The Sabbath Under Crossfire:
A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments

Chapter 3: THE SABBATH AND THE NEW COVENANT
Part 1a: A Look at the Old and New Covenants

Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7


Part 1a
A Look at the Old and New Covenants
Part 1b
A Look at the Old and New Covenants - Continued
Part 2a
The Old and New Covenants in the Book of Hebrews
Part 2b
The Old and New Covenants in the Book of Hebrews - Continued




Chapter 3
THE SABBATH AND THE NEW COVENANT

Few Bible doctrines have been under the constant crossfire of controversy as has the Sabbath. In recent years, Dispensational and "New Covenant" Christians have renewed their attack against the Sabbath with fresh zeal. The stock weapon of their arsenal is the allegation that the Sabbath is an Old Covenant relic that terminated at the Cross. Their strategy is to make the Cross the line of demarcation between the Old and New Covenants, Law and Grace, the Sabbath and Sunday. Since they believe the Ten Commandments formed the core of the Old Covenant and the Sabbath is central to the Ten Commandments, by firing on the Sabbath they hope to destroy the validity and value of the Mosaic Law in general, and of the Sabbath in particular.

This is largely the strategy recently adopted by such former Sabbatarians as the Worldwide Church of God, Dale Ratzlaff in his influential book Sabbath in Crisis, and some of the newly established "grace-oriented" congregations, which consist mainly of former Sabbatarians. Their literature contains some of the strongest attacks against the Sabbath ever published. This is a surprising development of our times, because, to my knowledge, never before in the history of Christianity has the Sabbath been attacked by those who previously had championed its observance. The weapons used by former Sabbatarians in their attacks against the Sabbath are taken largely from the aging munition dump of Dispensational literature.

For the sake of accuracy I must say that, contrary to most Dispensational authors, both the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) and Dale Ratzlaff are more concerned with proving the "fulfillment" and termination of the Sabbath in Christ than in defending Sunday observance as an apostolic institution. For them, the New Covenant does not require the observance of a day as such, but the daily experience of the rest of salvation typified by the Sabbath rest. In Sabbath in Crisis, Ratzlaff does include a chapter, "The First Day of the Week," where he makes a feeble attempt to justify the biblical origin of Sundaykeeping, but this is not the major concern of his book.

For the benefit of those less versed in theological nuances, it might help to clarify the difference between Dispensational and New Covenant theologies. Both emphasize the distinction between the Old Mosaic Covenant, allegedly based on Law, and the "New Christian Covenant" presumably based on grace. Dispensationalists, however, go a step further by applying their distinction between the Old and New Covenants as representing the existence of a fundamental and permanent distinction between Israel and the Church. "Throughout the ages," writes Lewis Sperry Chafer, a leading Dispensational theologian, "God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved, which is Judaism; while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives, which is Christianity."1

Simply stated, Dispensationalists interpret the Old and New Covenants as representing two different plans of salvation for two different peopleóIsrael and the Church. The destiny of each is supposed to be different, not only in this present age but also throughout eternity. What God has united by breaking down the wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:14) Dispensationalists are trying to divide by rebuilding the wall of partition not only for the present age but for all eternity. It is hard to believe that intelligent, responsible Christians would dare to fabricate such a divisive theology that grossly misrepresents the fairness and justice of Godís redemptive activities.

Importance of This Study.
The importance of this study stems from the popular perception that the Sabbath is an Old Covenant institution no longer binding upon "New Covenant" Christians. This thesis is espoused by most Evangelical authors and is widely accepted by Christians at large. In recent years, as we noted, the abrogation view of the Sabbath has been adopted by an increasing number of former Sabbatarians.

This chapter examines primarily the literature produced by former Sabbatarians, especially Ratzlaffís Sabbath in Crisis. We focus on Ratzlaffís book for two reasons: (1) The Sabbath in Crisis largely reflects the Dispensational and "New Covenant" views of the Sabbath. Consequently, the analysis of this book provides an opportunity to examine the abrogation view of the Sabbath held by most Christians today. (2) This book has exercised considerable influence not only on WCG,2 but also among a considerable number of former Adventist ministers and members who have rejected the Sabbath as an Old Covenant, Mosaic institution that no longer is binding upon Christians today.

