Pipa on The Lord’s Day

The sabbath principle is explained using the analogy of a beautiful park. This analogy nicely sets up for a description of four possible attitudes. The park/sabbath can be neglected entirely and go to weeds. Among those that appear to value the park, there are the “pharisees” that set up fences and traps that vitiate the park. But this does not exhaust the picture. There are defenders of the park/sabbath that would turn it into a museum piece. The proper view, however, is to use the park for its intended function.

Isaiah 58 is the locus classicus. This passage teaches the need to turn from own’s own ways on the Sabbath. Dr. Pipa shows contextually that the passage must apply to the new covenant as well as the old, and that “own’s own ways” is not a reference to sin, but to the “lesser pleasures,” otherwise lawful, that should be abandoned on the sabbath in favor of a focus on the greater pleasure of serving God and enjoying him, with all that that implies.

In general, this book is an excellent introduction to many facets of the Sabbath subject. Yet, it must be admitted that among those of us that are in agreement with the main thesis, there are points that are going to require deeper reflection. The goal of this review is to highlight several weaknesses in the exposition of the thesis, not to subvert the thesis, but in the hopes that it might further the discussion and help sharpen our thinking on this very important topic. I will do so under four main topics: (1) the idea of “eternal Sabbath,” (2) which day? (3) Pipa’s economics of Sabbath keeping, and (4) societal implications.

Eternal Sabbath?

In chapter two, some facts are deduced about the Sabbath principle by examining its definition in the sequence of the days of creation. The Sabbath being a “creation ordinance,” it cannot be something introduced as a means of redemption, let alone relativized to the Mosaic economy in the plan of redemption, as many anti-sabbatarians argue.

We pass by some minor blunders: he says, for example, “the ‘heavens’ refer to the sky.” (p. 28) The converse is closer to the truth: ‘sky’ refers to the heavens. More problematic are references to eternity, which is a metaphysical concept, one that could easily lead to making some false moves in reflection on the meaning of Sabbath.

If Adam had not fallen into sin, he would have entered into that rest without passing through death. God, by resting on the seventh day, pictured the promised rest, so His rest was a type of our eternal rest. (p. 31)

And again, on the same page, “The record of the day is left open-ended to picture the eternal rest that He would provide for His people.” “The fact that God’s rest is a promise of eternal rest is confirmed in Hebrews 4:1-10 where the writer relates God’s seventh day rest to the eternal rest that He has prepared for His people.” (Emphasis added in each case.)

I take it that by “eternal” he means “sempiternal,” that is, time-bound but of unlimited duration. There are two ways that speaking of “eternal rest” could be misleading, and both senses need to be clarified. (1) There is no evidence that we as creatures will ever cease to be temporal, though one can hope certain modes of being temporal might cease in heaven: for example, the sense of being a slave to the clock. (2) Speaking of “eternal rest” could misleadingly give the impression that the need for work, and for fashioning beautiful things — exemplified in the first 6 days of creation — will be overcome, will pass out of our mode of existence.

In the fourth commandment, the need to work six days certainly appears from the grammatical symmetry to be just as much a command as the need to Sabbath one day per week. In Principles of Conduct, John Murray says (p. 83):

it should not be forgotten that it is the commandment of labour as well as of rest. ‘Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work” (Ex 20:9). If we will, we may call this an incidental feature of the commandment. But it is an integral part of it. The day of rest has no meaning except as rest from labour. It is rest in relation to labour; and only as the day of rest upon the completion of six days of labour can the weekly sabbath be understood… The stress laid upon the six days of labour needs to be duly appreciated. The divine ordinance is not simply that of labour; it is labour with a certain constancy. There is indeed respite from labour, the respite of one whole day every recurring seventh day. The cycle of respite is provided for, but there is also the cycle of labour. And the cycle of labour is as irreversible as the cycle of rest. The law of God cannot be violated with impunity.

Pipa, however says:

I prefer to take this phrase as a concession. God grants you the use of six days for your work of all kinds. He also gives you one whole day to devote to enjoying Him. He is saying, “I have given you six days; I require you to give Me one.” 49

The model Pipa proposes here seems to be this: the other six days are more a gift than a command; we need time to take care of necessary tasks, so he gives us six for every one in which he requires something of us. However, coupling the commandment to the Creation week, as Pipa has clearly done in this work, makes the idea of the six days as a mere “concession” problematic. Does this mean God’s activities on the first six days should be modeled as “something to do,” marking time as it were to “fill out” the time ordained for the basic time cycle, but with no deeper significance than that? rather than a template for what our life should look like?

