Vos on the Sabbath: A Close Reading

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Geerhardus Vos provides an exposition of the Sabbath in biblical theological perspective as he comments on the fourth commandment in Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments.1

I am providing a close reading of Vos's remarks in the interest of a careful "exegesis" of his Sabbath position. The clarion call of all responsible scholarship is ad fontes—"to the sources." Thus, I define Vos's views a fontibus—"from the sources."

The context of the fourth commandment is "the Decalogue" (p. 145/129). As we read on (pp. 145-59/129-43), we discover that Vos will explain only the Quadrilogue—that is, he treats only the first four commandments before turning his attention to the ritual and ceremonial law of the Old Testament (pp. 159ff./143ff.). while it may seem curious that Vos gives short shrift to commandments five through ten, he distinguishes the "religious" from the "ethical " precepts as does the Lord Jesus (i. e., the love of God and the love of neighbor, p. 148/132). The last six commandments display the "redemptive product" issuing from its source, namely God himself. Tantalizingly, Vos has grounded our ethics (fruits of redemption) in their source (God the Savior). Precisely here is the bulwark against moralism.

While ordering the "ten words" in accordance with the paradigm of redemption, Vos nevertheless does not forget the traditional distinction between laws ritual and laws moral: " . . . the Decalogue . . . contains no ceremonial commandments" (p. 145/129). We must bear this in mind as we investigate Vos's views on the Sabbath commandment. According to Vos, the fourth precept of the Decalogue contains no ceremonial accretion. Moreover the fourth precept is an idealizing of a transhistorical and eschatological paradigm. The Israelite theocracy, inaugurated in the Exodus event, consummates itself in "holiness and conformity to the nature and will of God" (p. 145/130). Redemptive historical beginning (Exodus) is consummated in redemptive historical fruition (perfect holiness). With respect to the fourth commandment, this pattern is explicit in the Deuteronomic version of the precept: "Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy . . . And 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" (Dt. 5: 12, 15). Vos has identified the typical nature of the theocracy as a temporary "mirror" of an eschatological and permanent state, i.e., holiness to the Lord in the arena of the perfect and eternal Sabbath. Yet there is a "universal application" here (p. 147/131) and that universal application bears the character of the perpetual. We might say it bears the character of the intersection of the eschatological with the historical. Vos denominates this a "spiritual analogy in the life of all believers," whereby the Sabbath principle and the theocratic era both contain and point to something beyond themselves—a heavenly theocracy and an everlasting Sabbath rest.

The new exodus in the eschatological lamb of God no less than the former exodus retains the weekly Sabbath principle. "The historical adjustment does not detract from the universal application, but subserves it" (p. 147/131-32). To put it yet another way, in our own words, Vos is suggesting an intrusionary aspect of both Sabbath and theocracy. With respect to national Israel (theocratically), there is an element of Sabbath universality attached to her redemption (Exodus). But, as we shall see, that universality in the case of the Sabbath, transcends the theocracy. Let us anticipate Vos's response to the objection that since the theocracy has disappeared in the antitype (the church) so too the Sabbath principle. God forbid! The Sabbath principle is a creation ordinance (p. 159/143) antecedent to theocratic Israel and hence embodied in the Decalogue as an intrusionary reflection of a perpetual historical Sabbath. What is transient passes away (theocracy); what is permanent and perpetual remains (weekly Sabbath).

The retrospective redemptive historical context is repeated in Vos's detailed discussion of the fourth word (p. 155/138). Hallowing of the Sabbath day is based "on something done in the creation of the world" (ibid./139). Vos is sensitive to the moral perpetuity of the Sabbath command reflected twice over at significant junctures in the history of redemption: creation and new creation (exodus liberation). Indeed the Sabbath has an over-arching redemptive-historical significance. While "a world-aged observance," it has been mirrored from creation to new creation in Christ Jesus: ". . . the Sabbath . . . has passed through the various phases of the development of redemption, remaining the same in essence but modified as to its form, as the new state of affairs at each point might require" (p. 155/139). In short, Vos is affirming the traditional notion of the perpetuity and change of the Sabbath. A perpetual moral ordinance modified to the creation state, the patriarchal state, the theocratic state, the apostolic state. Christians however seem more ambivalent than their Jewish predecessors with respect of the perpetuity of the Sabbath. Vos is no doubt referring here to the reductionist argument which treats the Sabbath command as a summary of the ceremonial law and hence abolished under the Christian dispensation.

