Sabbath Rest and Faith
*This post is the latest in a series looking at the Sabbath. Previous posts include: Early Puritan Sabbatarians (Part 3), Early Puritan Sabbatarians (Part 2), Early Puritan Sabbatarians, Pre-Puritan Sabbatarians? Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi, Pre-Puritan Sabbatarians (Part 3), Pre-Puritan Sabbatarians? (Part 2), Pre-Puritan Sabbatarians? Henry Bullinger on the Sabbath (Part 1), Where is the Sabbath in the Early Church (Part 3), Where is the Sabbath in the Early Church? (Part 2), Where is the Sabbath in the Early Church? (Part 1), Ecclesiological Implications of the Sabbath (Part 2), Ecclesiological Implications of the Sabbath (part 1), Sabbath Typology and Eschatological Rest, Paul and the Sabbath, Jesus and the Sabbath, The Sabbath and the Decalogue in the OT, a look at God’s Rest as Prescriptive, an examination of the Sabbath as a Creation Ordinance.
Sabbath Rest and Faith
This post seeks to demonstrate that weekly sabbath plays a very important role in the spiritual life of believers. Specifically seeking to answer the question “What is the relationship between sabbath rest and faith?”, this post will have brief descriptions of the lessons that weekly rest teaches believers, including: God is the source of all blessings; God has instituted a system of rest, not anxiety; Labor is good, but God is ultimate; and man is utterly dependent upon God for everything.
Resting Requires Faith
Resting takes faith. For people to truly rest, they must recognize their own inadequacies and inabilities. To take one day a week off from our normal work is to proclaim with our lives that we are ultimately insufficient. Resting demonstrates to the world (and to ourselves) that we are utterly dependent upon God for provision.
Resting includes more than the mere cessation of activity. Indeed, one may be physically motionless and have ceased from normal weekday work, but may still be distracted with thoughts and anxious about getting back to work (side thought: have you ever considered the difference between good, biblical resting and sloth? They can appear identical but be vastly different). Resting requires faith in God to supply what is lacking, to defend where we are weak, and to grow what we have sown.
This is why true resting could never be legislated or otherwise externally coerced. There is a heart-level submission that is required. A movement away from sinful self-exaltation to humble dependence is needed:
The progression from ceasing to resting underscores the basic movement from idolatry to faith. First we discover all the deception and falsehood of the securities offered by the world, and, with repentance, we cease to trust them. This includes especially all our efforts to make our own way or to save ourselves. Then we learn that God has done all the work of redemption for us and that he continues to work through us. We learn, by faith, to rest in his grace.
Resting requires believers to submit their whole being to God; not merely the body, but the heart, mind, and soul must all be knelt before God in humility.
Some authors speak of a legal versus an evangelical obedience. On the one hand, the person seeking to observe sabbath rest legally (or, as if still under the law), seeks to earn God’s favor by their own faithfulness to a command. Or, the legally obedient Christian could even be driven to obey the sabbath command out of a sense of fear; they could be driven by fear of divine wrath if found disobedient. On the other hand, the person seeking to obey evangelically, or with gospel obedience, will observe sabbath rest from their secure position in Christ. These believers will, in faith, seek to obey all of God’s commands, neither thinking that they are earning God’s favor nor fearing God’s divine wrath, but in humble dependence upon God’s grace they rest.
Sabbath Rest Encourages Faith
“Exhausted,” a poem by JK Phillips
Because of the transaction-like nature of labor and compensation, combined with a sinful heart, man is often tempted to ignore the provision of God found in every blessing. If left to themselves, fallen people will come to lean on his own strength. In contrast, the weekly sabbath stands as a reminder that: labor is a good gift, but a terrible idol; man is dependent upon God for everything; and God wants us to be content.
Labor is a good gift, but a terrible idol. The Sabbath is a weekly reminder that, while labor is good, God is ultimate. Labor honors God, images God, and points to our working God. However, rest also honors God, images God, and points to God. If we lose a biblical balance between work and rest, one will dominate the other, and an idol has been formed.
The idol of workaholism is especially abundant in American culture. One author summarizes: “The workaholic’s way of life is considered in America to be at one and the same time (a) a religious virtue, (b) a form of patriotism, (c) the way to win friends and influence people, and (d) the way to be healthy, wealthy, and wise.” The cultural reinforcement of a workaholic’s idolatry has to be counteracted.