Furthermore, the “six days as concession” suggests that it might be permissible, if finances afforded it, to spend those six days entirely in recreation and amusement — as if the golfer’s dream Florida-retirement is a pious vision of what life in our days of sorrow should look like. That is, it would appear that six days of idleness, if one could afford it, would be permitted on Pipa’s view. But this is untenable. Being wealthy should mean being able to do more suitable work, not less. Even in the late days of infirmity and weakness, the time should be redeemed in reading, writing, or reflecting, if for no other mundane end than to fulfill one’s role — or even potential role — as the hoary-headed dispenser of wisdom.

In contrast to that trajectory, it seems like Creation week models for us a work/rest duality, whereby the 6/1 pattern is a nested, correlative reality that should govern our time. The six and the one should be seen as equally ultimate. It is not that we are “given” some time to “take care of our necessary tasks” in service to the real action, which is the Sabbath; nor on the other hand is the Sabbath a mere recovery time that we might do the really important work of the six days. But rather, both good work as an end in itself, and cessation from that work to bask in the vision of God, are correlatively the definers of our time as creatures. Our time is defined in both its cyclical and durative aspects.

So deeply is the 6/1 theme rooted in Creation, that it suggests that a work/worship duality in a 6/1 proportionality may be expected to be a pattern even in “eternity” (to use a term for it that I am advising against). We should speak then not of “eternal rest,” but “eschatological work/rest.”

In any case, it is not what Hebrews 4 teaches. There, the point of “rest” in the argument remains the same whether one is looking to life on earth or to the heavenly existence.

Hebrews 4 does not mention an “eternal rest.” In the arc of Paul’s polemic, the passage deals with another judaizing effort to minimize or eliminate Jesus as the center of redemptive history. Up to this point, each argument attacks a characteristic jewish argument for why Jesus is either unnecessary or put away from center of all history. “If we need a mediator, we have angels.” That is dealt with in chapter 1 and into chapter 2. “A suffering Messiah is a scandal to us.” That is dealt with in the later part of chapter 2. “We have Moses.” Chapter 3. Finally, to the point here: “we already have the presence of God in the Sabbath.” In the later part of chapter 3, and first part of chapter 4, Paul shows from the OT itself that the Rest which is dwelling in the presence of God is conditional. It is not something that one can lay hold of as a received possession. It must be had in faith. And falling away from the Son of God is to miss that Rest completely. This is the thrust of the passage. I agree with Pipa’s exegesis showing that a “sabbatismos” remains for the people of God (4:9), and that this includes (at least) a weekly Sabbath observance. However, it is not as though Paul were establishing this against anti-Sabbatarians. Rather, he is subverting an argument of people that thought of themselves very much as Sabbath-upholders, to show that their proposed Sabbath without Christ is vitiated. Having shown the untenability of their view even from the OT, he shows incidentally that the Sabbath is maintained, not abolished — but maintained in its proper sense — a sense they should have known if they had been more astute even with OT Scriptural meditation. Thus, the apostle triumphs in the two-edged-sword nature of Scripture (4:12), which must be searched diligently to get the whole story, a story that cuts to the heart. (This interpretation makes the rhapsody on Scripture very natural and fitting, where otherwise it seems desultory.) The judaic backsliders were quick to lay hold of a promise or possession naively, triumphalistically, and so missed the heart of it. More importantly, they did so based on a superficial reading of Scripture itself.

The point of the passage, then, is not to expound on some “eternal Sabbath,” but rather to show how faith is bound up with the conditionality of man partaking in the Rest of God.

If both good work and rest will be taken up in a new way in “eternity,” it is at least misleading to speak solely of “eternal rest” as the thing that the creation story points to, and which Adam would have passed into directly had there been no sin.

Which of the seven days is Sabbath?

In discussing the question of seventh day vs. first day observance, Pipa distinguishes between moral (eternal) and positive (temporary) law. (34f.) Some laws have both a moral and positive aspect simultaneously. Thus, the cyclical one-in-seven pattern is moral or eternal, while which day defines the boundary is positive and subject to change. He believes this distinction can be illustrated with the 7th commandment: the exemplar of monogomous faithful marriage is eternal or moral, while the incest prohibition is positive or modifiable.