A fitting example of the influence of Sabbath in Crisis among Seventh-day Adventists is the book New Covenant Christians by Clay Peck, a former Adventist pastor who currently serves as senior pastor of the Grace Place Congregation in Berthoud, Colorado. In the "Introduction" to his book Peck acknowledges his indebtedness to Ratzlaff saying: "While I have read and researched widely for this study, I have been most challenged and instructed by a book entitled Sabbath in Crisis, by Dale Ratzlaff. I have leaned heavily on his research, borrowing a number of concepts and diagrams."3

The far reaching influence of the "New Covenant" theology, championed among Sabbatarians by people like Dale Ratzlaff, is hard to estimate. The WCG has experienced a massive exodus of over 70,000 members who have refused to accept the changes demanded by the "New Covenant" theology. In the Adventist church, the "New Covenant" teaching has influenced several former pastors to establish independent "grace- oriented" congregations.

This study on the relationship between the Sabbath and the New Covenant extends beyond the sabbatarian communities. Most Sundaykeeping Christians think of Sabbathkeeping as a relic of the Old Covenant and of Sabbatarians as "Judaizers" still living under the Old Covenant. It is urgent, then, for us to examine this popular perception which, as our study will show, is based on a one-sided, misleading interpretation of the biblical teaching on the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.

Objectives of This Chapter.
In Chapter 2 I briefly traced the origin and development of the anti-Sabbath theology. This chapter continues the study of the anti-Sabbath theology by focusing on the major arguments adduced by the "New Covenant" theology to negate the continuity, validity, and value of the Sabbath for today.

This chapter is divided into two parts. The first deals with the alleged distinction between the Old Covenant based on Law and the New Covenant based on faith and love. The fundamental question addressed in the first part is: Do the Old and New Covenants contain a different set of laws, or are they based on the same set of moral principles? The second part examines the continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants as taught in the book of Hebrews. The fundamental question to be considered here is: Does the book of Hebrews support the popular contention that the coming of Christ brought an end to the Law, in general, and to the Sabbath, in particular?

PART 1
A LOOK AT THE OLD AND NEW COVENANTS

A major characteristic of the "New Covenant" theology recently adopted by a significant number of former Sabbatarians is the Dispensational emphasis on the radical distinction between the Old and New Covenants. To illustrate this point, we briefly examine two representative studies: (1) The Pastor General Report, entitled "The New Covenant and the Sabbath," prepared by Pastor Joseph Tkach, Jr., Pastor General of the WCG; and (2) Chapters 5, 12, and 15 of the book Sabbath in Crisis, where Ratzlaff articulates his understanding of the distinction between the Old and the New Covenants.


(1) Joseph Tkachís View of the Distinction
Between the Two Covenants

In his Pastor General Report of December 21, 1994, Pastor Joseph Tkach, Jr., devotes 20 pages to explain to his ministers the fundamental difference between the Old and New Covenants. He argues that the difference lies in the fact that the Old Covenant was conditional upon obedience to a "package of Laws," while the New Covenant is unconditional, that is, without obedience as a requirement.4

For Tkach, the Sabbath is part of the Old Covenant "package of Laws" and this is why "we donít find the Sabbath commanded in the New Covenant."5 "Something was seriously wrong with the Israelite covenant. The people did not have the heart to obey, and God knew it (Deut 31:16-21, 27-29). Unlike Abraham, they did not believe and were not faithful (Heb 3:19). . . . Therefore, God predicted a New Covenant. He hinted at it even in the old . . . . There would be no need for a New Covenant, of course, unless the Old was deficient."6 If it were true that "something was seriously wrong" with the Old Covenant, then why did God in the first place give a faulty covenant that could not change the hearts of the people? Was something "seriously wrong" with the covenant itself? Or was it with the way the people related to the covenant? If the human response was a factor with the Old Covenant, could it also be a factor with the New Covenant?