Weekly resting from our work patterns can be a way to combat this idolatry. One study on workaholism describes multiple characteristics of most workaholics, two of which include: (1) they “are often psychologically present at work even when they are physically absent from work;” (2) they often have similar work and non-work pursuits which makes it difficult “to distinguish between them to determine which ones to ‘count’ as work.” Both of these tendencies can be resisted by faithfully aligning our work and rest patterns with the creation based pattern God instituted. The mental distraction experienced by most workaholics can be overcome by forcing a break from the normal work of the week for a focused day of resting and contemplation upon the Lord and his ordinary means of grace. Church attendance and private works of piety can aid a believer who struggles with idolizing work. Also, weekly sabbath rest can also combat against the second characteristic of workaholics (i.e., similar work and non-work pursuits). Because of the clear break made between the normal six days of work and the one day of rest, a clear distinction between the two can remain. Workaholics can be held accountable for the accounting of their time and energies because of the clear distinction of days found in the six-and-one pattern found in creation. Thus, weekly rest can aid the workaholic in his or her battle against idolatry.
The sabbath reminds believers that they are not the true source of their own blessings and provision; their own industriousness is not the means of their survival. Indeed, “Our Sabbath observance will not give us genuine rest if we use it merely as an excuse to be workaholics the rest of the week. Only in the sure knowledge that we don’t have to manufacture our success in life by our own efforts can we have freedom not to be continuously working at making our own way.” The Sabbath is a weekly reminder that “man does not live by bread alone.” God has built into creation a rhythm of rest designed to point man outside of himself and toward God, from whom all blessings flow. It takes faith to stop working (and, hence, stop making money) in order to spend time with God. This faithful shabat, ceasing, is both the blessing and a means of blessing from God.
The sabbath points outside of our weekly routine toward greater realities: the final rest to come, and the one who has procured that rest. sabbath rest is a weekly blessing that re-orients the priorities of believers according to the design of God. Having been re-oriented and reminded that God, not labor, is ultimate, man is then able to most effectively honor God in both work and rest. Without this weekly reorientation toward the ultimate things, fallen mankind tends to elevate the ephemeral.
Man is utterly dependent upon God for everything. Related it’s reorienting nature, the sabbath also reminds sinful men that they are ever dependent upon God. Setting apart a day is helpful for recognizing, “that we are incapable of providing for ourselves—either physically or spiritually.” Combined with the preached word and the sacraments, the sabbath becomes a tangible reminder that believers are utterly lost without God’s provision.
First, because the sabbath points back to creation, believers are reminded that they depend on God for everything, even the common graces. The growing of what has been sown, the sprouting of what has been watered, the budding of what has shot up, each of these processes are out of man’s control. All the providential events in life, either good or bad, are ultimately outside of our control. But, God is powerfully reigning over all the details of our life, just as he powerfully called the world into existence. Weekly sabbath rest points us back to God’s original act of creation, and stands as a reminder that man is utterly dependent upon God for both the creation and providential care of all things.
Because the sabbath points back to redemption, believers are reminded that they depend upon God for all spiritual blessings. Martin Luther summed this spiritual reality in this way: “The spiritual rest which God especially intends in this commandment is that we not only cease from our labor and trade but much more—that we let God alone work in us and that in all our powers do we do nothing of our own.” Every spiritual blessing, including salvific rest, is found in Christ alone. Sabbath rest stands as a weekly reminder that man is dependent upon God for all redemptive grace.
Finally, because the sabbath points toward the final rest to come, believers are reminded that they must depend upon God for final perseverance to the end. Each week believers are reminded that while redemption is the pinnacle of God’s grace, our current state in redemptive history is not goal. Rather, the goal is the eternal state yet to come. Weekly corporate services (discussed in chapter 5) give believers tangible reminders of that future grace. The sacraments display a visible, tangible, and tasteable reality that is only seen in shadows not, but will ultimately be seen without a veil. One author explains:
Sabbath keeping teaches the dialectical truth that Christian feasting is both temporal and eternal. Our weekly celebrations help us to be more aware that God is eternally present, but the fact that Sunday moves on to Monday keeps reminding us that our short-lived Sabbath celebrations are but a foretaste of the eternal feast that we will someday enjoy in God’s presence.
These eschatological reminders, possible through faithful obedience to the sabbath pattern of rest, are proclaimed each week and teach that believers are dependent upon God for all eschatological provision.
