|T WAS THE KIND OF SERMON AN ADVENTIST might love to hear in their own congregation—but, instead, it radiated via satellite radio into my car during a morning commute. And the speaker was anything but Adventist.
The Bible Sabbath, the speaker said, was “a creation ordinance but now became a divine commandment. It wasn’t given to the Jews, or to Israel, per se, but it was given initially to mankind in general. [The Sabbath was] given to everybody because it was for everybody’s good.”
And then this: “I do not subscribe to the view that I hear frequently propounded that in declaring the Son of man was Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus was essentially saying that we could put all this Sabbath business aside. No. Jesus was not dealing with the use of the Sabbath; He was dealing with the abuse of the Sabbath. And He is guarding it from all of the stuff the Pharisees were doing to it. . . . He never canceled their use of the Sabbath; He corrected the abuse of the Sabbath.”
He then continued and declared, “Is Paul dispensing with the moral law of God in Romans 14 after he has explained the abiding purpose of the law? I do not believe he is setting aside the Sabbath principle.”Amen, you might say—and, so might I: God wants all humankind to observe the Sabbath, and, indeed, says that this will happen when the kingdom is born on the new earth. In Isaiah 66 we read: “‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,’ declares the Lord, ‘so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,’ says the Lord” (verses 22, 23).
So how did the radio speaker—in this case, Alistair Begg, the Glasgow, Scotland-born senior pastor of Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland—move from dogmatic insistence on honoring the fourth commandment to an about-face on the God-specified day? Begg, 56, is the voice of Truth for Life, a popular evangelical radio program that is broadcast on hundreds of U.S. and Canadian radio stations, as well as international outlets as far away as New Zealand. In the spring of 2008 Begg devoted several weeks of the daily radio program to promoting Sabbathkeeping.
“We may be inclined to regard any attempts at maintaining the sanctity of the Sabbath, of keeping it holy, as nothing more than a form of the contemporary Pharisaism [that] Jesus here was setting aside,” Begg said in commenting on Jesus’ actions in Luke 6.
Instead, Jesus, Begg said, “was dealing with the abuse, not with that which God had formed and established from the very beginning of Creation.”
Then Begg made what for some evangelicals might have been a startling assertion: “The foundational question . . . is, then, the fourth commandment a divine ordinance in the same way that the other commandments are divine ordinances? Some argue that it isn’t, and they want me to argue that it is, but the onus is on those who say it isn’t to prove why it isn’t, because I can show you clearly it is. It’s simply in between number 3 and number 5. And no one took it out,” Begg declared.
“If it is there, then adherence to it is not legalism,” Begg said. “Because if it is legalism, then adherence to the fifth commandment is legalism.”
But somehow, Begg asserts, keeping the Sabbath on the day God specifies—and in the sermon, Begg read slowly and carefully the full text of Exodus 20:8-11, and noted that the seventh day was the Sabbath that Scripture describes—is either legalism or a misapplication.
“Why then would there be a change in the day? Because the early Christians wanted to separate themselves from Jewish worship,” Begg asserted. He then claims that Constantine, the Roman emperor whose “conversion” to Christian faith granted the nascent religion official sanction, could decree the first Sunday law because “there had been 300 years of Sundaykeeping by the time of Constantine.”
Such assertions, however, lack much in the way of actual historical proof, and Begg noted that some of his radio listeners have called this to his attention.
The Sabbath in Society
“No one writes to me more than Seventh-day Adventists” on this subject, Begg told his church congregation—and his radio audience in April 2008. “I think I have more mail from Seventh-day Adventists who hear me address the issue of the Sabbath, and they heard in the Ten Commandments [radio sermon] series, and they listen, they listen, and they say, ‘this is one of our boys,’ and all of a sudden I turn left on them and they were furious. And so they write to me frequently to tell me, ‘Alistair Begg, you cannot be a Christian unless you follow a Saturday Sabbath rule.’ If they are right, of course, I am not a Christian, and neither are you. That’s quite an allegation, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is quite an allegation—and there’s little way of proving that such a charge was made. With more than 1 million Seventh-day Adventists in North America, it’s possible that someone might have made that assertion to Begg, but it’s not the official position of the church: “The universal church is composed of all who truly believe in Christ,” the Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Fundamental Beliefs says.1 That would suggest that Begg, and many others, are part of the universal church.
So would Ellen G. White, a pioneering cofounder of the Adventist Church: “There are now true Christians in every church, not excepting the Roman Catholic communion, who honestly believe that Sunday is the Sabbath of divine appointment. God accepts their sincerity of purpose and their integrity before Him” (The Great Controversy, p. 449).