Superiority of the New Covenant.
"The New Covenant is superior to the Old, because it is founded on better promises (Heb 8:6)."7 Tkach argues that the New Covenant is the renewal of the Abrahamic covenant which was based on Godís unconditional promises. "God didnít say, Iíll do this if you do that. Abraham had already done enough. He had accepted Godís call, went to the land as God had commanded, and he believed God and was therefore counted as righteous."8 Like Abraham, "New Covenant" Christians accept salvation by faith and not by works of obedience.

Tkach writes: "In the New Covenant, faith is required . . . . Christians have a relationship with God based on faith, not on Law. . . . We are saved on the basis of faith, not on Law-keeping, . . . In other words, our relationship with God is based on faith and promise, just as Abrahamís was. Laws that were added at Sinai cannot change the promise given to Abraham . . . That package of Laws became obsolete when Christ died, and there is now a new package."9 The problem with this statement is the gratuitous assumption that salvation was possible in the Old Covenant through Law-keeping. This is completely untrue, because, as we shall see in Chapter 6, obedience to the Law represented Israelís response to the gracious provision of salvation. Law-keeping has never been the basis of salvation.

According to Tkach, the Old Covenant did not work because it was based "on a package of Laws" that "could not cleanse a guilty conscience."10 On the other hand, the New Covenant works because it is based on the blood of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. "The Holy Spirit changes their [believers] hearts. The people are transformed, and they grow more and more like Christ. . . . The New Covenant affects our innermost being. The blood of Jesus Christ changes us. . . . His sacrifice sanctifies us, makes us holy, sets us aside for a holy purpose."11

Does this mean that the blood of Christ has some kind of magic power to automatically change people, whether or not they are willing to obey Godís commandments? To attribute such magic power to the Spirit and/or to Christís blood reminds one of the magic power the Jews attributed to the Law. Isnít this another form of legalism? Does the atoning sacrifice of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit render obedience to Godís commandments unnecessary or possible?

The WCG acknowledges that "no New Testament verse specifically cites the Sabbath as obsolete."12 But since WCG believes that the Sabbath is part the Old Covenant terminated by Christís coming, the Sabbath also is no longer required. "There are verses that say that the entire Old Covenant is obsolete. The law of Moses, including the Sabbath, is not required. We are commanded to live by the Spirit, not by the Law inscribed in stone. The Sabbath is repeatedly likened to things now obsolete: temple sacrifices, circumcision, holy bread, a shadow."13 This statement contains several glaring inaccuracies that are addressed later in this chapter. We shall see that the New Testament distinguishes between the continuity of the moral law and the discontinuity of the ceremonial law (1 Cor 7:19). In the book of Hebrews, especially, we find a clear contrast between the Levitical services which came to an end with Christís coming (Heb 7:18; 8:13; 10:9) and Sabbathkeeping "which has been left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).

Evaluation of WCG "New Covenant" Theology.
A detailed analysis of "New Covenant" theology presented in the literature of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) would take us beyond the limited scope of this chapter. Consequently, I make only a few basic observations.

One fundamental problem in the WCG "New Covenant" understanding of the Plan of Salvation is the faulty Dispensational assumption that, during the course of human history, God has offered salvation on different bases to different people. God started out by offering salvation to Abraham unconditionally on the basis of faith; but at Mt. Sinai He agreed to save the Israelites conditionally on the basis of obedience to His commandments, or what Tkach calls "the old package of Laws." When God discovered that such an arrangement did not workóbecause the Law "could not make anyone perfect. It could not change their hearts"óHe reverted to the "faith arrangement" He had with Abraham. To make things easier, in the New Covenant, God did away with most of the old package of laws, including the Sabbath, and decided this time to work in the heart through the Holy Spirit.

If this scenario were true, it would surely open to question the consistency and fairness of Godís saving activities. It would imply that, during the course of redemptive history, God has offered salvation on two radically different bases: on the basis of human obedience in the Old Covenant and on the basis of divine grace in the New Covenant. It would further imply, presumably, that God learned through the experience of His chosen people, the Jews, that human beings cannot earn salvation by obedience because they tend to disobey. Consequently, He finally decided to change His method and implement a New Covenant plan where salvation is offered to believing persons exclusively as a divine gift of grace rather than a human achievement.