And now a truly remarkable observation on Vos's part! "The principle underlying the Sabbath is formulated in the Decalogue . . . in this, that man must copy God in his course of life." Imitatio Dei! (even as imitatio Christi!!). The God-patterned work-rest sequence from the beginning continues to define, regulate and mandate the weekly practice of the people of God until the end. For Vos, there is no annulment of the weekly Sabbath principle any more than there is an annulment of the creature's obligation to his Creator from creation to consummation. We would be conformed to our Creator, Redeemer, Consummator—such is the hymn of God's people in every age of the history of salvation.2 And from the Garden of Eden, to Sinai, to the garden of Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, to the heavenly Zion, there remains a Sabbath rest to the people of God. Weekly sabbatizing is a mirror imaging of eschatological sabbatizing. What distinguishes the people of God of every era in the temporal arena is the light of an everlasting Sabbath rest in the eternal arena. In imitation of their Lord, they sabbatize so as to declare and testify, in ceasing from their labors, that they belong to a different country, a better country, a consummate Sabbath-land. " . . . the Sabbath is an expression of the eschatological principle on which the life of humanity has been constructed" (p. 156/140). Would we immanetize the eschaton? Would we advance a fully realized eschatology by suggesting that the eschatological Sabbath has arrived? The finale inaugurated by the creation overture has not yet been played. In principle, its chords have been sounded, semi-realized as it were, now accomplished but not yet completed/perfected. Pilgrims between the times—in between the overture and finale, the now and not yet—pilgrims copy/imitate their Creator and Savior in sanctifying the Sabbath day unto their Lord. The patently semi-realized "philosophy of the Sabbath" is revealed coincident with the revelation of the semi-realized era. The mind of God revealed in the words of the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews clearly articulates the full redemptive-historical meaning of the Sabbath: now (weekly semi-eschatological Sabbath)—not yet (eternal consummated eschatological Sabbath). And this pattern overarches and intrudes itself into the history of redemption from creation to Sinai to the New Covenant.

The rhythmic cycle of man's week—"six days of labor and one ensuing day of rest" (p. 156/140)—testifies not to the tyranny of the strong over the weak, the master over the slave, the rich and powerful over the poor and down-trodden (as it were, endless labor without surcease save at the whim of the powerbrokers); rather the weekly cycle is telic (that is, it has a goal). "This was true before, and apart from, redemption" (p. 157/140). What?! Before the protevangelium? before Gen. 3:15? before the revelation of a redeeming manchild who would bruise the serpent's head? before all this, man's life was understood to lie before the door of higher fruition? What could there be more wonderful than salvation, redemption, soteric deliverance from sin and guilt and death? What could there have been more glorious than that pristine garden; that blissful ecstatic male-female union; that provision of every good gift to the touch, taste, smell, sight, ear; that communion with the walking Lord pastorally visiting his creatures in their perfectly green pastures?! What?! "The eschatological is an older strand in revelation than the soteric!" (p. 157/140)3 Bam! Pow! Shazam! Vos has said that before salvation was graciously revealed, before the Redeemer was divinely supplied, before the Enemy was sentenced to grinding, crushing defeat—before all this, there was something perfectly glorious held out to mankind. The eschatological strand—the heavenly strand—the arena-of-God-himself strand: that reality was offered to Adam and all his posterity in him. How was the prospect of heaven and the face-to-face glory-presence of the Triune God offered to our protological Federal Head? "The so-called 'covenant of Works' was nothing but an embodiment of the Sabbatic principle" (read, heavenly, eschatological principle). Merited heavenly consummation would have been earned by that protological man for that was the judicial compact held out to him in the covenant not to eat of the fruit of the tree. Garden probation sustained, Adam would have been rewarded with what lay beyond the Garden—not East of Eden, but above and transcending Eden. Oh the depth of the misery, not to mention the loss of heaven brought by Adam's demerit! Only the merit of the eschatological Adam could undo this misery and open wide heaven's eschatological gates to his elect sons and daughters so that by his all-sufficient righteousness they could eat the fruit of the tree of life—eternal, never-ending Sabbath life! Hence the Sabbath in the pre-fall probationary state was "sacramental." By this, Vos means that the pre-fall, weekly creation ordinance Sabbath, was a pledge (Latin, sacramentum) of the heavenly, the eschatological Sabbath. Even apart from sin, even before sin, man—innocent sinless man—kept Sabbath not merely in imitation of his sabbatizing Maker, but as a pledge of the prospect of the better arena, the visio Dei arena, the glory-presence arena unveiled by time and space—the habitation of the Most High where he would rest forever from his probation and lean upon the bosom of his Creator. But with Adam's fall, with the grim reality of sin's bondage wearying us day by day, week by week, we must now via the Covenant of Grace anticipate "at the end of this world" that which we provisionally enjoy in the midst of this world, i. e., a weekly Sabbath rest as a mirror of an eternal Sabbath rest.

