Tim Conway, pastor of Grace Community Church in San Antonio, Texas, vehemently rejects the historic Reformed position on the moral law, particularly on the Fourth Commandment and the change of the Sabbath from the last day of the week to the first.
"There is not a single word in all the Bible that says that the Sabbath changed days. You can listen to the theologians, you can listen to the Reformed guys, you can read all the books written on it. There is not a single verse in all the Bible that says the Sabbath moved from Saturday to Sunday. It's not there. They can go on with all their theses, arguments, and all of their deductions and building principles upon principles; the fact is, there is not a single verse in all the Bible that says that the Sabbath moved from the last day to the first day. It's not there, folks." — Tim Conway1
Conway not only blatantly denies the Christian Sabbath—which is upheld by every historic Reformed confession—but also attacks "the Reformed guys," by carelessly relegating all of their "theses," "arguments," "deductions," and "principles upon principles" as unbiblical and baseless traditions—all the while propounding his own tradition, thesis, arguments, deductions, and principles. He is essentially saying, "Don't listen to any of them, but listen to my reasoning on the subject."
Conway has blinded himself with his own biased traditions and is reading them into the Bible when he emphatically declares that "there is no Christian Sabbath that I can see,"2 for the truth of the Christian Sabbath can be readily seen by those who are impartially receptive to the will of God (John 7:17). Perhaps he should have carefully studied the writings of the men whom he so readily dismisses and maligns, such as A.W. Pink:
But, it will be objected, "If God requires the Sabbath to be duly observed on the first day of the week during this Christian dispensation, why has He not given a definite command through His Apostles to that effect in the Epistles?" … In the first place, it savors strongly of impiety: a taking it upon ourselves to say how God is to make known His pleasure to us—He has other ways of declaring His will besides through express precepts.3
And also R.L. Dabney, who shows how the straightforward reception of two passages—and not the "building principles upon principles" as Conway alleges—leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Lord's Day is indeed the Christian Sabbath:
The perpetual law of the Decalogue has commanded all men, in all time, to keep a Sabbath-day; and "till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall not pass from the law of God till all be fulfilled" (Matthew 5:18). The Apostle, in Colossians 2:16-17, clearly tells us that the seventh day is no longer our Sabbath. What day, then, is it? Some day must have been substituted; and what one so likely to be the true substitute as the Lord's Day? The law is not repealed; it cannot be. But Paul has shown that it is changed. To what day is the Sabbath changed, if not to the first: no other day in the week has a shadow of a claim. It must be this, or none; but it cannot be none; therefore it must be this.4
Or A.A. Hodge, who has very soundly proven that what Conway claims is found nowhere in the Bible has in fact been the practice of the whole historical Christian world. What shall we conclude? Will Tim Conway have us believe that he alone has carefully looked into the Bible and figured all of this out, and that all the Reformed churches, along with Pink, Dabney, and Hodge, together with John Murray, Robert Murray M'Cheyne, Jonathan Edwards, C.H. Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, John Bunyan, Edward Leigh, John Owen, John Calvin—and myriads more—are all wrong and teaching their own traditions?
Yes, that is most certainly what he would have us believe:
The Reformed community wants to hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer the Fourth Commandment, and guess what? And they want you to keep it in an Old Testament way. …
You get people that want to enforce these Old Covenant observances of the Sabbath. Do you know what the problem is? Most of these people don't carry it out to the extent that living under the Mosaic law you had to carry it out. …if that is what they are really vying for—Old Covenant observance—then you better not pick up sticks, you better not come out of your house. If you do, you better not go farther than a Sabbath day's journey. …
I've heard of people, Sabbatarians, some will go so far as to not have their wives cook. Some will go so far as to maybe not use electricity because they don't want to make the power plants have to work. Some have taken up positions where they won't travel in public transportation. Some have taken up positions where they won't go out to eat. Why? Because they don't want to cause other people to work. And you know what, people are all over the place. And who in the world is determining where to draw the line? You know who's determining it? Tradition and every man's opinion. They're not determining this based on anything that they find in the Scriptures.5
With a broad brush and some degree of omniscience, Tim Conway paints the entire "Reformed community" as erratically drawing arbitrary lines and deriving none of their seriously held convictions from the Bible. Such statements are astonishingly false, unjust, and even sinful. This is a bearing of false witness, a misrepresentation of godly men, a maligning of whole churches, and a classic example of a straw man fallacy. These attacks only demonstrate ignorance in what the historic, Reformed position on the Christian Sabbath actually is.
