What Passion City Gets Right And Wrong About The Sabbath

The last time we saw Atlanta Pastor Louie Giglio it was January 2013 and he was embroiled in controversy because he had been invited by President Obama to participate in his second inauguration. It had been discovered that Giglio held the biblical and historic Christian position that same-sex (homosexual) desire and sex is sin and he opposed the re-definition of marriage to include same-sex marriages. Washington Post journalist Natalie Jennings called his opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage “inflammatory.” If she thinks that what Giglio says about nature, marriage, and sin is inflammatory wait until she reads Romans 1–3.

More recently Giglio made news, on social media anyway, by announcing “For two Sundays, August 26th + September 2nd, our House will be stepping away from our normal weekend routine and into the rhythm of Sabbath.” This announcement produced howls of protest. I would be among the critics of this move but before we get to criticism there are some things to appreciate about what Giglio said. The first of those is his recognition “that God intended to weave Sabbath rest into the fabric of creation.” This is quite right and something that virtually all evangelicals (QIRE) and fundamentalists (QIRC) miss. Because they are the children of the Pietists and Revivalists (and behind them, the Anabaptists), American evangelicals tend to have neither a doctrine of creation nor a distinction between nature and grace. For evangelicals, salvation swallows everything whole. It is almost as if God never said, “Let there be” and he only said, “It is finished.” In truth, however, he said both things. In historic Reformed theology grace does not destroy nature nor “perfect” it (Thomas Aquinas) rather it renews human nature in salvation but nature remains. It is this swallowing of nature, the obliterating of nature that marks the over-realized eschatology of most evangelicals.

The fundamentalists (used here in the post-Machen sense of the word) think that creation refers entirely to the length of the creation days. In their approach to Scripture, the main thing for which Genesis is good seem to be to establish the age of the earth by adding up the chronologies and to refute 19th century geology and paleontology. They spend hours defending “creationism” while breaking the Sabbath at the creation museum (open from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM on Sundays).

In Recovering the Reformed Confession I described these two approaches to theology, piety, and practice as the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) and the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC). Neither of them understands nature and grace properly.

Properly, the Reformed have understood and confessed that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance and pattern. The Sabbath was instituted before the fall. It is the culmination of the creation narrative. In it God is figuratively said to “rest” (Gen 2:2). Exodus 20:8 says that the post-fall Sabbath is an imitation of the divine “rest.” In other words, God is said to have rested, as it were, as an example for his image bearers and as a testimony to the eternal rest and fellowship with God that was offered to Adam on condition of his perfect obedience to God’s holy law. That fellowship was symbolized by the “tree of life” (Gen 2:9) and the consequences for disobedience were symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). One promised life, the other death. After the fall, we were to rest in anticipation of the rest that comes to those saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Under Moses they had those gospel promises under types and shadows but under Christ we have their reality. We are all members of the same church (1 Cor 10:1–4).

The Sabbath is just as basic to the creational pattern as marriage (Matt 19:4, 8; Mark 2:27). In that regard, the NFL has been a threat to the family and to Christian piety rather longer than same-sex marriage. Before the 1950s, college football was king and professional football was more like a semi-pro league. In the 1950s, however, professional football moved to Sundays to fill television time and the rest, as they say, is history.

Giglio further characterizes the Sabbath with three appropriate terms: “stop,” “rest,” and “remember.” This is quite right. These ideas are embedded in the Sabbath. It is about stopping the regular business of our daily life. It is about resting from our work and resting in Christ and in his finished work for us. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) 103 we confess that on the Christian Sabbath, inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ (the formal beginning of the New Creation) means “that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.” He is right to say that the Sabbath is, in this way, “counter-cultural” and that on the Sabbath we remember essential truths and realities. It is a time of re-orientation.