It seems to me that these distinctions are more fuzzy than Pipa suggests. In fact, it seems like many laws of this kind are only hypothetically eternal, on the assumption of man being created with a certain nature. And we want to preserve the freedom of God to have done so or not.

Could we imagine a universe of creatures with 3 days of labor followed by one day of rest? Or perhaps 4 + 1? I can. There is no contradiction in imagining as much. It might be that 6+1 reflects something deep in the will of God. It would be speculation to either affirm or deny. It is opaque to us.

Suppose, then, that the 6+1 pattern given in Gen. 1 was a free choice, and not something deeply necessary. Then it has an aspect of what we call “positive” law. Yet, we could say that it becomes a moral law hypothetically, on the assumption that God creates a world and so ordains it. From this, we can see that the boundary between moral and positive is actually a bit fuzzy, and perspectively colored.

The first question is whether a pattern n+1 is a necessary one, for some n. Hodge in the quote on p. 40 goes so far as to say that “n+1” is moral, while “n=6” is positive. If “eternal Sabbath” is the goal, escaping forever from the tasks taken up with the “n,” then the deep structure is not “n+1” but simply “1.” The “n+” is a contingency perhaps taken up with man’s probationary period, and intended to pass away as soon as possible.

While this would be an intriguing model to ponder if possible, yet several considerations weigh against it:

  1. It seems like God’s activity on Days 1 through 6 would be unexplained on such a model.
  2. We should have an implicit suspicion of monads. The nested dualities of one/many, universal/particular, I/thou in our world reflect the Trinitarian nature of its maker. Monads are presumptively suspect.
  3. In addition, there is no Scriptural evidence that this was the plan. Thus, we should reject such a proposal as without warrant. Hence, “n+1” should be taken as reflecting a deep structure of work/rest, just as we saw in the previous section.

On the other hand, given n+1, is it the case that the alignment of the “1” is positive in the sense of arbitrary? That is, could that Sabbath have been ordained on Tuesday just as easily as Saturday/Sunday?

Apparently not. The “1” day is inextricably tied up with the sequence of the creation sequence, and is the terminus of the sequence. (It is not the names of the days that are of concern, but their ordinal position in the sequence.) Thus, we need to “feel the pain” of those that resist the shift to the Lord’s day for a while.

As far as the “first” versus “last” day category, there is also some buried richness to mine there. Though the Sabbath was the “last” day of the week, for Adam it was the “first” day that he experienced the breaking dawn, and the deep metaphor of “from the rising of the sun to the setting thereof.” So there was already a “firstness” even in its original form. It may be that we should model the shift of the day of observance, not from “last” to “first,” but rather from the “first day” of the first Adam, to the “first day” of the second Adam in his resurrection glory. Not so much the day as the covenant head has been replaced.

Speculation aside, we have here a clear example of Apostolic authority ordaining the fact, and it is ours to obey; whether it be from a moral/positive distinction, or a first/second Adam, or just as divine fiat to honor the finished work of the glorious Son.

In any case, the old argument that the moral law is “some” 1 in 7, not “this” 1 in 7, should give way to the objections I have summarized.

Economic reasoning and the Sabbath

A minor quibble would be his “as an employer you have the responsibility of not causing your employees to break the Sabbath.” (p. 50). However, I’m not sure that employees that are in the category of slaves (man-servants, maid-servants) can be modeled as breaking Sabbath, at least in regard to that part of the day in which they are compelled by Master. It is the Master/Employer that breaks Sabbath by making them work unnecessarily, not the Slave/Employee. The text of the fourth commandment, which is obviously addressed specifically to a wealthy slave-holding householder as type, is that he sins directly by not giving his servants Sabbath rest; this sin is not an indirect one, of “causing his employees to break the Sabbath.” In other words, in such a situation, he is the Sabbath-breaker, not they.

If so, the church should stop brow-beating Christians at the lowest strata of society that must take jobs that require work on the Sabbath, but should rather take a prophetic stand against such unjust employers, and take all legal means to end such oppression.

Next, the delicate issue of “making someone work on the Sabbath” more broadly is discussed. Pipa even goes so far as to include “those events mediated by television, which necessitates hundreds of employees being at work” (p. 50). It is unclear whether he intends by this, even (1) watching an event on TV in the privacy of one’s own home, or (2) attending an event that is being covered by television. If (1), it is hard to imagine how doing this could possibly affect Sabbath employment, unless there is some way the sponsors are cognizant of one’s private activity. Perhaps they would see, in subsequent days, the advertised products spike upward in demand — but then, if one blacked out the TV during commercials so as not to be subliminally influenced? If (2), it is hard to imagine what sort of activity would be permitted as such, but not by virtue of TV cameras being present. So this thesis needs to be tightened up.