Such a theological construct makes God changeable and subject to learning by mistakes as human beings do. The truth of the matter, however, is that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Heb 13:8). Salvation has always been in the Old and New Covenants, first and foremost a divine gift of grace and not a human achievement.

Obedience to the Law provided Israel with an opportunity to preserve their covenant relationship with God, not to gain acceptance with Him. This is the meaning of Leviticus 18:5: "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live." The life promised in this text is not the life in the age to come (as in Dan 12:2), but the present enjoyment of a peaceful and prosperous life in fellowship with God. Such a life was Godís gift to His people, a gift that could be enjoyed and preserved by living in accordance with the principles God had revealed.

Sinai Covenant: Law and Grace.
Part of the problem of the "New Covenant" theology is the failure to realize that the Sinai Covenant reveals Godís gracious provision of salvation just as much as the New Covenant does. God revealed to Moses His plan to deliver Israel from Egypt and to set her up in the land of Canaan (Ex 3:7-10, 16) because Israel is "His people" (Ex 3:10). Godís deliverance of the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt reveals His gracious provision of salvation just as much as does His deliverance of New Testament believers from the bondage of sin. In fact, in Scripture, the former is a type of the latter.

What Tkach ignores is the fact that the Israelites responded with faith to the manifestation of salvation: "Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians . . . and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses" (Ex 14:30-31). When the Israelites believed, God revealed to them His covenant plan: "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19:5).

These words show the gratuity of the divine election of Israel. God chose Israel without merit on her part (Deut 9:4ff), simply because He loved her (Deut 7:6ff). Having separated her from pagan nations, He reserved her for Himself exclusively. "I bore you on eaglesí wings and brought you to myself" (Ex 19:4). Through the Sinai covenant, God wished to bring people to Himself by making them a worshipping community dedicated to His service, living by the principles of His Law. This divine plan revealed at Sinai was ultimately realized at the Cross when types met antitypes.

The prophets appeal to the Sinai Covenant with emotional overtones drawn from human experiences to explain the relationship between God and His people. Israel is the flock, and the Lord is the shepherd. Israel is the vine, and the Lord the vinedresser. Israel is the son, and the Lord is the Father. Israel is the spouse, and the Lord is the bridegroom. These images, as Pierre Grelot and Jean Giblet bring out, "make the Sinaitic covenant appear as an encounter of love (cf. Ez 16:6-14): the attentive and gratuitous love of God, calling in return for a love which will translate itself in obedience."14 All of this hardly supports Tkachís contention that "something was seriously wrong with the Israelite covenant."

Faith Is Not Alone.
The obedience called for by the Sinaitic covenant was meant to be a loving response to Godís provision of salvation, not a means of salvation. Unfortunately, during the intertestamental period, the Law did come to be viewed by the Jews as the guarantee of salvation, just as faith alone is considered by many Christians today as the only basis for their salvation. But a saving faith is never alone because it is always accompanied by loving obedience (Gal 5:6). Can a person truly obey Godís laws without faith? Is there such a thing as a saving faith that is not manifested in obedience to Godís commandments? Is the problem of legalism resolved by changing packages of laws? Such distortions can only serve to make both the Old and New Covenants ineffective for many people.

At Sinai, God invited His people to obey His commandments because He had already saved them, not in order that they might be saved by His laws. As George Eldon Ladd affirms in his classic work, A Theology of the New Testament, "The Law was added (pareiselthen) not to save men from their sins but to show them what sin was (Rom 3:30; 5:13, 20; Gal 3:19). By declaring the will of God, by showing what God forbids, the Law shows what sin is."15 Ladd continues noting that "the line of thought in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 is that all the Israelites who trusted Godís covenant of promise to Abraham and did not use the Law as a way of salvation by works were assured of salvation."16

Another point overlooked in the Pastor General Report is that at Sinai, God revealed to the Israelites not only principles of moral conduct but also provision of salvation through the typology of the sacrificial system. It is noteworthy that when God invited Moses to come up on the mountain, He gave him not only "the tables of stone, with the Law and the commandment" (Ex 24:12), but also the "pattern of the tabernacle" (Ex 25:9) which was designed to explain typologically His provision of grace and forgiveness.