Conway cites Colossians 2:16-17 as proof that there is no Christian Sabbath, and asserts that it teaches that the Fourth Commandment is a shadow fulfilled in Christ:
Don't let anybody pass judgment on you concerning a sabbath! …the New Testament teaching is, "Don't let any man hold you to it."6
The Fourth Commandment is not meaningless…. It's a shadow. The substance is found in Christ.7
This passage, he would admit, is addressing ceremonial ordinances that were introduced with Moses, and it is true indeed that all such ordinances are abolished now that Christ has come. But that is the whole point. The Sabbath was not introduced with Moses, it was appointed by God—by His own example—in the creation week. It was at that time blessed and sanctified by God (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:11). Why would an ordinance instituted thousands of years prior to Moses be abolished with the passing of Mosaic legislation?
Moreover, he claims that the Sabbath is a shadow that points to Christ. But marriage, which was also instituted at creation, points to Christ (Ephesians 5:32); are we to conclude that marriage is abolished and should go away since the Christ, to whom it points, has come? By no means! Marriage even now is a legitimate institution which God expects all men and women to honor, even though its ultimate purpose and fulfillment is pointing to Christ! What sort of reasoning is this that would lead us to conclude that the coming of Christ has left men and women without any need of a day each week to be free from ordinary labor to worship God? The Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, declared—in the New Testament—that the divine purpose for which the Sabbath was made was man's benefit, echoing the blessing and sanctification of the day by God (Mark 2:27; Genesis 2:2-3). Conway is therefore concluding that the coming of Christ serves only to strip away a divine blessing made specifically for the benefit of mankind!
Conway appeals to another classic text often abused by antinomians who seek to undermine the Fourth Commandment: Romans 14:5.
What does Romans 14 say? If you want to observe the day, do it unto the Lord. So here's the thing: don't let those of us who take Colossians 2:16 and feel liberty condemn the ones who are rigid Sabbatarians. Don't condemn them. If they want to keep it, let them keep it, and let them keep it unto the Lord. They are going to stand or fall before Him; don't you be their judge. And likewise, if you have stringent convictions about the Sabbath, don't you dare condemn and jump all over and be the judge of those who don't have strong convictions. If you're going to have strong convictions, have them unto the Lord. If you're not going to observe the day, don't observe it unto the Lord.8
Such statements reveal exegetical incompetence and ignorance, for his use of Romans 14:5 has been soundly answered. This passage by no means teaches that believers have the option to keep or to break any of the Ten Commandments—whether the sixth or seventh or even the fourth. Rather, Paul is addressing what to do with Jewish believers who struggled with their convictions in forgoing the expired or abolished elements of the law—such as dietary restrictions and appointed festivals—which they had kept all their lives, and which, before the onset of the New Covenant, would have been sin for them to forgo. Conway arrives at his erroneous conclusions because he does not understand the distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial law, which, again, has been upheld by all of the Reformed confessions (e.g., chapter 19, paragraphs 1-3 of the 1689 Baptist Confession), and which he rejects and dismisses as unbiblical traditions.
Conway's Defective System of Interpreting the Bible
There is no Christian Sabbath that I can see. … We've got to teach the Scriptures; not the traditions, but the Scriptures.9
The reason why Conway cannot see it and why he fails to properly exegete these texts is because he is employing a novel hermeneutic derived from New Covenant Theology, which affects how he reads and interprets the Bible. He teaches people to reject the "traditions" of the Reformed community, but fails to disclose to his audience that what he is teaching them is a novel tradition and system of interpreting the Bible of his own—all the while presenting himself as simply offering an unbiased view of the Scriptures. He explains how to use this "tool" using 1 Corinthians 9:7 and Deuteronomy 25:4 as an example, and then encourages his audience to begin reinterpreting the Scriptures with it in mind:
I want to give you guys all a tool to use, and I hope you'll find this helpful. … Now this is an important key for interpreting Old Testament laws. …let a text like 1 Corinthians 9 be our guide for interpreting the Old Testament.10
Here is his hermeneutic:
I will grant that every one of those laws given under the Mosaic Covenant are binding in the spiritual sense which God intends them to bind us as New Covenant people.11
- Every single commandment given through Moses—including ceremonial and judicial—"is still binding" and cannot be dismissed
- There is a spiritual sense and an Old Testament sense for every commandment
- In the New Covenant, God's people are bound to keeping only the spiritual sense
- In the Old Covenant, God's people are bound to keeping only the Old Testament sense
And here is how he would have us apply it to the Fourth Commandment:
- The Fourth Commandment is binding and cannot be dismissed
- The Fourth Commandment has a spiritual sense and an Old Testament sense
- In the Old Covenant, God's people were bound to the Old Testament sense—literally keeping one day in seven
- In the New Covenant, God's people are bound only to the spiritual sense—no keeping of one day in seven, just "resting in Christ"
All of this comes from his own deductions, arbitrary interpretations, and private opinions imposed upon Holy Scripture. This system easily falls apart. Take, for instance, the Sixth Commandment. According to his system, its "Old Testament" sense would be literal murder, and its "New Testament" sense would be hatred. Are we to conclude that God's people were free to hate their brothers in the Old Testament, and that they are free now in the New Testament to literally murder them? This is exactly how he is interpreting the Fourth Commandment! Or how about the Seventh Commandment: its "Old Testament" sense would be literal adultery, but its "New Testament" sense is lust. How absurd! God forbade His people from lust and hatred in the Old Testament just as much as in the New (Leviticus 19:17; Psalm 66:18; Job 31:1)! Speaking of Leviticus 19:17—"You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart"—since this is the "Old Testament" sense, what would the "spiritual" sense be, which would be binding on New Covenant believers? Or what is the "spiritual" sense of the Tenth Commandment?