The case of eating out by necessity is touched on later; here, we focus on voluntary, unnecessary eating out.  Is it the case that by eating out, you are making someone violate the Sabbath by working on it?

Greg Bahnsen said no, you are by no means making them work; they have chosen to work, and you are free to let them serve you. “Spoiling the Egyptians” is the phrase used by some of his followers in this regard. Let us reflect on this problem a bit.

In all this, I am assuming that when Pipa says, “you are commanded not to cause others to do unnecessary work,” (p. 50) he does not mean the slight increase of bustling about when a waitress has 4 tables instead of 3, but rather that she has to be there at all.

Clearly, we are dealing with statistical or aggregated behavior here. It is surely unlikely that my going to McDonald’s and spending $5.00 for a meal is going to be the cause of even one extra person laboring on the Sabbath, in comparison to my not doing so, everything else being the same. On the other hand, it is more plausible to suggest that if “all members of the class of Christians that currently eat out on Sunday” decided to refrain from eating out on Sunday, everything else being equal, then fewer people would be employed on Sunday. So the question can be divided this way:

  1. Is it the case that fewer people would be forced to work by their employers if all Christians stopped eating out on Sunday?
  2. If so, does each individual in that class bear the guilt of an outcome based on the statistical aggregate of that class?

If a small town has 10 Christian families that eat out every Sunday, each spending $100, then $1,000 is predictable as demand by the managers of the town’s restaurants, and $1,000 seems like enough to warrant requiring some number of low-level employees to show up for work. Surely, if all 10 of these families predictably descend on Denny’s, there will be one or two waitresses and perhaps an extra short-order cook working that otherwise would not be. However, if only two of these families predictably ended up at Denny’s, while the others were distributed between Al’s, Betty’s, Coco’s, and Etienne’s, then it is not so clear that any of those would require extra staff. This is because labor is not infinitely divisible: it is discrete, in quantities of people. There can thus be extra capacity that can be put to use without requiring additional units of labor.

So we have to be more careful in how this argument is framed.

Though Bahnsen’s solution was more libertarian in one sense, in other aspects he was willing to go far beyond Pipa. It may be summarized in three points:

  1. The church should lead the way in protesting and requiring legislation to prevent the compelling of labor on the Sabbath.
  2. Society should have the death penalty for restauranteurs that are open on the Sabbath.
  3. Nevertheless, where the service is offered, and the activity is not in itself unlawful (it is not unlawful to eat, nor to be served food), the Christian may consume with a clear conscience.

Thus his position had the surprising outcome, that he was willing to patronize establishments on Sunday that were engaged in an activity that would be a capital offense in a properly-structured society!

Yet given the difficulties inherent in a causality that is statistical, one can see the genius of his solution. If so, how much more, watching an event on TV in the privacy of one’s boudoir.

It seems to me that a prohibition of unnecessary eating-out and TV-watching should be made, and can be made, in terms of the implied life-form. If your eating out is truly a “work of necessity,” then it won’t include the frills. It won’t be the day to splurge on the cream pie, and bottles of wine. It will be simple, and brief — it will appear to be what it purports to be: a work of necessity. One might get a carry-out to take back to the hotel (using Pipa’s example of unavoidable travel). As to the TV, leaving aside the obvious exceptions of watching church services and the like, it is hard to imagine any TV-watching that could be justified as Sabbath activity. Almost any such watching is going to be idle amusement or “self-improvement” in which the focus is not on honoring the Lord. And this consideration is quite independent of any alleged economic impact of the watching.

Oddly enough, in the case of electricity, Pipa takes the opposite tack: since some electricity is needed for works of mercy and necessity, therefore all electric use is permissible (63, 80). Now, if the same number of workers are needed to supply enough electricity for hospitals as for any amount of electrical usage, his argument would follow; otherwise, it is inconsistent with his arguments against restaurants. But it is highly unlikely that the same number of workers are needed in both cases, since new power stations are brought on line with increased consumption. So, it seems to me that if the restaurant argument is valid, then we should also reduce our electric consumption to that which is truly necessary.