God’s work in creation, redemption, and ultimate eschatological rest are all proclaimed by weekly rest. From beginning to end, all of a man’s life (indeed, all of history) is dependent upon the providential care of and provision by God.
Sabbath rest promotes contentment. When someone is reminded that all good things come from God, that God is in control, and that God will provide for all of our spiritual and physical needs, then that person may then come to find contentment.
Walter Brueggemann offers an entire book devoted the idea that sabbath rest offers a means of resistance to the cultural demands of “More!” and “Now!” Modern society is driven by an “endless pursuit of greater security and greater happiness, a pursuit that is always unsatisfied, because we have never gotten or done enough…yet. The gods…of this system are the gods of market ideology that summon to endless desires and needs that are never met but that always require yet greater effort.” Feelings of discontentment are fostered and promoted by modern advertising in order to sell more and more. Contentment is sacrificed on the altar of commerce.
Sabbath rest is a means to combat this temptation of discontentment by offering, “an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence” that erodes our rest time. Instead, “the alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”
Indeed, Jesus Christ is the “embodiment of Sabbath rest for those who are no longer defined by and committed to the system of productiveness.” Alluding to the pre-exodus slavery of the Hebrews, Brueggeman explains that, in Christ, believers may “cease, even for a time, the anxious striving for more bricks [and may] find themselves with a ‘light burden’ and an ‘easy yoke.’” Continuing the comparison, He writes: “God is not Pharaoh. God does not keep jacking up production schedules. To the contrary, God rests, confident, serene, at peace. God’s rest, moreover, bestows on creatureliness a restfulness that contradicts the ‘driveness’ of the system of Pharaoh.” Believers may rest content in the knowledge that God loves based on covenantal relationship, not on productivity and production.
True contentment in modern American society is very counter-cultural: “Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing—anything—is better than doing nothing. Because of our desire to succeed, to meet ever-growing expectations, we do not rest.” Contentment found in Christ bespeaks a work ethic that is powerfully distinct from the modern mindset. Christians reject the consumeristic and greed-driven workaholism in favor of restful relationship with their God.
Relationship with God, not the production and acquisition of things, is the only means of lasting contentment.Weekly sabbath rest “provides time, space, energy, and imagination for coming to the ultimate recognition that more commodities, which may be acquired in the rough and ready economics, finally do not satisfy.” Only communion with God can satisfy.
Weekly sabbath rest requires faith on the part of believers. Only those secure in Christ can ever find lasting comfort. Additionally, weekly rest also nurtures faith by reminding believers of three important themes: work is a good gift, but a terrible master; man is dependent upon God for all things; abiding contentment can only be found in Christ.
Marva J Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 56, emphasis original.
For more on legal versus evangelical obedience, see: Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, 75–78.
Wayne Oates claims to have invented the word “workaholism,” which he defines as an “addiction to work, the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly,” in Confessions of a Workaholic; the Facts about Work Addiction, (New York, NY: World Pub. Co., 1971), 1.
Marilyn Machlowitz, “Determining The Effects of Workaholism” (PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 1978), 6.
This is not to say that sabbath observance will alone overcome idolatry; I am not advocating any ex opere operato type of means. Throughout this whole section on rest and faith I am assuming that believers will rest in faith, submitting heart, soul, mind, and body to the Lord.
Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, 55.
For more on the idolatry of work/production and sabbath keeping: Lynne M. Baab, Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 96; Campbell, On the First Day of the Week, 36; Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, 17–21, 28–35; Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 13.
Dawn emphasizes that man is providentially fed by God in two ways on the sabbath. First, “If we are to feast spiritually, God must provide the manna of his Word. Only by his grace has he chosen to reveal himself to us; only by his grace can we understand and believe what his revelation declares.” Second, not only must we hear his word, but we must also hear what God is teaching through silence: “Besides the spoken and hear and read Word of God, we need to recapture in our noisy culture the silence that is also a language of God…Observing the Sabbath offers us continued practice in keeping silent in order to hear ‘the yearning [of our spirits for God], the Prayer [he has] planted [within] us, and to allow ourselves to be shaped and moved by it.” Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, 158.
Martin Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,” in The Christian in Society 1, trans. W. A. Lambert and James Atkinson, vol. 44 of Luther’s Works (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1966), 72.
Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, 153.
Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 13.
Muller, Sabbath, 1.
Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 85.