Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 35


The Sydenham Palace, and the Religious Non-observance of the Sabbath

Preached November 14, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.” - Romans 14:5,6


The selection of this text is suggested by one of the current topics of the day. Lately projects have been devised, one of which in importance surpasses all the rest, for providing places of public recreation for the people: and it has been announced, with the sanction of government, that such a place will be held open during a part at least of the day of rest. By a large section of sincerely religious persons this announcement has been received with considerable alarm and strenuous opposition. It has seemed to them that such a desecration would be a national crime: for, holding the sabbath to be God’s sign between Himself and His people, they can not but view the desecration of the sign as a forfeiture of His covenant, and an act which will assuredly call down national judgments. By the secular press, on the contrary, this proposal has been defended with considerable power. It has been maintained that the sabbath is a Jewish institution; in its strictness, at all events, not binding on a Christian community. It has been urged with much force that we can not consistently refuse to concede to the poor man publicly, that right of recreation which privately the rich man has long taken without rebuke, and with no protest on the part of the ministers of Christ. And it has been said that such places of recreation will tend to humanize, which if not identical with Christianizing the population, is at least a step towards it.

Upon such a subject, where truth unquestionably does not lie upon the surface, it can not be out of place if a minister of Christ endeavors to direct the minds of his congregation towards the formation of an opinion; not dogmatically, but humbly, remembering always that his own temptation is, from his very position as a clergyman, to view such matters, not so much in the broad light of the possibilities of actual life, as with the eyes of a recluse; from a clerical and ecclesiastical, rather than from a large and human point of view. For no minister of Christ; has a right to speak oracularly. All that be can pretend to do is to give his judgment, as one that has obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful. And on large national subjects there is perhaps no class so ill qualified to form a judgment with breadth as we, the clergy of the Church of England, accustomed as we are to move in the narrow circle of those who listen to us with forbearance and deference, and mixing but little in real life, till in our cloistered and inviolable sanctuaries we are apt to forget that it is one thing to lay down rules for a religious clique, and an other to legislate for a great nation.

In the Church of Rome a controversy had arisen in the time of St. Paul, respecting the exact relation in which Christianity stood to Judaism; and, consequently, the obligation of various Jewish institutions came to be discussed: among the rest the sabbath-day. One party maintained its abrogation, another its continued obligation. “One man esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth every day alike.” Now it is remarkable that, in his reply, the Apostle Paul, although his own views upon the question were decided and strong, passes no judgment of censure upon the practice of either of these parties, but only blames the uncharitable spirit in which the one “judged their brethren” as irreligious, and the other “set at naught” their stricter brethren as superstitious. He lays down, however, two principles for the decision of the matter: the first being the rights of Christian conviction, or the sacredness of the individual conscience-“Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind;” the second, a principle unsatisfactory enough, and surprising, no doubt, to both, that there is such a thing as religious observance, and also such a thing as a religious non-observance of the day-“He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord: and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.” I shall consider,


I. St. Paul’s own view upon the question.

II. His modifications of that view, in reference to separate cases.


I. St. Paul’s own view. No one, I believe, who would read St. Paul’s own writings with unprejudiced mind could fail to come to the conclusion that he considered the sabbath abrogated by Christianity: not merely as modified in its stringency, but as totally repealed.

For example, see Colossians ii. 16, 17: observe, he counts the sabbath-day among those institutions of Judaism which were shadows, and of which Christ was the realization, the substance or “body;” and he bids the Colossians remain indifferent to the judgment which would be pronounced upon their non-observance of such days. “Let no man judge you with respect to . . . the sabbath-days.”

He is more decisive still in the text. For it has been contended that in the former passage, “sabbath-days” refers simply to the Jewish sabbaths, which were superseded by the Lord’s day, and that the apostle does not allude at all to the new institution, which it is supposed had superseded it. Here, however, there can be no such ambiguity. “One man esteemeth every day alike;” and he only says, “let him be fully persuaded in his own mind.” “Every” day must include first days as well as last days of the week: Sundays as well as Saturdays. And again, he even speaks of scrupulous adherence to particular days, as if it were giving up the very principle of Christianity: “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.” So that his objection was not to Jewish days, but to the very principle of attaching intrinsic sacredness to any days. All forms and modes of particularizing the Christian life he reckoned as bondage under the elements or alphabet of the law. And this is plain from the nature of the case. He struck not at a day, but at a principle. Else, if with all this vehemence and earnestness, he only meant to establish a new set of days in the place of the old, there is no intelligible principle for which he is contending, and that earnest apostle is only a champion for one day instead of another-an asserter of the eternal sanctities of Sunday, instead of the eternal sanctities of Saturday. Incredible indeed.

