Searching Out the Mind of God: Edwards on the Doctrine of the Sabbath

By Kelly Flake

April 28, 2006


Early in 1705, one of the most formidable challenges to Puritan Sabbath traditions appeared in Boston.  John Rogers, a local man, published A Mid-Night Cry from the Temple of God to the Ten Virgins, which boldly confronted orthodox doctrines.  So controversial did the local authorities find the work that they had the hangman burn it near the town whipping post.  Rogers received an exacting penalty for his actions, including a fine of five pounds, a bond for fifty pounds, as well as a sentence to sit on the gallows in public humiliation for a quarter of an hour.  Rogers and his followers, however, continued to cause trouble throughout their lives, violating Sabbath laws that had been established by Puritan founders.[1]  Their objections stirred a wider-spread rebellion, which in turn called out a force of conservative pastors, vigorous in their defense of tradition.  One of these pastors was the prominent Jonathan Edwards.    

What fault did Rogers and the Rogerenes find in observing the Sabbath the traditional way?  Chief among their complaints was that the Puritan way of looking at the Sabbath had grown arcane.  Buttressing their argument, Rogers cited Deuteronomy 5:12-15:

Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God….You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.


Rogers’s use of this verse came in direct contrast to the Puritan tendency to quote Exodus 20:8-11: “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God…. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” To the Rogerenes, the Sabbath merely represented the salvation of the Jews from their bondage in Egypt.  Thus, the custom really belonged as a reminder to one people rather than to the whole world.  Why should Christians go on observing a ritual meant to remind a separated people of a special event in their history?  The observances of Jews no longer belonged to Christians, they argued, because Christ, in his first coming, fulfilled the old law and the old pictures of salvation. 

Those who shared Rogers’ mind, however, came to heads against a tradition with roots deeply embedded in western history.  Jews and Christians alike had observed Sabbath customs for centuries.  This had been no less true for the American colonists who placed importance on Sabbath observances from the time of their settlement.  The Puritans envisioned a community in which they could make religious choices free from governmental coercion.  They anticipated, however, that men would decide which church service they attended, not whether or not they attended at all.  The local Puritan authorities expected Sabbath practices to remain part of regular community life, which is why in many places these customs could be found written into local legal codes.  Laws appeared in the colonies, for instance, that restricted the dispensing of alcohol and playing of games.  By 1678, even the Chesapeake colonies had banned entirely the performance of physical labor on the holy day.[2]

Early settlers equated the regulation of Sabbath practices with the establishment of colonial morality.  If this country were to be, as John Winthrop prophesized, a “City Upon a Hill,” then her citizens better worship God together in church.  Edwards wrote of the value of a community’s being united together in worship for the sake of their witness.

By a strict observance of the Sabbath, the face of religion is kept up in the world.  If it were not for the Sabbath, there would be but little public and visible appearance of serving, worshipping, and reverencing the supreme and invisible Being.  The Sabbath seems to have been appointed very much for this end, viz. to uphold the visibility of religion in public, or among professing societies of men and by how much greater the strictness is with which the sabbath is observed, and with how much more solemnity the duties of it are observed among a people; by so much the greater is the manifestation among them of respect to the Divine Being.[3]


For Edwards, public faith, like personal faith, needed to be manifested in some visible testimony to the world.  And Sabbath worship became an outward reflection of the inward heart of the community. 

            Objectors might argue that Edwards’s sensitivity about the public appearance of corporate worship contradicts his treatise on religious affections, in which he says that an outward sign is not sufficient to demonstrate inward grace.  Yet by no means does Edwards present the Sabbath as merely a way of putting on a show of holiness for the world separate from any true holy observances.  Edwards argues to the contrary that the Sabbath is necessary for Christians because by it the people of God are reminded of the most essential and genuine aspect of their faith: their redemption.  Faith must be sincere if the display of it is going to be an effective witness.  The Holy Spirit deemed observation of the Sabbath day so beneficial to the people of God, in fact, that He introduced the custom to the Church in gradual, sometimes subtle and sometimes explicit ways.

Jonathan Edwards delivered two undated sermons entitled, “The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath,” exhorting his congregants to observe the Sabbath as a Biblical command.  Offering one of the clearest defenses of traditional Sabbath doctrine for his time, Edwards insisted that two things in the Puritan view were not only apparent from scripture but also immediately relevant for the contemporary Christian church.  In his words, both natural and direct revelation made “sufficiently clear, that it is the mind of God, that one day of the week should be devoted to rest, and to religious exercises, throughout all ages and nations,” and, “that under the gospel-dispensation, this day is the first day of the week.”[4] The Sabbath held its place in tradition as a day of rest, a commemoration of the works of God, a time for worship, an encouragement to corporate worship.  To Edwards, the day appeared as all these things in scripture and thus as a duty, a duty rich with delight for obedient souls. 

