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.

R.C. Sproul vs The Westminster Divines on the Christian Sabbath

Sproul cites three so-called “controversies” in church history surrounding the Christian Sabbath. Is the Sabbath obligatory for the New Testament Church? If it is, should the Sabbath continue to be the seventh day of the week, the first day of the week, or is the day of the week up for grabs. Thirdly, Sproul raises a difference within the church regarding Sabbath recreation and acts of mercy. So, Sproul cites two defeated views, then fastens his wagon to a third. I’ll address them one-by-one.

Obligatory nature of the Sabbath

Augustine, for example, believed that nine of the Ten Commandments (the so-called “moral law” of the Old Testament) were still intact and imposed obligations upon the Christian church… Augustine was persuaded that the Old Testament Sabbath law had been abrogated. Others have argued that because the Sabbath was instituted originally not in the Mosaic economy but in creation, it maintains its status of moral law as long as the creation is intact.

There’s no doubt, Augustine was the theological giant of his day. However, he lived 1600 years ago, and anyone holding to his theology today could not be ordained in a Reformed Presbyterian church. That speaks to how far God has brought his church.

Many giants have stood on Augustine’s shoulders. Yet today’s Reformed church, with its elevated line to truth on the horizon, repudiates several of Augustine’s theological positions such as paedocommunion, the classification of non-elect regenerate persons, the abrogation of the Sabbath principle, and more.

Of course, there are always theological “controversies” in the church, but controversy alone does not give credence to a defeated view held by an otherwise notable theologian of his day. That Augustine reduced the Ten Commandants to nine merely corroborates the Reformed understanding of the progressive doctrinal illumination of the church. We should expect that doctrine has been refined from Augustine’s day, through the time of the Protestant Reformation, to this very day within the Reformed tradition.

Accordingly, any reference to Augustine in attempt to give credence to a non-confessional Sabbath view gives equal historical credence to paedocommunion and losing one’s salvation, which resurfaced without warm ecclesiastical welcome in the fleeting phase of Federal Vision.

Saturday, Sunday or any day?

The second major controversy is the question about the day of the week on which the Sabbath is to be observed. Some insist that… since the Old Testament Israelites celebrated the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, which would be Saturday, we should follow that pattern.

Sproul gives no details of who was embroiled in the controversy, so it’s hard to comment. As for today it’s safe to say that the Millerite movement that culminated in the Seventh-day Adventist sect and the teachings of its former prophetess, Ellen White, have no seat at the Reformed table. Nor do Saturday Sabbath cults like those that embrace Armstrongism and House of Yahwey heresies, or views held within the Hebrews Roots movement.

But back to basics. What is the relevance of citing the defeated side of a settled “controversy” by an appeal to a particular theologian? Would we lend credence to slavery because an otherwise notable statesman owned slaves? That a particular theologian (past or present) disagrees with the church might be interesting but it is neither surprising nor seemingly relevant.

Indeed, if it is one’s intention to lend credence to doctrines that lost the debate by citing notable theologians who were on the wrong side of the church, then how far might we take this approach? Should we revisit the credibility of the “Transubstantiation of the Mass” because Thomas Aquinas was sound on other doctrine? Where is Sproul hoping to lead us? Controversial debate might create doubt in the minds of the less theologically grounded, but can it lend credence to either side of an issue, especially to the losing side in a progressively illuminated church?

John Calvin argued that it would be legitimate to have the Sabbath day on any day if all of the churches would agree, because the principle in view was the regular assembling of the saints for corporate worship and for the observation of rest.

Well, Calvin didn’t have the benefit of the Westminster Divines as it relates to their mature thought on the Regulative Principle of Worship, Christian Liberty of Conscience and Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day, which through synthetic application overturns the view that the church may determine which day in seven can be constituted as the Lord’s Day. The Divines with good reason rejected Articles XX and XXXIV of the church of England. Again, what’s the point of the history lesson?

How does historical controversy lend credence to settled error, and in this particular case on the church’s alleged right to dictate religious rites and holy days?

Recreation and Acts of Mercy

Within the Reformed tradition, the most significant controversy that has appeared through the ages is the question of how the Sabbath is to be observed. There are two major positions within the Reformed tradition on this question. To make matters simple, we will refer to them as the Continental view of the Sabbath and the Puritan view of the Sabbath.