Yet one might say that because the typical Sabbath has been accomplished in Christ, because the sacramental Sabbath is gone with the Garden of Eden—then a weekly Sabbath is merely pragmatic, utilitarian. Perhaps the need for physical rest is the chief basis for a "work break." Recent European discussion of a "Common Pause Day" arises from this supposed utility of the 'Sabbath.' Suppose then that one sufficient otiose could be religiously oriented all the time. Sabbath utility unnecessary? Certain Reformers (does Vos have Calvin in mind?) "reasoned after this fashion. But they reasoned wrongly." The fundamental significance of the Sabbath is not mankind's utility: "it has its main significance apart from that, in pointing forward to the eternal issues of life and history" (p. 157/141). Once again, the Vosian primacy of eschatology!

Vos concludes this paragraph on the "utility" view with an oblique reference to "religious propaganda". It must be remembered that the fervor of the early 20th century "church growth movement" (i. e., the importing of "business principles" into the management and ministry of the church) turned the Sabbath day into a day of vigorous religious activity—specifically evangelism, visitation (for evangelistic purposes), special meetings (evangelism again) and endless worship services (aimed at galvanizing and motivating the people in the pew). Vos was concerned about this Sabbath "busyness" (business): "it is possible to crowd too much into the day that is merely subservient to religious propaganda, and to void it too much of the static, God-ward and heavenly-ward directed occupation of piety" (p. 157/141). How much of our "activity" on the Lord's day Sabbath (even in the so-called orthodox Reformed churches) falls under the same judgment today?!

With the advent of a gracious covenant, Christ as Lord of the Sabbath becomes central. We are reminded once more of the central agenda in Vos's writings—Jesus Christ. But it is not merely the Christ of the New Testament. No, Vos is Reformed in his covenantal sabbatarianism. Both Old and New Testament testify to the work sufficient for our eternal rest as the work of God's Son. Yet this soteriological unity in the grace of Christ Jesus differs with respect to the peculiar day memorializing his work in the history of redemption: " . . . as the Old Covenant was still looking forward to the performance of the Messianic work, naturally the days of labor to it come first, the day of rest falls at the end of the week" (p. 158/141). Vos alleges that the very placement of the Sabbath under the Old Covenant was eschatologically oriented. An end-of-the-week Sabbath day was intended to direct attention to the future, to the prospect of rest in the Messiah when the fullness of time arrives. The redemptive historical program under the Old Covenant was Christ-centered, future-oriented and prospective. It dimly reflected better things to come. Even the particular day of Sabbath worship was prospectively positioned.

But under the New Covenant, the Sabbath has been positioned consonant with the redemptive historical program of the end of the ages. Messiah has come; he has earned his own Sabbath rest; our rest is begun in him. Hence "we . . . first celebrate the rest in principle procured by Christ" (p. 158/141). New Testament believers inaugurate their work-week with rest even as the kingdom of God is inaugurated in the person and work of Christ. And what better day to testify of this shift from promise to fulfillment in the history of redemption than the day of Christ's very own resurrection. The first day of the week wonderfully identifies God's people as the blessed possessors (even now, provisionally) of eternal rest, "although the Sabbath also still remains a sign looking forward to final eschatological rest" (ibid./ibid.).

Since the early church realized the dawn of a wonderfully new thing in the death and resurrection of Christ, they marked this transition from prospect to accomplishment sabbatically, i. e., by ceasing from the typical end-of-the-week Sabbath to the antitypical beginning-of-the-week Sabbath. The first creation had its Sabbath—on the seventh day of the week; but the new creation Sabbath must proclaim the drama of death and resurrection—on the first day of the week. If early Jewish Christians observed both days for a time, the supremacy and propriety of the Lord's day Sabbath "began to make itself felt" (ibid.). Beyond her nonage, the New Testament people of God sensed the fitness, the exhilaration of having the Sabbath placed on the day of resurrection.