Let us then understand the principle on which he declared the repeal of the sabbath. He taught that the blood of Christ cleansed all things; therefore there was nothing specially clean. Christ had vindicated all for God; therefore there was no one thing more God’s than another. For to assert one thing as God’s more than another, is by implication to admit that other to be less God’s.

The blood of Christ had vindicated God’s parental right to all humanity; therefore there could be no peculiar people. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond, nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” It had proclaimed God’s property in all places; therefore there could be no one place intrinsically holier than another. No human dedication, no human consecration could localize God in space. Hence the first martyr quoted from the prophet: “Howbeit the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build for me? saith the Lord.”

Lastly, the Gospel of Christ had sanctified all time: hence no time could be specially God’s. For to assert that Sunday is more God’s day than Monday, is to maintain by implication Monday is His less rightfully.

Here, however, let it be observed, it is perfectly possible, and not at all inconsistent with this, that for human convenience, and even human necessities, just as it became desirable to set apart certain places in which the noise of earthly business should not be heard for spiritual worship, so it should become desirable to set apart certain days for special worship. But then all such were defensible on the ground of wise and Christian expediency alone. They could not be placed on the ground of a Divine statute or command. They rested on the authority of the Church of Christ; and the power which had made could unmake them again.

Accordingly in early, we can not say exactly how early times, the Church of Christ felt the necessity of substituting something in place of the ordinances which bad been repealed. And the Lord’s day arose: not a day of compulsory rest; not such a day at all as modern sabbatarians suppose; not a Jewish sabbath; rather a day in many respects absolutely contrasted with the Jewish sabbath.

For the Lord’s day sprung, not out of a transference of the Jewish sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, but rather out of the idea of making the week an imitation of the life of Christ. With the early Christians, the great conception was that of following their crucified and risen Lord: they set, as it were, the clock of Time to the epochs of his history. Friday represented the Death in which all Christians daily die, and Sunday the Resurrection in which all Christians daily rise to higher life. What Friday and Sunday were to the week, that Good Friday and Easter Sunday were to the year. And thus, in larger or smaller cycles, all time represented to the early Christians the mysteries of the Cross and the Risen Life hidden in humanity. And as the sunflower turns from morning till evening to the sun, so did the early church turn forever to her Lord, transforming week and year into a symbolical representation of His spiritual life.

Carefully distinguish this, the true historical view of the origin of the Lord’s day, from a mere transference of a Jewish sabbath from one day to another. For St. Paul’s teaching is distinct and clear, that the sabbath is annulled, and to urge the observance of the day as indispensable to salvation was, according to him, to Judaize: “to turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto they desired to be in bondage.”


II. The modifications of this view.

1. The first modification has reference to those who conscientiously observed the day. He that observeth the day, observeth it to the Lord. Let him act, then, on that conviction: “Let him be fully persuaded in his own mind.” There is therefore a religious observance of the sabbath-day possible.

We are bound by the spirit of the fourth commandment, so far as we are in the same spiritual state as they to whom it was given. The spiritual intent of Christianity is to worship God every day in the spirit. But had this law been given in all its purity to the Jews, instead of turning every week-day into a sabbath, they would have transformed every sabbath into a week-day: with no special day fixed for worship, they would have spent every day without worship. Their hearts were too dull for a devotion so spiritual and pure. Therefore a law was given, specializing a day, in order to lead them to the broader truth that every day is God’s.

Now, so far as we are in the Jewish state, the fourth commandment, even in its rigor and strictness, is wisely used by us; nay, we might say, indispensable. For who is he who needs not the day? He is the man so rich in love, so conformed to the mind of Christ, so elevated into the sublime repose of heaven, that he needs no carnal ordinances at all, nor the assistance of one day in seven to kindle spiritual feelings, seeing he is, as it were, all his life in heaven at ready.

And doubtless, such the Apostle Paul expected the Church of Christ to be. Anticipating the Second Advent at once; not knowing the long centuries of slow progress that were to come, his heart would have sunk within him could he have been told that at the end of eighteen centuries the Christian Church would be still observing days, and months, and times, and years, and still more, needing them.

Needing them, I say. For the sabbath was made for man. God made it for men in a certain spiritual state, because they needed it. The need therefore is deeply hidden in human nature. He who can dispense with it must be holy and spiritual indeed. And he who, still unholy and unspiritual, would yet dispense with it, is a man who would fain be wiser than his Maker. We, Christians as we are, still need the law: both in its restraints, and in its aids to our weakness.