Tagging with an impressive label a non-confessional view might give people a subjective sense of theological backing, but it cannot provide objective confessional or ecclesiastical backing. Moreover, as church historian and professor R. Scott Clark has demonstrated, this rejected view, commonly referred to as “the Continental view” of the Sabbath, simply entails spurious revisionism. There was no Continental view, or as Dr. Clark puts it:

There was no consciousness in the classical period of a distinctly “British” or “Continental” view of anything. There was simply an international Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

The Puritan view argues against the acceptability of recreation on the Sabbath day. The text most often cited to support this view is Isaiah 58:13-14…The crux of the matter in this passage is the prophetic critique of people doing their own pleasure on the Sabbath day. The assumption that many make with respect to this text is that doing one’s own pleasure must refer to recreation. If this is the case, the prophet Isaiah was adding new dimensions to the Old Testament law with respect to Sabbath-keeping.

On what basis does Sproul object to the word of God “adding new dimensions” to the Old Testament law, (allowing for a moment that the supposed new dimension wasn’t already implicit in the law)? It was Jesus who brought fresh dimensions to the Decalogue. Moreover, doesn’t the New Testament bring further development to the Doctrine of God, from Shema to Trinity?

How does Sproul make use of such a hermeneutical principle that would forbid new dimensions to former teachings, at least with any consistency, without undermining the heart of the Christian faith? Lest Sproul undermines the nature of God’s employment of progressive revelation, he may not dismiss an exegetical interpretation of newer revelation purely on its expansive import – unless, of course, it were to positively contradict what precedes it, which a prima facie Puritan interpretation of Isaiah 58:13-14 does not do! (Sproul implicitly commits an informal fallacy of arguing by false disjunction since forbidding recreation and forbidding work are not mutually exclusive propositions. The Westminster affirmation of the former does not undermine or imply a rejection of the latter. The codified interpretation of the Divines rejects both and without contradiction.)

Sproul overlooks that progressive revelation is an elaborative complement; it does not contradict merely by virtue of its expansive nature. Surely, a recreational import of Isaiah 58:-3-14 would not contradict the 4th Commandment any more than Jesus’ teachings on anger and lust can undermine the 6th and 7th Commandments respectively. So, at best, Sproul has merely begged the question of whether a Puritan view of Isaiah 58:13-14 undermines the law. Sproul has proven nothing.

There is another way to understand Isaiah 58:13-14 however, following the thinking of those who hold the Continental view of the Sabbath… Presumably, what is in view in the prophetic critique is God’s judgment against the Israelites for violating the Mosaic law with respect to the Sabbath day, particularly regarding involvement in commerce… According to this view, the text has nothing to say directly or indirectly about recreation on the Sabbath day.

We might observe in passing that Sproul’s interpretation of the passage seems a bit strained as it would seem to make ancient commerce out to be essentially pleasurable and not laborious. Moreover, if the verse is limited to commerce, then are other sorts of labor not forbidden on the Lord’s Day, or would that entail an abrogation of the Continental view Sproul seeks to defend?!

Sproul raises a point. There are non-confessional ways of looking at many things. Obviously that demonstrates nothing, other than perhaps paper rarely resists ink. At the end of the day, all Sproul has done is arbitrarily inserted a narrow scope of what he deems as lawful pleasures into what Isaiah 58:13-14 forbids. In doing so, Sproul undermines God’s use of progressive revelation and the exegetical basis for a Christian conception of God (Trinity), and sins of the heart as revealed in the New Testament (Sermon On The Mount). In the final analysis, Sproul hasn’t successfully spoken on the Sabbath. He has merely engaged in the informal fallacy of special pleading, which if followed consistently would undermine creedal Christianity and the spirit of the law.

But let’s run with Sproul’s view of recreation and see where it leads. Are we to infer that God commanded us not to work on the Sabbath in order that we might enjoy 21st century entertainment on that day? Are all non-work lawful pleasures that are suitable for Saturdays somehow appropriate for Sunday? Did God command rest for one day in seven so that 21st century Moms and Dads would be free on Sundays to take their children to their soccer games? It should be apparent, the Divines did not base their view of Sabbath recreation solely on Isaiah 58:13-14. With the advent of the five day work week, is Isaiah 58:13-14 needed to demonstrate God’s disapproval of two consecutive Saturdays with a worship service inconveniently dropped into the second Saturday for religious discipline?

Sadly, modern day detractors seek their own pleasures and in doing so have rejected the covenantal promise that is tied to the Sabbath, which extends to their offspring. If not, then we should be quick to believe that the principle of the salvific promise of Isaiah 58:13-14 to our offspring is released to us if we’d only turn in faith from the pleasures of commerce toward the pleasures of recreation! Such a view is refuted simply by stating it.

Did God protect us from work on the Sabbath in order for us to indulge ourselves in recreation and to be entertained after Sunday worship? Is that how we are to appropriate the promised blessings of Isaiah 58:13-14?

One must wonder what is off limits for a so-called Continental sabbatarian. Take golf. Are starters at the club and servers at the pub exempt from the creation ordinance of Sabbath rest? Of course not. So, when it comes to the so-called Continental view, is it acceptable for one to be served at a restaurant, or entertained by athletes as they desecrate the Sabbath, just as long as we ourselves keep the Sabbath holy per “The Continental view”? (Who’s the pharisaical legalist in this picture?) Even working-animals and servants were to rest on the Sabbath. Some have gone so far as to defend their being waited on by asserting that the sabbath commandment doesn’t apply to unbelievers!

The point should be plain enough. Even if we allow for spurious historical claims about a Continental view in order to lend credence to non-confessional Sabbath keeping, the license taken by most who reject the Reformed view today is typically unsupportable and would be opposed even by most supposed seventeenth century detractors. Let’s be honest, what falls under “recreation” often entails others working on behalf of our personal pleasure (e.g. baristas as Starbucks) and a form of commerce to boot. Rarely does an allowance for recreational pleasure uphold the creation ordinance for all people not to work on the Christian sabbath. (Christians won’t even forgo a latte macchiato on Sundays so not to be an occasion for another person’s violation of the 4th Commandment.)

One other point of debate remains between the two sides on this issue. It has to do with works of mercy performed on the Sabbath… Some have drawn the conclusion that since Jesus performed works of mercy on the Sabbath, the Christian is obligated to do the same. However, the fact that Jesus did works of mercy on the Sabbath, though it clearly reveals that it is lawful to do so on the Sabbath, does not obligate us to do such works on the Sabbath.

I have no idea who Sproul is referring to with respect to the “some” who find it obligatory to do works of mercy on the Sabbath, but does his rightly rejecting an esoteric position on the Sabbath – one that is denied by the Westminster standards(!) – somehow add force to a non-confessional view of the Sabbath? No, though it might raise doubt in the minds of the less theologically grounded.

Closing remarks

R.C. Sproul was a popularizer in a favorable sense. I owe him much. He was the first living Calvinst I knew, and as a baby Calvinist I devoured his VHS and audio cassettes. I just couldn’t get enough. Sproul’s usefulness is vast and his gifts many. He brought generic Calvinism to the masses. Few, if any, were his equal in that respect. Notwithstanding, one must read Sproul with a discerning mind.

I’m a bit leery when one cites historical disagreement in the church while appealing to select theologians in the context of trying to justify the wrong side of the church’s confessional position. It bears mentioning that in this same vein Sproul’s view of the Impeccability of Christ implicitly denies Chalcedon and the Westminster Standards as it relates to the hypostatic union. That strikes me as reckless and cavalier. What’s most striking, however, is not just that Sproul’s position implicitly denies Chalcedon, but that his rhetorical claim that favored implicit heresy is identical in-kind to his Sabbath claim that invokes alleged division while citing backing of theologians for an aberrant view.

The best theologians, past and present, have been divided on the question of whether Jesus could have sinned.

I find something subtly misleading about such appeals when used to defend any position, let alone a position that would undermine orthodox Christology. (I also find it misleading to refer to historical disagreement as controversy as Sproul has.)

Leaving aside such a dubious claim about the best theologians, the point I’ll zero in on is that claiming select theologians who affirm doctrine that’s contrary to the church’s creeds and confessions is never difficult. However, what is difficult is developing persuasive arguments that refute the theology of the theologians that have stood with a confessional Reformed tradition for 400 years. (I address Sproul’s rejection of Christ’s inability to sin here, beginning @21 minutes and here on this blog.)

All of these issues continue to be examined and debated as the church seeks to understand how God is best honored on this day.

There will always be gainsayers within the fold of God, but we can be grateful for confessional Presbyterianism, which got the Sabbath right with no serious attempt or movement within the tradition to overturn this teaching of 400 years. All we have are non-subscribers and subscribers in the fold, but the confessional Reformed church has indeed spoken. Any complaints are with her and ultimately, I believe, with God Himself.