the Church. The same destructive forces that are at work in the State are also at work in the Church. It seems almost unbelievable, but still it is a fact that at this present moment, in the largest of the Presbyterian bodies in this country, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., a secret trial is actually being held in the city of Philadelphia. Two members of The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, against their earnest protest, are being deprived of that right to an open hearing which is accorded even to the most degraded criminal under our civil laws. The Church, bearing the sacred name of Christ, is standing on a lower ethical plane than that which prevails in the world outside—than that which prevails among people who make no profession of religion at all.

Unfortunately, the tendency manifested in this secret trial is not isolated in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Everywhere open discussion is discouraged. If anything is wrong, we are told, we should present the matter to committees of the General Assembly; but the pulpit and the press should not be used to present it to the rank and file.

The truth is that the bureaucracy in the Church has not a bit more regard for the Constitution of the Church, than the bureaucracy in the State has for the Constitution of the State in so many countries of the world. We are today in the midst of a time when the landmarks are being destroyed. Solemn constitutional guarantees of liberty are treated as though they meant nothing; and when people make solemn subscription to a system of doctrine that solemn pledge is treated as though it were a mere empty form of words.

No, we cannot find a haven of refuge from the confusion in the world by any mere appeal to the Church. In many places the visible Church has been swept away into the full current of the world’s madness.

Well, then, if we cannot appeal to the Church, is there anything to which we can appeal? Is there anything that is constant amid the shifting scene? The answer to that question is given by the text that stands at the top of this page, the text that gives us the program for all the corresponding pages in future issues of THE PRESBYTERIAN GUARDIAN.

Where shall we today find the Word of God?

Our answer is very simple. We find it in the whole Bible. We do not say, in Modernist fashion, that the Bible contains the Word of God. No, we say, in Christian fashion, that the Bible is the Word of God.

There, at last, we find something that we can trust. We cannot trust the world; we cannot trust that elusive something known as “civilization.” We cannot, alas, trust the visible Church. But when God speaks we can trust Him. He has spoken in the Bible. We can find our way through all the mists if we will make that blessed Book our guide.

archivist | October 7, 2016 at 12:05 am | Categories: October 2016 | URL: