Lee Irons’ View of Unbelievers and the Christian Sabbath

Lee Irons maintains that the Sabbath is binding upon Christians but not upon unbelievers. If Irons is correct, then Christians may allow unbelievers to labor for them on Sunday, for instance as servers at restaurants and coffee shops. If Irons is incorrect, then Christians who dine out on Sunday are paying servers to break God’s law, which entails sin for such believers.

Irons makes the following claims:

(10) Promise establishes obligation (Heb. 4:1). Thus, the Sabbath sign is to be observed only by the holy covenant community, for to it alone does the promise of eschatological consummation apply (Heb. 4:9-10; Luke 13:16).

(11) Conversely, since unbelievers have no promise of eschatological consummation, they have no obligation to observe the sign thereof.

(12) It is not biblically permissible for the covenant community to attempt to enforce Sabbath observance on those outside of the covenant community (e.g., blue laws), nor should believers refrain from certain activities solely on the ground that such activity may cause unbelievers to profane the Sabbath.

In arguing this way, Lee Irons upholds an esoteric position that has no confessional status or biblical precedent. Again, Lee Irons argues that the Christian Sabbath is obligatory for the covenant community but not for unbelievers. Of course, if Irons’ conclusion were correct but fallaciously derived, it would not be reliable.

The point of this post is not to establish that Christian Sabbath is obligatory for all, but simply to show that Lee Irons has reasoned fallaciously. Therefore, even if his conclusion were true, it cannot be established upon his argument.

I’ll make four points and some sub-points:

* I’ll formally formulate Irons’ informal argument and interact with it to show its formal fallacy, upon which his argument rests.

* I’ll rid the argument of its formal fallacy to show that a cogently argued conclusion utilizing his premises is no threat to the position Irons opposes.

* I’ll use Irons’ unsuccessfully argued conclusion to show that even though fallaciously derived, if it were indeed true would lead to further theological and moral problems, including an implicit denial of the need for the gospel.

* Lastly, I’ll show Irons’ disregard for the Westminster Larger Catechism and the law.

Anne Hutchinson

1. Irons asserts that promise without qualification establishes obligation. I’m going to grant the premise, not because it was demonstrated by Irons but because I believe it’s demonstrable in relation to divine promise (though not without a little work).

Irons reasons that sabbath observance with its promissory nature, which points forward to eschatological consummation, does not apply to unbelievers because the promise of consummation does not apply to them. In other words, because unbelievers are not promised final rest, they are not obligated to rest on the Sabbath.

Irons three point argument is contained in his point 10. The order of his informally stated argument is: Major Premise, Conclusion, Minor Premise. Of course, that order is fine for informal discourse. If we clean up the argument a bit, we may infer the following deduction:

p1. Promise establishes obligation

p2. The promise applies only to the covenant community

Therefore, the obligation is only for the covenant community

Let:

P = Promise

O = Obligation

C = Covenant Community

If P, then O

P is only for C

Therefore, O is only for C

On the surface it’s not hard for some to discern that something doesn’t seem quite right about Irons’ argument. It just doesn’t pass the sniff test. Understandably, it might take a bit more skill to identify precisely Irons’ misstep.

Irons commits an illicit transfer fallacy by concluding:

“Thus, the Sabbath sign is to be observed only by the holy covenant community.”

Irons’ fallacy wouldn’t be so bad if his entire argument didn’t rest on it. Accordingly, it’s not as though I’m going to refute Irons’ position on a technicality. Rather, I’ll demonstrate that Irons’ argument is misleading and erroneous at its core.

The restrictive import of “only” may not logically be transferred from premise 2 to the conclusion in this way. The restriction that the word “only” contemplates pertains to whom the promise is made (C). Whereas the scope of “only” in the conclusion is illicitly indexed to an obligation that the major premise contemplates. Therefore, it’s invalid to transfer the restrictive “only” this way because the conclusion ends up exceeding the scope of the premises.

To put it in logical terms, <if P is sufficient for O, and is only given to C> does not imply that some ~C aren’t O (or under O). Accordingly, even if Irons’ premises were true, they do not guarantee the conclusion. Therefore, the argument is invalid and any position that rests upon an invalid argument is mistaken and unjustified.

Transfer type fallacies among theologians are not uncommon. They are easy to unearth by applying a bit of philosophical theology.

An example of a transfer fallacy that is identified by more sophisticated Arminians is called the transfer of necessity fallacy, which too many Calvinists unwittingly commit from time to time.

It goes like this:

p1. Necessarily, if God foreknows x, then x will happen

p2. God foreknows x

Therefore, x will necessarily happen

That’s just food for thought but back to Irons.

Irons’ thesis is glaringly indistinguishable from his defense. Irons has begged the question by resting his conclusion upon a series of assertions that lacks valid formulation. (That’s not subjective conjecture but an objective matter pertaining to valid syllogistic reasoning.)