The proper way to understand these things is to recognize that there are moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws. The moral law of God "does forever bind all."12 The ceremonial and judicial laws were introduced by Moses and set aside by Christ; the ceremonial laws (i.e., respecting the Levitical priesthood, animal sacrifices, etc.) pointed to Christ who has now come, and the judicial laws respected Israel as a theocratic kingdom—which no longer exists—and therefore have expired. The moral law alone remains—it has always been morally wrong to murder, commit adultery, lie, etc., and always will be. Now, moral principles may be found embedded within various ceremonial or judicial laws—such as the Deuteronomy 25:4 passage to which Conway himself appeals—and these moral principles continue to bind all people, even when their ceremonial and judicial appendages have been discarded. But it is to do serious violence to the law of God to discard the totality of a commandment due to its perceived ceremonial appearance. This is indeed the case with the Sabbath. The moral duty of ordering our time after God's own example, and rendering to Him an appropriate measure of our time—which He alone has the prerogative to determine and claims for His own—was established from creation and continues to bind all people. Any ceremonial and judicial appendages that may have been annexed to this moral duty by Moses are indeed now set aside in the New Covenant, but that does not mean that the underlying morality of the Fourth Commandment no longer exists!
Twisting Scripture and Redefining the Sabbath
After laying down the foundation of his interpretive framework, Conway proceeds to redefine the Sabbath using a very strange and novel interpretation of Scripture, thereby corrupting the Fourth Commandment.
Is it possible to break the Fourth Commandment today? Well, yes!13
Conway admits, correctly, that the Fourth Commandment can be broken today. However, he enters into the extremely dangerous ground of imposing his own ideas upon the Word and Law of God, which he does by redefining both the commandment and the sin of breaking that commandment. Here he completely departs from the position of the historic, Reformed faith, which is as follows:
The Sabbath is kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts and ordering their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe a holy rest all day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employment and recreations, but are also taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy (Isaiah 58:13; Nehemiah 13:15-22; Matthew 12:1-13).14
This accurate definition is derived directly from the straightforward reading of the Scriptures, as can be readily seen from the citations. Conway's redefinition, on the other hand, is found nowhere in the Bible. Here he ceases teaching the Word of God, teaching instead his own ideas, and departing into gross error:
The Fourth Commandment is not meaningless, but we keep it in a New Testament sense, not in an Old Testament sense. … It's a shadow. The substance is found in Christ. … You see, the Sabbath was rest. What is the shadow? It's a day of rest. What is the fullness? It's Christ is our rest. … How do you break the Fourth Commandment? When Christ is not all your rest, when He is not your everything. … If you take the fullness of that rest in Jesus Christ, you can break that commandment on any day of the week. You see, folks, the fullness of that commandment is not found in a day, it's found in a person.15
Conway has completely redefined the Fourth Commandment, how it is kept, and how it is broken. Stringing together verses taken out of context, such as Colossians 2:17 and Matthew 11:28-29, Conway attempts to make his novel interpretation sound biblical. However, to quote Conway himself, "There is not a single word in all the Bible" that supports these views. Where in the Bible are we ever told that the Fourth Commandment is kept by "resting in Christ" or that it can be broken on any day of the week? Such statements obliterate not only the essence of Sabbath rest (by destroying the distinctive nature of the Sabbath being one day in seven, to be set apart, treated differently than the others—"kept holy") but also the very definition of the word Sabbath as it is used in the New Testament (the same Greek word is translated "week" in passages such as Luke 18:12, Acts 20:7, and 1 Corinthians 16:2)! Conway's interpretation is incompatible with even the basic underlying Greek word. And where in the Bible are we ever told of this concept of "the fullness of the Sabbath" being found not in a day but in Christ, to the extent that the day is completely dismissed? Absolutely nowhere. What we do find is the Lord Jesus Christ calling Himself not the Sabbath, but the Lord of the Sabbath, whereby He clearly recognizes God's appointed day of rest, claims ownership of it, and distinguishes between it and Himself:
Mark 2:27-28 The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath; therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath.