Is there anything peculiar to the Old Testament church in the fourth precept? Vos suggests that the sequence (rather than the proportion ) of "six days labor and one day of rest" was mutable. Implying that the proportion of six and one is perpetual ("the general principle on which the sequence, both under the old and the new dispensations, rests has not been changed," p. 159/142), the New Testament sequence is one day of rest, six days of labor. Vos is a perfect traditionalist: the perpetuity and change of the Sabbath does not argue annulment of the fourth commandment—rather the commandment "remains in force" (ibid./ibid.). In addition to the specific sequence, Vos notes the association of the weekly Sabbath with the cultic elements of the Jewish festival and ritual calendar, i. e., sabbatical year and year of Jubilee. "From all this we have been released by the work of Christ, but not from the Sabbath as instituted at Creation" (p. 159/143). Romans 14:5, 6, Galatians 4:10, 11 and Colossians 2:16, 17 all refer to ceremonial Sabbaths, not the moral (semi-eschatological) weekly Sabbath.


Geerhardus Vos has surveyed the Sabbath in biblical-theological perspective. Its perpetual morality is redemptive historically oriented—even eschatologically oriented. Thus the obligation of a weekly Sabbath rest remains to the people of God—Old and New Testament alike. This obligatory imperative flows out of the divine indicative. Saved by grace, the redeemed of the Lord keep Sabbath as heaven oriented, rest directed, worship delighting servant sons and daughters of their Lord. It is this wonderful eschatological or semi-eschatological nature of the Sabbath which (once more) marks Vos's profound contribution to Reformed biblical theology. Our weekly Sabbath now is a reflection of our resurrection union with him who has entered perfectly into his rest—and waits to welcome us to a consummate everlasting Sabbath.


It has been suggested by some savants in contemporary Reformed circles that the expression "eschatology is prior to soteriology" is sophistic, facile and silly. Furthermore, so it is said, those who use the phrase are ignorant ideologues. I hasten to point out that God himself is prior to soteriology; hence God's own eschatological arena (heaven) is prior to soteriology. Or is it silly, facile, sophistical and ignorant to maintain that God is prior to his creation or prior to his plan of redemption as these manifest themselves in history?

The charges leveled against the phrase ("eschatology is prior to soteriology") may be leveled against Geerhardus Vos of Old Princeton. The "Father of Reformed Biblical Theology" becomes, in the estimate of contemporary masterminds, silly, facile, sophistical and an ignorant ideologue. Here are Vos's remarks a fontibus which state—what else?—that eschatology is prior to soteriology; in fact, that eschatology is the mother of theology.

"In so far as the covenant of works posited for mankind an absolute goal and unchangeable future, the eschatological may be even said to have preceded the soteric religion" ("The Eschatology of the Psalter," in The Pauline Eschatology [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961] 325).

" . . . the eschatological principle is so deeply embedded in the structure of the biblical religion as to precede and underlie everything else" (The Pauline Eschatology, 66).

"[The believer] has been translated into a state, which while falling short of the consummated life of eternity, yet may be truly characterized as semi-eschatological. In view of this it can cause no surprise . . . when the mind of the New Testament writers in its attempt to grasp the content of the Christian salvation makes the future the interpreter of the present, eschatology the norm . . . of soteriological experience" ("The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit," in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980] 92).

". . . the eschatological strand is the most systematic in the entire fabric of the Pauline thought-world. For it now appears that the closely interwoven soteric tissue derives its pattern from the eschatological scheme, which bears all the marks of having had precedence in his mind" (The Pauline Eschatology, 60).

"This eschatological outlook . . . is the mother-soil out of which the tree of the whole redemptive organism has sprung" (The Self-Disclosure of Jesus [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954] 21-22).

" . . . eschatology posits an absolute goal at the end of the redemptive process corresponding to an absolute beginning of the world in creation: for then, no longer a segment but the whole sweep of history is drawn into one great perspective, and the mind is impelled to view every part in relation to the whole. To do this means to construct a primitive theological system. Thus eschatology becomes the mother of theology and that first of all theology in the form of a philosophy of redemptive history" ("Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke," in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 193)

If we are to believe the sources, Vos himself believes "eschatology is prior to soteriology." Surely an embarrassment to ideologues of a different stripe!


1 In the Eerdmans edition, the discussion is found on pages 155-59. In the Banner of Truth Trust edition (1975) the discussion occurs on pages 138-43. I will refer to the Eerdmans version first in all citations followed by the corresponding page in the Banner of Truth edition. Thus 155/138 indicates page 155 in the Eerdmans and page 138 in the Banner of Truth version.

2 Deus Creator Redemptor Consummatur: in his tribus religio nostra universa pendet ("God the Creator, Redeemer, Consummator: on these three things our whole religion depends"). This expression appears on the "Dedicatory Page" of Vos's The Pauline Eschatology.

3 See the Addendum on p. 68 below.