Ignorance Negates Responsibility

We Reformed types know very well that “inability does not negate responsibility.”  The very opening words of WCF 1.1 are in this vein: “the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable,” and of course, at the core of Paul’s arguments in Rom 1-2 is that man knows the moral law by natural revelation, and stands in condemnation for violating it. Paul’s justification for “God’s wrath is revealed from heaven” is not “that’s just the way it is”, but “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. … ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

Paul’s argument, however, does not apply to the 4th commandment (note Paul does not accuse natural man of Sabbath-breaking here or anywhere else), because it is not a part of natural revelation.  The pile of sins for which natural man will be judged is big enough without including violations of special revelation.  As Mike Horton describes (in The Law of Perfect Freedom),

The Sabbath is unique among the Ten Commandments.  It is not, I would maintain, stamped on the human conscience because of creation; rather it is an ordinance, like circumcision, for the redeemed community of Israel pointing forward to Christ.  Whereas pagans know that setting up idols in the place of God is wrong, but do it anyway, it is difficult to find a universal principle of Sabbath.  … one would be hard-pressed to simply take a native in the South Pacific and ask him or her to come up with anything equivalent to the Jewish Sabbath.  That is because it is the only commandment of the 10 that is not given to all people by way of creation, but is a special gift for the people of God, pointing them in a unique way to their coming Messiah.

Calvin also highlights the uniqueness of the 4th commandment.  From his commentary on Ezekiel 20:12 (this commentary is actually a transcription of lectures, which were cut off by Calvin’s death three lectures later):

To worship one God, to abominate idols, to use God’s name reverently, these things are, as I have said, the simple duties of piety in themselves: so the honor which sons pay to their parents is a duty pleasing to God in itself, like chastity, abstinence, and such like. But Sabbaths do not please God simply and by themselves. We ought, therefore, to look for another purpose, if we wish to understand the reason of this precept.

Most importantly, there is biblical evidence that the 4th commandment is distinct from its neighbors.  Note in these passages how the Sabbath is set apart from statutes, rules, laws, and commandments:

Ezek 20:11–: I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned.

Neh 9:13-14: You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and you made known to them your holy Sabbath and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant.

Think I’m stretching it? Even Westminster agrees! Without following through with the implications, LC 121 cites Neh 9:14 as proof that “there is less light of nature for” the 4th commandment.

My point?  Because the contents of the 4th commandment are not included in natural revelation, WCF 21.7 is incorrect in asserting that the Sabbath commandment is a “positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages.”

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15 Responses

  1. I can’t let you keep quoting from Horton without pointing out that Horton now rejects his views on the Sabbath that he wrote back then. Maybe you should make a disclaimer to that affect. :O

    kazoo

  2. This is true. I quoted what I quoted in the debate, because it was for Horton merely introductory material to set up the question, I did not quote his conclusion from further down the page, even though it perfectly fit with my assertion that the Sabbath is both: “ordained in creation…as a unique privilege and possession of God’s people”. (Also, during the debate, my quote of Horton was basically in a context of disagreement)

    As for this quote, I suppose it’s possible that he has changed his mind, but it’s just such a good description of the self-evident truth that the 4th commandment is not “stamped on the human conscience” like the others, this fits more into the category of “input data” to the question than “conclusions”. So maybe he has new conclusions that reconcile this truth in a different way, that doesn’t affect the truth of this statement. I don’t want to speculate too much though. I think I’ve quoted Horton as much as I need to.

  3. There is a text in Genesis that needs to be dealt with. In regards to Cain & Abel’s account. Gen. 4:3 NASB So it came about “in the course of time” that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground.” It has been noted to me from at least one WSCAL student that in the Hebrew it’s “at the end of days”. Casting out ludicrous eschatological suggestions, this is suggestive that Cain and Abel new something about the Sabbath and those things that were appropriate to it. They showed up at the end of days, which I was told was the end of the week, the 7th day.

  4. First off, “end of days” can equally plausibly mean “when the vegetables were done growin” (it’s not every week that vegetables or sheep are ready for sacrifice). But even if Gen 4:3 is saying “Cain & Abel observed a 7th day Sabbath”, there’s no reason to assume that Cain & Abel figured out the moral equity of the 4th commandment just by reading the law God wrote on their hearts (Rom 2:15); they were part of the visible church and would have been instructed in special revelation by Adam and Eve.

    • I am with you here. I neglected man and his depravity and what he does with the law. I was off base there. Thank you for correcting me in that respect.

      Yet it is maintained that Abel was righteous, God imputed Christ’s righteousness to Abel. There’s no way that Abel showed forth fruits of justification by obedience to the Sabbath commandment? Or would you maintain he had no way of knowing of any Sabbath commandment? Or how about the propriety of bringing an offering to God?

      • RPW may kill off pulling the idea of spontenaity (spell check!) out of the air.

      • would you maintain he had no way of knowing of any Sabbath commandment?

        It is hopefully not debatable whether God offered the promise of eschatological rest, once all of Adam’s probationary works were “very good”. It is debatable, however, whether Gen 2:2-3 also implies that God commanded Adam rest one day in seven during his probation.

        If Adam was commanded to rest one day in seven, then the obvious way Abel would learn about the Sabbath commandment is from Adam.