The major difference between the Old and New Covenants is not one of methods of salvation, but of shadow versus reality. The Old Covenant was "symbolic" (Heb 9:9) of the "more excellent" redemptive ministry of Christ (Heb 8:6). Consequently, it was necessary for Christ to come "once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26).

Greg Bahnsen rightly notes that "If we allow the Bible to interpret itself and not infuse it with a preconceived theological antithesis between the Old and New Covenants (Law and Gospel), we are compelled to conclude that the Old Covenantóindeed the Mosaic Lawówas a covenant of grace that offered salvation on the basis of grace through faith, just as does the Good News found in the New Testament. The difference was that the Mosaic or Law-covenant looked ahead to the coming of the Savior, thus administering Godís covenants by means of promises, prophecies, ritual observances, types, and foreshadowings that anticipated the Savior and His redeeming work. The Gospel or the New covenant proclaims the accomplishments of that which the Law anticipated, administering Godís covenant through preaching and the sacraments [baptism and the Lordís Supper]. The substance of Godís saving relationship and covenant is the same under the Law and the Gospel."17

The Old Testament does not offer a way of salvation or teach justification differently than the New Testament. Justification is grounded in the Old Testament in "the Lord our Righteousness" (Jer 23:6). The saints of the Old Testament were people of faith, as Hebrews 11 clearly shows. Abraham himself, the father of the Jews, was a man of faith who trusted Godís promises (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6). The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, "In the Lord shall all the seed of Israel be justified" (Is 45:25; KJV). Paul came to understand that in the Old Testament "the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written [in Hab 2:4], ĎHe who through faith is righteous shall liveí" (Rom 1:17. cf. Gal 3:11).

The result of Christís coming is described as "setting aside" (Heb 7:18), making "obsolete" (Heb 8:13), and "abolishing" (Heb 10:9) all the Levitical services associated with the Old Covenant. It is unfortunate that these statements are interpreted as meaning that Christ by His coming abrogated the Mosaic Law, in general, including the Sabbath. This interpretation, which is at the heart of much misguided thinking about the Law today, ignores the fact that the termination statements found in Hebrews refer to the Levitical priesthood and services of the Old Covenant, not to the principles of Godís moral Law which includes the Sabbath Commandment. Of the Sabbath the Book of Hebrews explicitly states, as we shall see below, "a Sabbathkeeping is left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).


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Chapter 2, Part 3
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Chapter 3, Part 1b

 

Notes to Chapter 3, Part 1a
Dies Domini: Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Letter regarding the Sabbath.

1. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dispensationalism (Dallas, 1936), p. 107.
2. A study paper on "The Sabbath" released by the Worldwide Church of God on 1995, lists Dale Ratzlaffís book, Sabbath in Crisis, as one of the major sources used. The other two sources are the special issue of Verdict (vol. 4), entitled "Sabbatarianism Reconsidered," published by Robert Brinsmead on June 4, 1981, and the symposium From Sabbath to the Lordís Day, and published by Zondervan in 1982.
3. Clay Peck, "New Covenant" Christians (Berthoud, Colorado, 1998), p. 2.
4. Joseph Tkach, Jr., "The New Covenant and the Sabbath," Pastor General Report (December 21, 1994), pp. 8, 11.
5. Joseph Tkach, Jr., Pastor Generalís Report (January 5, 1995), p. 1.
6. "Covenant in the Bible," a Bible study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted in their Web page (www.wcg.org Ė September 15, 1998), p. 3.
7. Ibid., p. 4.
8. Joseph Tkach, Jr., (note 4), p. 2.
9. Ibid., p. 11.
10. Ibid., p. 6.
11. Ibid., p. 7.
12. "The Sabbath in Acts and the Epistles," a Bible study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted on their web page (www.wcg.org, September 1998), p. 3.
13. Ibid., pp. 3-4.
14. Pierre Grelot and Jean Giblet, "Covenant," Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed., by Xavier Leon-Dufour (New York, 1970), p. 95.
15. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974), p. 507.
16. Ibid., p. 507.
17. Greg L. Bahnsen, "The Theonomic Reformed Approach to the Law and Gospel," in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993), p. 97.

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Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University