No man, therefore, who knows himself but will gladly and joyfully use the institution. No man who knows the need of his brethren will wantonly desecrate it, or recklessly hurt even their scruples respecting its observance. And no such man can look with aught but grave and serious apprehensions on such an innovation upon English customs of life and thought, as the proposal to give public and official countenance to a scheme which will invite millions, I do not say to an irreligious, but certainly an unreligious use of the day of rest.

This then is the first modification of the broad view of a repealed sabbath. Repealed though it be, there is such a thing as a religious observance of it. And provided that those who are stricter than we in their views of its obligation, observe it not from superstition, nor in abridgment of Christian liberty, nor from moroseness, we are bound in Christian charity to yield them all respect and honor. Let them act out their conscientious convictions. Let not him that observeth not despise him that observeth.

The second modification of the broad view is, that there is such a thing as a religious non-observance of the sabbath. I lay a stress on the word religious. For St. Paul does not say that every non-observance of the sabbath is religious, but that he who not observing it, observeth it not to the Lord, is, because acting on conscientious conviction, as acceptable as the others, who, in obedience to what they believe to be His will, observe it.

He pays his non-observance to the Lord, who feeling that Christ has made him free, striving to live all his days in the spirit, and knowing that that which is displeasing to God is not work nor recreation, but selfishness and worldliness, refuses to be bound by a Jewish ordinance which forbade labor and recreation, only with a typical intent.

But he who, not trying to serve God on any day, gives Sunday to toil or pleasure, certainly observes not the day: but his non-observance is not rendered to the Lord. He may be free from superstition: but it is not Christ who has made him, free. Nor is he one of whom St. Paul would have said that his liberty on the sabbath is as acceptable as his brother’s conscientious scrupulosity.

Here, then, we are at issue with the popular defense of public recreations on the sabbath-day: not so much with respect to the practice, as with respect to the grounds on which the practice is approved. They claim liberty: but it is not Christian liberty. Like St. Paul, they demand a license for non-observance; only, it is not “non-observance to the Lord.” For distinguish well. The abolition of Judaism is not necessarily the establishment of Christianity: to do away with the sabbath-day in order to substitute a nobler, truer, more continuous sabbath, even the sabbath of all time given up to God, is well; but to do away with the special rights of God to the sabbath, in order merely to substitute the rights of pleasure, or the rights of mammon, or even the license of profligacy and drunkenness, that, methinks, is not St. Paul’s “Christian liberty!”

The second point on which we join issue is the assumption that public places of recreation, which humanize, will therefore Christianize the people. It is taken for granted that architecture, sculpture, and the wonders of nature and art which such buildings will contain, have a direct or indirect tendency to lead to true devotion.

Only in a very limited degree is there truth in this at all. Christianity will humanize: we are not so sure that humanizing will Christianize. Let us be clear upon this matter. Esthetics are not religion. It is one thing to civilize and polish: it is another thing to Christianize. The worship of the beautiful is not the worship of holiness; nay, I know not whether the one may not have a tendency to disincline from the other.

At least, such was the history of ancient Greece. Greece was the home of the arts, the sacred ground on which the worship of the beautiful was carried to its perfection. Let those who have read the history of her decline and fall, who have perused the debasing works of her later years, tell us how music, painting, poetry, the arts, softened and debilitated and sensualized the nation’s heart. Let them tell us how, when Greece’s last and greatest man was warning in vain against the foe at her gates, and demanding a manlier and a more heroic disposition to sacrifice, that most polished and humanized people, sunk in trade and sunk in pleasure, were squandering enormous sums upon their buildings and their esthetics, their processions and their people’s palaces, till the flood came, and the liberties of Greece were trampled down forever beneath the feet of the Macedonian conqueror.

No! the change of a nation’s heart is not to be effected by the infusion of a taste for artistic grace. “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus.” Not art, but the cross of Christ. Simpler manners, purer lives: more self-denial ; more earnest sympathy with the classes that lie below us; nothing short of that can lay the foundations of the Christianity which is to be hereafter, deep and broad.

On the other hand, we dissent from the views of those who would arrest such a project by petitions to the legislature on these grounds:

1. It is a return backward to Judaism and law. It may be quite true that, as we suspect, such non-observance of the day is not to the Lord; but only a scheme of mere pecuniary speculation. Nevertheless there is such a thing as a religious non-observance of the day: and we dare not “judge another man’s servant: to his own master he standeth or falleth.” We dare not assert the perpetual obligation of the sabbath, when an inspired apostle has declared it abrogated. We dare not refuse a public concession of that kind of recreation to the poor man which the rich have long not hesitated to take in their sumptuous mansions and pleasuregrounds, unrebuked by the ministers of Christ, who seem touched to the quick only when the desecration of the sabbath is loud and vulgar. We can not substitute a statute law for a repealed law of God. We may think, and we do, that there is much which may lead to dangerous consequences in this innovation: but we dare not treat it as a crime.

2. The second ground on which we are opposed to the ultra-rigor of sabbath observance, especially when it becomes coercive, is the danger of injuring the conscience. It is wisely taught by St. Paul that he who does any thing with offense, i. e., with a feeling that it is wrong, does wrong. To him it is wrong, even though it be not wrong abstractly. Therefore it is always dangerous to multiply restrictions and requirements beyond what is essential, because men feeling themselves hemmed in break the artificial barrier, but breaking it with a sense of guilt, do thereby become hardened in conscience and prepared for transgression against commandments which are divine and of eternal obligation. Hence it is that the criminal has so often in his confessions traced his deterioration in crime to the first step of breaking the sabbath-day, and no doubt with accurate truth. But what shall we infer from this? Shall we infer, as is so often done upon the platform and in religious books, that it proves the everlasting obligation of the sabbath? Or shall we, with a far truer philosophy of the human soul, infer, in the language of St. Peter, that we have been laying on him “a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear?”-in the language of St. Paul, that “the motions of sin were by the law,” that the rigorous rule was itself the stimulating, moving cause of the sin: and that when the young man, worn out with his week’s toil, first stole out into the fields to taste the fresh breath of a spring day, he did it with a vague, secret sense of transgression, and that having, as it were, drawn his sword in defiance against the established code of the religious world, he felt that from thenceforward there was for him no return, and so he became an outcast, his sword against every man, and every man’s sword against him? I believe this to be the true account of the matter; and believing it, I can not but believe that the false Jewish notions of the sabbath-day which are prevalent have been exceedingly pernicious to the morals of the country.

Lastly, I remind you of the danger of mistaking a “positive “ law for a moral one. The danger is that proportionably to the vehemence with which the law positive is enforced, the sacredness of moral laws is neglected. A positive law, in theological language, is a law laid down for special purposes, and corresponds with statute laws in things civil. Thus laws of quarantine and laws of excise depend for their force upon the will of the legislature, and when repealed are binding no more. But a moral law is one binding forever, which a statute law may declare, but can neither make nor unmake.

Now when men are rigorous in the enforcement and reverence paid to laws positive, the tendency is to a corresponding indifference to the laws of eternal right. The written supersedes in their hearts the moral. The mental history of the ancient Pharisees who observed the sabbath, and tithed mint, anise, and cummin, neglecting justice, mercy, and truth, is the history of a most dangerous but universal tendency of the human heart. And so, many a man whose heart swells with what he thinks pious horror when he sees the letter delivered or the train run upon the sabbath-day, can pass through the streets at night, undepressed and unshocked by the evidences of the wide-spreading profligacy which has eaten deep into his country’s heart. And many a man who would gaze upon the domes of a Crystal Palace, rising above the trees, with somewhat of the same feeling with which he would look on a temple dedicated to Juggernaut, and who would fancy that something of the spirit of an ancient prophet was burning in his bosom, when his lips pronounced the woe! woe! of a coming doom, would sit calmly in a social circle of English life, and scarcely feel uneasy in listening to its uncharitableness and its slanders: would hear without one throb of indignation the common dastardly condemnation of the weak for sins which are venial in the strong: would survey the relations of the rich and poor in this country, and remain calmly satisfied that there is nothing false in them, unbrotherly and wrong. No, my brethren! let us think clearly and strongly on this matter. It may be that God has a controversy with this people. It may be, as they say, that our Father will chasten us by the sword of the foreigner. But if He does, and if judgments are in store for our country, they will fall-not because the correspondence of the land is carried on upon the sabbath-day: nor because Sunday trains are not arrested by the legislature, nor because a public permission is given to the working classes for a few hours’ recreation on the day of rest-but because we are selfish men: and because we prefer pleasure to duty, and traffic to honor; and because we love our part more than our Church, and our Church more than our Christianity; and our Christianity more than truth, and ourselves more than all. These are the things that defile a nation: but the labor and the recreation of its poor, these are not the things that defile a nation,