Edwards’ first proposition in “The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath,” is that the Lord intended for one day of the week to be set aside for rest, religious exercises among all people in all nations.[5]  Some would object to the continual practice of the Sabbath, Edwards argues, because “There is no clear revelation,” to do so.  Against this, Edwards argues using both natural and revealed law. 

Concerning natural law, Edwards argues that the very nature of things and the state of mankind in this world suggests the need for a Sabbath day fixed for all people.  In his fallen state, man’s attention is regularly taken up in cares chiefly mundane.  Yet man’s biggest business is to worship God.  Therefore it is “most meet and suitable that certain times should be set apart, upon which men should be required to throw by all other concerns.”[6]  The observance of the day, then, is predicated upon the fact that if men do not make intentional time for worship, they will be regularly consumed with worldly things to the neglect of eternal things.  Moreover, men live in communities, making it ridiculous to think that each one could worship for a full day whenever he so pleased without being interrupted by others who have chosen to worship on a different day.  Thus, reason supports the idea that the day of worship be decided upon and fixed for all people.

Nature indicates not only that a time of worship should be set aside and established but also that this time should have a particular length and frequency.  The best time for this, Edwards admits, may not be ascertainable by unaided reason.  God knows better than men do what the timing of this worship should be, and thus it is apt for men to assume that God would set the example on this matter.  And this God did, Edwards argues, by working six days on creation and resting the seventh, blessing and hallowing the seventh day as an indication for us to do the same.[7] 

But these things God did not leave entirely up to man’s reason to discern.  He, in fact, lofted the Sabbath command to a high position in the Decalogue.  In the Fourth Commandment, Edwards believes, it is clear that not only Israel, but every nation should keep the seventh day holy.

As has already been shown, however, many like the Rogerenes would argue that the Fourth Commandment is not perpetuated in a literal sense but in a mystical sense.   Again, they read the command as particularization for only one people in only one time and place.  This, Edwards says is the main argument against the Sabbath being perpetual: that it is not moral.  This law is not moral, objectors would say, in the sense that it is not revealed in nature for all men, but rather it is given arbitrarily, sanctioned for a particular people as a ceremonial law.

Edwards, of course, maintains that this command is revealed in nature, for “there must be a proportion of time fixed, or else the general moral duty cannot be observed.”[8]  Yet, he also says that a law’s not being moral would not be a good argument for its not being perpetual.  Many commands, in fact, are able to be perpetual without being moral, two chief examples being the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.[9]

            Edwards further shows from scripture that this precept belongs to all people, in all nations.  What would happen if this commandment were counted as merely mystical?  In that case, any of the commands could be considered a figurative command and Biblical authority would then hold fading significance. [10]  The full meaning of the Ten Commandments must then be present for all people.  This is evinced again in the book of Isaiah, when in chapter 56 the prophet predicted Gentile participation in Sabbath observances: “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” Also in the New Testament, Christ foretells the end of the Jewish state, exhorting both the apostles and other Christians to pray that they won’t have to flee on the Sabbath (Matthew 24:20).  Christ had been referring to the time after the dissolution of the Jewish constitution, yet he still expected Christians to observe the Sabbath.  

            Edwards states in his second proposition that Christians are not only required to set apart one day of the week, but that the day to be set aside—the first day of the week—has been fixed already by God. The Fourth Commandment requires that after six days of work, men rest on the seventh day of the week.  Yet from this statement, there is no telling when the seventh day must be.[11]  For the Jews, God made that day explicit upon their departure from Egypt.  Being unlikely that the Egyptians would grant the Jews a day of rest during their captivity, the Israelites would have needed the reminder concerning the customary observances.  The first mention of the Sabbath after the initial day that God rested from his creation is in Exodus, when God told the emerging Israelites, “…Tomorrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the Lord” (Exodus 16:13-26).  Similarly, Christians in the gospel-Church should expect that Christ would make clear what day the Sabbath ought to be observed. 

To see what significance the first day of the week has to the worship of God, it is necessary to first see what is being commemorated on the Sabbath day.  As mentioned earlier, the reason that Christians have for working six days and resting one is that God did this.[12]  Edwards argues that the Sabbath day has always been intended for the celebration of God’s work at creation.  This commemoration, however, is not limited to just the old creation found in Genesis, but also the new creation to which Christians are to look forward.  “For behold, I create new heavens, and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be you glad and rejoice forever in that which I create: for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy” (Isaiah 51:16).  Edwards argues that the dissolution of the Jewish state was spoken of as the end of the world.  Those who belong to the gospel-church now belong to the new creation and have much more reason to commemorate the new creation than the old.  New people, then, made new in Christ, look for gospel-restoration and redemption as a future hope.  And this is what is celebrated on the Sabbath.

Edwards viewed the Jewish Sabbath, commemorating the deliverance from Egypt, as a remarkable picture of Christ’s redemption.[13]  The Jews celebrated the Sabbath beginning on the day the Israelites came out of the Red Sea (Deu 5:15).  The nation’s coming out of the water represents Christ’s body coming out of the grave.  The event pictures Christ’s exaltation, which ought to be marvelous to Christ’s people, Edwards asserts, and should be remembered with great joy.  The Psalmist writes of the joy and wonder that attends the work of redemption: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head-stone of the corner.  This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.  This is the day which the Lord hath made, we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:22-24).  And as the Decalogue applies to all people in all ages, the picture of the Israelite’s crossing must have been a representative picture for all the gospel-Church.

Christ rested still in the tomb on the day of the Jewish Sabbath, waited one more day and rose on the first of the week.  By doing so, Christ made that day holy.  He then honored that day time and again by appearing to the apostles and choosing to pour out His Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the first day of the week (Lev. 23:15).  His sanctioning of this day set a precedent for the early church as well, and the apostles came together to break bread on the first day (Acts 20:7).  It appears the that Holy Spirit worked so that this day would be celebrated by all churches.  Though scripture does not explain this, Edwards argues that even here reason is a helpful aid in confirming the truths of scriptures.  For, “the universality of the custom throughout all Christian counties, in all ages, by what account we have of them, is a good argument that the church had it from the apostles.  And it is difficult to conceive how all should come to agree to set up such a custom through the world, of different sects and opinions, and we have no account of any such thing.”[14] 

Thus, one sees throughout the New Testament letters that early churches far removed from each other were convening for religious celebration on the first day of the week.  Acts, 11:28-30, 24:17, Romans 15:26, and Galatians 2:10, for instance, make reference to the gathering of believers and the taking of collections for the churches on this day.  I Corinthians 16: 1,2 also reads, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.  Upon the first day of the week, let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.” Galatia far distant from Corinth, received the same command.  And in Acts, it is recorded that “Upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them” (Acts 20:7).  These New Testament incidents evince that the giving of alms and showing mercy are proper to Sabbath day works.  According to Edwards, they further show that the Holy Spirit desired that the Sabbath be observed by the gospel-church and thus encouraged the spread of this custom throughout the new Christian churches. 

Edwards was not the only eighteenth century pastor with something to say about the Sabbath.  Samuel Willard, for one, preached Sabbath doctrine to his congregation for nine months, emphasizing that “the Power of Religion will always fare among a People, as the Sabbath doth.”[15]  Giving vigorous Biblical support to his argument, however, Edwards’s treatment is one of the most compelling to date.  Such a rigorous display of logic did not diminish the gentleness of Edwards’ pastoral voice.  In his introduction, Edwards exhorts pastorally that the Sabbath should be a matter of deep personal concern for all Christians.  “If men take it only upon trust,” he writes, “and keep the first day of the week because their parents taught them so, or because they see others do it, they will never be likely to keep it so conscientiously and strictly, as if they had been convinced by seeing for themselves that thee are good grounds in the Word of God for their practice.”[16] Indeed, each man must make up his mind to obey scripture in these matters.  For any man who is not readily convinced, Edwards cautions against all “rest till he has satisfactorily discovered the mind of God in this matter.”[17]





[1] Winton Solberg, Redeem the Time: The Puritan Sabbath in Early America, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 282.

[2] Ibid., 99.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonathan Edwards, “Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath,” online source, no publication date, 3.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 4. 

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 6. 

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 6.

[11] Ibid., 7. 

[12] Ibid., 8. 

[13] Ibid., 11.

[14] Ibid., 14.

[15] Samuel Willard, quoted in Solberg 283.

[16] Edwards, “Perpetuity and Change,” 3. 

[17] Ibid., 2.