There are, however, some significant omissions from Giglio’s account. To stop, rest, and remember Scripture requires us to add another benefit of the Sabbath: worship. This is the first purpose of the Christian Sabbath. Yahweh declared through Moses that he delivered his people out of Egypt “that they may worship me” (Ex 7:16). This sets the picture of worship in Scripture right through the Revelation. God’s redeemed people gathered at the foot of the mountain to worship him (Heb 12:18–24). In Heidelberg 103 the Reformed churches confess that we stop, rest, and remember in order that “the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained, and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church, to learn the Word of God, to use the Holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms.”

The chief benefit of the Christian Sabbath is gathering together to hear the law and the gospel proclaimed, to use the two sacraments instituted by Christ in the New Covenant: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Gathered with his people, who bear his name, we learn God’s Word together. We confess our sins to one another. We receive the public proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. We instruct our covenant children. We give alms, i.e., to the Diaconal fund to help our brothers and sisters (“the least of these” Matt 25:40) who are in need. We lose ourselves in Christ and in each other. For the Reformed, worship is rest.

The unstated but clearly implied premise of stopping worship for two Lord’s Days in order to rest is that we are about to begin the new school year, the new (real) church year and that the members of Passion City need to rest before they dive into another year of crazy busy-ness. It is a tacit recognition of the state of the evangelical church: it is not a place of refuge and rest for sinners but an engine of busy-ness and activity.

It has not always been so. It need not be so. There are two great spheres of life over which Christ is Lord: nature (creation) and grace (redemption). He administers these two spheres distinctly. The creational pattern requires a certain degree of business. If we do not work, we may not eat (2 Thess 3:10). School requires a certain degree of business. There are lectures to attend and assignments to be done. Church, however, need not model itself after these factories of busy-ness but that is not the pattern that the QIRE-ish evangelicals and QIRC-y fundamentalists in America have followed. In those circles the number of meetings attended is a mark of piety.

The Sabbath is not a day for wearying busy-ness. It is fundamentally a day of rest. It should not be an source of exhaustion but of restoration. It should not be a special pair of Sundays observed just before the onslaught of the new school and church year but every Sunday. It is not that church should be shut down 52 Sundays annually but that in many cases it needs to be re-thought. Ministers are necessarily busy on the Lord’s Day but it is not clear to me why everyone else needs to be equally exhausted at the end of the Lord’s Day. One great question that American congregations ought to ask: what can we do to make this day more restful? I suspect that most congregations are asking a rather different question: what can do we do to program the day more fully?

The other great mistake in Giglio’s approach is that it contributes to what I called two decades ago, “the evangelical fall from the means of grace.” God ordained public worship in part because he reveals himself as desiring to meet with his people and to bless us. We respond gratefully to God for the favor (grace) earned for us by Christ but chiefly, in worship God is the initiator. He calls. He comes to us. He draws us. He gives new life. He saves. He sanctifies. When we absent ourselves from the public, official ministry of God’s Word and sacraments, we withdraw from the divinely ordained means by which he has promised to bless his people.

Such withdrawal from public, gathered worship was unthinkable to the apostolic church, some of whom were martyred simply for being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, i.e., for being Christians. The earliest Christians were mocked by the non-Christian Jews and by the pagans for attending worship on the Christian Sabbath. The writer to the Hebrews sent to a predominantly Jewish-Christian congregation a sermon one of the purposes of which was to exhort them not to abandon gathering together “as some are in the habit of doing” (Heb 10:25). Rather, we ought to be “encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

If church is so busy that we need to shut it down for two Lord’s Days then we are not doing it correctly. I suspect that Passion City is not the only congregation longing for a rest for a couple of Sundays. I suspect that there were a great number of volunteer workers and harried staff members and pastors who, when they read what Passion City was doing, said under their breath, “I wish the elders/deacons would let us do that.”

Mixed in with the errors, there is truth in what Giglio says and implies. There is another pattern, there is a better way. According to the Reformed churches, it is the way God intended and that Christ instituted for his church.

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One comment

  1. Hilarious. And All those Christians staying home for two Sunday’s think: I can sleep in, and then I can finally get to x I have been meaning to do around the house. We are addicted to works.

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