Having armed himself with a redefined Sabbath and an arsenal of twisted passages of Scripture, Conway denies the just charges against him of rejecting the Fourth Commandment, and goes on the offensive. Pointing his finger at Sabbatarians, Conway warns:
Mr. Sabbatarian, watch your practice. Because those who make the accusations that the Fourth Commandment is being denied better be careful that they don't deny the very commandment found in Colossians 2:16-17. … And before we point fingers and make accusations and get all bent out of shape and begin leveling charges that people are rejecting the Fourth Commandment, I say be very careful before you pass judgment on other people.16
He then appeals to the example of his own church (even though he claims he's not setting it forth as the example), listing several things they do together as a congregation, and then asks:
Is there more or less in resting in Christ in that, than your Sabbatarian who goes to one morning service and comes home and watches football on TV all afternoon? … Who, in the end, is keeping the heart and the spirit of the Fourth Commandment?17
With his broad brush in hand, Conway makes a sweeping judgment against those nasty Sabbatarians who don't keep his redefined "spirit" of the Fourth Commandment like he and his church does, dismissing them as those who watch football all afternoon (even though God's explicit prohibition of such recreational consumption on His holy day has been recognized and upheld by Reformed confessions and catechisms).18 The truth is, Conway has no way of knowing what the people he is attacking do on the Lord's Day, nor has he even remotely approached the "spirit" of the Fourth Commandment.
The Lord of the Sabbath has threatened that anyone who breaks or teaches others to break His commandments shall be justly condemned as the lowest of men:
Matthew 5:17-19 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
On the above passage, John Calvin comments:
Christ here speaks expressly of the commandments of life, or the Ten Commandments, which all the children of God ought to take as the rule of their life. He therefore declares that they are false and deceitful teachers who do not restrain their disciples within obedience to the law, and that they are unworthy to occupy a place in the Church, who weaken, in the slightest degree, the authority of the law; and, on the other hand, that they are honest and faithful ministers of God who recommend, by both word and example, the keeping of the law. "The least commandments" is an expression used in accommodation to the judgment of men, for though they have not all the same weight (when they are compared together, some are less than others), yet we are not at liberty to think anything small on which the heavenly Legislator has been pleased to issue a command. For what sacrilege is it to treat contemptuously anything which has proceeded from His sacred mouth? This is to sink His majesty to the rank of creatures. … Those who shall pour contempt on the doctrine of the law, or on a single syllable of it, will be rejected as the lowest of men. … Christ declares that, when His Church shall have been renewed, no teachers must be admitted to it but those who are faithful expounders of the law, and who labor to maintain its doctrine entire.19
Tim Conway shamelessly dismisses the historic Reformed position on the moral law of God as consisting merely in man-made deductions and unbiblical traditions, even though it is, in Spurgeon's words, an excellent "expression of the teaching of those Holy Scriptures by which all confessions are to be measured." Departing from Reformed orthodoxy and encouraging his listeners to follow him in abandoning Reformed "traditions," Conway offers in their place a novel tradition of his own, while still emphatically insisting that he is presenting a "Scripture alone" approach. He is not merely propagating an erroneous view on the subject; his error is far more serious—he employs a defective system of interpreting the Bible, which corrupts any passage against which it is applied. This has led him to deny the morality of the Ten Commandments (especially the Fourth Commandment), and to redefine what these commandments mean, how they are kept, and how they are broken. From here, Conway justifies himself and attacks the Reformed community using his reinvented definitions and applications as his basis and standard of judgment. On the subject of the Sabbath (at the very least), he teaches his own opinions, not the Word of God.
- ^Tim Conway, "Should a Christian Observe the Sabbath?" https://youtu.be/ZisDi0S3Kes.
- ^A.W. Pink, The Holy Sabbath, 58.
- ^R.L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 390-391.
- ^Conway, "Tim revisits 'Should a Christian Observe the Sabbath?'" https://youtu.be/W4p9R-0PPW8.
- ^Conway, "Should."
- ^Conway, "Tim revisits."
- ^Conway, "Should."
- ^Conway, "Tim revisits."
- ^1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 19:5.
- ^Conway, "Tim revisits."
- ^1689 Confession, 22:8.
- ^Conway, "Tim revisits."
- ^See Isaiah 58:13 and 1689 Confession, 22:8 and Baptist Catechism, #67, for example.
- ^John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 5:19.