To be sure, God will hold responsible those who don’t keep the Bible Sabbath when it is plainly revealed that Sundaykeeping is a counterfeit. But to multiple millions—and even perhaps to Alistair Begg himself—there is justification for ignoring the Bible’s clear command, at least for now.
While this has been the case since before the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as well as throughout the movement’s history, there is an added level of concern now—a lure, if you will, of deception about the Sabbath. In a global society that has become hyperaccelerated, the need for rest is more and more evident. In recent years, Christian and even secular authors have pressed the case to “take back your time” and create a space for restoration.
Willard Swartley, a Mennonite whose book Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women (Herald Press, 1983) is in part a call to reflect on Sabbath as a necessary function, says that in recent decades, evangelicals have seen what not being Sabbathkeepers has done to them.
“I think the renewal [of Sabbath-keeping] in evangelical circles these days has a lot to do with recognizing the need for sacred time in the midst of routine work. It’s not, ‘all days [are] holy,’ but to find Sabbath space in the midst of the hectic routine that people feel their lives are pressured by,” he said in an interview.
“Evangelicals have lived through the psychological fallout because they fail to observe the Sabbath, even if they rename it the Lord’s Day,” Swartley said. He also praised one Christian community that has remained faithful to the fourth commandment: “I suppose it is a testimony to the importance of doing what Seventh-day Adventists have always done,” he said, calling the church’s practice “one of the great cultural cutting practices we have in this society.”
The lures posed by radio expounders such as Begg, Tony Evans of the Urban Alternative, and some Christian authors—including Marva Dawn (author of several books on “keeping Sabbath” without keeping the Sabbath)—appear to be that one can freely choose how to observe a commandment of God without adhering to what God dictates.2
It’s a flexibility not seen with any other commandment: no responsible evangelical expositor would say that a small amount of stealing would not violate the “thou shalt not,” or that one could slightly “fool around” with “thy neighbor’s wife.” Yet, on even the flimsiest of pretenses, it appears permissible to bend the Sabbath command to one’s own tastes. Even Begg admits that Scripture offers no clear-cut support: “Is there a verse in the Bible you go to [that says] ‘change from the seventh to the first day’? No, absolutely not.”3
Lacking a clear biblical command to change days hasn’t, of course, stopped many in the evangelical world from following the lead of Constantine and what became the Roman Church. However, says May-Ellen Colón, author of From Sundown to Sundown (Pacific Press, 2008), in a study of Sabbath observance, 96 percent of Adventists believe the seventh day is the Sabbath: “That’s close to being unanimous,” she said.
In her study, Colón, an assistant director of the General Conference’s Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department in Silver Spring, Maryland, said, “So many [non-Adventist] authors have a ‘deep and wide’ view of the Sabbath.” But, she added, “They keep the wrong day for the right reason.”
And yet, Colón says, “God seems to be really into time. He’s pretty definite.”
Honoring the Sabbath
In the evangelical world, there’s at least some acceptance that the Adventist position has merit: “I think there’s a lot of respect for Adventists in the way they take [Sabbathkeeping] seriously,” said Douglas Stuart, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. “You have not let it slip into oblivion. There you have a strength of Adventism. But,” Stuart added, “the great strength is in the Sabbatarian spirit, not so much the choice of the day.”
Even still, in our conversation Stuart twice noted the “fine and commendable concern by Adventists” about the nature of Sabbathkeeping and the Sabbath day.
While it is laudable that so many evangelical speakers and authors are giving the matter of rest their attention, it’s also clear that some public proclamations are perhaps weakened by a flexibility not seen in the Bible or in other Christian practices. The opportunity for Adventists, in their words and in their living witness, is to present Sabbath, and Sabbathkeeping, as not only delightful, but attractive.
It may surprise many to see who shows up when we treat the Sabbath as a true delight, and share that delight with the world.
2Adventist Review attempted to contact both Alistair Begg and Tony Evans, requesting explanations for their positions. Begg was out of the country and did not respond to an e-mail sent to his office; Evans’ spokesperson said he was traveling and “unavailable,” and invited a second inquiry from the Review “sometime next year.”
3Begg’s quotations are taken from two broadcast sermons: “Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath,” on Truth for Life, aired March 31 through April 2, 2008, and “The Gift of the Sabbath,” also on Truth for Life, aired April 7, 2008, on XM Satellite Radio and other outlets.
Mark A. Kellner is news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World.