He says that if you forgot to stock the pantry before the Sabbath, it is wrong to run out to get the needed items: it was your fault, so you should penalize yourself with abstention. However, if abstention is an option, then why is restaurant-visiting allowed when traveling? Is abstention a subtle form of Protestant penance creeping in for the earlier oversight?

Instead, I would suggest this solution: the lack of foresight was a sinful failure to honor the Lord’s day earlier in the week. The sin was then, not now. So, if it is permitted to eat out when traveling, then it is permitted to buy some necessary items to fix food at home. There is sin to repent of, but it occurred earlier in the week, not now.

Likewise, if you are in serious danger of running out of gas in driving to church and back, by all means stop at a gas station and buy some, rather than running out of gas, and putting who knows who all into a great inconvenience helping you solve the problem. Again, a sin was committed, but yesterday in the careless neglect, not today in stopping at the gas station.

Pipa applies the Sabbath principle even to machinery (p. 51) — since they “wear out” just like people do. “Think of the extended life-span of expensive machinery.” But this is too crude. If, as Paul said of the command do not muzzle the ox, “Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt.” (I Cor. 9:9-10). How much more, machinery. The extended life-span might or might not be an economic advantage: one would have to calculate the foregone sales now against the replacement cost some time in the sooner future. In any case, that form of reasoning is not what the Sabbath is all about.

But again, there is a life-form or aesthetic point that could be made in the same direction. An automated factory that manless continues to hum along churning out product on the Sabbath day is aesthetically repulsive. The society seen as a whole is not pausing to honor God; commerce still comes first, and isn’t it wonderful that no one needs to be there attending it?

This is something that cannot be argued; it can only be felt.

Social ordering

Not only automated factories: he thinks factories in general that need to keep running for 7 days should be permitted to. (p. 92) The proof? This is similar to shipping, and Solomon had ships.  Pipa says,

A number of duties had to be done even on the Sabbath for the well-being of the crew: sails had to be trimmed, the course charted, general maintenance carried out and the physical needs of the crew met. In applying the principle we need to ask, ‘Is the work necessary for the good or well-being of our neighbour and the continuance of his or our lawful calling?’ Thus, the operation of a factory that cannot shut down without affecting its work for the remainder of the week is a deed of necessity, falling in the same category as an electrical generating plant, a hospital furnace room, or a college cafeteria.

First, the hidden premise “if Solomon did something then it is consistent with the law of God,” is surely a dubious one. Nevertheless, let us grant that one for now. Is shipping an activity that inherently prevents Sabbath-keeping? I should think not. I should think that in a Sabbath-honoring society, ship routes would be planned to allow docking in harbor on Sabbath days, and a chaplaincy or other arrangement made for worship services. Much of the rub-a-dub-dub work could be given up on that day. After that, what is left? Probably less than what a farmer has, in feeding his livestock. So this example was quite a reach.

Gary North used similar logic to conclude that a universal Sabbath observance is simply impossible for modern industrial society. To which we would say, “if so, then so much the worse for modern industrial society.” It is ours to obey, and not project what we think is an ideal society given our technology, and use that to relativize the law of God.

A footnote dealing with the civil law aspect states:

Perhaps Jewish or Muslim-operated business could be allowed to operate on Sunday, but no Christian employee should be required to work, just as a Christian employer should respect the conscience of the person whose religious beliefs call for them to worship another day. (p. 52).

This is surely a poisonous religious neutrality. As if alien idolators should be allowed to enter our Christian country and not have to obey all the laws, or have special laws written for their apostate scruples! And as if a Christian employer should be compelled in a just society to honor the superstitious scruples of any of his employees (or even, which is implied, continue to have them in his employ at all).

It is sad that American theologians, even those “reputed to be pillars” (Gal. 2:9) of orthodoxy, are so blinded by the notion of epistemological neutrality when it comes to “religion.” There is no “religion,” only God. His law should be obeyed by all.

Joseph A. Pipa, The Lord’s Day (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1997)

2 thoughts on “Pipa on The Lord’s Day

  1. Pingback: The Sabbath’s Moral Perpetuity Vindicated, Part 1 at Faith and Heritage

  2. With respect to allowing aliens to be exempt from obeying the Sabbath, Nehemiah drove away aliens even from outside the gates of Jerusalem who were waiting for them to open immediately after the ending of the Sabbath because they were violating the Lord’s Day, though they were technically “resting.”

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