But let’s toy with this a bit further in order to try to refute the best that possibly can be argued with Irons’ premises:

2. If we rid Irons’ argument of the transfer-only fallacy, then the “argument” no longer concludes anything about the unbelievers’ relationship to the Sabbath:

If P, then O

P is only for C

Therefore, O is for C

Consider:

p1. Promise establishes obligation

p2. The promise applies only to the covenant community

Therefore, the obligation is for the covenant community

The conclusion of the reformulated non-fallacious argument does not establish that obligation is only for C and not, therefore, also for at least some unbelievers. Accordingly, Irons can only make his case with his premises by improperly expanding the scope of only, which is formally invalid.

From a purely logical standpoint, Irons’ assertion, argument and conclusion are one and the same.

3. In a spirit of generosity let’s allow for the essence of Irons’ conclusion, even though he has assumed it without valid proof.

The essence is that if there is a promise that only applies to C, then the associated command must only apply to C.

We can approach this bald claim several ways:

A. Irons premise is that the promise of eschatological rest pertains only to C. Let’s now scrutinize the premise and apply it.

C doesn’t contain only believers. It also contains both elect and non-elect unbelievers. With respect to the non-elect within C, the promise is conditioned upon a faith they’ll never possess. Accordingly, the promise pertains no more to them than to the non-elect outside C, making the premise with respect to the promise logically unworkable for Irons.

B. Yet if we remove the conditional nature of the promise, then we’re left with a promise that pertains only to the elect within C. However, given that there are elect outside C, it’s hard to see how Irons can make sense of his axiom that the promise only applies to C. No matter how the promise might be structured, without a conditional aspect it’ll apply equally to all elect regardless of their standing in C, which is not just agreeable but most happily complies with WLC Q31 as it relates to the promise of the one CoG.

C. If the promise applies only to elect who currently believe, then Irons’ has to reconcile such a modification with genuine believers who aren’t part of the visible C. Yet his claim is the promise only pertains to C.

D. A command to repent entails an obligation to repent. An obligation to repent entails a promise of eschatological proportion for the truly penitent. Yet it’s Irons’ position that a commandment with promise does not apply to unbelievers outside C. Yet God commands repentance that leads to sabbath rest, even to those outside C who’ll never repent! (Consider the free offer of the gospel!)

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17)

E. The fifth commandment is given to the covenant community and comes with a spiritual promise. Given Irons’ thesis, non-covenant children would not be under obligation to obey their parents given the commandment’s promissory nature. Moreover, given Irons’ point #11, even unconverted covenant children, being yet unbelievers, needn’t obey God’s commandment!

Irons is down to eight commandments and the rest are eliminated below.

F. Jesus taught C of his day that those within, who keep God’s commandments, will be loved by God and Christ, and that Christ will manifest himself to such that obey. The Lord goes on to say in the same passage that he and his Father will make their abode with those who keep Christ’s words. Again, contra-Irons we see a promise that pertains to the totality of the law that establishes obligation. Are unbelievers not obliged to keep God’s words due to the entailment of promise?

Irons’ promise-thesis, if followed to its logical conclusion, would eliminate all law with promise of blessing for unbelievers, nullifying the need of the gospel! (Antinomianism is part-and-parcel to Irons’ Radical 2 Kingdom paradigm.)

G. Is a man merely culpable for getting locked up for civil transgression, and not culpable for not providing for his family because he has been incarcerated?

Even the light of nature tells us that future culpability is not reduced by disobeying initial commands. People are guilty not just for not doing x (when they ought to do x), but also for the future effects of y and z if they are a result of not doing x – hence the grounding of unrealized yet future damages in jurisprudence. Accordingly, by rejecting Christ on day one does not alleviate one from not following Christ’s laws on day n. If one rejects Christ, isn’t he also culpable for not raising his children in the Lord and observing the Lord’s Day? Doesn’t the parable of the talents teach us that we are culpable not just for transgression but for neglect that prevented increase that otherwise would’ve obtained in the absence of neglect?! Doesn’t even the light of nature tell us that a student who cuts school is responsible for what he missed in class that day?

To reject Christ entails the rejection of God’s laws, which includes the blessings and obedience entailed by Christian worship and Christian sabbath observance.

4. Irons claims that “it is not biblically permissible for the covenant community to attempt to enforce Sabbath observance on those outside of the covenant community (e.g., blue laws)…”

“Enforce” is vague. If Iron’s means impose, administer or carry out, then of course the covenant community may not enforce this or any other moral law that way.

If Irons wants to be relevant at all, his use of “enforce” must be less modest and fall short of such coercion. In that case, Irons is biblically and confessionally wrong that individuals in the covenant community are not to endeavor within their place of influence to keep unbelievers from profaning the Sabbath. Accordingly, Irons either is addressing an irrelevant straw-man or denying the Catechism and Exodus XX.10:

WLC #99 That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places. (Exodus XX.10 teaches that servants and strangers are not to work on the Sabbath.)

Irons asserts “nor should believers refrain from certain activities solely on the ground that such activity may cause unbelievers to profane the Sabbath.” In direct opposition to Exodus XX.10, Irons maintains that a Christian may enjoy rest that comes through the labors of servants and strangers.

So, Christians who frequent restaurants on Sundays or take in live sporting events are directly encouraging people to break the 4th Commandment. It’s a clear violation of the Decalogue and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Irons is well known for his antinomian tendencies and not much more needs to be said.

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