  5. there’s a creational argument for 1 day in 7

    But that’s not the same as saying there’s a natural argument for 1 day in 7…

  6. RPW may kill off pulling the idea of spontenaity (spell check!) out of the air.

    Spontaneously? But yes,

    WCF 21.1: The light of nature shows that there is a God…But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men

    WCF 21.7: it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God…[but] in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him

    As I argued in the debate, I don’t agree with “moral/perpetual/all men/all ages”, but WCF is plenty correct that nobody is going to spontaneously pull the 4th commandment “out of the air”, as you put it. (Note also the “less light of nature” reference in the main post)

  7. ‘It is hopefully not debatable whether God offered the promise of eschatological rest, once all of Adam’s probationary works were “very good”. It is debatable, however, whether Gen 2:2-3 also implies that God commanded Adam rest one day in seven during his probation.’

    The second sentence I agree with virtually completely, except to say I doubt if it is even debatable. There is no mention of a ‘sabbath’ until Ex 16. There is no indication that the Patriarchs etc new of such a thing. Further, God gave to Adam but one command. That is the whole point of the narrative; only one prohibition to keep and he failed. This leads to my second point.

    The first sentence I disagree withvirtually completely. It is debatable that God promised Adam eschatological rest for probationary works. There is certainly no text in Scripture that so affirms. Further, ‘probabtionary works’ again suggests all sorts of points where Adam could fail. I repeat the genesis record deliberately suggests but one.

  8. Well thanks for the agreement, in part!

    I see many commands to Adam, including to serve & guard in God’s garden-temple, fill the earth, exercise dominion over the other creatures, and the Tree of Life was a sign of a promised reward. And surely Adam was bound to obey the moral (natural) law which God had written on his heart, so for instance, he would not have gotten away with, say, murdering Eve, as long as he didn’t eat the fruit. (although I’ve heard Meredith Kline has asserted that Adam’s proper response when Eve brought him the fruit would have been to execute her, but that’s a whole nother rabbit trail!)

    But my point was not “work” vs. “works”. Maybe you’ll agree more with “It is not debatable whether God offered the promise of eschatological rest, dependent on Adam’s obedience.” God certainly revealed this promise of rest to Adam with the sign of the Tree of Life. What is debatable is whether God gave special revelation to Adam about the 7th day rest He was Himself enjoying (or the 6 days of “very good” works with which He earned Himself that rest), and how Adam could someday join Him in that rest.

    And my bigger point, wrt the Sabbath debate, is that, whether Adam knew about the Sabbath or not, he could only have known about it by special revelation, not natural, so it’s not part of the moral law that is written on all men’s hearts.

  9. ‘And my bigger point, wrt the Sabbath debate, is that, whether Adam knew about the Sabbath or not, he could only have known about it by special revelation, not natural, so it’s not part of the moral law that is written on all men’s hearts.’

    I totally agree with this.

    I was simply picking you up on the ‘covenant of works’ suggestions. Most of this in reformed thinking is conjecture. There is but one law given to Adam that he can ‘transgress’. Only one command carries the sentence of death on disobedience. We are reading a background into the narrative to make it say otherwise. Romans 5 expressly says that Adam is given ‘a Law”. There is no further ‘Law’ until Sinai (according to Romans 5). The commands for example to the patriarchs, however they function, do not function like laws.

    Further the Law to Israel was to a people who were in death and promised life if obeyed. This is not strictly analogous to Adam. Adam had ‘life’. He was free to eat of the tree of life. He moved from life into death. There is no hint in the narrative at all that should Adam go through a period of probation successfully he will gain a new level of life. This is all construct and conjecture. In Christ, we have not a new, improved Adam, we have a New Man. We have not a man who is of the earth but ‘the Lord from Heaven’. In him is life of a different order from that of Adam and this by grace he confers on all who believe and are united to him.

    My main point was to caution against constructs that go much further than Scripture (however, orthodox and reformed they may be). Or at least to provoke some alternative thought about Adam and a covenant of works.

  10. Hmmm, I see that your blogroll includes N.T.Wrong and The Paul Page. As a NPP guy (and an FV guy?), are you also denying that Christ meritoriously fulfilled the terms of a covenant of works on our behalf? If so, the question of an Adamic covenant of works becomes less significant (and you should read this!). If not, then how is Christ another “Adam”? How can Christ as second Adam be our Federal head in the covenant of grace, if the first Adam wasn’t acting as our federal head in the covenant of works? (And if not the latter, how is Adam’s original sin imputed to us?)

    In any case, you should check out this debate and the following discussion on this blog.

  11. I think Wright says some good things and some bad things. The FV guys do the same. So also do reformed guys and dispensationalist guys. No group has a monopoly on truth. I find myself sympathetic to reformed thinking in many areas. The devil is in the detail. Reformed folks must admit the same since they have many distinctions among themselves. Confessions and modern ‘interpretations’ of confessions all reveal a lack of unanimity.

    ‘are you also denying that Christ meritoriously fulfilled the terms of a covenant of works on our behalf?’ Yes, I believe I am. An area where I think NT Wright is right is on Imputed righteousness or IAO. As a child of Adam I needed someone who could bear my curse. This Jesus did. As a child of Adam I died on that cross. as a child of the new creation I do not need someone to fulfil the law or any covenant of works on my behalf for I am under no such covenant. I have died to the old order and any obligations it placed. I live in a resurrected Christ.

    This is why of course i dropped in to query the covenant of works paradigm, at least in its full blown sense. IAO, a concept for which no biblical text can be reasonably forwarded is a logical construct from a covenant of works. To my mind we too easily buy into constructs Scripture does not present nearly as clearly as we suppose.

    Drop into Restless and Reforming and see further discussions on the topic. In the meantime I will pusue your links and get back in due course.

    God bless

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